by Paul West
New York Mets fans, I feel your pain. As I’ve noted before, despite my commitment to reasoned objectivity, I am one of you. So before I get down to dissecting the baseball heartbreak from which we’re all recovering, I’d like to remind you of something. I’d like to remind you of how proud you should be right now, despite our team having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when they were so close to one of the more unexpected championships in baseball history.
The 2015 New York Mets gave us a season full of incredible memories. We saw a young man driven to tears by how badly he wanted to remain a Met–then spend the next month out-hitting most other National league shortstops, and giving us reasons to embrace him as he had embraced us. We saw the Mets’ elder statesman (in tenure, not in years) return from a career-threatening injury to provide one of many rallying points, and numerous clutch hits, while he answered his critics (myself included). We watched our history-making staff of young aces outduel the top three candidates for the National League Cy Young Award, along with one of the best lefties of his generation, over the course of two weeks. We watched a Game Five road win to clinch the NLDS, and a four-game sweep of the NLCS. We took the NL East by almost a week’s worth of games, and singlehandedly drove the Washington Nationals out of the playoffs–as they’d done to us just a year ago. We saw Travis d’Arnaud take a bite out of the Citi Field apple with an epic home run blast, in the first playoff game in the history of Citi Field.
We felt Citi Field shake. Like Shea Stadium once did.
But alas, back to the heartbreak. There are cautionary elements to this past week, and lessons to be learned. There’s also a lot to build on.
Daniel Murphy–and I’m not saying this for the first time–is best cast as a designated hitter. He’s athletic, determined and passionate; when you listen to him talk, you realize his baseball IQ is much higher than some of his in-game gaffes would suggest. But if anything, this highlights why he should only occasionally be in the field. Sometimes passion and force of will, and even athleticism, aren’t enough. He just isn’t that good of a fielder, not consistently anyway, and his occasional jaw-dropping feats only mask the fact that you often want to cover your eyes when the last out is hit his way. Of course his record-breaking home run binge was a fluke, but it was also the kind of fluke that made sense to happen to a hitter like Murphy. He’s a pure-hitter type, a lefty with a short line-drive swing and a decent amount of physical strength. When he sees the ball well–especially since he’s retooled his swing to pull inside pitches with more authority–of course he’s going to hit home runs. He set a career high this season; imagine what he could do in a hitter-friendly AL park? It’s time to let him go, and maybe become the lefty Edgar Martinez.
Lucas Duda is not the problem, but he’s also not the solution. He’s a solid fielder with good hands, and he’s got ridiculous lefty power and can carry an offense when he gets hot. Most teams would like to have him batting in the middle of their lineup. He can use the entire field, and he’s got a good eye to complement his prodigious power. But unlike some sluggers, he can’t flourish without lineup protection. For reasons I’ll explain shortly, he might not have Yoenis Cespedes around as a righty complement next season.
Paying exorbitantly for Cespedes is not the answer. He and Duda in the middle of the order are a dangerous one-two punch, if you build around them–but if he returns, where would they play him? Curtis Granderson will begin 2016 as the starting right fielder, especially after his performance both in the regular season and the postseason. Juan Lagares looks healthy again, and he put together some strong at-bats in the World Series; if he returns to his elite form in center field, the job should be his on Opening Day. Conforto should be the everyday left fielder until further notice. This makes Cespedes the odd man out, especially in light of his asking price and streaky nature.
Michael Conforto is the future. He’s better than previously advertised in the outfield, with an accurate and reasonably strong throwing arm. He’s also the kind of lefty hitter that teams hunt for in every draft. He’ll bat third someday, if not next season, and he’s one of the reasons Murph isn’t as indispensable on offense as he once was.
Travis d’Arnaud is an offense-first catcher, big home run power, who manages pitchers and games very well. You can win with that. But his throwing mechanics are scary, and the Royals ran on him as if he was in an armchair. He doesn’t have to throw runners out like Benito Santiago, but his defense needs work if he’s going to remain our everyday catcher.
The infield defense needs an upgrade. David Wright‘s throws have always been less than consistent, and a bad back will continue to make that worse. Duda is solid but not overwhelming at first. If Murphy departs, this would make room for the Mets to add a shutdown defender at second base and/or shortstop. Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada have earned the right to stay and play for their spots, but Wilmer will have to continue to show improvement on defense and Tejada will have to prove serviceable at the plate. With a shutdown defender next to them up the middle, Flores’ strong arm and Tejada’s nimbleness could help form a better than expected double play duo. The current problem is that neither of the Mets’ shortstops is a difference-maker defensively, and with the erratic Murphy at second, double-play chances turn into crapshoots.
Terry Collins did a wonderful job with his team, from a mental and emotional standpoint. He helped them stay calibrated through a season full of ups and downs. He’s also not that good in terms of in-game strategy, and this came back to haunt the Mets in the World Series. His in-game pitching moves continue to be baffling, as when he quick-hooked starting pitchers after strong innings in must-win games. If used properly, solid mid-rotation starters in long relief could have taken pressure off of an overtaxed and underwhelming bullpen. Instead, Collins just burned arm after arm and refused to let Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon go at least once through the order, even when they pitched well–particularly in the case of Niese.
Jeurys Familia is an elite closer. He was put in taxing situations for the entire postseason, and he was asked to pick up a whole lot of slack for the rest of the bullpen. He’s one of the biggest reasons the Mets made it this far, and one home run doesn’t change that. Almost every team in baseball would rather have him in the ninth inning than whomever they currently turn to.
What really needs solidifying is the middle relief situation–but you knew that. This is not the time to bash people,
The Big Four is as good as we thought they were, if not better. Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and yes, Matt Harvey, are a brutal gauntlet of flamethrowers with strong secondary pitches. Zack Wheeler isn’t even back yet, not to mention Rafael Montero. If these guys stay healthy, the 2016 Mets will be able to field an ace every day of the week. If they solidify the defense, that could lead to a lot of bad days for opposing lineups.
There’s never been a perfect baseball team, and the Mets would not have been the first team to win a World Series despite known deficiencies. In looking forward to 2016, the Mets must avoid both being blinded by their accomplishments and haunted by their heartbreaks. They began this season a couple of moves from contention, and exceeded the expectations of nearly everyone. Now they’re a few moves away from being much more than that. There are lessons to learn from this postseason, and there’s work to be done.
But for now, Mets fans, reflect fondly on a season to remember. Some of them won’t be back with us next year, but this team has given us an inspiring, inspired, and incredibly fun season.
Ya gotta believe.