After six consecutive losing seasons, tied with Houston for the longest active streak in the majors, the Mets believe they can finally break the .500 mark — and these days, if you do that, you can contend for a wild card. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment for the Mets. Some of their young players made meaningful strides last season, and their veterans should still have enough left to make a positive impact. After a strong September (15–10), and with a rotation on the rise, the Mets are poised to be relevant again.
A dynamic young rotation is the primary strength of this team. Matt Harvey returns after missing a full year following Tommy John surgery. An alpha dog in the mold of Roger Clemens, Harvey is eager to reclaim his role as staff ace and dominant force. He may be rusty, of course, and don’t expect him to throw 230 innings. But the innings he throws should be high quality. Harvey’s sidekick, the hard-throwing Zack Wheeler, finished with a strong second half, and the duo acquired another running mate along the way in Jacob deGrom, who burst onto the scene to win the NL Rookie of the Year award with a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts, with more strikeouts than innings. Noah Syndergaard could join that trio soon enough, but for now there’s a logjam, with lefty Jon Niese and righties Bartolo Colon and Dillon Gee — all solid, if unspectacular pros who combined to make 83 starts last season, going 31–32. Another option, Rafael Montero, was shaky at times but showed that he could hold his own.
In his first three years with the Mets, Terry Collins’ bullpen ranked 28th, 29th and 22nd in the majors in ERA. Last year, though, the Mets’ relief corps jumped to eighth, with a 3.14 mark. Collins found a young closer in Jenrry Mejia, who converted 28 of 31 save chances and made a habit of dancing off the mound after the final out. The four relievers with the most appearances besides Mejia — Carlos Torres, Jeurys Familia, Vic Black and Josh Edgin — all had ERAs below 3.10. Another standout performance, though, is no sure thing, as Mejia, Black and Edgin all dealt with injury problems in the second half and Torres absorbed a heavy workload. Look for former closer Bobby Parnell, who went down to Tommy John surgery after pitching on Opening Day, to return early in the season.
The ever-consistent Daniel Murphy is good for a lot of singles and doubles every year, and an average of roughly .290. Even his error total at second is steady: 15 or 16 in each of the last three years. His double-play partner is a source of frustration for Mets fans, many of whom still pine for the flash of the long-departed Jose Reyes. After a strong September, it’s Wilmer Flores’ turn to get the starting job that Ruben Tejada never really seized. Flores is only 23 and hit better at each level in the minors. He’s had only 375 plate appearances in the majors, and he just might be the Mets’ long-term answer. Now Flores needs a little patience from fans and media to see if he is.
The Mets finally settled their first base quandary early last season, trading Ike Davis to Pittsburgh and giving Lucas Duda the position. The quiet slugger gained confidence and blossomed, smashing 30 home runs. His patient approach at the plate fits with the Mets’ organizational strategy, and the power should only rise now that the walls in center and right are closer to the plate at Citi Field. At 29, Duda should be right in the middle of his prime, and with teams starving for power, his emergence is a big reason the Mets are so optimistic about 2015. They would feel even better if their captain, David Wright, were coming off a better season, but shoulder problems kept Wright from having his usual standout performance. He avoided surgery on his bruised rotator cuff and was cleared to begin baseball activities in December. Barring a setback, Wright, at 32, should resume his place among the game’s best all-around players: about a .300 average with 20 or so homers and 90 or more RBIs, plus about 15 steals and his usual stellar defense.
The Mets’ outfielders will have a bit less ground to cover at Citi Field this season, with portions of the walls in center and right field pulled in from three to 11 feet. Of course, the change had nothing to do with the Mets’ defense and everything to do with their offense. Had these dimensions been in place last season, the Mets say, their hitters would have hit 17 more homers, and their pitchers would have allowed 10 more. The pull-hitting Curtis Granderson should benefit most from the new dimensions, but on defense he’ll have to adjust to left field, where he started eight times last season and 11 times in 2013. Granderson says he is fine with the switch, which accommodates newcomer Michael Cuddyer, who takes over in right. Cuddyer missed most of last season with a fracture to his left shoulder socket, but he passed his physical and should be a solid bat in the middle of the order. Granderson, age 34, and Cuddyer, age 36, will benefit from flanking the majors’ best defensive center fielder, Juan Lagares, who won his first Gold Glove last season while improving his batting average from .242 to .281. Lagares still doesn’t walk much, but his bat is viable enough and his glove is so dazzling that he’s earned the right to start every day.
Travis d’Arnaud was hitting .180 with a meager .544 OPS when he was demoted to Class AAA Las Vegas last June. The hitting coach there, George Greer, told him to try to hit a double every time he came to bat. He learned how to better cover the outer half of the plate, and hit like he always has in the minors, where he is a .290 career hitter with an .838 OPS. d’Arnaud was better after he returned, hitting .270 with an .805 OPS and 10 homers in 69 games. The Mets would gladly take that production for a full year, and at 26, d’Arnaud needs to put together that kind of season — a demand that takes on greater urgency because Kevin Plawecki, a top catching prospect, is coming on fast in AAA. Backup Anthony Recker’s .197 career average obscures his decent power and his skill at working with the pitching staff.
The Mets won’t plan to use many, if any, platoons this season, but their corner outfielders will need a break now and then to stay fresh. Matt den Dekker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis are used to the backup role and play excellent defense when called upon. Eric Campbell can play five positions, and he hit .263 in a part-time role last season. Outfielder John Mayberry Jr. is dangerous against lefties.
The Mets have seen enough progress to give Sandy Alderson and Collins more time. Alderson signed a three-year contract extension in September and said that Collins would return as manager for 2015. The team has a 2016 option for Collins, the majors’ oldest manager at age 65. The Mets failed to meet Alderson’s goal of 90 wins last season, but this offseason Collins spoke optimistically of a playoff run, so both GM and manager are expecting a lot. If Collins fails to deliver, it’s safe to wonder if the Mets will make a change. But in his fifth season, Collins should have his first legitimate chance to make a playoff push.
Teams often follow years of losing with a transition year in which they contend for a while but ultimately fall short, absorbing the lessons of a pennant race and applying them the next season. This could easily happen for the Mets in 2015, and if so, it would ultimately be an improvement over the last few years. But their goals are higher than that, and they should be. This team features a playoff-caliber rotation, and the offense showed real signs of life last season. The Mets will be a legitimate factor in the chase for a spot in the postseason.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in NL East
CF Juan Lagares (R) Gold Glover’s bat came around late, with .323 average from Aug. 22 through end of season.
2B Daniel Murphy (L) Mets’ only All-Star in 2014 has had at least 35 doubles three years in a row.
3B David Wright (R) Rotator cuff problems limited his effectiveness and ended season early. Mets need him to bounce back.
1B Lucas Duda (L) A monster vs. righties, but had just four of his 57 extra-base hits off lefties.
RF Michael Cuddyer (R) Turned down $15.3 million for one year from Rockies to sign with Mets for $21 million over two years.
LF Curtis Granderson (L) Hit just seven HRs at Citi Field, a figure that should rise with fences moved in.
C Travis d’Arnaud (R) Oft-injured catcher had surgery Oct. 1 to remove bone chips from elbow.
SS Wilmer Flores (R) Venezuelan hit four homers and scored team-best 15 runs in September.
C Anthony Recker (R) Since Recker joined team in 2013, Mets are 44–33 (.571) when he starts.
OF Matt den Dekker (L) Strong defender was leading Class AAA PCL in hitting when recalled on Aug. 9.
OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis (L) Oddly, Nieuwenhuis had 18 extra-base hits and only 11 singles.
OF John Mayberry Jr. (R) Free-agent acquisition has strong .857 career OPS against lefties.
UT Eric Campbell (R) Has started games at first, second, third, left field, right field and as a DH.
SS Ruben Tejada (R) Went 778 at-bats without a HR at Citi Field until going deep in final AB of 2014.
RH Matt Harvey Challenge, for player and fans, will be understanding his limits in first year back after Tommy John surgery.
RH Bartolo Colon One of five active pitchers with 2,000 Ks (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson).
RH Jacob deGrom Former ninth-round pick earned Rookie of the Year honors — and also hit a respectable .217.
RH Zack Wheeler Went 8–3 with a 2.71 ERA from June 30 through end of season.
LH Jon Niese ERA was more than a full run higher on the road (3.96) than at home (2.74).
RH Jenrry Mejia (Closer) Converted last 11 save chances, then had offseason surgery for sports hernia.
RH Jeurys Familia After rocky start, had 1.81 ERA from April 25 through season’s end.
RH Dillon Gee Should wind up in some team’s rotation — Mets or elsewhere — before end of spring training
LH Josh Edgin Did not allow an earned run in 10 innings after Aug. 1, but also battled sore elbow.
RH Vic Black Ended a fine year (26 hits allowed in 34.2 IP) with a strained rotator cuff.
RH Carlos Torres First Met to pitch 90-plus relief innings since Terry Leach in 1988.
Beyond the Box Score
Awesome autograph For most ballplayers, the signature has devolved into a mess of unintelligible lines and squiggles. As long as they include their uniform number, players say, fans can find out who they are. Fortunately, Mets newcomer Michael Cuddyer appreciates quality penmanship. Cuddyer was raised in the Minnesota Twins organization at a time when the late Harmon Killebrew implored young players — sometimes loudly — to take pride in the way they wrote their names, so future generations would always know who they were. Cuddyer took the lesson to heart, with a neat, legible autograph that is a true keepsake for fans. He is such a disciple of Killebrew that he wears his No. 3 to honor him.
No Strasburg scenario In Stephen Strasburg’s first full year after Tommy John surgery, 2012, the Nationals infamously shut him down because of a pre-determined innings limit and did not allow him to pitch in the playoffs, even though he was healthy. Matt Harvey, like Strasburg, is a Scott Boras client, but the Mets will take a different strategy. While general manager Sandy Alderson says the Mets have a “soft” number of innings for Harvey in the regular season, he insists that the workload will be managed so Harvey can pitch in the postseason if the Mets make it there.
Long answer The Mets fired their hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, last May and re-assigned his replacements after the season. In October, they found a solution across town. Kevin Long, who guided the Yankees’ hitters the last eight seasons, makes the move to Citi Field as the new hitting coach for the Mets. Long, a tireless worker with a relentlessly positive approach, is eager to work again with Curtis Granderson, whom he helped with the Yankees, where Granderson twice topped 40 homers.
Silent tweeter Mets general manager Sandy Alderson had fun when he first joined Twitter in 2012, cracking wise about the Mets’ money problems, showing off pictures of his dog, and joking (we think) about giving his wife an IHOP gift card for Valentine’s Day. Alas, Alderson was all business last season. After tweeting about an MLB Network promotion a few times last February, @MetsGM went all season without a single message for his 66,000 followers.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Michael Conforto, OF
Conforto comes from an interesting athletic background. His father, Mike, played football at Penn State. His mother, the former Tracie Ruiz, won two gold medals in synchronized swimming at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics four years later. Michael dove into baseball and has played in the Little League World Series and the College World Series, for Oregon State, where he was the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2013. A lefty hitter with power, he possesses plate discipline that appealed to the Mets, who stress that trait throughout their farm system. He had a .403 on-base percentage while hitting .331 in his professional debut at Brooklyn, and he projects to have decent power in the major leagues. Conforto is 22, and if he progresses as the Mets hope, he should be ready to take over a corner outfield spot in 2017, after Michael Cuddyer’s contract expires.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Noah Syndergaard, RHP (22) A 6’6” right-hander acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade, Syndergaard had 145 strikeouts and just 43 walks while allowing only 11 homers in a full PCL season.
2. Kevin Plawecki, C (24) He would seem blocked by Travis d’Arnaud, but given d’Arnaud’s injuries and inconsistency, it’s plausible to think that Plawecki, at 24, could make a move up.
3. Brandon Nimmo, OF (22) The athleticism and instincts the Mets saw in him as an amateur in Wyoming started to show at Class AA last season; solid in all five tools.
4. Dominic Smith, 1B (19) Showed excellent strike-zone discipline in first full pro season, but managed just one homer.
5. Michael Conforto, OF (22) First-round pick last June had one of the best power bats in college baseball the last few years.
6. Dilson Herrera, 2B (21) Skipped AAA to go to Mets last season, hitting three HRs in 18 games.
7. Matt Reynolds, SS (24) After hitting .343 at two levels and reaching AAA, Reynolds may force his way into the mix in New York.
8. Rafael Montero, RHP (24) Solid mid-rotation prospect who made eight respectable starts for Mets last season; trade bait?
9. Amed Rosario, SS (19) Excellent defender who hit .289 at age 18 in Brooklyn last season; possible long-term answer at shortstop.
10. Steven Matz, LHP (23) Former second-rounder got the Mets’ attention with a 2.24 ERA in 24 starts between High-A and AA last season.