For the Mets, uncertainty looms large

Conforto’s freak injury is one of many unexpected setbacks the Mets have faced in 2017.

by Paul West

Not even twelve months ago, the New York Mets were considered among the best teams in baseball. They had battled untimely injuries and setbacks and scrapped their way to the National League Wild Card game, losing to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in a pitcher’s duel that could have gone either way.

Things have changed dramatically.

The current Mets are barely recognizable as the team which won the National League pennant in 2016. Popular clubhouse leader Curtis Granderson has been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom the Mets beat on the way to said pennant. Slugger Lucas Duda has also left for a contender, having been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays weeks ago, and Neil Walker is now chasing a playoff berth with the Milwaukee Brewers. Yoenis Cespedes, the driving force of an offense which showed signs of explosiveness when intact, is done for the season with the latest in a string of lower-body injuries. Michael Conforto, the team’s brightest rising star, is done for the season after freakishly tearing his shoulder capsule on a swing-and-miss. Wilmer Flores–who was finally given a chance to shine, and embraced the opportunity by hitting lefties and righties alike while playing serviceable defense–is out for the season, lost to a foul ball launched from his own bat to the bridge of his nose. The starting rotation, previously heralded as a once-in-a-generation murderer’s row, has been decimated by injury, with Jacob deGrom as the only Mets ace who still looks like his former self. Travis d’Arnaud has continued to disappoint, despite flashes of the talent which made him seem like a future centerpiece; he still struggles to contain opposing baserunners, while his bursts of power come between long hitting droughts. Finally, an overtaxed bullpen has come apart at the seams, often surrendering what leads the Mets are able to generate.

While other teams are jockeying for playoff position, the Mets find themselves at 63-81 and a whopping 25 games out of first place. A team which began the season a move or or two from finishing its journey is predicted, by some, to be preparing to salary-dump and reboot.

Still, in the land of ‘Ya Gotta Believe,’ there’s reason to believe the Mets can rebound in 2018.

First, it bears noting that the Mets are a rather young team, especially after the departures of Granderson, Walker, Bruce, and backup catcher Rene Rivera. Among their replacements: 24-year-old Brandon Nimmo, an athletic outfielder who’s batting .282 and flashing leadoff-caliber speed and power from the left side; Amed Rosario, 21, a highly touted prospect whose athleticism at shortstop is complemented by more of the sort of speed Nimmo displays; and Dominic Smith, another highly regarded prospect who’s got a solid glove at first base and is hitting .289 with 6 runs and 8 RBIs in 38 September at-bats. Meanwhile, Flores a month past his 26th birthday–and if you don’t believe it’s possible to win with a power-hitting third baseman with middling defense and a knack for the big moment, ask the Dodgers how they like Justin Turner hitting in the middle of their lineup as they wrap up another playoff berth. 28-year-old Juan Lagares appears fully healthy for the first time in a while, and he’s begun to look like the center fielder whose supernatural reads and spectacular throwing arm earned him a Gold Glove the last time he was healthy. Like Nimmo and Rosario, he’s also got game-altering speed and impressive raw power; and he’s begun to show signs that if given the chance, he can hit righties serviceably enough to remain in the lineup. Conforto, himself, is still only 24, and most observers believe he’ll be an elite Major League hitter for the next decade or more. Conforto and Cespedes in the middle of a lineup with speed at the top and bottom, and Flores and Smith as a complementary lefty-righty power duo, could result in solid run production.

Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario are two reasons the Mets have hope for the near future.

The starting rotation also has an enviable wealth of young talent. At 29, deGrom is still older than Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Rafael Montero, and even Matt Harvey. Even if Harvey never returns to form or departs for free agency, both of which are widely suspected, this leaves a quintet most teams would gladly accept in place of their own. Syndergaard, the most freakishly talented of the bunch, seems to have finally come around from his ill-fated quest to bulk up and throw harder in lieu of fine-tuning his craft. He’s also the youngest of the lot, at 25.

All of this young talent doesn’t mean the Mets wouldn’t still have questions to answer. First and foremost is the recurrent issue of the team’s health. While the Mets are far from the only injury-riddled team in the majors this season, they seem to have a tendency to suffer soft-tissue injuries performing ordinary baseball activities; moreover, their reportage of injuries seems troublingly unreliable. Too often, a player is reported as ‘day-to-day’ with a short-term injury, only to soon suffer a recurrence or worsening of said injury–or a corollary injury in a neighboring or supporting body part. This suggests mishandling of the original ailment, from misdiagnosis to premature return to action to not knowing which player’s self-reportage to heed.

Another glaring matter is the strength of the bullpen. The Mets have acquired a number of hard-throwing relievers via this season’s late-summer moves. The hope is that they’ll be able to take some pressure off their starters, allowing them to end the season with less wear and tear while the Mets shorten games with a platoon of power arms. This will also hopefully manage the workloads of the back end of their bullpen: closer Jeurys Familia, back from suspension, and experienced closer A.J. Ramos, recently acquired from the Marlins.

Syndergaard and deGrom headline a rotation the Mets hope will return to dominance in 2018.

Last but not least, the position of catcher has been a problem. D’Arnaud is still only 28; but his injury struggles are more troubling, given the toll his position takes on even the most durable players. He also seems to struggle to make consistent contact, despite frequent attempts at tinkering with his stance. Kevin Plawecki is two years younger, and was also once highly touted, but like d’Arnaud, he doesn’t consistently show signs of breaking through. Unfortunately, the market for catchers is somewhat thin.

How does this shape up for 2018? As you may have gathered from the above, the key variables are the health of their youthful core and the development of their latest wave of young talent. The worst-case scenario: the Mets remain a case study in how quickly championship windows can open and close. The best case scenario: the Mets bounce right back to the top of the power rankings, with a rejuvenated staff of aces, a deeper bullpen, and more speed and better defense. All things considered, this latter scenario isn’t exactly far-fetched. Thinks may not be as bleak as they currently seem at Citi Field.

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