Amid horrid second half, Mets see playoff hopes quickly fading away
- Last year's pennant winners have bottomed out in August, with the injury-plagued Mets losing ground in the NL East and wild-card races—and running out of time to right the ship.
While the Yankees have been making headlines over the past two weeks via their various comings and goings, over in Queens, the Mets have slipped into a precarious position in the race for a postseason spot. Injuries and an ill-fitting roster have caught up to the reigning National League champions, who briefly slipped below .500 with a loss to the Padres last Friday and enter Tuesday at an even 59–59.
Since July 26, the Mets are an NL-worst 6–13, a slide that has included a pair of four-game losing streaks and just one series win. The ugly stretch began when closer Jeurys Familia blew his first save of the season in the ninth inning of the Mets' July 27 game against the Cardinals, costing them the rubber match of a three-game series. They then dropped three of four to the Rockies, split four with the Yankees, lost two of three to the Tigers and were swept in a three-game set by the Diamondbacks before taking two out of three against the Padres. What's more, 14 of those 19 games—all but the second half of the Subway Series and the three-game set against the Tigers—were at home, where New York is just 31–30. After losing a fourth straight game to the Diamondbacks in Arizona on Monday night, the Mets are 28–29 against sub-.500 teams this year. When they beat the Padres on Saturday and Sunday, it marked their first back-to-back wins since July 6–7.
Indeed, that initial pair of wins pushed the Mets to a season-high nine games above. 500. It also coincided with the revelation that Matt Harvey was suffering from thoracic outlet syndrome. His decision to undergo surgery came on Friday, July 8, a point since which the Mets are a major league-worst 12–21; their Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds fell from 67.6% to 15.0 in that span. They're 1–6 in the starts of Harvey fill-in Logan Verrett, who has been pummeled for a 7.18 ERA and made just two quality starts out of seven, though to be fair, it's really his last two starts, totaling 14 runs in 6 1/3 innings, that have blown up his ERA.
That said, injuries have loomed particularly large during the Mets' slump. On July 29, they put centerfielder Juan Lagares on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his left thumb; he underwent surgery a few days later. On July 30, they lost third baseman Jose Reyes to an oblique strain. On Aug. 2, it was shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (left patellar tendon strain) and outfielder Justin Ruggiano (left hamstring) going to the DL, and two days later, it was leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes (right quad strain). Meanwhile, first baseman Lucas Duda, who hasn't played since May 20 due to a stress fracture in his lower back, was shut down for 30 days due to a flare-up while performing routine drills; general manager Sandy Alderson sounded resigned to not getting him back this year, saying "Maybe if we reach the third round of the playoffs ... it doesn't look good." Also suffering a setback in recent days is starter Zack Wheeler, who is planning to visit Dr. James Andrews due to renewed discomfort in his surgically repaired elbow. And of course, regular third baseman David Wright isn’t coming back this season after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck.
Those injuries have forced Collins to use makeshift lineups, and the results haven't been pretty. Rookie Matt Reynolds doubled and homered against the Yankees on Aug. 1, his first day back from the minors, but went just 4 for 29 in his next eight games as the starting shortstop before being sent back to Triple A. First baseman James Loney is hitting just .254/.298/.328 since July 2, down from 297/.345/.495 prior while filling in for Duda.
But the real mess for the Mets, where poor performance and worse management have combined to exacerbate their woes, has been the outfield. On July 8—that day again—Cespedes strained his quad while making a sliding catch. That knocked him out of the All-Star Game, but rather than putting him on the DL, the Mets brought him back on July 17, shifting him from centerfield to left. He started just 12 of the team's next 17 games, hitting .205/.302/.318 with one homer in 53 plate appearances before finally being placed on the DL. In his absence from centerfield, Collins has started Lagares and Alejandro De Aza 10 times apiece, Granderson six times, Michael Conforto four times and Ruggiano twice. In that capacity, those players have combined to hit .182/.295/.327; their leftfielders have hit .183/.276/.304 in the same span, their rightfielders .205/.297/.303. The team as a whole has scored just 3.24 runs per game during that 12–21 slide.
Nobody among those non-Cespedes centerfielders has been up to the task offensively. Even before losing him to the thumb injury, Lagares (.243/.303/.386 overall) hadn't helped much this year, and De Aza (.186/.284/.280 overall) has been even worse. Granderson has hit just .189/.266/.306 in 124 plate appearances since July 8. Conforto, who was sent back to Triple A for more than three weeks in late June and July, has hit just .218/.297/.414 this year; he already had enough trouble recapturing his rookie form at the plate without being forced to learn a new position where his lack of range would be highlighted. Of course, Conforto was forced into centerfield in part because of the Mets' choice to trade for Jay Bruce—like Conforto, a lefty without the range for center—at the deadline, leaving them without any kind of optimal outfield configuration even before the ex-Red started his New York career by hitting .160/.250/.280 through his first 56 PA.
Meanwhile, the closest thing the team did to patching a rotation that lacks Harvey and has concerns about bone spurs in the elbows of Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard was to reacquire Jon Niese from the Pirates in exchange for lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo. Niese, who lost his rotation spot in Pittsburgh after being lit up for a 5.13 ERA and 5.45 FIP and making just seven quality starts out of 18, is scheduled to make his first start since rejoining the Mets on Wednesday, in place of Verrett. Matz took a no-hitter into the eighth on Sunday, his fourth quality start out of his last five, but Syndergaard now has a 4.15 ERA and just three quality starts out of eight dating back to June 27, the one after which his bone spur came to light. He's walked 16 in 43 1/3 innings since then, compared to 12 in 91 innings prior.
Collins hasn't helped matters amid this slide. While the sight of Cespedes golfing before going on the disabled list was simply bad optics—fueling controversy without any real impact on the team’s chances—as opposed to being the manager's fault, Collins committed a pair of inexcusable lapses in the Mets' Aug. 7 loss to the Tigers. That game ended with Bruce being thrown out at the plate on a close play; Collins didn't even think to challenge the call via replay review, nor did he think to pinch-run for Bruce with rookie Brandon Nimmo, admitting, "I don’t know how fast Jay Bruce is. We really haven’t seen enough of him. He might be faster than anybody on our team, for all I know." In baseball’s big data age, that’s just ridiculous.
Collins, who uncorked an epic rant in the wake of last Thursday's 9–0 loss to the Diamondbacks, can only do so much with this roster in its current shape. The good news is that Cespedes and Ruggiano began rehab assignments on Monday, and Cabrera is scheduled to begin one on Tuesday; they could be back later this week. The bad news is that the team is now 11 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East, with just a 0.1% chance of recovering, according to the BP odds. The Mets are now three games out of the second wild-card spot, with the Marlins, Cardinals and Pirates ahead of them; their odds there are just 14.9%. Between the division and wild card, they’ve dropped 19.6 percentage points in the past week, if anyone needed mathematical evidence that this just isn’t their year.