Mets Preview: Raised Expectations

The Mets have not had a winning season ever since the team moved into Shea Stadium’s successor, Citi Field, six years ago. For too long, the Flushing faithful had to accept the fact that their team’s ownership had to watch their pennies because of their involvement with rogue Far Rockaway financier Bernard Madoff.

The Mets finally appear to be putting the Madoff mess finally behind them although they still rank in the bottom third of payroll for Major League Baseball teams. In 2013 they signed former Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson to a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract, and this year they inked veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer to a two-year, $20 million deal.

The somewhat loosening of purse strings combined with a talented pitching staff have given Mets fans genuine reasons for optimism.

The number one reason that Mets fans are more sanguine this year than last is the return of Mets ace pitcher Matt Harvey who missed the entire 2014 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Harvey electrified Mets fans by striking out 191 batters in 2013 and was National League’s starting pitcher in the 2013 All-Star Game that was played at Citi Field. Although he has only a dozen career big league wins Harvey has quickly become a national sports figure. A documentary about Harvey, “The Dark Knight Returns,” was shown earlier this month on ESPN as part of its “E:60″ series. Harvey appears to be picking up where he left off in 2013 judging by his strong spring training.

Harvey’s teammate, pitcher Jacob deGrom, was not on anyone’s radar screen last year, but pleasantly surprised everyone with his command. He wound up winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Although his record was a decent 9-6, he could have racked up double figures in wins had Mets hitters given him even a modicum of support in his first outings.

The most pleasant surprise for the Mets last season was that doughy Bartolo Colon, who will turn 42 years old next month, was able to win 15 games and stay healthy.

There is a good reason why the axiom “You can never get enough pitching” has endured in baseball. Zach Wheeler, who was Mets general manager Sandy Alderson’s first major acquisition when he traded Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants for him in 2011, will miss the entire 2015 season recuperating from Tommy John surgery on his right arm.

While the Mets will miss Wheeler they certainly have an array of alternatives. Reliable Jonathan Niese will move up in the rotation. Dillon Gee had a slightly below average 2014 season but even when he is not at his best he still manages to give the Mets a good chance to win the game. For some inexplicable reason he has never earned the respect of Sandy Alderson who makes no secret of his desire to trade him. Alderson clearly feels that he is not worth the nearly $4 million salary that the Mets pay him which by Major League Baseball standards is not exorbitant given his veteran status. While the Mets’ fiscal situation seems to have improved, there is still a troubling nickel-and-dime culture in the organization.

Alderson is clearly hoping that minor league prospects Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz will be able to join the big club sometime in 2015 and nudge Gee out of the starting staff. My advice is to trust Dillon and not rush anyone to the majors who may not be ready yet.

Another option for Alderson is for him to tell manager Terry Collins to make the talented but inconsistent and less costly Rafael Montero the Mets’ fifth starter and to push Gee into long relief and eventually off the team.

The Mets bullpen, which has been a source of trouble during these six straight losing seasons, now appears to be a strong asset for the Amazin’s. Jenrry Mejia did a great job closing games after Bobby Parnell was lost for most of the 2014 season recovering from arm surgery. Parnell is now back and it will be Terry Collins’ call to see which pitcher he will use to protect ninth inning leads. Jeurys Familia and Vic Black, who was acquired in the 2013 trade that sent Marlon Byrd to the Pirates, were terrific as setup men last year.

During spring training, Alderson, concerned about the lack of lefty pitching in the bullpen after the loss of Josh Edgin to season-ending arm surgery, acquired a pair of southpaws, Alex Torres and Jerry Blevins, in deals with the San Diego Padres and Washington Nationals respectively.

The Mets lineup seems to be a bit more settled than in past years although there are still question marks.

Last year at this time the big issue was who would be the Mets first baseman, Ike Davis or Lucas Duda. Both players were injured during spring training so it took until mid-May for Mets executives to make a decision. Alderson traded Davis to the Pirates and Duda rewarded him for his faith by socking 30 home runs and doing a decent job fielding-wise as well.

How the Mets will do this year definitely hinges on the man who plays diagonally across the infield from Lucas Duda, third baseman and team captain, David Wright, who endured a dreadful 2014. Wright hit a meager .269 with a paltry 8 home runs. At the very least, the Mets need Wright to belt 20 home runs and cut down his strikeouts. It will also be interesting to see if Wright can drive in some runners from third base with sacrifice fly ball outs, something that has been troublesome for him throughout his career.

The middle infield for the Mets is a bit of a question mark. Second baseman Daniel Murphy has always been a reliable hitter and he has worked hard to be a respectable fielder. He is in the last year of his contract and could be a free agent after this season. Sandy Alderson does not appear to be making re-signing Murphy a priority.

Rumors swirled last year that the Mets would try to acquire the Colorado Rockies talented but expensive and frequently injured shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki. When it was all said and done, the Mets will settle again for Wilmer Flores at shortstop and Ruben Tejada, who did a great job taking over for the departed Jose Reyes in 2012 and then seemed to regress over the last two seasons, backing him up.

Last year Flores’s fielding was better than what was advertised. Unfortunately his hitting wasn’t as good as was billed. The good news for Wilmer going into 2015 is that the media will be focusing on his counterpart in the Bronx, Didi Gregorious, who is replacing Derek Jeter. If Flores flops, look for prospect Matt Reynolds, who has been waiting in the wings at the Mets’ Las Vegas AAA farm team, to get a call up to Flushing.

The Mets recently signed centerfielder Juan Lagares, who won a Gold Glove last year and hit a solid .281, to a long-term contract. Hopefully Lagares won’t get winded running down fly balls in centerfield since his outfield corner mates will be Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer who don’t have the speed that they once did.

Cuddyer is still a solid hitter and as long as he stays healthy the Mets should get good production from him. The Mets are also planning on using him at first base to spell Lucas Duda who has trouble hitting left-handed pitching.

Granderson hit 20 home runs which was fine but his .227 batting average and 141 strikeouts were not. The Mets are hoping that reuniting Grandy with his old Yankees batting coach, Kevin Long, who the Mets hired during the off-season, will help improve his discipline at the plate.

The Mets were wise in signing former Phillies outfielder, John Mayberry, Jr. as a reserve outfielder. He can hit with power and can spell either Granderson or Cuddyer without the offense suffering. Arguably he can improve the defense as well. Kirk Nieuwenhuis will be the other backup outfielder.

Catcher Travis d’Arnaud had a Jekyll and Hyde season in 2014. He started the season off horribly and was sent down to the minors. When he came back to Flushing a couple of weeks later he was outstanding. The Mets need for him to continue to be the player that they saw in the second half of the season.

While the outlook is brighter for the Mets than in recent years, their fans have to be realistic. The Washington Nationals are loaded with talent and should be a shoo-in to win the National League East title. The Miami Marlins are a young team whose talent appears to be every bit as good, if not better, than the Mets. The Atlanta Braves appear to have taken a step backwards but they always seem to produce young talent that make them a threat. The Philadelphia Phillies, who used to rule the NL East, appear certain to finish in the bottom of the division. Their general manager, Ruben Amaro, concedes that it could be years until they are competitive again.

The realistic goal for the Mets is to finish in third place with a winning record. If they can play “meaningful games in September,” a phrase once used by Mets CEO Fred Wilpon, then Mets fans should be content.

Mets manager Terry Collins is in the last year of his contract. Steve Kettmann, who wrote a biography of Sandy Alderson with his cooperation titled “Baseball Maverick” (Grove Atlantic) claims that Alderson came close to firing Collins in 2014. If the Mets get off to a slow start, expect Collins to walk the plank. If he does finish the season but the Mets fail to finish with a better than .500 record then it’s a certainty that the team will have a new skipper in 2016.

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