Are the Mets better off than they were entering 2019?
This is the seventh annual article on this topic.
The story so far...
Coming off consecutive playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, the Mets disappointed in 2017 due largely to the sudden collapse of their pitching staff.
Then, under new manager Mickey Callaway, the Mets disappointed again in 2018, despite an excellent year from the starting rotation. This time the culprits were terrible fielding, and a snowball of bad seasons from a few key players. Yoenis Cespedes got old fast, Amed Rosario failed to mature, Jeurys Familia couldn't hold a late lead, and Noah Syndergaard got hurt, effectively ending the Mets' season in June.
Preseason predictions had pegged the Mets as playoff contenders in both 2017 and 2018, so frustrations were running high heading into the team's offseason GM hunt. Owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon ultimately decided to shake things up, handing the GM reins to player agent Brodie Van Wagenen.
Brodie made an instant splash by acquiring an elite closer and middle-of-the-order bat, and the preseason forecasts for 2019 yet again saw the Mets as contenders.
The Mets played .500 ball for most of the first half of 2019, with a mix of huge breakout performances and huge disappointments. Callaway came under scrutiny for some questionable bullpen moves and some even more questionable explanations after the fact. Intense pitching coach Dave Eiland was fired in late June and replaced with the venerable Phil Regan. The team then played even worse, and entered the All-Star break at 40-50.
The break was a breath of fresh air for Mets fans. Although their team was mired in yet another let-down season, they did have some stars to celebrate. The two new faces of the offense, Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil, contributed some hilarious commercial spots leading up to All-Star Weekend. Pete then took home the trophy from an epic Home Run Derby with an exciting finish, and followed it up with a memorable interview, putting a national face on the game's latest slugging phenom.
After the break, the Mets lost their first game, then went on a 21-5 tear to kindle hopes of contention. By late August they were 7 games over .500 and looked to be making a serious push, but then they lost 6 in a row to return to long-shot status. With the momentum lost, criticism of Callaway intensified again, largely for sticking too long with ineffective closer Edwin Diaz, who proceeded to help blow a 6-run 9th inning lead in early September for the Mets' most demoralizing loss of the year.
The offense then led the team to a red hot finish, but it was too little too late. For the third straight year, a promising team on paper had failed to meet expectations.
At least Mets fans could enjoy three things at season's end: Jacob deGrom solidifying his claim as the game's best pitcher, Pete Alonso setting the rookie home run record, and the way the season's final game ended. In game 162, the injured Dom Smith, the team's most enthusiastic cheerleader down the stretch, came off the bench with two outs in the ninth inning, two men on, and the team down by two. In his first plate appearance in nearly 3 months, Smith hit a walk-off homer.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Let's take a deeper look at how the players performed in 2019, and see what we can take away for 2020. Given those performances, as well as the subsequent changes in personnel, should we be more or less bullish on the Mets now than we were heading into last season? Is the team trending up, or trending down?
Wilson Ramos – stock: unchanged
Ramos had an excellent 2019 at the plate, but a rough year behind it. He always seemed to be good for a line drive up the middle to get a runner in, but he couldn't block a wide pitch, frame a low pitch, or throw out a runner with a decent jump. He did lengthen the lineup as hoped, and his 26-game hitting streak in August and September was the second longest in team history.
Tomas Nido – stock: unchanged
2019 showed Nido to be a consistent receiver, adequate thrower, and easy out who mixed in a few good offensive days. Rene Rivera is back with the team to start 2020, but most indications are that Nido is the Mets' primary back-up.
Pete Alonso – stock: way up
Pete's 2019 was one of the most exciting individual seasons in Mets history. He introduced himself to the majors with tape-measure home runs in April, and somehow kept it up even once pitchers learned to fear him and started nibbling. Despite seeing the lowest percentage of strikes in the majors, Alonso set the NL rookie HR record on August 18. Then he set the Mets single-season HR record on August 27. He hit number 50 on September 20, and entered the final week of the season needing 2 HRs to tie the MLB rookie HR record and 3 to break it. He tied it in game 160 and broke it in game 161.
Along the way, Pete endeared himself to Mets fans and baseball fans everywhere with his humble, confident, earnest, silly, exuberant interviews. He worked hard on his defense, made the team custom cleats to honor 9/11, and finished his rookie year as America's most beloved Met.
Robinson Cano – stock: way down
If you can imagine the worst case scenario for an aging superstar's first year on a new team, that was Cano's 2019 with the Mets. He didn't show any range in the field, and his bat looked slow. It seemed like every Cano AB in the first half ended with him swinging at a pitch way out of the strike zone for an easy out to kill a rally. Further, when his lazy jogging out of the box cost the Mets too many outs to ignore, the team insisted that he hustle for the first time in a decade, and he predictably pulled a hamstring. To Robbie's credit, he was a very positive influence on the bench while healing. From what he showed in 2019, the bench is where he belongs in 2020.
If Cano loses his starting job, new arrival Eduardo Nunez could be a godsend, if he hasn't lost his speed, and if his recent hitting success wasn't a fluke. The Mets are also carrying 2019 afterthought Luis Guillorme, whose slick glove and high-contact, high-OBP approach are still awaiting a true test in the major leagues.
Jeff McNeil – stock: up
McNeil showed that 2018's line drive parade was no fluke. In the first half of 2019, he was even better, flirting with a .350 average while staking his claim as possibly the toughest out in baseball. In key situations, he'd fight off tough pitch after tough pitch, no matter how nasty the pitcher's stuff. He did this while learning a new position, becoming an MLB-average corner outfielder remarkably quickly.
There was just one problem: McNeil had a weakness, and he wasn't happy with it. His weak spot was down and in: he would chase back-foot breaking balls, and occasionally freeze on an inside corner fastball. He and hitting coach Chili Davis set out to fix this problem... and changed everything that made Jeff a tough out. His crouched, closed stance and flat swing were replaced by an upright, open stance and an uppercut, making him... just like everyone else in today's game. He did hit a ton of first-pitch homers, so he was still a good hitter overall, but all the skills that had made him special were gone.
Which Jeff McNeil will we get in 2020?
Jed Lowrie – stock: way down
Jed never recovered from his offseason knee sprain, missing the entire 2019 season. At 36 and after a year off from baseball, he may be done.
Amed Rosario – stock: way up
Rosario's 2019 brought a series of small improvements that added up in a big way. Despite sometimes looking like his woeful 2018 self at the plate, he mixed in some legitimate hot streaks, hitting rockets and driving the ball for extra bases. His defense was terrible in the first half, as he mixed in a spate of poor throws with his always-poor jumps and reads, but he turned things around mid-season. By season's end, he looked only slightly below average in the field, while swinging a league-average bat. Not great for a #1 prospect, but better than the gaping shortstop void the Mets could have been facing. Given his age and physical tools, everyone is hoping there's more improvement to come.
Andres Gimenez – stock: unchanged
After hitting poorly in AAA but hitting well in the Arizona Fall League in 2019, Gimenez has made the 2020 team. Once the expanded rosters are trimmed, I assume the Mets won't continue to carry their top prospect as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Or perhaps they will, realizing that's his likely MLB role.
Yoenis Cespedes – stock: unchanged
Still recovering from heel surgery, Cespedes broke his ankle while dealing with a wild boar on his ranch in May. He never played a game in 2019, and has shown no indication in spring training that he can run at game speed. Because the National League will use the designated hitter rule in 2020, Yo is expected to share time at DH and LF so the Mets can see if he's got anything left, a situation that may be as much about his contract as his power.
J.D. Davis – stock: way up
Davis entered 2019 as an afterthought for most fans. In the end, he may have been the team's most consistent all-around hitter, mixing average and power from April through September. Since he kept it up for so long, the team now seems intent on finding a spot for him despite his awful glove. J.D. showed a rocket arm but was a complete butcher in left field and at third base. On the plus side, Davis was hilarious, as his animated GIF collection clearly attests.
Dominic Smith – stock: up
After a disappointing 2018, Smith took a huge step forward early in 2019. In the spring, he raked while acting as the biggest booster for Alonso, the guy he was battling for a job. Dom made the opening day roster, and was used mostly as a pinch hitter due to Alonso's stranglehold on the first base position. As Smith excelled at the plate, the team found ways to squeeze him into the lineup more frequently (primarily in left field, where he looked very raw). By early June, Dom was an everyday player, boasting a 1.000 OPS.
Smith subsequently slumped and got hurt. However, after excelling against big league pitching for the first time, his future outlook is greatly improved, even if that's as a DH or as trade bait.
Brandon Nimmo – stock: down
Nimmo was an easy out for a long time before going on the shelf with a neck injury, leading to much concern. He crushed the ball after coming back in September, providing some hope that the neck was the problem all along and that Brandon really can hit when healthy. His awkward and ineffective play in center field continued, unfortunately.
Jake Marisnick – stock: unchanged
The Mets' latest good-field, no-hit center fielder, Marisnick boasts elite defensive metrics and should provide more offense than Juan Lagares did in his final season with the team. Juan was the longest-tenured Met, and his career-best offensive day in September (2 HRs, one a grand slam) was a nice farewell.
Michael Conforto – stock: unchanged
At age 26, Conforto maintained his career slash line, while playing in more games than ever before. He may never be a star, and his streakiness can be maddening, but it's nice to have a proven quantity on both sides of the ball.
Jacob deGrom – stock: unchanged
DeGrom didn't make a big pitch every time he needed to, and he gave up 14 runs in 13 innings in April when he was tipping his pitches, but otherwise he was largely the same guy who dominated in 2018. Throwing harder than ever at age 31, deGrom's go-to pitch was his slider to the glove side, to both righties and lefties.
The offense and bullpen continued to be embarrassingly awful whenever Jacob took the mound, leading to an unimpressive 11-8 record, but the Cy Young voters didn't care, handing him his second near-unanimous win.
Marcus Stroman – stock: unchanged
Stroman replaces Zack Wheeler, who's gone to the rival Phillies after a good but unspectacular 2019. Like Wheeler, Stroman achieved some high highs and low lows with his previous team, making him easy to dream on but hard to predict. He appears to have impressive movement on his sinker, but no true strikeout pitch, and his nibbling kept him from going deep in games in 2019. Now he starts 2020 on the shelf with a calf injury, which he claims is not serious. Mets fans can only hope he makes it back before too much of the shortened season is lost. The team needs him, and he's also a ton of fun to watch, as a little guy with a big personality and a spectacular glove. AAA filler Corey Oswalt takes his place for now.
Steven Matz – stock: unchanged
Steven's 2019 was a repeat of his mediocre 2018, which is perfectly fine for a back-of-the-rotation starter. He hasn't shown any sign of being more than that in years, however, so the Mets should hope that some of their new acquisitions step forward in 2020.
Rick Porcello – stock: unchanged
The Mets began 2019 with Jason Vargas coming off a disastrous 2018, but with a history of pitching better. Now the team begins 2020 with a similar pitcher in Porcello. Vargas was good enough to keep the team in a lot games before the Mets gifted him to the rival Phillies so he could do the same for them. If Porcello can do that, I'd count his acquisition as a success.
Michael Wacha – stock: way down
I was hoping the Mets would try Wacha and his nasty change-up out as a multi-inning reliever, but Noah Syndergaard's injury has forced Wacha into the rotation. This is quite a step down for the team, as Wacha hasn't been effective and healthy in years.
Noah Syndergaard – stock: way down
Perhaps Callaway and Eiland convinced Syndergaard that his short-arm motion was going to hurt him, as he came into the 2019 season with a much more fluid delivery. Unfortunately, Noah completely lost his ability to hit the corners with his fastball. In fact, all of his pitches were inconsistent, leading Noah to have by far the least effective season of his career. Noah was clearly frustrated, and didn't handle it well, publicly stating that he didn't like throwing to catcher Wilson Ramos.
After a disappointing 2019, what did Syndergaard do in the offseason? He lifted more weights, came into spring training looking more like a bodybuilder than a pitcher, and predictably hurt himself, just as he did in 2017. With Tommy John rehab and 2021 free agency looming, it's been mostly downhill for Noah since his dominant 2016.
Edwin Diaz – stock: way down
Diaz joined the Mets after an epic, 57-save 2018 with the Mariners. His 2019 was an equally epic disaster.
All other things being equal, with 2018 Diaz instead of 2019 Diaz, the 2019 Mets make the playoffs.
Diaz had no command of his slider and no control of his fastball, meaning that every opponent who didn't strike out would eventually get a meatball to launch. Diaz allowed 15 HRs in 58 innings, and was at his worst when it mattered most, blowing 7 saves and losing 7 games. By midseason, the fans were booing every time Callaway brought Diaz into a big spot, but Mickey kept doing it anyway, costing the Mets game after game.
Entering 2020, Diaz has said and done all the right things, and he clearly has strikeout stuff, but it's going to take a lot of success to eliminate the taste of 2019. His motion still looks like he's trying to heave the ball through a wall, so I'll believe he can locate when I see it.
Seth Lugo – stock: up
One of the most pleasant surprises of 2019 was Lugo, who sustained his success as a multi-inning reliever through bigger and bigger roles as the season progressed. Seth consistently came up clutch, ending the year as a pitcher opponents did not want to face. After the All-Star break, Lugo's numbers were spectacular. Aside from one blow-up outing (when he didn't warm up properly), he posted an 0.82 ERA and .108 opponent average, with 2 walks and 48 strikeouts. Oddly enough for a curveball specialist with unexceptional velocity, Seth's best pitch by far was his fastball, which he threw with sink, rise, or tail to all quadrants of the plate, consistently attacking hitters' weak spots.
Jeurys Familia – stock: way down
Familia was an absolute wreck in 2019, walking more batters than ever, and giving up vastly more home runs than ever, thanks to a sinker that often didn't sink. He's lost a lot of weight heading into 2020, hoping that will help. Was 2019 just a blip, or was it a matter of his longstanding control and clutch issues finally reaching a tipping point?
Justin Wilson – stock: unchanged
Besides Lugo, Wilson was the other reliever the Mets could rely on in 2019. Justin battled injuries and occasional command issues, but seemed to always make the big pitch when he had to. Eventually this was noticed, with Wilson earning 4 saves down the stretch. Watching this lefty bully righties inside with cutter after cutter brought back Mets memories of Al Leiter.
Dellin Betances – stock: up
No one seems to know what to expect from Betances after his 2019 comeback from arm injury was aborted by an Achilles tendon tear, but at least he brings sky-high upside, which is more than anyone in the bottom half of the 2019 bullpen could boast.
Bullpen depth – stock: up
Brad Brach (assuming he gets healthy), Jared Hughes and Chasen Shreve bring some history of success, which is a step up from the collection of mediocre minor leaguers the Mets took into 2019. Robert Gsellman and Hunter Strickland round out the proven mediocrity, with Paul Sewald, Walker Lockett, and Drew Smith still on the roster as well.
Minor leaguers of note
There's no potential impact help here for the big league team, as the top prospects in the system are all teenagers to dream on: Ronny Mauricio, Francisco Alvarez, and 2019 draftees Brett Baty and Matthew Allan. If the Mets need a fill-in backup catcher, reliever, or spot starter, then Ali Sanchez, Franklyn Kilome, and David Peterson could be ready to go.
Summing it up
Changes since a year ago
Stock way down: Diaz and Familia, Lowrie and Cano, Syndergaard and the downgrade from losing him
Stock down: Brandon Nimmo
Stock unchanged: Ramos, Nido, Conforto, Matz and Justin Wilson holding steady; Marisnick, Stroman and Porcello replacing similar players; deGrom still dominant, Cespedes still hobbled, and Gimenez still an iffy hitting prospect
Stock up: Jeff McNeil, Dom Smith, Seth Lugo, and the bullpen depth including Dellin Betances
Stock way up: Amed Rosario, J.D. Davis, and Pete Alonso
Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, and Seth Lugo have been ascending for multiple years now.
Michael Conforto's stock hasn't changed in three years.
Beyond that, it's chaos, with dramatic reversals for Amed Rosario (way down then way up) and Van Wagenen's big acquisitions (looked to be huge upgrades, then turned into disasters).
What it all means
Despite another frustrating season where the team never got all that close to the playoffs, a lot went right for the Mets in 2019, with five young hitters taking significant steps forward. Many fans formed high hopes for 2020, if the Mets could just keep the team together, fix Diaz and Familia, find a new manager, and keep an ice-cold Cano out of the middle of the lineup.
It should be noted, however, that the Braves won 97 games in 2019 with a team loaded with young talent, and the Nationals won the World Series. Then, in December, the Phillies lured Zack Wheeler away from the Mets as a free agent. So the Mets couldn't be considered favorites even before Syndergaard's injury. It also doesn't help that their five young bats are extremely limited defensively.
On the managerial side, Callaway departed after allegations of poor game management and losing the clubhouse, not to mention an ugly blow-up with a reporter in late June. He's back to the role in which he previously excelled, serving as pitching coach for an American League team. For his replacement, the Mets looked at a number of candidates, most with no major league managing experience, and eventually settled on one with no managerial experience of any kind: Hall of Fame-bound Carlos Beltran. This struck me as more of a P.R. stunt than anything else, so I was relieved when the Mets got a do-over — when news broke that Beltran had played a major role in helping the 2017 Astros steal signs with cameras, the Mets pivoted away from the "potential distraction" and replaced Beltran with veteran minor league manager Luis Rojas.
On the eve of a 60-game, pandemic-altered season, it's hard to know what any of this will mean. With over half the teams in the league set to make the playoffs, the Mets really just need to stay COVID-free, get hot at the right time, ride their ace, and hope MLB can finish the season and postseason without an outbreak.
Thinking more long-term, it's nice that the Mets have some young offensive talent, but they may need to move some of it to help balance out a team that is quite poor defensively and is currently down to one good starting pitcher.