2009 Season Forecast: New York Mets

New York Mets
2008: 89-73 (2nd NL East, three games back)
Runs Scored: 799
Runs Allowed: 715

On the heels of an extremely difficult September, the New York Mets added Johan Santana to the rotation and declared the team ready to win the 2008 division crown, if not more.  Unfortunately, while the core hitters performed admirably and Santana was up to the task, the team drifted aimlessly in the spring, fired manager Willie Randolph, got into the race in the summer, and suffered a milder version of the same September let down.  When it was over, the Mets again missed out on a playoff spot by a single game.

Compared to the Phillies, the Mets scored the same number of runs (799), despite playing in a more difficult home park for batters (Mets games away from home produced 52 more runs than games in the now departed Shea Stadium, while Phillies games had more scoring in Citizen’s Bank Park than on the road).  However, the Phillies allowed 35 fewer runs (680 to 715), which accounted for the three games difference in the standings. 

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two was injuries.  The Phillies had limited lost time to regulars, while the Mets lost several players, including closer Billy Wagner down the stretch, second basemen Luis Castillo and Damion Easley, and tried a dozen left and right fielders in part due to injuries to Moises Alou, Ryan Church and others.

Looking Back on 2008

The Mets got off to a decent start, winning ten of sixteen before drifting through May and June.  Two five game losing streaks put a sting to the team, the first in late May began serious calls for Randolph’s exit, a second in early June finished off his tenure.  When the Mets got to Anaheim, Randolph was sent packing – rather unfortunate in terms of timing – and Jerry Manuel was given a chance to manage a sinking ship.

Manuel’s biggest change was that he basically got the team to stop playing with their heads in a cloud.  In July, there was spark; there was hustle; there was teamwork – something that hadn’t existed in the first part of the season.  And, when the bats of Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran caught fire, the Mets got into the race by winning 18 games in both July and August.

At that point, the Mets ran out of gas.  And arms.  John Maine had bone spurs in his right shoulder.  Carlos Beltran crashed into a wall; Wagner’s arm nearly came off – it had bothered him all year.  The bullpen, not necessarily very good, now lost its only dependable pitcher – when he was able to pitch.  Super sub Damion Easley injured his quadriceps muscle, and David Wright’s game seemed injured.  Despite Santana’s fantastic stretch run, the end of Shea Stadium’s life – at the time the third oldest stadium in the National League – came without one more playoff game.

Tell me about that offense

All things considered, the Mets offense was loaded – it just never seemed to have all the wheels moving at the same time.

The infield offense was solid at three positions, with David Wright continuing to pound the ball, Carlos Delgado finding his swing, and Jose Reyes getting 200 hits again.  The three combined to generate nearly 400 runs of offense.  Reyes’s final numbers look a lot like Jimmy Rollins from 2007 – high numbers of doubles, triples and homers, a lot of plate appearances, and a good stolen base total.  David Wright, by my count, was the second best offensive force in the National League behind Albert Pujols, and Reyes was right behind him.  Had Delgado hit the way he did before June 1 the way he did after it, the Mets would have had three of the five best hitters in the NL.  Only Luis Castillo, finally showing the signs of father time taking over his position, was below average.  His backup, Damion Easley was productive but his bat was slowed.  Easley is 39 but plays like he’s 34, Castillo is 34 but is starting to play like he’s 39 – in either case the Mets need a replacement soon.

In the outfield, Carlos Beltran was the only true regular and was solid.  The Mets used a dozen left fielders (not one played more than 300 innings there), and some could hit – like Endy Chavez or Moises Alou or David Murphy.  Ryan Church hit for two solid months between concussions suffered in collisions with second basemen.  After the second one, which caused him to miss the better part of six weeks, he didn’t fare well.  One hopes Church gets back to where he was last May.  Fernando Tatis – yes, that Fernando Tatis – came back and hit well until his body broke down in September as well.  So, while the corner outfields were generally shared, there usually were at least two outfielders hitting at a time.

Brian Schneider, whose back started bothering him in September, didn’t hit too well but backup Ramon Castro didn’t fare too badly.  Schneider was there to provide solid defensive catching and any offense he provided was gravy.

Defensively:

Schneider was pretty good behind the plate, making few mistakes and showing some mobility.  He was decent in preventing stolen bases, as only two other teams allowed fewer stolen bases than the Mets.  Castro isn’t great against the runners, but he’s decent enough for a backup catcher who can hit.

The infield was okay.  Wright didn’t have the unreal numbers he had in 2007, but it was still his third straight year with above average range.  Reyes continues to improve; he has a cannon for an arm but he’s slightly below average in terms of range.  Castillo was a bit more mobile than he was in 2007, but it was his third straight year as a below average infielder.  Damion Easley remains a solid second baseman and they nearly shared the role.  Delgado is not very mobile – he’s a former catcher playing first base – but he actually had a pretty decent year there.  Since he arrived in New York, his defensive numbers haven’t been as bad as what most people see when they watch him play.  He’s awkward but it’s working.

The outfield defense was as varied as there were players in left field.  Carlos Beltran is still a solid outfielder, and Endy Chavez – now in Seattle – could cover ground.  Ryan Church played well in right.  David Murphy, added in August, showed he could play and will likely start in leftfield next year, and if he is healthy will represent a significant improvement over playing Fernando Tatis, who looked out of place in left or right field.  Marlon Anderson still runs well enough to cover left in a pinch.

The net result was a defense that was likely 20 runs better than average, reflected by the fact that they turned 69.7 percent of the balls in play into outs – the league average was 68.7 percent.

Now Pitching…

Signed to a long term and expensive New York-eqsue contract, Johan Santana pitched magnificently, though he rarely got the support he needed until July.  He started 7 – 7, but didn’t lose a decision for the rest of the year (nine wins) and after a 5 run, two homer outing in Cincinnati, he went 14 starts without allowing more than three earned runs.  By my count, Santana was 43 runs better than the average starting pitcher.

After that, Mike Pelfrey was decent (13 – 11, 13 runs better than an average pitcher), but both John Maine and Oliver Perez were inconsistent.  Still they were better than Pedro Martinez, who may finally be at the end of the line.  He showed flashes of his old self, but the fastball isn’t as lively, the ball is more hittable, and instead of giving up a homer every other start, Pedro is giving up a homer every time he takes the mound.  As of the end of January he still wasn’t signed – and the Mets need starting pitching.  He may find a home for one more go – and he may not want to get his 100th career loss (he has 99, against 214 wins).

The bullpen, however, had problems.  Remember how good the Phillies ‘pen was?  Five guys who were at least 10 runs better than average?  Nobody was that good here – even Billy Wagner, who was great but pitched just 47 innings.  Pedro Feliciano, Scott Schoeneweis, and Duaner Sanchez were average at best (meaning that they gave up a run every other inning), and Aaron Heilman got worse as the season went on – he was 12 runs worse than average and part-timer Jorge Sosa was even worse in just 20+ innings.  So, the bullpen was no better than average, actually slightly below average, whereas the Phillies bullpen was at least 60 runs better than the average staff.

Forecasting 2008:

Last year, I thought the team might age quickly and struggle to meet .500.  Instead, the veterans and Santana held it together through the summer before landing a scant series behind the Phillies.  This year, the front office tried to rebuild what couldn’t be assembled at the all-star break last year – and that’s a bullpen, so let’s start with the pitching.

Santana is as good as it gets, Pelfrey might be able to provide a little more, but after that – John Maine is league average at best and he’s number three.  That the Mets couldn’t sign a starter in the off season (its January as I write this) and is trying hard to sign the inconsistent Oliver Perez – I’m not ready to proclaim the rotation as being improved.  The Mets did sign Tim Redding, most recently a 30 start pitcher for the Nationals, to a contract.  Redding was 10 – 11 with an ERA higher than the league average.  At best he’s an improvement on what Pedro Martinez did last year – but he hasn’t had a winning season in any year that he pitched more than 50 innings.  In late January, Omar Minaya visited Martinez to see if he might have one more year left, which I don’ t interpret as a good sign.  It might be time to see if Ben Sheets has two reasonably healthy seasons in him.  Freddy Garcia signed a contract – but he hasn’t pitched much due to injuries in a long, long time.  Even in 2006, he was no better than a middle of the rotation guy.  I don’t see the rotation as possibly being any better than last year.  I also don’t see them as being much worse.  Let’s call it a wash.

The bullpen was bolstered by the signings of saves record setter Francisco Rodriquez and J.J Putz, who will likely be the eighth inning guy.  Middle reliever Scott Schoeneweis is gone, while Duaner Sanchez and Pedro Feliciano are still here.  At least Aaron Heilman is gone…  Long relief will be manned by a rookie or two.  So, while the starters don’t look to be much better, the relievers might be 20 to 25 runs better than last year.
 
In terms of offense, the infield won’t be any better.  Reyes and Wright are at the age where one or the other might have a monster season, but Carlos Delgado is at the age where he might lose 25% of his production.  On May 25th last season, you might have thought it was already happening.  That leaves Castillo, who is below average offensively and not a guarantee to play 100 games.  His replacement now is Alex Cora, who is a decent backup.  At least he’s younger than the departed Easley.  He isn’t better, though, and Easley might still be a better fielder.  I think they score a few less runs, on the whole, and defensively, they might slip a little – especially on the right side.

The outfield, as a whole, was surprisingly productive considering how many different players played there.  You might see fewer people playing in left field in 2009, but if you added up the offense of the left and right fielders, it wasn’t a hole in the lineup.  Murphy, Beltran and Church make a good outfield when all three are playing.  Defensively, they will be slightly better if Tatis doesn’t play as many innings.  The only fear might be a decline from Beltran who has been less productive over the last two seasons from where he was in 2006.

The catchers are the same lot – only another year older.  There could be a decline of ten runs in production here just because all three catchers on the roster were born in 1976.

So, what you have is a potential gain on the defensive side of perhaps 20 – 25 runs, and what looks like a decline of about 40 runs on the offensive side unless (a) Beltran has one more big year at 32; (b) Delgado retains his swing one more year; and (c) Reyes or Wright turn it up one more notch.  I’ll call it 25 runs on both sides.  The system says 90 wins, which would be enough to win the division, but my gut is admittedly not in step with the system.  What makes me less confident is two bad Septembers and the fact that nobody knows how the new Citi Field (assuming it’s still called Citi Field) will affect the team.  The new stadium could help with attitude and fan support, but it might change the game dynamic in ways that this veteran squad can’t possibly know.

Down on the Farm…

The Mets are leaving New Orleans for Buffalo, and hopefully they will put a younger team there.  There were no position players who are threats to take jobs from the starters.  The best hitter was probably Chris Aguila, and he’s never stuck in the majors.  The best pitcher was Tony Armas, another 30-ish arm who never seems to make a significant contribution to pitching staffs.  Jon Niese and Bobby Parnell made it to AAA after success in AA.  Niese, a southpaw, throws ninety with a big breaking curveball – he had one good start (eight shutout innings against Atlanta) in a September call up.  He looks like a young Barry Zito.  Parnell throws mid to high 90’s – real hard – with a slider, but looks like he needs one more year in AAA.  Either would look good in long relief while learning his trade.

AA Binghamton featured Niese and Parnell as well as Jose Sanchez, who could be a useful long reliever, too.  There were a couple of hitters – some, like Murphy and Nick Evans have seen MLB action, while Mike Carp could be a potential replacement for Delgado in 2010.  He showed growth in terms of his batting average, power, and plate discipline.

At the lower levels, Lucas Duda and Joshua Thole were the best hitters but are far from ready.  Teammate Dylan Owen was 12 – 6 for St. Lucie, with good control and a fair number of strikeouts.

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