2019 NEW YORK METS: Same ‘Ol or Newly Improved?

By Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan and www.Facebook.com/CoachMcCartan)

BERGEN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY- Mets fans have two words to live by in 2019. They are: “cautious optimism”. Brodie Van Wagenen has revitalized the team with many off-season moves. So, I wanted to look at each position and figure out whether or not the Mets, as a team, would be better in 2019 than they were in 2018.  I based my calculations on players (that are still listed on the Mets roster) that received the most reps at each position last season.  I compared those players’ statistics on offense to the 2019 future projections (by Baseball-reference.com) for players that I am expecting to get the most reps at those positions in 2019. My pre-spring training stab at the opening day roster is as follows:

Below is my guide, by position, of 2018 to 2019: upgrades (⬆️), downgrades (spoiler alert: there are none), question marks (❓), and constants (↔️).

↔️Starting pitchers

The best trade deadline move that the Mets could have made was to not make any moves. Still, they stuck to their guns when trade rumors surrounding Noah Syndergaard swirled in the off-season.  As a result, the Mets will head into the 2019 season with one of, if not the best starting pitching staff in the big leagues. How far into the fall those arms could take the team is, obviously, provided that all pitchers remain relatively healthy throughout the course of the season.

⬆️Relief pitchers

The Mets bullpen was ‘very average’ last season, having blown 18 saves of 59 opportunities (30.5%). Van Wagenen seems to have made it a priority this off-season to address that deficiency.

After electing free agency following a 2018 season split between New York and Oakland, Jeurys Familia will again find himself pitching in Queens.  Familia, in his career, has saved 85% of the games in which he has appeared and throws 64% of his pitches for strikes.  Familia averages, in his career, under four pitches per plate appearance.  If Familia, with his seven years of Major League experience, could eat up between 75 and 80 innings pitched, the Mets would be in good position.

Another piece Van Wagenen added to the relief pitching staff was right-hander Edwin Diaz, who, with Robinson Cano (and cash), came to the Mets on December 3, 2018.  In exchange, the Mets traded, to the Seattle Mariners: Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Gerson Bautista, Jarred Kelenic, and Justin Dunn. Diaz seems to be much like Familia at this point in his young career, and may even surpass him this season.  In his career, Diaz has 109 saves in 121 save opportunities (90%). Furthermore, only 26% of his inherited runners score.

In his three seasons as a Major League pitcher, he posts a career 2.64 earned run average, but, optimistically, that was drastically down last season to 1.96 (in addition to having his innings increased steadily each year). Also optimistically, after having given up 12 stolen bases in 2017, in more games in 2018, he surrendered only 5.

In working with a four-seam fastball and slider repoitoire, Diaz is efficient in his career, throwing 66% of his pitches for strikes and averaging just 4 pitches per plate appearance. His slider seems to be his go-to strikeout pitch and for two out of the three seasons at the Major League level, Diaz has ranked in the top 1% of pitchers (100 percentile) in strikeout percentage.

Catcher

The biggest upgrade for the Mets this off-season came at the catcher’s position… keeping in mind that the production from Devin Mesoraco was underwhelming, to say the least. He finished the year with a .222 batting average, .306 on-base percentage, 10 home runs, 24 runs scored, and only 30 runs batted in. The Mets needed to address the deficiency at catcher via the free agent market, and, based on the research I had done, I stated on WFAN that preferred the cost-effective Lucroy.

(Answers: Catcher 1: Lucroy, Catcher 2: Yan Gomes, Catcher 3: Yasmani Grandal)

Instead, Brodie Van Wagenen decided to sign free agent Wilson Ramos. It wasn’t a bad move.  Gomes is projected to have a: .282 batting average (.60 higher than Mesoraco), .332 (.26 higher than Mesoraco), and 16 home runs (six more than Mesoraco). The only knock on Jacob deGrom’s Cy Young campaign was his very few number of wins, which, as any Mets fan or baseball enthusiast knows: was due to a lack of run support.  Out of the catcher’s position (with Ramos over Mesoraco), the Mets will glean over double the amount of runs batted in and almost double the number of runs. This is a Van Wagenen move that the pitching staff will appreciate.

First base

First base will be the biggest question mark for the Mets this spring training since Wilmer Flores (who got the most reps at the position last year) has packed his bags and headed west to play for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Honestly, Flores, a utility player, wasn’t exceptional at the position. Flores was, though, a super team player.  Prior to 2017, he had never taken major league reps at first base- in 2018 he played 83 games at the position for the Mets.

This spring training, management will have to figure out:

    • Is Peter Alonso MLB-Ready? Alonso, at 24 years of age, has yet to get a shot to play up in The Show. A knock on Alonso is his defensive skillset. In July, though, he was named defensive player of the month for the Las Vegas 51s.

With a revamped lineup, will the Mets sacrifice his defense in order to get his bat in the lineup? For the Las Vegas 51’s, he hit .260, posted a .355 on-base percentage, mashed 21 home runs, and drove in 67 runners. More recently, in the Arizona Fall League, Alonso put up much of the same stat line- this time, in front of the Mets’ new general manager. Van Wagenen visited Alonso in Arizona in October. With Van Wagenen in attendance in Arizona, Alonso sent a 103 mph fastball over the fence. There is certainly excitement around Alonso: this video of a moonshot he hit in the MLB Futures game has generated over 75,000 clicks.

Mets fans are salivating at the chance to watch one of those 415-foot bombs clear the (moved in) walls of Citi Field.

  • Who would be a formidable backup? No matter who is tapped as the starting first baseman, he will not be playing in 162 consecutive games.  If Smith gets the nod, will Alonso be kept at the major league level? That’s hard to imagine, since the National League does not carry a designated hitter.  If Alonso gets the nod, does that make Smith trade bait? Either way, would a backup first baseman be: Todd Frazier? Jed Lowrie?

Second Base

I did not want to put a question mark at second base, but I felt like I had to. Robinson Cano, who is slated to be the Mets’ opening day starting second baseman, let’s be honest, is on the back-nine of his career and is coming off a season in which he was suspended 80 games for a performance-enhancing drug infraction. In that time span, the Mariners went 47-34 (.580).  Without Cano suspended, Seattle was 42-39 (.520).

Playing as mobile a position as second base is, especially at thirty-six years old, is a question mark for Cano despite his gleaming track record of grinding out most of the games throughout a long season. For what it’s worth, Cano’s statistics are a significant improvement over those of any second baseman that played for the Mets in 2018.

The reason I punctuated this position with a question mark is less about Cano’s age and ability and more about up-and-comer Jeff McNeil’s ceiling. Highly touted and wildly popular among fans since getting his call-up to The Show in July, McNeil’s offensive production speaks for itself (63 games): 35 runs, 19 runs batted-in, .329 batting average, and .381 on-base percentage. His efforts saw him recognized as a sixth-place finisher for the National League’s rookie of the year.

The conundrum the Mets have found themselves is that McNeil is a second baseman and, at the moment, that position is locked up. Throughout college, McNeil has played the outfield in only 55 games, not all of which he even started. For me, to make the switch from infielder (my whole life) to outfielder (for a game or two), it was extremely difficult.  Everything is different, including the trajectory of the ball off the bat. Van Wagenen is set on using McNeil in that role: potentially sacrificing an everyday outfielder’s glove for that of the offensive production from McNeil.  After all, you can’t win a game with zero runs.

Van Wagenen told reporters: “With McNeil going to the outfield, he gives us another really good weapon to be in the lineup on a potentially everyday basis.” Van Wagenen continued: “The fact that McNeil played outfield in college, he’s had some experience with it in the minor leagues and we are going to spend a lot of time with him over the coming weeks and once we get to spring training on developing him as an outfielder.

So, will the Great McNeil Outfield experiment pan out? (He can’t do any worse than the Smith in the outfield!) Will Cano remain healthy (and clean) throughout the season? Where does Jed Lowrie fit into the equation?  For these reasons, second base is a question mark for the Mets moving forward- only reps at spring training will be able to change that.

Third Base

Todd Frazier, the incumbent, is listed first on the Mets’ depth chart at third base.  Honestly, I feel that he is the ‘odd man’ out in regards to the quantity of infielders listed on the current roster. He is also set to make $9 million in 2019. The Mets just signed utility man Jed Lowrie to a two-year, $20 million contract, where he is set to earn $8.5 million in 2019. This is significant for a team that often comes under fire for not spending money like a large market team “should”. A “bold prediction”: I do not think Frazier will finish this season with the New York Mets. Instead, I envision Lowrie carrying much of the load at third. After all, the team did not sign him to that contract to sit on the bench… they could have called up a minor leaguer to do that.

Don’t forget that the Houston Astros traded J.D. Davis (and Cody Bohanek) to the Mets (in exchange for Luis Santana, Ross Adolph and Scott Manea) on January 6, 2019. At the Major League level, Davis has taken most of his in-game reps at third base. That number is followed closely by his experience at first base, then, even left field!  While he could figure to be in the Mets infield’s defensive plans, he has a big league batting average of .194 and minimal offensive production to accompany it.

↔️Shortstop

Barring any catastrophe, third-year player Amed Rosario figures to be the Mets starting shortstop. Highly touted upon entering the league, Amed Rosario was not only the Mets’ number one prospect, but Major League Baseball’s number one prospect. In 2018, Rosario lead the team in hits: 142. In fact, last year, Statcast measured Rosario’s in-game sprint speed to first base as the fastest for an MLB shortstop in 2017.  In ninety feet, Rosario’s top speed was clocked at an astounding 29.7 feet per second; to put that in perspective: 20.25 miles per hour!

Obviously, Rosario has game-changing speed, but, curiously, only stole 24 bases last season. That is just about half the stolen bases of baseball’s leader, Whit Merrifield (Kansas City Royals). From this, I suggest that, as a baserunner, Rosario needs to improve upon pitch recognition and timing in order to get a better jump. His speed is underutilized on the base paths and, if accentuated this year, could be a major improvement and asset to the 2019 Mets.

↔️Left field

Will Yoenis Cespedes, with his massive contract, be back on the field in 2019? Nobody seems to know a definitive answer to that question. There is no timetable for his return, so as it stands, Michael Conforto is the starting left fielder for the Mets in 2019. Of the five major statistical categories for baseball offense (hits, on base percentage, batting average, home runs, and runs batted in), Conforto lead the team in two: home runs (28) and runs batted in (82). Left field will not be an issue for the 2019 Mets.

Center Field

There will be an intense competition from within in center field, the most important outfield position.  The incumbent is Juan Lagares, who is coming off a year in which he suffered a season-ending injury. Over his six seasons, Juan Lagares averages 97 games-played per year, but in 2018, he was limited to just 30 due to the season-ending toe injury. Which Lagares will show up in 2019? The one that averaged 127 games per season through his first three seasons in Queens or the one that averaged 68 games per season through his most recent three seasons?

Van Wagenen, no doubt, felt the need to bring in another outfielder. He selected Keon Broxton on January 5, 2019 in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers (in exchange for Adam Hill, Bobby Wahl, and Felix Valerio). A bold prediction: I think Broxton beats out Lagares in center field for opening day. He’s only 28 years old, with room to grow.  If you look behind last year, his worst year in the majors, Broxton has posted above average numbers, especially in 2016. He basically has three seasons of Major League experience to Lagares’ five (+30 games). In fact, Mets fans would be surprised to know that Broxon has a higher: on-base percentage, on-base plus slugging percentage, and slugging percentage.  Broxton, who has had a career half the length of Lagares, has also already topped him in career quantities in: stolen bases, walks, and home runs. He also is a more patient hitter, seeing more pitches than Lagares per plate appearance.

All I’m saying is: don’t be surprised to see the newcomer Broxton earning significant playing time for the Mets in the outfield’s most important position.

⬆️Right Field

The off-season was abuzz with rumors that Brandon Nimmo might be traded, namely to the Miami Marlins. In December, in the middle of it all, I asked him about the uncertainty he was undoubtedly feeling about where he would be playing baseball in 2019.  Nimmo responded: “For me, the best thing is for me being talked about and wanted, even if it’s by other teams. If you get to stick around, it means the Mets wanted you more. It’s good to be in those conversations. [New York] is where I want to stay.”

As of today, it seems as though Nimmo is staying put to patrol the outfield for the Mets.  it was the right move. Having him as the everyday right fielder over Jay Bruce (who was in the trade deal to Seattle in exchange for Cano, Diaz, and cash) is an immediate upgrade. Of the five major statistical categories for baseball offense (hits, on base percentage, batting average, home runs, and runs batted in), Nimmo lead the team in two: on-base percentage (.404) and batting average (.263).

FINAL THOUGHTS…

2018 Mets: 440 runs, 415 runs batted in, .249 batting average, .328 on-base percentage

* 2019 Mets projection: 466 runs, 434 runs batted in, .260 batting average, .330 on-base percentage

* These figures are inclusive of Cano’s statistics having served an 80 game suspension and Dominic Smith’s statistics as a second string first baseman. His quantity of reps were well below Flores’.

With the starting lineup, major players, and in-house competition I’ve outlined above, the 2019 Mets will be better offensively than then 2018 Mets in, what I feel, are the most important offensive categories. Obviously, there are ebbs and flows (roster changes, injuries, time off, etc.) that come with a 162-game season. Hopefully, the growth in offensive production will bump more wins into the Mets’ pitchers columns.

Furthermore, there may be addition by subtraction in the National League East: as of today, mega free-agent Bryce Harper is no longer on the Washington Nationals’ roster. Of course there are rumors that both he and the second mega free-agent Manny Machado could be headed to the Philadelphia Phillies. Those are, as of today: just rumors.

The Mets are no longer a 77-win team. Dare I say it, as it stands now (and with the two big-name free agents signing in a division other than in the NL East): I think the Mets will be playing meaningful ball in September, looking to make a run at an NL East title. I would circle September 2, 3, and 4 as the most pivotal series of the season: Mets at the Washington Nationals.

As I opened the Queens Baseball Convention’s “State of the Mets” panel by saying, there is cautious optimism surrounding the 2019 Mets.

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