Are the Mets better off than they were entering 2018?
This is the sixth annual article on this topic.
The story so far…
It’s been an odd five years in Mets Land.
The 2014 team brought progress, inching the team towards .500 with breakout years from young players Juan Lagares, Travis d’Arnaud, Jacob deGrom, and Jeurys Familia. The 2015 team played .500 until a late jolt of acquisitions catapulted them to the National League crown. The 2016 team staggered from injuries but won a wild card spot anyway due to clutch play and stellar performances from back-ups.
After 2016, everything fell apart. The Mets doubled down on aging and injury-prone players, lost countless days to the DL in 2017 while losing 90 games, brought back zero talent in a July sell-off, and imported more old and brittle players in the following offseason.
The Mets entered the 2018 season hoping for a lot of bounce-back performances, improvements from some key youngsters, and an influx of positive energy and modern strategy from a brand new manager. Many projections figured the Mets would be in the middle of the wild card race, and when the team started out 11-1, fans began to dream big. Unfortunately, things turned quickly. By the end of May, Cespedes’s season (and possibly his career) was over, and Noah Syndergaard was heading for a 6-week DL stint with a sprained finger. The 2018 Mets were never relevant again, going 5-21 in June.
First-time manager Mickey Callaway announced before the season began that he’d rest his players more, pull his starting pitchers earlier, and use his relievers based on situations rather than predefined roles.
I suspect these strategies required more good players than the Mets actually had, because Callaway stuck to none of them.
Amed Rosario played shortstop every day, and Cespedes hit in the middle of the lineup every day that he could, and Familia pitched the 9th, and starting pitchers pitched the 6th…
…because no one else on the roster could be trusted to do any of those things.
On the plus side, Callaway and new pitching coach Dave Eiland set out to tweak their pitchers’ mechanics to keep them healthier, and their pitchers did indeed enjoy greatly improved health.
Starting pitching was the team’s biggest strength, leading a mediocre offense and bullpen (along with a terrible defense at -9.3 WAR) to a 77-85 record.
Let’s take a deeper look at how the players performed, with an eye on new developments to inform our expectations for 2019 and beyond. Let’s also look at how the new guys brought in by first-time GM Brodie Van Wagenen compare to the players they’re replacing.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Wilson Ramos – stock: up
Kevin Plawecki never really found a groove at the plate in 2018, consistently playing at the level of an okay back-up. He’s now gone to Cleveland, with Van Wagenen bringing former Met-killer Wilson Ramos on board. Ramos comes with lots of red flags, as a molasses-slow, agility-challenged, 31-year-old catcher coming off multiple knee injuries. But he’s also one of the better-hitting catchers active in the game today. Having one less easy out in the lineup may make a big difference in 2019.
Travis d’Arnaud – stock: down
D’Arnaud was terrible in 2016 and 2017 on both sides of the ball until a September 2017 power surge somehow kindled enough optimism to bring him back in 2018. D’Arnaud tore his elbow ligament the first week of the season and needed Tommy John surgery, which opened the door for better throwers and game-callers to take some pressure off the Mets pitchers. Somehow the Mets brought d’Arnaud back again for 2019, instead of re-upping with Devin Mesoraco for less than half the price. Mesoraco hit more homers, drew more walks, threw out more runners, and did a better job guiding the pitching staff than d’Arnaud has proven capable of. He was the preferred catcher of the league’s Cy Young! But d’Arnaud has… uh… top prospect hype from 2012?
Pete Alonso – stock: way up
When the Mets signed Jed Lowrie, many assumed that first base would be manned by some combo of Lowrie, Todd Frazier, and Jeff McNeil, leaving little room for Alonso. Then the two old guys got hurt and Pete dominated spring training, so the kid looks like he’ll have a real shot to claim the job for good. Alonso impressed the baseball world in 2018 by hitting laser beam homeruns in the minors. Unfortunately, many scouts see him as a DH, and he posted an alarmingly high K rate at hitter haven Las Vegas.
Dominic Smith – stock: down
The smooth-hitting Smith hit only .258 with minimal pop in Vegas, effectively removing himself as a factor for the Mets. His 2019 spring training went well, though, and some scouts think it may simply have taken him a year to get used to his new, slimmed-down physique. Dom also apparently found an offseason solution for his sleep apnea, so there are reasons to think that a rebound is possible. While Lowrie and Frazier are on the shelf, Smith will fill the shoes of the beloved Wilmer Flores, who Van Wagenen non-tendered after a merely okay season at the plate in 2018.
The Mets’ most pleasant surprise of 2018 was the emergence of second baseman Jeff McNeil. Heading into 2019, they’ve moved him to left field.
Robinson Cano – stock: up
The Mets entered 2018 with Asdrubal Cabrera backed up by Jose Reyes. Cabrera hit very well, but his lack of range remained an issue, while Reyes failed to do anything well in what was probably his final year in MLB. Now the Mets head into 2019 with one of the most accomplished hitters in the game manning second. Given his age (36) and last year’s PED suspension, Cano could fall off a cliff at any moment, but until that happens, the Mets will pin their hopes on a #3 hitter who’s slashed .300/.360/.480 so far in his 30s.
Jed Lowrie – stock: unchanged
Lowrie joins the Mets coming off two seasons crushing the ball in a pitcher’s park while playing a good second base. After signing, he then sprained his knee doing routine workouts en route to his 35th birthday. Realistic hopes (as well as most projections) don’t expect more from Lowrie in 2019 than the Mets expected from Todd Frazier in 2018. Some tout Lowrie’s versatility based on how he moved around the infield early in his career, but he’s been a pure second baseman for years now. With Cano expected to play second nearly every day, many expect Lowrie to supplant Frazier at third. How that goes, and whether Lowrie can also sub in at shortstop, remains to be seen.
Todd Frazier – stock: down
Before joining the Mets, Frazier had been a durable power hitter with good defense and improving patience. Most of that went out the window in 2018, as Todd chased pitches he had no chance to hit, got hurt, and even made a few ugly throws. He did show excellent range and the ability to drive the ball over the wall, but his biggest contribution in 2018 seems to have come from his gregarious, high-energy clubhouse presence. Todd also graciously sat for one day in September so the fans could say goodbye to the retiring David Wright.
Amed Rosario – stock: way down
The Mets haven’t fielded an average defensive shortstop since the best days of Ruben Tejada, and they haven’t had a hyped middle infield prospect make good since Jose Reyes. So Rosario’s arrival felt like a gigantic step forward for the organization, even if Amed’s bat wasn’t ready from day one. After he held his own in 2017, Mets fans were eagerly anticipating great strides in 2018.
Sadly, that progress never came.
Although some writers and commentators were able to cherry-pick stretches in 2018 where Rosario could boast a high batting average, the reality is that his OPS bounced between .620-.680 for almost the entire season. As was the case in 2017, he showed no ability to read pitch types or locations — he did swing at fewer balls a foot off the plate, but he also took more meatballs down the middle. It often looked as if he’d decided whether or not to swing before the pitch was thrown.
Worst of all, Amed’s fielding was ineffective. His smooth actions sure did look nice out there, but his late reactions and poor routes on grounders gave him below-average range, and his slow transfer meant he rarely got outs on close plays. Everyone in the Mets organization seems to love Rosario, but of all the risky moves made for a “win now” 2019 season, handing shortstop to a kid who still hasn’t proven he belongs in the majors (0.5 bWAR over 154 games in 2018) might be the riskiest.
The Mets also have Luis Guillorme and Adeiny Hechavarria in the organization, but thus far have shown no inclination to play Guillorme or roster Hechavarria. The Hechavarria I remember from his Marlins days would be a huge defensive upgrade from Rosario, not to mention a tougher out at the plate.
The Mets’ plan in 2018 was to have an elite slugger in left (Cespedes), a so-so slugger in right (Bruce), and a young corner outfielder with elite hitting potential in center (Conforto).
The Mets’ plan in 2019 is to have a contact-hitting second baseman in left (McNeil), a young corner outfielder with elite hitting potential in right (Conforto), and an OBP-machine corner outfielder in center (Nimmo).
That looks like a slight downgrade to me, unless you factor in health, in which case it’s a slight upgrade. It’s going to be hard to compare these players to each other, so for “stock up/down” purposes I’ll be evaluating each of them individually.
Jeff McNeil – stock: way up
An organizational afterthought coming into 2018, McNeil finally stayed healthy and also added some power, torching AA and AAA to a combined tune of .342/.411/.617. When called up to the majors, McNeil abandoned his power swing, instead waiting on pitches and using a quick, line drive stroke to spray the ball all over the field. In 63 games for the Mets, Jeff hit .329 and struck out only 24 times, making him the most consistent bat and toughest out in the lineup. McNeil also brought a lot of energy to the club, sprinting his way into numerous infield hits and triples. He played a roughly average second base, but is now being asked to learn the outfield in major league games. If that transition goes well, it’ll be the first time in Mets history.
Yoenis Cespedes – stock: way down
Cespedes hit a few rockets but struck out at an alarming rate and could barely move in the field. No amount of quad or hamstring rehab could compensate for his bad heels. Now that Yoenis has finally undergone major heel surgery, no one knows if he’ll ever be able to run well again, or how well he’ll hit after showing signs of decline and then missing most of his age 32-33 seasons. The media recently discovered that the Mets knew about Yo’s heel issues when they signed him — this makes his $110M deal look even less wise than it did at the time.
Brandon Nimmo – stock: up
Nimmo kept up his walk-heavy game in his first taste of full-time, full-season action. That plus a league-leading 22 HBPs gave him a .404 OBP, behind only Joey Votto in the National League. One key to this surprise performance was Brandon slugging .483, thereby forcing pitchers to pitch him carefully. His constant, cheerful exuberance was also a welcome sight for fans looking for positivity in the Mets’ disappointing season. Nimmo showed enough speed to make up for his weak arm when used in left field, but was a bit of a liability in center, with numerous poor reads.
Juan Lagares and Keon Broxton – stock: unchanged
Lagares banged his toe on the outfield wall in late April and missed the rest of the year. This year, Broxton joins Juan to give the Mets two good-field, no-hit center fielders. It’s nice to have two options here, but neither is as good as Lagares was in his prime.
Michael Conforto – stock: unchanged
Mets fans were able to breathe a huge sigh of relief, as Conforto made it back from a torn shoulder capsule to play 153 games in 2018. Unfortunately, he didn’t hit like he did in 2017, mixing in a few red hot stretches with lots of swings and misses. Conforto entered September hitting .232/.346/.404 before a scorching final month elevated his final stat line. After years of high highs and low lows, we’re all still wondering who the real Michael Conforto will be. After 1600+ plate appearances, he may be who his career .251/.349/.476 line says he is.
Jacob deGrom – stock: way up
The Mets did everything they could possibly do to lose every one of deGrom’s 32 starts. Well, okay, except for those two starts in August where they scored 8 runs apiece. Otherwise, every game included an offense that couldn’t reach base, or an 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position, or a run-scoring error, or a blown save, or some other grand act of failure to keep deGrom from tallying a “W”.
In his losses, Jacob deGrom pitched to a 2.71 ERA.
In his no-decisions, Jacob deGrom pitched to a 1.62 ERA.
That’s a group of 22 games in which one might expect a pitcher to post a record around 14-3. Jacob deGrom went 0-9.
He won the Cy Young award anyway.
How does a guy with a 10-9 record win a Cy Young? Here’s how:
All pro athletes go through slumps and make mistakes. 2018 was deGrom’s season of no slumps and (almost) no mistakes. He centered one change-up to Brett Gardner and one fastball to Lewis Brinson, and otherwise, if he missed his spot, he missed where the batter couldn’t hurt him. He did this pitch after pitch, batter after batter, start after start. After an opposite-field shot by Justin Bour just cleared the Miami fence on April 10, deGrom never allowed more than 3 runs in a start.
In fact, he ended the year with 24 consecutive quality starts, an all-time record for a single season.
DeGrom threw his curve and change-up at the perfect times, with deception and precision, and his slider was flat-out nasty, with a late, sharp, two-plane break. Setting it all up was the up-and-in fastball, deGrom’s go-to offering against lefties for the first half of the season.
He battled in tight game after tight game, doing his best work in the clutch and holding opponents to an otherworldly .142/.195/.209 line with runners in scoring position.
Back in March, many saw deGrom as the Mets’ second ace, behind the monster many dreamed Syndergaard would become. By November, Jake was sharing company with the phrase “best pitcher in baseball” on a regular basis.
Noah Syndergaard – stock: up
Thor put 2018’s lat injury behind him, with no related health issues in 2019. He did miss significant time, but that was due to a fluke finger sprain. On the mound, Noah was less dominant than in the past, with many fewer swings and misses, especially on his slider. At the same time, he maintained his low walk rate, and greatly improved the command of his two-seamer, leading to more ground balls, more quick outs, and even two complete games in September.
Zack Wheeler – stock: way up
2018 was a major turning point for Wheeler. Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland passed Wheeler over for a rotation spot at the end of spring training, sending him to the minors to focus on his mechanics. A few weeks later, Zack returned to the majors showing better command and control than ever before. By the All-Star break, Wheeler had put his past shortcomings — nibbling, walks, deep counts, hanging breaking balls — firmly behind him, but he had a new Achilles heel: blow-up innings. Routinely cruising for 3-6 innings, Zack would then make one or two bad pitches and before you could blink he’d allowed a 3-run homer.
After the All-Star break, Wheeler shut down those big innings, and did this over his final 11 starts: 75 innings, 9-2, 1.68 ERA, .179/.237/.253 slash line allowed.
Was that a fluke, or can Zack do that for a full season? The answer may determine whether the 2019 Mets are fringe contenders or a force to be reckoned with.
Steven Matz – stock: up
Callaway and Eiland may have earned their money with through their work with Matz alone, getting 30 starts out of the heretofore constantly injured lefty. Steven wasn’t particularly effective — his fastball and curve were more hittable than before, as he labored through short outing after short outing — but he finished healthy with an ERA under 4.00, and showed promise for the future with a much-improved change-up.
Jason Vargas – stock: way down
At his best, he was good for about 5 innings. At his worst (that is, when everything wasn’t perfect), the game was over after 3. Watching a “command guy” with no command was excruciating.
That said, witnessing a free agent flop wasn’t quite as gut-wrenching as seeing the one-time presumptive face of the franchise endure a brief struggle in the rotation, a dodged minors assignment, a messy bullpen transition, and a “good riddance” trade to the Reds. Farewell, Matt Harvey.
Edwin Diaz – stock: way up
The Mets bullpen needed more depth and more dominant arms, and the new GM went all-in on Diaz, who has to be seen as an enormous upgrade despite the absurd price Brodie paid for him. With a late-tailing fastball at 99 mph, a sharp slider, and a violent delivery, Diaz reminds me a bit of Francisco Rodriguez and a bit of Carter Capps. I have no idea how he can locate or avoid injury with his “throw it through a wall” motion, but the numbers don’t lie: 14 Ks per nine innings in his career, 65+ appearances in 2017 and 2018, and 57 saves last year.
Jeurys Familia – stock: unchanged
With 2017’s blood clot issue behind him, Familia stayed healthy all year, getting back to his usual strengths: plenty of strikeouts, tons of ground balls, very few homeruns. Unfortunately, unlike in 2016, he wasn’t able to escape all the jams he got into with leadoff walks. During the team’s rapid descent from promising to hopeless, Jeurys blew four saves, lost two games, and failed to keep another two close games within reach. After another two losses, the Mets’ fill-in GM team shipped him to Oakland for a classic Alderson return (old minor league reliever). Now he’s back on the Mets, with more questions than ever about his ability to perform in the clutch. He’s still got that sinker, though…
Seth Lugo – stock: up
Despite making the rotation out of spring training, Lugo never got a extended chance to start, and he wasn’t very effective in his spot starts. He did become a consistent bullpen weapon, though, holding opponents to a .288 slugging percentage over the season’s final 3 months. Despite pedestrian velocity, his fastball played up thanks to good movement and location, and he used all of his secondary pitches well (despite fewer swings and misses than one might expect from his vaunted curveball).
Robert Gsellman – stock: down
Gsellman showed brief flashes of being closer material, but overall was a slightly below average major league pitcher. That’s not a terrible option as the last guy in the bullpen, but the Mets shouldn’t count on him for more than that (as they unfortunately seem to be doing).
Justin Wilson – stock: up
Probably Van Wagenen’s best “value” pick-up, Wilson has a long track record of being both healthy and above-average, and signed for relative peanuts.
Luis Avilan – stock: down
The team says goodbye to Jerry Blevins, who thrived as a one-out lefty for years, but suddenly couldn’t get lefties out in 2018, leading to much late-inning heartbreak. Avilan takes over the LOOGY role, coming off a recent mix of good and bad seasons, decidedly inferior to Blevins’ track record entering 2018. I’m more excited about the unproven Daniel Zamora, who looked extremely nasty late in 2018.
Bullpen depth – stock: unchanged
Maybe one of Jacob Rhame, Paul Sewald, Walker Lockett, Tyler Bashlor, Drew Gagnon, or Chris Flexen will turn out to be good, but I don’t see any particular reason to think so. Drew Smith showed some poise last year, but is now undergoing Tommy John surgery. I do like the acquisition of Hector Santiago, who isn’t that far removed from being a successful starting pitcher, and may not yet have reached his upside as a reliever.
Minor leaguers of note
Jarred Kelenic emerged as the organization’s best high school bat in decades, but he’s gone to the Mariners in the Cano-Diaz trade, leaving Andres Gimenez alone at the top. Gimenez is being talked up as a natural shortstop who’d be better defensively than Rosario — but that’s exactly what scouts said about Rosario at this point in Amed’s career, and Gimenez doesn’t have close to Rosario’s athleticism. Gimenez also isn’t particularly fast and has no power. Add it up, and he sounds like a Luis Guillorme clone to me. That’s not a great place for the Mets organization to be, when their best prospect projects to fight for a back-up infield spot.
Summing it up
Changes since a year ago
Stock way down: Amed Rosario, Jason Vargas, Yoenis Cespedes
Stock down: Travis d’Arnaud, Dominic Smith, Todd Frazier, Robert Gsellman, lefty specialist
Stock unchanged: Michael Conforto, Jeurys Familia, Juan Lagares
Stock up: Brandon Nimmo, Seth Lugo, bounce-back starters (Thor & Matz), offseason upgrades (Cano, Ramos, Justin Wilson)
Stock way up: Alonso and McNeil tearing through the minors, Diaz joining as closer, Wheeler turning his career around, and deGrom taking it to another level
Ever since an underwhelming 2015 in the high minors, it’s been all uphill for Brandon Nimmo.
No other longtime Mets have showed any consistent trajectories. Matz, Wheeler and Syndergaard all disappointed in 2017 and bounced back in 2018.
With Jeff McNeil coming out of nowhere to do his best Tony Gwynn impression, and Pete Alonso going from A-ball slugger to MLB starter in the blink of an eye, the Mets are hoping that some new ascents are beginning.
What it all means
In the front office, Sandy Alderson stepped aside (largely due to health reasons, unfortunately), leading to an offseason GM hunt that boiled down to veteran GM Doug Melvin, cutting-edge Rays architect Chaim Bloom, and wild card player agent Brodie Van Wagenen. The Wilpons went with the wild card for 2019.
Van Wagenen quickly showed himself to be bold and energetic, making a ton of roster changes, signing Jacob deGrom to a big-money deal, and adding a “quality control coach” to the staff as a liaison between players and the analytics department.
This is a very different Mets team heading into the 2019 season, and it should be a better one than the 2017 & 2018 teams.
That’s not to say, however, that these Mets will do better than their predecessors should have done. With the Braves’ youth-fueled 2018 success, the Nationals’ wealth of stars, and the Phillies spending “stupid money” on Bryce Harper and more, the days of the soft NL East are gone, and the Mets are nobody’s favorite.
With a lengthened lineup and improved bullpen, the Mets are no longer staking their season on the health of the pitching rotation, which seems to me like a major step forward. In order to make good on Van Wagenen’s investments, I think the team needs to go out there and (1) grind out at bats against good pitching, and (2) shut down opponents in the late innings. If they can do that, they can contend for more than a wild card.
Oh, and it would also help if they scored a few runs for their ace.