by Paul West
For the floundering New York Mets, the All Star Break couldn’t come soon enough. A season which began as a campaign of high expectation has devolved to the point where the Mets are widely considered to be ‘sellers’ at the trade deadline.
Then again: if you’ve watched baseball for long enough, you know there’s actually plenty of precedent for erasing a double-digit divisional lead in the second half; the Mets have, in fact, been on both sides of such an eventuality. And twelve games, behind a team missing its leadoff catalyst and saddled with one of the worst bullpens in baseball, is far from insurmountable–especially for a team with the Mets’ array of talent. Here are a few keys to the Mets recovering from their first-half woes.
The new wave
When the Mets finally broke through several years ago, it was fueled by an influx of rookie talent–some long awaited, some unheralded–which provided timely pitching and hitting, along with youthful enthusiasm, to a team in need of all three. Thanks largely to baffling and untimely injuries, the Mets have spent much of the past two years scuffling through the absence of many of the key arms and bats which put them back on the baseball map. Still, one source of frustration–among not just Mets fans but interested onlookers–has been the franchise’s reluctance to take a shot on its up and coming stars, as other franchises have taken on their own.
The St. Louis Cardinals recently took a shot at introducing a promising rookie named Paul deJong; he’s validated their trust, and then some. He almost singlehandedly beat the Mets in the last series before the break, going 9-10 with seven extra-base hits including three home runs. Meanwhile, the Mets’ minor league system has been well regarded for some time, and they have aspiring stars of their own waiting for their shot.
The Mets’ puzzling treatment of its rising position players has been exemplified by the case of Michael Conforto. Widely recognized as one of the game’s most promising stars, Conforto somehow found himself labeled the Mets’ fourth outfielder to start off the year–despite showing signs of having recovered from the late-season swoon which briefly had him sent back to the minors.
More glaringly, there’s the example of Amed Rosario. Rosario’s arrival has been widely anticipated for years; and this season in particular, he’s shown himself deserving of a chance to compete at the highest level. He’s tearing up AAA pitching, displaying speed, power, athleticism, and poise; he’s also declared himself “100 percent ready.” Meanwhile, despite flashes of their former brilliance, middle infielders Jose Reyes and Asdrubal Cabrera have struggled for much of the season. If the Mets put Rosario at shortstop, they’d have the speed at the top of the order they’ve been looking for; and Reyes, in a reserve role, would add speed and power to a bench that’s lacked depth this year. Cabrera could remain at second base, where his still-excellent hands could benefit him while his diminished range would be less of a problem; and third base could finally be ceded to…
Wilmer Flores, Citi Field folk hero
Years ago, when the Mets were still on the verge of cracking the upper tier, there was constant chatter over what to do with Justin Turner. Turner, it was alleged, was a platoon player at best: a solid, moderately athletic righty who destroyed left-handed pitching but couldn’t be trusted to play every day. Since his departure to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Turner has emerged as having the upside that a persistent few–including yours truly (to which many of my Twitter followers can attest)–insisted he had; he’s been firmly entrenched in the middle of their lineup, continuing to wreck lefties while hitting solidly against righties and displaying the kind of natural power so many somehow failed to notice. He’s decent-but-not-outstanding at third base, with a strong arm and the aforementioned moderate athleticism; and he seems to have a knack for big moments. He’s batting .377 as of the All Star break, and his career average is up to .291. He also represented the Dodgers in the All Star game.
In Wilmer Flores, the Mets have a third baseman of whom many of the same things can be said–only he’s bigger, stronger, and younger than Turner. Flores is 6’3″ and 205 pounds, with huge pull power and solid power into the opposing gap; he’s only 25 years old; and this season, while pummeling lefties as usual, he’s consistently produced good at bats against righties. While he’ll never be taken for Gold Glove material, Flores has decent hands and a strong arm and is serviceable at both corner positions. He’s also demonstrated his own knack for producing in big moments, and if the Mets continue to treat him as a fallback option, he may wind up as someone else’s Justin Turner. The Mets need to embrace Flores, as the fans have embraced him and he himself has embraced the chances they’ve so reluctantly given him.
Make Granderson the fourth outfielder
Curtis Granderson has been a huge part of the Mets’ rise to prominence. He’s provided the Mets with lefty power, situational at-bats, and even the occasional timely web gem; but his intangibles have been as valuable as nearly any of his home runs or surprisingly spry catches. Granderson arrived with a wealth of big league experience, along with a calm, steady positivity and work ethic that helped mold a clubhouse environment that was full of inexperienced talent. And through injuries and slumps to the Mets’ other outfielders, he’s plugged away through his own epic hitting struggles to resurface of late and play himself into an everyday role. Unfortunately, he’s no longer arguably one of the Mets’ three best outfielders. Conforto has proven he can capably patrol center field; Jay Bruce is having an All Star caliber year; and Yoenis Cespedes, when healthy, is still arguably the epicenter of the Mets’ batting order. This leaves Grandy as the clear fourth option; and upon further examination, this would only strengthen the team.
Curtis Granderson, as noted, can still play all three outfield positions serviceably. He can work a count, he can hit one out, and he’s got tons of experience playing under immense game, seasonal and situational pressure. He’s renowned for his work ethic and approach to the game, and he’s got the experience points and temperament to not be rattled by having to adopt to a changeable role. If you think of it, Granderson as the Mets’ fourth outfielder could be the same kind of depth-enhancing presence that Endy Chavez was the last time the Mets were an established contender; only instead of Endy’s speed and range, Granderson would offer power and on-base percentage. Given the necessity to frequently rest Cespedes’ oft-ailing wheels, Grandy would likely still get a fair amount of playing time anyway. Moving him to the bench would give Conforto the everyday role everyone but the Mets’ brass seems to know is imperative; meanwhile, it would add depth and versatility to their bench, similar to the multiplying effect Stephen Drew has had for the Nationals and other teams in recent years.
A healthy rotation
Of course, all of the above could come to fruition, but the Mets are still largely defined by their dominant–when healthy–starting pitching. Jacob deGrom, despite a recent tendency toward the occasional blowup inning, continues to look like a true ace; unfortunately, the rest of the staff has gone from the envy of baseball to one of its more curious storylines. The news doesn’t appear good for the once-great Matt Harvey, whose throwing shoulder still hasn’t recovered from thoracic outlet surgery among other ailments; but Noah Syndergaard, whose biceps injury seemed to highlight a huge organizational flaw, has begun working his way back to health. Steven Matz, also with a history of arm trouble, struggles to go deep into games; and athletic, serviceable mid-rotation starter Robert Gsellman is on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. The rotation’s rapid descent has been puzzled over by fans, analysts and pundits alike; but it’s still one of the most staggering assemblies of pitching talent most can remember, and if it returns to health down the stretch, the Mets will be dangerous on that account alone. The extent to which this is subject to the team’s control is still unclear.
With just a few adjustments, the Mets can upgrade their infield defense, outfield defense, batting order and bench; and as any knowledgeable baseball enthusiast can tell you, 12 games in half a season can evaporate surprisingly fast. It’s a steep climb, but with the Mets’ talent and experience, it’s an achievable one. It remains to be seen whether the organization is willing to take the necessary steps.