Wait 'Til Next Year: Mets' future bright despite World Series setback
While this space is usually reserved for teams that miss the postseason entirely, it seems appropriate to start the first official day of baseball's off-season by analyzing what the short-term future holds for the last two teams standing in 2015. First up, the National League champion New York Mets.
Mathematically Eliminated: Nov. 1, Game 5 of the World Series
What went right in 2015: The Mets' young pitchers came up aces, starting with 27-year-old Jacob deGrom, who proved his 2014 NL Rookie of the Year campaign was no fluke by out-performing it over 30 starts. The return of Matt Harvey, 26, from Tommy John surgery was also a raging success. He and deGrom both finished in the top six in the NL in ERA and the top nine in the NL in Wins Above Replacement for pitchers (per Baseball-Reference.com). They were joined in May by the triple-digit heat of Noah Syndergaard, 22, and by lefty and Long Island native Steven Matz, 24 (for six regular-season starts). By October, those four would comprise the best starting rotation of any of the 10 teams to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Jeurys Familia emerged as one of the best closers in baseball.
Thanks to that young pitching, New York was in position to take advantage when the heavily-favored Nationals failed to run away with the division title early in the year. Only the Cardinals and Dodgers allowed fewer runs over the first four months of the season than did the Mets, who were just two games over .500 as late as July 30. It was around that time, however, that the front office made the necessary moves to boost the offense and the bullpen, adding infielders Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, setup man Tyler Clippard (and, in late August, Addison Reed) and, just minutes before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, slugger Yoenis Cespedes.
Cespedes hit .287/.337/.604 with 17 home runs over New York's final 59 games. His acquisition, combined with the call-up of 22-year-old slugging leftfielder Michael Conforto from Double A and the return from injury of captain David Wright and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, transformed the Mets’ offense. After scoring the fewest runs per game in the majors through July, New York led the NL in that category over the season's last two months. The Mets swept the Nationals in a three-game series in New York as July turned to August, moving into a tie for first place, and never looked back. They swept the Nats in three games again in early September in Washington and ultimately won the NL East by seven games, earning their first playoff berth since 2006.
New York then defeated the Dodgers in the Division Series despite having to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke twice each in a best-of-five series and swept the 97-win Cubs in the National League Championship Series to reach their first World Series since 2000.
What went wrong in 2015: Despite all of their success, the Mets had plenty of disappointment and frustration in 2015. It started with 24-year-old Zack Wheeler, another of their compelling young starters, needing Tommy John surgery in spring training, leading to speculation about his misuse in 2014 and the team’s questionable medical practices. Indeed, Wheeler was just one of a rash of Tommy John cases throughout the organization over the last couple years, an epidemic that has included Harvey, former closer Bobby Parnell, lefty reliever Josh Edgin (who like Wheeler had the surgery in March) and, in August, rookie lefty Jack Leathersich.
In early April, incumbent closer Jenrry Mejia was hit with an 80-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test, joining a growing list of pitchers to test positive for Stanozolol early this season. Mejia rejoined the team just before the All-Star break but was able to make just seven appearances before another positive test for Stanazolol (and Boldenone) triggered a 162-game suspension that will erase the first half of his 2016 season and render him ineligible should New York return to the playoffs next year, a combination which could prompt the team to non-tender him next month.
The lineup was also dealt an early blow when Wright hit the disabled list with a hamstring injury just eight games into the season. In early May, while still on the DL, Wright had his rehab cut short by back pain. In late May, he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that results in chronic nerve irritation, inflammation and back pain. He didn’t return until late August and will likely have to contend with the condition for the remainder of his career. Wright, who will be 33 next season, is owed $87 million for the next five seasons.
Two days prior to the acquisition of Cespedes, the Mets had a trade fall through that would have sent Wheeler and shortstop Wilmer Flores to the Brewers for centerfielder Carlos Gomez. News of the proposed trade leaked during the team's loss to the Padres at Citi Field that night, leading to the unusual sight of Flores, who was learned of the deal between innings, crying at shortstop in the middle of a game. Things got even more bizarre after, when general manager Sandy Alderson announced that the trade did not and would not happen (the exact reasons why remain a mystery; different reports have cited the Mets’ finances and the medicals of Wheeler and Gomez, the latter of whom had dealt with a hip injury). The non-trade ultimately worked out for the best, with Cespedes far out-performing Gomez down the stretch and Flores starting at shortstop in the World Series. Still, it was an embarrassment at the time.
Of course, Flores started in the World Series not because New York thought he was its best option, but because Ruben Tejada had his right fibula broken by Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley, who was attempting to break up a double play in Game 2 of the Division Series.
Ultimately, the Mets fell three wins short of the championship because the upgraded offense that helped get them to the World Series failed to show up against the Royals. They scored nine runs in their lone win in the Series, but just 10 runs in 41 innings across the other four games (a rate of 2.2 per nine innings). That lack of offense magnified the mistakes New York made in the field and in the dugout. A 14th-inning error by Wright led to Kansas City scoring the the winning run in Game 1, and crucial misplays by second baseman Daniel Murphy and first baseman Lucas Duda allowed the tying runs to score late in Games 4 and 5, respectively. In both of those games, the Mets were also burned by manager Terry Collins not giving Familia the ball soon enough.
Overall Outlook: Assuming they are not adversely affected by the dramatic innings increases they endured on the way to the pennant, the Mets’ young pitchers should keep the team in contention for years to come. Harvey is under team control for three more seasons, deGrom for five and Syndergaard and Matz for six. The team also has Familia under team control for three more years, affordable options on now-fifth-starter Jonathon Niese through 2018, and four more years of control over Wheeler, though it remains to be seen how he'll perform after Tommy John surgery.
New York may have work to do restocking its lineup, however. Murphy and Cespedes were the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in the order, but both are free agents. Should they depart, it would leave a big hole in the Mets’ lineup that would have to be filled by high-end bats. Wright’s return was encouraging, as was the rejuvenation of Curtis Granderson under his former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Duda has been a reliable power source over the last two seasons, and the team can expect bigger and better things from Conforto and, health-permitting, d’Arnaud, who will be in his age-27 season next year. Still, if the Mets want to have a chance to do in 2016 what the Royals did this year—avenge a World Series loss with a championship the following year—they can’t afford to suffer a downgrade in the heart of their lineup.