Monday, February 13, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Mets

This is the last post in a series that has looked at the boiler plate that is now the National League East. The series started with a look at the Phillies and determined that, with that pitching rotation, and despite a weaker line up, should be given the nod once again as the favorite to win the division. The next three posts focused on the Braves, Marlins and Nationals and found all three of those teams with the on-paper ability to challenge the Phillies at their own game. Each of those three teams have question marks that must have positive answers to approach the amount of wins necessary to rival the Phillies. This post focuses on the Mets. To be honest, this post was dreaded.

By now, everyone is aware of the New York Mets' financial plight. Heck, even the general manager is on record as joking about it. There is no reason for this post to retread the back story to the mess the Wilpons have become. One needs to look no further than the amazing work done by Howard Megdal in his new e-book, Wilpon's Folly. That book, which can be found here, is probably the the best $2.51 you'll ever spend. Read it and you'll know all the nuances to why the Mets are where they are.

Instead, this post will focus on what the Mets will have on the field. It's certainly a cause and effect situation as the financial troubles have limited what Sandy Alderson has been able to do to field a viable team. The team lost one of its best players in Jose Reyes. But for now, it still has David Wright. Jason Bay is still a sunk cost in left field. How bad will it be? It might not be as bad as we think. Before we can actually look at the team, there was another new wrinkle in that the dimensions of Citi Field have been altered.

Again, there is no sense in breaking new ground on the new dimensions of the park the team has worked during the off season. Adam Rubin of has written the definitive piece on the new dimensions and includes statistics on what the dimensions mean for the team. The biggest takeaway from the terrific article is that the Mets should hit 27 more homers at home this coming season while the visiting teams should hit 23 more. And while the park should still be more favorable toward the pitchers, it's more neutral than it was before. Add that to Ryan Howard starting on the disabled list and some top sluggers like Pujols and Fielder now plying their trade in the American League, it all boils down to better news for the Mets.

One of the reasons we can make that statement is that the Mets' starting rotation consists of ground ball pitchers. The rotation should consist of Jonathan Niese (1.84 ground ball to fly ball ratio), Mike Pelfrey (1.31), R.A. Dickey (1.54), Dillon Gee (1.45) and Johan Santana (0.87 for his career). Of course, it is questionable if Santana will start the year with the Mets and if he is available, just what he can offer the team.

Jonathan Niese might be the most underrated young pitcher in the game. If you look at his record last year, you'll see an unimpressive 11-11 record with an equally unimpressive ERA of 4.40. But that cover really doesn't judge the book. He had an extremely high BABIP against last season at .333. Part of that was due to a fairly high line drive rate at 20.6 percent. The Mets' infield defense will be discussed in a moment, but suffice it to say that it didn't help Niese, a ground ball pitcher. Plus, a fairly significant amount of balls hit in the air ended up over the fence. Since opponents do not hit a lot of fly balls against him, we can consider that home rate a bit of a fluke. Niese had a FIP last season of 3.36 and an xFIP of 3.28. He was a much better pitcher than he looked.

R.A. Dickey comes right behind him following his mountain climbing adventure. Hopefully, the Mets won't hold that against him as they obviously didn't want him to risk such an feat. But it's not like the team has better options, so Dickey will get his 30 starts. The knuckleball pitcher had sort of the opposite season of Niese and with a .278 BABIP, his 3.28 ERA was a bit lucky. But Dickey is as reliable a starter as there is and should give his team a chance to win every five days out.

Mike Pelfrey is a bit of a mystery. At times he looks fantastic and then he doesn't. His real problem is that he doesn't miss enough bats. His strikeout rate was among the lowest in the majors for starting pitchers while still walking three or more batters per nine innings. That's not a good recipe. With Pelfrey, it all depends on the vagarious nature of the batted ball. Since there are a lot of them, it worked in 2010 but did not in 2011. He's a solid innings eater but that's about the best you can say.

Dillon Gee has been a bit of a good luck charm for the Mets as he has won 15 of his 23 decisions as a starting pitcher for the team. But that charm seemed to tarnish a bit in the second half last season. More precisely, luck caught up with him. He puts too many people on base with four walks per nine innings with a strikeout rate that is just passable. He produces more ground balls than fly balls and is a reliable starter. But he's not great. He's more league average and probably better than Pelfrey. But not by much.

Santana is the wild card in all of this. Nobody really knows if he will offer anything to the team in 2012. From recent history, he can't be counted on health-wise with stories as recent as December that he might not be ready to pitch. The Mets will then have to have an open audition for the fifth starter in Spring Training.

Again, this is a ground ball staff. Unfortunately, the Mets don't have the best fielding infield. David Wright is consistently rated as one of the worst fielding third basemen in baseball. He was a full ten runs below average in 2011. He is what he is and one can only hope that he has a better year in the field than normal. His offense should improve with the new dimensions and he is still enough of an offensive force to offset his defense nicely.

Ruben Tejada takes over at short. He will only be 22 years old in 2012. Tejada is a solid defender who gave the Mets surprising offensive production last year. He has no power, but he hit .284 with a .360 on-base average. That was a complete surprise and Bill James doesn't buy it in his projections this season. The Mets, of course, hope that it wasn't a fluke. Still, he's not a bad shortstop at an important position not overly ripe in the majors with talent.

Second base will be handed to Daniel Murphy. The move is a huge risk as the position isn't natural to Murphy, normally an outfielder/first basemen. He didn't overly embarrass himself at the position last season and the guy sure showed he can hit in the majors with his .350 wOBA last season in over 400 plate appearances. How his fielding plays over a full season will be interesting to watch.

Ike Davis should be back at first this season. Davis lost almost all of 2011 to injury and he is a large key to how good the Mets can be in 2011. Davis is a slick fielding first baseman who has shown flashes of excellent power with great on-base ability. This is a pivotal season for him as he has to show that he is someone the Mets can count on moving forward. If he breaks down again, the Mets do have other options but none with the upside of Davis.

Josh Thole has been a disappointment behind the plate. The thinking was that he was the catcher of the future. Instead, he had a terrible time adjusting to the majors. His offense was certainly better in the second half and he does display some decent plate discipline. He might just hit after all, but his defense left a lot to be desired and new research showed that he wasn't great at blocking balls in the dirt or framing pitches to the benefit of his pitchers. The Mets have to hope that Thole makes major strides in 2012 to become the catcher they thought they had for the future. He is backed up by Mike Nikeas, who gets a chance after a long minor league career. He's a decent receiver who has yet to show an ability to hit major league pitching.

The Mets outfield is a mixed bag with Bay still anchored in left. Bay is not as bad a defender as he is made out to be, but he's not great by any means. The disappointment for the Mets with his big contract has been his offense. After big numbers in Pittsburgh and in Boston, Bay has done little damage as a member of the Mets. Perhaps no one will benefit more from the new dimensions of his home park where so many of his fly balls went to die. The Rubin article linked earlier in this post indicates that Bay could double his home run output with the new dimensions. If he can do that and become some of the force he was in the past, Mets fans should feel better about his place on the team. His offensive performance will be quite interesting to watch in 2012.

Lucas Duda is a first baseman now playing right field. He can mash major league pitching, but he was brutal in the field. If he can improve his offense further (likely) and improve defensively (not as likely), he can be a nice player for the Mets. Still, it seems that either Duda or Ike Davis will be traded eventually.

The new center fielder is Andres Torres. He's a terrific fielder who fell down for the Giants offensively last season. He'll have to cover a lot of ground for the Mets with Duda in right and Bay in left, but he's certainly capable of doing that. The key is if he is the kind of offensive player he was in 2010 or the one he was in 2011. Bill James predicts something somewhere in the middle, which makes sense. If that comes close to being true, the Mets have a fine center fielder.

The Mets bullpen has been totally revamped for 2012 (on the cheap of course). The closer will be Frank Francisco. An earlier post at this site indicated that "Fat Frankie" as he had been dubbed by Toronto bloggers, has pitched his entire career in terrible pitcher ballparks (Texas and Toronto). He could really benefit from pitching at Citi Field as he's been a great reliever on the road and terrible at home for most of his career. Look for him to have a surprisingly good season.

That same feeling isn't shared by the addition of Jon Rauch. This really tall pitcher gave up a ton of homers last year for a relief pitcher. He is a fly ball pitcher and perhaps his new home ballpark will aid him as well. There have been whispers that he's got a bit of a messed up makeup. But we have to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

The Mets also obtained Ramon Ramirez from the Giants and he was very solid for them last year. He along with returnees, Bobby Parnell, Manny Acosta and D.J. Carrasco should provide the Mets will a solid bullpen.

The conclusion and bottom line for the 2012 New York Mets is that there are worse teams in the majors. The Astros and Orioles are certainly worse. If all goes really well for the Mets, they could win 80 games. But the competition in the NL East has blown by them and will be really stiff. And until the Mets financial mess can be straightened out, it will be like this for a while. They have a general manager who has dealt with building teams with a limited budget, so the news could be a lot worse. But it could be a heck of a lot better.


Bill Miller said...

As a Mets fan, I have to say that this piece was fair and objective, as well as well researched. I do, unfortunately, see the Mets coming in last place with about 78 wins. As you say, it'll be a while before they turn this franchise around.
Good work,

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Thanks, Bill. Hope the team gives you a few reasons to smile this coming season.

Thomas Slocum said...

If the Mets aren’t horrible in 2012, that will have to count as a meaningful victory. Going around the horn offensively, Josh Thole will get some hits and get on base well but his slugging average probably won’t be half his OPS. Ike Davis might emerge as an offensive star (.290 with 25-30 home runs) on his team, or he might struggle to come back from injury. Daniel Murphy is slotted to be the regular second basemen, after all of 43 professional games of experience at the position. He seems to have a decent bat but with the caliber of play at the keystone position in the majors, he might well be just a bit over league average. Ruben Tejada won’t embarrass himself; he also won’t make anyone forget Jose Reyes. David Wright’s still in the prime of his career but he may well be tired of it all; if not, he’s one of the best at his position from every standpoint.

Statistically, Lucas Duda might well be a younger version of Nick Swisher, at least with the bat and that’s not bad. Andres Torres may be a stopgap in centerfield; if 24 year old Kirk Nieuwenhuis gets off to a strong start in Buffalo Andres may find himself replaced (and why not?). And then there’s Jason Bay. Too much has been read into the incoming Citi Field fences on Jason’s behalf. His 2010 and 2011 seasons with the Mets have actually shown that his hitting problems come when he’s living out of his suitcase. Sure, he’ll hit a few more dingers at home but he will still have to suit up 81 times in someone else’s yard.

As much as one would not want to go to war with the bunch above, the moundsmen really make one want to run and hide. If Johan Santana can come back from a lost year, and the two injury plagued years prior to that, he’s the de facto ace regardless of what he comes back with. After that, the Mets merely offer a collection of number 4 or 5 starters in the 2-5 slots.

If Mike Pelfrey continues his 4 year on again, off again trend, 2012 should be an on year. But all that really means is a 9.5 H/9 instead of 10.5. Jonathon Niese doesn’t miss too many bats (10.1 H/9 over the past two years) but at 25 his other peripherals (2.5 BB/9, 7.9 K/9, 0.8 HR/9 in 2011) and his lefthandedness perhaps offer some hope for the future. R.A. Dickey, the 37 year old knuckleballer, has probably been the Mets’ best pitcher the last two years but there’s not much future there. Dillon Gee, soon to be 26, didn’t miss bats in AAA (9.3 H/9) but also didn’t miss the plate that often (2.5 BB/9). He turned that around in the majors (8.1 and 4.0 respectively) for a relative push while finding strikeouts harder to come by (8.7/9 AAA, 6.1 Majors). 2012 will perhaps show if he’s on his way to becoming a mid-rotation starter or merely holding a place for a prospect.

The two most likely closers, Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, hardly offer premium closer stats. Combined in 2011, they converted 28 saves with a 4.21 ERA, 9.2 H/9, 1.6 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9, and 7.8 K/9. The starters will not rest easy when turning games over to this duo.

As long as the Astros are in the league (which isn’t for much longer) the Mets should be able to avoid being the worst team in the NL. But it’s questionable whether or not they can hold off the Cubs and Padres (and a fairly safe bet they won’t be able to match even the Pirates or Rockies). This team will very likely struggle to win 70 games in 2012 and may well be more games behind the fourth place team in the NL East than that team is off the division lead.

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Thomas Slocum said...

Kokoda: All I can really say is huh???