Monday, April 21, 2014

Don't Laugh: Why the Mets will Make the Playoffs in 2015

by John Vittas

           Try to hold in your laughter. The Mets are going to make the playoffs in 2015. Yes, I said it. Bear with me here, and you might just be convinced. From September collapses, to disgraceful contracts, to Family Guy punch lines, the Mets have been the laughingstock in a city that only tolerates winners.

            But anyone who has followed the team the past two years will tell you that there are reasons for optimism. To buy into this new-found hope, you have to understand what went wrong. And a lot went wrong.

            It all began with a change of culture in 2007. After coming within an inning of a World Series berth in 2006, the Mets choked away the season on the final day in consecutive years in 07 and 08. The perception changed. They went from a promising new team to choke artists of the highest order. Then came the bad contracts: Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, Jason Bay, Frank Francisco. The horrid deals completely hamstrung the front office for half a decade, as did Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme.  

Prospects like Brandon Nimmo have Mets fans optimistic
With no money, disappointing prospects and a lineup of misfits, fans stopped showing up. After drawing four million fans during their last winning season of 2008, just 2.1 million brave souls showed up in 2013.

So why am I suggesting that this pathetic bunch will finally turn it around? There are short-term signs and long-term signs. The short terms signs come from this year’s team. Dillon Gee and Jon Niese have again established themselves as effective, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and young gun Jenrry Mejia has been unhittable at times. But perhaps the most exciting player so far has been Juan Lagares. With an impressive mix of size and speed, Lagares has hit with power to all fields and has established himself as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. Lagares finished fifth in the majors in defensive WAR in 2013 and put up one of the 70 best defensive seasons in the history of baseball, according to that statistic.

Another short-term sign came during the team’s 14-2 loss to the Angels last Sunday. In the midst of an embarrassing loss, first-year umpire Toby Basner called rookie catcher Travis d’Arnaud out on strikes in the seventh inning of a blowout. But the Mets didn’t roll their eyes at a bad call. The three longest tenured Mets, David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Terry Collins berated Basner. Basner ejected Wright and Murphy and a long shouting match ensued.

While many may interpret this as frustrations boiling over, I argue that it shows that this team does something that the previous Mets teams didn’t: show they care. Wright and Murphy are the leaders of the team, they’re two of the few winning players the Mets have. But for the previous four years, they’ve been silent. They showed up, got their hits and went home. To see them both erupt over a call that had nothing to do with their at bat says a lot. After all, it was Travis d’Arnaud who got punched out, not them. But clearly Wright and Murphy believe in the prospects like d’Arnaud and will defend them, even in a meaningless at bat.

“We have each others backs for sure,” Wright said after the game. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. Just in general, we need to have each other’s backs. And we do.”

  It’s a start. In order for the boys from Flushing to return to relevance, they’ll need both a change in mindset and an arrival of talent. Well the arrival of talent appears to be on its way, which is why there is reason for optimism.

Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard. Got that? Go back and read it again. Those three young arms are the foundation, the reason the Mets could become perennial contenders. Long-term success in Major League Baseball requires consistent starting pitching, and those three can provide it. All three have fastballs in the upper-90s and knee-buckling breaking balls. And 2015 is the year they will finally be united. With those three at the top of the rotation, competition bears itself out at the bottom. Mejia, Colon, Gee, Niese, Jacob DeGrom and Rafael Montero will all battle for rotation spots next year, and surely the two best from that group will be above average fourth and fifth starters. 

So there’s young, controllable strong starting pitching and a few veteran positions players in Wright, Murphy and Curtis Granderson to hold their hands and show them the way. The last step of the process is to win back the fans’ faith, get them to show up, make money and buy the remaining pieces necessary.

Picture this. The old Mets front office was like an innocent child in search of cookies. They got confident after successful signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. That combined with the success of 2006, and the Mets thought they could attack the cookie jar with reckless indulgence. They signed Oliver Perez and Jason Bay, which represents the classic “mommy caught you red-handed” moment. So she puts you in timeout, aka the Mets had to swallow their checkbook for five years. Lesson learned, the next time you approach the cookie jar, you do so with caution. You trade an aging knuckleballer for a couple prospects, you sign a chubby sinker-baller for only $10 million a year. OK, so the analogy ends there, but the point is, the Mets and GM Sandy Alderson won’t splurge like Omar Minaya did. Everything is systematic and calculated. Alderson’s strategy allows for financial flexibility down the road. It allows for the team to make multiple mid-level signings each offseason, rather than tie up payroll in guys like Oliver Perez.

Therefore, when the team does start to compete again, and their income starts to head back north, Alderson will have the ability to address the holes that remain via free agency or by trading part of his plethora of arms. 

That’s the formula. That’s what makes 2014 and 2015 different from 2010 and 2011, for example. The Mets finally have assets, they have the best farm system in baseball, and they have the right approach. In other words, Alderson is too wise to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

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