2012 Season Forecast: New York Mets

2011 Record: 77 – 85  (4th, NL East)
Runs Scored: 718  (6th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 742  (13th, NL)

For all the grief given to the stadium regarding how the deep fences kill home run totals, the problem wasn’t with the offense.  Rather, it was the pitching staff…

2011 Season Recap:

Mets ownership’s ties to the Madoff ponzi scheme created the backdrop for a team that started the process of unloading salaries and rebuilding the team.  The Mets weren’t an awful team, really.  They just didn’t have enough arms and the gloves in the field weren’t helping out any.

The Mets had a slow April, but actually had winning months until July and were two games over .500 at the trading deadline.  They were, too, out of it and decided to sell off players, starting with Francisco Rodriguez (who had gotten in hot water over a fight with his potential in-laws) and then moving outfielder Carlos Beltran to San Francisco for prospect Zack WheelerDavid Wright had his first truly off season, and missed two months with a stress fracture in his lower back, which didn’t help either.  Ike Davis sprained an ankle, getting a bone bruise, and missed most of the season.  Anyway – before it was over the pitching left them.  The Mets, who had only allowed ten runs or more in a game four times in the first four months, did so five times in the last two.  Mike Pelfrey looked like he was pitching through an injury,  Dillon Gee ran out of gas,  Jon Niese went on the DL, and both Jose Reyes and Daniel Murphy missed three weeks with various injuries.

Starting Pitchers:

In 2011, the Mets featured Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, Dillon Gee, Chris Capuano, and Jonathan Niese.  Once Dickey got out of April, he was the most dependable of the starters and the only one who pitched better than a league average arm (16 runs saved).  Pelfrey gave back 16 runs, Niese (who just got an extenstion) cost them 11, Capuano was -8, and Gee was -6.

Heading into 2012, the Mets have to hope Pelfrey returns to form (he has alternated between decent and poor seasons for the last four years – a poor man’s Bret Saberhagen?) and that Gee and Niese can make steps forward.  One advantage, however, may be the return of Johan Santana, who made his first start  (in nearly 600 days) on opening day.  If Santana can pitch 160 – 180 innings at about 80% of his former self, he’d improve the team by about 25 runs himself.  My fear is that Pelfrey could use a different approach and may not improve – and that leaves a big hole in the rotation.

Relief Pitchers:

Gone are the 2011 closer tandem of Francisco Rodriguez and Jason Isringhausen.  For 2012, the Mets imported the Toronto back end – Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, which should help improve the bullpen.  Another addition, Ramon Ramirez, arrives from San Francisco and will help, too.  The rest are holdovers from last season:  Bobby Parnell, Tim Byrdak, Pedro Beato, and Miguel Batista – and this group has room to improve.  On the whole, this unit should be 15 to 20 runs better than last year.

Catchers:

Josh Thole is young and has room to improve.  The Mets catchers were not a very good lot – poor against the run, with a losing record, poor ERA, and (in part, thanks to Dickey) a bit mistake prone.  Ronny Paulino, a decent enough catcher, is gone now leaving Mike Nickeas as the #2.  Nickeas can’t hit as well, but his defensive skills may be better.

Infield:

Most of the infield remains intact from last year, with Jose Reyes leaving for Miami for $100+ million and a multi-year contract.  In his stead, Ruben Tejada gets the nod.  Tejada isn’t too bad – a slightly above average hitter, a better glove – but even saying that, it’s a 50 run hit from what Reyes delivered last year.

Daniel Murphy hit .320 and can play everywhere.  He’s earned a shot at being the regular second baseman.  Ike Davis will be back – a full season would help make up for some of the loss of Reyes.  And, a full season of David Wright could also pick up some slack.  Backing them up, Justin Turner is a useful player and Ronny Cedeno brings a glove to the middle infield slots.

Even if Davis and Wright come all the way back, it’d be hard to make up all 50 runs lost by losing Reyes.  I see this unit being down at least 25 runs from 2011.

Outfield:

Rightfielder Lucas Duda showed he has a bat and should be more mobile in the outfield than Beltran at this point.  Angel Pagan, who wasn’t horrible but appeared to struggle down the stretch, is gone – his replacement is former Giant Andres Torres, who is about the same level player but is coming off a down season.  In left you have Jason Bay, who might have a bounce back in him – Lord knows the Mets could use it.  Scott Hairston is a competent backup and Mike Baxter will get a shot as a fifth outfielder.

Prospects:

Many of the players at AAA Buffalo wound up getting a lot of time with the Mets, including Tejada, Nick Evans, and Lucas Duda.  Outfielder Fernando Martinez was lost to Houston in a roster shuffle – he looks like he might have been able to help, the Astros will find out for sure this year.  Pitcher Jenrry Mejia quickly made it to the bigs, but spent most of his 2011 AAA season on the DL.  Kirk Nieuwenhuis was noted for his overall approach to the game and will be the first callup for New York if someone gets hurt in the outfield.

AA Binghampton featured a familiar name – Allan Dykstra, who had a line that looked like something off the back of his dad’s baseball card:  19 – 77 – .267, but is more of a free swinger and not much of a threat on the basepaths.  Josh Satin bombarded AA pitching and wound up getting a look at the majors.  Juan Lagares arrived after hitting .338 in A+ ball and continued to hit .370 after arriving.  If he continues to hit over .300 in AA or AAA, the 23-year-old will get a shot to play left field.  The top AA pitcher was Collin McHugh, who went 8 – 2, fanned 100 in 93.1 innings, and allowed just two homers.  Reliever Joshua Stinson moved through AA and got a shot at the big club in 2011 – he will start 2012 in AAA.

A+ Port St. Lucie featured Matt Den Dekker, who hit a well rounded .296 and flashed baserunning prowess and moved up to AA by mid-season.  Wilmer Flores and Pedro Zapata will move up – let’s see if they continue to progress as hitters.  The best arm is 2010 first round pick Matt Harvey, who fanned 92 in 76 innings and finished in AA.  Zack Wheeler, who came over for Beltran, has a live arm and will start 2012 in AA.

2012 Forecast:

Somebody has to finish last in what will certainly be the toughest division in baseball.  With the change in the fences, the team’s offense will LOOK better, but without Reyes and Beltran, the likelihood is that the offense will be a touch worse than last year – maybe 25 – 30 runs worse.  The pitching staff will be better, though, probably 40 runs better (even allowing that they will have a tougher time with the shorter fences at home).

The statistical profile suggests 80 wins – 690 runs scored and about 700 runs allowed.  I’m not sure I buy the system on this one.  You have four really good teams in the division and the Mets will likely be sellers at the trade deadline – even considering that they shed more than $50 million in salary from last year already.  The Mets could certainly win 80 games, but my hunch is that will be closer to 75.

Philadelphia – Where You Can Always Go Home…

It’s not enough that the Philadelphia 76ers resigned Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia Phillies came to terms with a former infielder, Placido Polanco, a gold-glove winning second baseman for the Tigers.  Polanco will become Philadelphia’s new third baseman, as the Philles allowed Pedro Feliz to enjoy free agency…  [ESPN]

Polanco still makes a lot of contact – but his batting average (career .303) has dropped each year since 2007 when he hit .341 for Detroit.  Last year, Polanco hit .285 with 31 doubles and 10 homers – but only 36 walks, so he has a rather pedestrian OBP (.331).  Still, he’s not appreciably less productive than Feliz (12 homers, 30 doubles, 35 walks, and only a .266 average in a park that would appear to be better for hitting).  Polanco hasn’t played third much in a few years but when he did, Polanco was dependable (68 double plays, only 15 errors) and mobile.

And, he gives the Phillies a little extra versatility.  He can move to second to spell Chase Utley, or let Utley play first to spell Ryan Howard.

Look – Polanco can still play second.  I just spent a night putting together the defensive stats for the AL using my ranking system and it shows that Polanco had as much range as anyone at that position last year, almost a dead heat between Polanco, Ian Kinsler, Aaron Hill and Robinson Cano.  (I’ve only done this at a team level so far, so I’ll know a bit more once I break this down for individuals.)  And, he remains dependable and relatively error free.  So, to have spent $18 million for three years (and an option for a fourth year) is probably not so bad.

The other real concern is Polanco’s age.  He’s 34 and while he’s aging gracefully, he’s still aging.  He might look good for a year, but by the third year it might not be so pretty.  On the whole though, two good years make this a good deal for the Phillies – and if they get three good years, $18 million might look like a bargain.

So, with Iverson and Polanco back, who’s next?  Mark Recchi?

Pedroia Can Stay at Second…

The Red Sox signed former Toronto shortstop Marco Scutaro to a two-year deal.  Wow – now THAT’S taking advantage of one really good year…  Scutaro had never played the way he did in 2009 – .282, with a little power, a .379 OBA before, and seeing as he (like Polanco) turned 34 in October, one wonders if he can do that again.  [SI]

Okay – from a defensive standpoint, Toronto shortstops (mostly Marco) were below average in range.  Oddly, they were better than what Boston put out there last year (Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, Alex Gonzalez).

If you were curious, Boston with a range score of -7.89, had the 13th worst range at the shortstop position, while Scutaro and Toronto were 12th at -4.29, which means that for every 800 balls in play, Boston shortstops were involved in nearly 8 fewer plays than the average shortstop.  Since the average team puts about 4300 balls in play or so, Boston’s shortstops basically allowed about 40 more hits than the average shortstop over the course of the season.  The only team worse than Boston was New York, with their gold glove winning shortstop, Derek Jeter, who were at -8.49.  The best defensive shortstop was, by far, Elvis Andrus.  Texas shortstops scored at 13.28, which means they saved their pitchers about 55 hits over the course of the season – or at least 100 more than the guy who was supposedly the best fielding shortstop in the AL.

Anyway – this means that Boston is inheriting an aging infielder coming off a heel injury that shelved Scutaro for the last two weeks of the season, and coming off his best season as a regular ever, as he moves another year away from his supposed prime, and already has below average range.  Long and short, I’m not a fan of this deal.

Oh, and because Scutaro was a top tier free agent and had been offered arbitration, Toronto receives a first round draft pick from Boston and another sandwich pick in between the first and second rounds.

Other News…

The Braves continue to bolster the bullpen, signing one-time Dodger and Red Sox reliever Takashi  Saito.  Saito gets a one-year, $3.2 million deal with incentives.  Saito, now 40, was a closer in LA and a solid set up man in Boston – now he gives the Braves some flexibility when finishing games (Wagner is a lefty; Saito a righty).  [FoxSports]

Having lost Brian Schneider, the Mets signed two potential backup catchers, Chris Coste and Henry Blanco.  They still have Omir Santos, prospect Joshua Thole, and might still be shopping for a front line starter.  [SI]

The Oakland As acquired Jake Fox and Aaron Miles (and cash) from the Cubs for a few prospects.  I’m not totally sold on Aaron Miles, but Jake Fox is a Hitter (!) and should vastly improve the Oakland offense (though you might not notice it playing in the Colisseum).  Miles is probably looking at his last major league season unless he suddenly gets healthy and produces.  At least he can play a lot of positions and act like a coach to other infielders.

The Cubs get prospects.  Pitcher Jeff Gray is a 28-year-old reliever with okay control, but a little hittable.  He’s at best a long reliever…  Matt Spencer was once a pitcher but now is a bit of a free swinging outfielder.  24 in January, I don’t see how he’s going to be a long term prospect.  He has a little power (19 homers in two levels last year, finishing at AA Midland), but I’d rather have Spencer’s teammate Chris Carter.  He can’t hit the way Fox can hit, that’s for sure.  The third prospect is Ronny Morla, a string bean Domincan fireballer, just twenty, who seems to be finding his way in the low minors.  Morla is the one who gives the Cubs a chance to break even on this deal.  Otherwise, I like what Fox could do for Oakland.

Here’s SI’s take on the best and worst farm systems

Happy Birthday!

My brother, Michael, a pretty good ballplayer as a kid anyway, turns 42 today…  Happy Birthday, Bro!

Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett was born on this day back in 1868.  Burkett was the Ty Cobb of his day…  Others celebrating with cake, cards, or remembrances include:  Joe Corbett (1875) – brother of boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett and a pretty good pitcher, Shano Collins (1895), Bob Shawkey (1890) – a member of the 1920s Yankees, Harvey Kuenn (1930), Barbaro Garbey (1956), Pat Sheridan (1957), Lee Smith (1957), Tai Iguchi (1974), Kyle Lohse (1978).

As a young kid and adult, I remember Lee Smith pitching for the Cubs.  The first time I got to see a game in Fenway Park, he was then with the Red Sox and I amazed those sitting around me with my understanding of the Smith routine.  By then, he might make eight warm up tosses in the bullpen because he didn’t want to get tired before he dragged his huge carcass to the mound.  He smoked the first two hitters before blowing it – allowing a few hits and the lead runs to score in the top of the eighth or ninth inning.  All I could think about was that I finally got to see Fenway, and when I do, I get to see Lee Smith blow another game.  All that way for something I had seen dozens of times before!!!

That being said, Lee Smith was a great reliever for a long, long time, and probably deserves more consideration for the Hall of Fame.

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.