Wait 'Til Next Year: Are pieces in place for Mets to return to contention?
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 76-80 (.487, tied for second in NL East)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 19
What went right in 2014: With just six games left in the season, the Mets have a chance to post their best record, best run differential and highest finish since 2008. They have thus far outscored their opponents on the season by nine runs, and, barring an ugly final week, should finish the season having allowed fewer runs over 162 games than any other Mets team since 1990.
That last fact says more about the last 25 years of Mets pitching than it does about this year's staff, which has been roughly league average. Nonetheless, one of the season highlights for New York has been the performance of 26-year-old rookie right-hander Jacob deGrom. The former ninth-round pick has posted a 2.63 ERA with strong peripherals in 22 starts, tied a modern record by striking out the first eight men he faced in his start against the Marlins on Sept. 15, and should become the first Met to win the Rookie of the Year award since Dwight Gooden in 1984.
Speaking of young starters, sophomore Zack Wheeler hasn't been as impressive as deGrom, but he did stay healthy and push his innings total past 180, striking out a batter per inning and posting a league-average ERA+. Those are all positives from a 24-year-old whom the Mets hope will be a key part of their rotation going forward.
On the other side of the ball, the Mets' apparent indecision about their options at first base led to the embarrassment of the team taking the field without a first baseman on Opening Day. Ike Davis eventually trotted out to the position, but that was just one of five starts he made before being traded to Pittsburgh on April 18. That, it turns out, was the right decision, as Lucas Duda went on to have his best season, hitting .254/.354/.479 (137 OPS+) with 28 home runs and 86 RBI and ranking third in the NL in home runs and seventh in OPS+.
The Mets also benefitted from encouraging sophomore seasons from centerfielder Juan Lagares and catcher Travis d'Arnaud. Lagares, an elite fielder, brought his bat up to league average by reducing his strikeouts and adding nearly 40 points of batting average and contributing more on the bases. That made him the Mets' most valuable regular this season by some measures. As for d'Arnaud, who is still technically a rookie but made 112 major league plate appearances last year, he has hit .273/.320/.482 since being recalled in late June from a brief demotion to Triple-A. His season line is now up to .241/.303/.412, which compares favorably to the .247/.311/.382 of the average major league catcher. Behind the plate, d'Arnaud has his shortcomings (he leads the majors with 12 passed balls and is below average at throwing out runners), but has graded out well this year with regard to pitch-framing, which keeps him viable at the position.
Also, Matt Harvey's rehabilitation from his October 2013 Tommy John surgery has thus far gone smoothly, with Harvey most recently throwing two simulated innings off the Citi Field mound last Monday and hitting 95 miles per hour with his fastball.
What went wrong in 2014: Incumbent closer Bobby Parnell blew the save on Opening Day, then headed straight for Tommy John surgery. That left the Mets in the lurch with veterans such as Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth until they finally took Jenrry Mejia out of the rotation and made him the closer in mid-May.
After hitting .307/.391/.501 (149 OPS+) over the last two seasons, third baseman and franchise player David Wright had his worst major league season at the plate, due in part to his attempt to play through a rotator cuff injury in his left shoulder sustained in June. Wright hit a mere .269/.324/.374, setting career lows in home runs (eight), on-base percentage, slugging, OPS (.698) and OPS+ (101) before the team finally shut him down in early September.
Leftfield and shortstop were offensive black holes. The former swallowed up free-agent addition Chris Young, who was released in mid-August only to land with the cross-town Yankees, and rookie Matt den Dekker, who raked for Triple-A Las Vegas but hasn't hit a lick in the majors as Young's replacement. That's left way too much playing time for Eric Young Jr., who has hit in accordance with his career 77 OPS+. Shortstop, meanwhile, has proved to be a trade-off between Ruben Tejada's modest on-base skills and utter lack of power (.297 slugging thus far) and prospect Wilmer Flores' modest power and utter lack of on-base skills (.272 on-base percentage).
Most significantly, the team's ownership situation became increasingly untenable. Chief executive officer Jeff Wilpon has been charged with sexual discrimination for allegedly firing a senior vice president for being pregnant and unmarried. That moral offense can be added to the mountainous debt Wilpon and his father and co-owner, Fred Wilpon, have compiled — and the shell game they are playing to keep any of it from coming due. It is difficult to believe that MLB, particularly with a new commissioner coming into office, will go much longer without forcing the Wilpons to sell.
Overall Outlook: Even if their final record falls a few wins short, the Mets were very much a .500 team in 2014, average in almost every way. One can see a path back to contention from there. Add a healthy Wright and Harvey to that .500 team, and the Mets are already in business. Things would look better still with an upgrade in leftfield or at shortstop, further improvement from d'Arnaud and Lagares (both of whom will be 26 next season), the arrival of top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard, and the successful return of Parnell.
Of course, these are the Mets we're talking about. For everything that goes right in Queens, it seems at least one other thing goes wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, and the odds of a significant addition at any position are slim given ownership's financial problems. Something has to give here between the improving team and the imploding ownership situation. The best solution for New York would be for ownership to change, but if MLB doesn't act quickly enough, the Mets' first chance at contention in a decade could be lost.