Mets fans aren’t particularly prone to optimism, but they tend to make an exception on the days Matt Harvey pitches, known among the Queens faithful as Matt Harvey Day. On Saturday, that optimism was met with Harvey’s worst major league start and the news that David Wright had been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column in his lower back. In light of that news, that optimism quickly turned to concerns about whether Wright’s condition is career-threatening.
Spinal stenosis caused by a 2013 neck injury forced New York Giants running back David Wilson to retire last August and brought an early end to the careers of former Met Lenny Dykstra just three years after he was the runner-up for National League MVP with the pennant winning 1993 Phillies. It’s still too soon to even speculate about what Wright’s diagnosis means for his career. The Mets, who are paying Wright $20 million for this season and owe him another $87 million over the next five years, are remaining optimistic, possibly out of necessity. The one thing that is clear, though, is that Wright will not be returning to the Mets any time soon, which is bad news for a team that has struggled to score runs all season.
The Mets have been one of the league’s most surprising teams this season, currently occupying second place in in the NL East, just a game and a half behind the heavily favored Nationals, and joining Washington as the only two teams in that division with positive run differentials. However, since the end of their 11-game winning streak on April 23, the Mets have gone 11-17 (.393) while getting outscored 107-88 and averaging just 3.1 runs per game. Even during their unexpected 13-3 start to the season, the Mets were scoring just 4.3 runs per game, but since then they have been shut out four times and have scored a total of six runs in Harvey’s last four starts, going 1-3 in those games after winning the first five Matt Harvey Days of the season.
There’s no need to worry about Harvey, who, in the worst start of his major league career, gave up seven runs in four innings on Saturday afternoon but had been dominant in his previous two starts (17 IP, 0 R, 18 K). But the offense that failed to deliver Harvey a win in either of those previous two outings is a significant concern, particularly without the promise of a prompt return from Wright.
The Mets are still hoping to have Travis d’Arnaud back in the coming week. That should give New York a nice boost at the catching position where rookie Kevin Plawecki has gone 4 for his last 32. He’s also drawn just four walks in his 84 plate appearances since being called up to replace d’Arnaud, who had been off to a hot start, building on his strong second half last year, before an A.J. Ramos pitch fractured the pinkie on his right hand. Beyond d’Arnaud’s return, the Mets’ best hope for a boost to their lineup was Wright’s return.
Wright’s replacements in the Mets lineup, Eric Campbell and Dilson Herrera (the latter now also on the disabled list with a broken finger), have combined to hit .204/.308/.310 in Wright’s absence, and Campbell, reinstalled at third base in the wake of Herrera’s injury, is now 0 for his- last 19. Underwhelming minor league alternatives include infielders Daniel Muno and Wilfredo Tovar and utility man Alex Castellanos, the last of whom is not on the 40-man roster. Matt Reynolds, the Triple A shortstop who piqued the interest of Mets fans last year with the help of a BABIP north of .400, has never played third base as a professional.
Beyond third base and catcher, the Mets can’t ask any more of first baseman Lucas Duda, who is out-producing his breakout 2014 campaign and has been by far the team’s most valuable hitter. Shortstop Wilmer Flores is out-hitting his career line and leading the team in home runs, though he still has an awful .282 on-base percentage due to his having more homers (6) than walks (5) on the season. Curtis Granderson has thus far out-performed his last two seasons, though he’s still slugging shy of .400. That leaves Daniel Murphy, hitting .259/.310/.380 in his walk year, Juan Lagares, a mere .270/.304/.321, and free agent addition Michael Cuddyer as the best hopes for improvement in the Mets lineup. That’s not a particularly inspiring trio. Cuddyer isn’t about to recreate his Rockies numbers in a sea-level pitchers’ park in his age-36 season, while Lagares is a defense-first player who has never been more than a league average bat and Murphy’s has averaged a 110 OPS+ over his last four seasons. Digging deeper into their numbers, Cuddyer and Lagares are hitting far more groundballs this year and Cuddyer’s strikeout rate is way up. Of the three, only Murphy appears to have hit in particularly poor luck thus far this season. He should rebound to his established level. I’m less optimistic about the other two.
As great as the Mets pitching should continue to be, their lineup will have a hard time converting their rotation’s quality starts into wins without a healthy Wright. If New York can avoid falling too far back into the pack, however, it could be among the more compelling buyers once the mid-season trade market heats up given the organizational pitching depth it has to spend. Given that, the Mets, like their captain, may be down, but they’re not out just yet.