The New York Mets have wrapped up a disappointing season and as you know, will not be participating in the 2018 playoffs. Teams improve and drop off and trends change quickly in baseball, however, which is why even after seasons like this there can be reason for optimism. In this particular case, I have five theories as to why the Mets can legitimately contend for the NL East crown in 2019.
1. Injuries Were Historic
Suffice it to say this was not a good season for the Mets from an injury standpoint. From Yoenis Cespedes’s season-ending surgery to Jay Bruce who missed over two months. From relievers Anthony Swarzak and AJ Ramos to Noah Syndergaard who missed over eight weeks. An unusually expansive stable of real contributors missed meaningful time this season. Even Todd Frazier, who had never logged a day on the disabled list before joining the Mets, logged 52 days on two DL stints for a strained rib cage muscle and a hamstring injury.
Here are the cold hard facts… The Mets lost an NL-leading 1,707 games to the disabled list in 2018, and the cost in payroll dollars was a historic $69.8 million dollars to lead major league baseball. The Mets’ injury luck can’t stay this bad forever. A healthier team next season should be good for a few more wins.
2. Atlanta Is No Juggernaut
There’s a little bit of buzz surrounding the Atlanta Braves simply because there’s a nostalgia factor for a lot of fans having them back in the playoffs. In some of the World Series preview material that’s already coming up, I saw one piece suggesting bettors should back Atlanta to go all the way. They’re a good team, but I’m not fully convinced they’re the NL East juggernaut everyone is making them out to be.
In addition to a Mets team that was decimated by injuries, the Braves benefited from a Washington Nationals team aching to under-perform and a Philadelphia Phillies team that fell off dramatically. Their +99 run differential on the season is lower than those of the Dodgers, Cubs, A’s, Astros, Indians, Yankees, and Red Sox – and barely tops that of the Nationals.
The Braves are a fringe playoff team, which at least means the NL East should look fairly wide open heading into next season. The Mets have a few other teams to worry about first, but the point is there’s no insurmountable powerhouse standing in their way.
3. Rotation Clarity
There could conceivably be rotation drama this offseason. Competitive teams are going to be calling about Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, and possibly Zack Wheeler as well. Since I can’t predict trades with any sort of certainty though, and the Mets showed over the summer they’re more inclined to hang onto them, it’s worth assuming these three will be back to anchor a rotation that will be healthy, talented, and free of this season’s Matt Harvey drama.
In Jacob deGrom the Mets have themselves the most elite starting pitcher in all of baseball. Boasting a 1.70 ERA, a 0.9125 WHIP, a 11.2 K/9 and an MLB-leading 8.3 WAR among all pitchers, deGrom stands alone as the game’s premier pitcher and gives the Mets a lethal presence on the mound every five days.
Don’t call it a comeback, but how else can you describe the development of right-hander Zack Wheeler this season and especially in the second half where he posted a 1.68 ERA, 0.810 WHIP and an incredible .176 opposing batting average. A former first rounder who has struggled with injuries for most of his career, Wheeler stayed healthy and gave the Mets the kind of season they were hoping for when they dealt Carlos Beltran for him seven years ago. Still only 28, Wheeler should have plenty of great seasons ahead of him and the Mets look incredibly smart for not dealing him away at the trade deadline.
It’s been a couple of years since Noah Syndergaard had his breakthrough season and injuries may have stalled his development the last two seasons, but he just turned 26 and he has flashed his 2016 form in about half his starts this season which could be pointing to another big year in 2019. Syndergaard ended his season with some flair, tossing a complete game shutout for his 13th win to go with a 3.04 ERA, 1.210 WHIP, and a 4.1 WAR. Assuming he slots into the No. 3 spot, I’d argue that no MLB team can boast a better third starter.
Last but certainly not least is southpaw Steven Matz who finished the year with a 3.97 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 152:58 K:BB in 154 innings while making a career-high 30 starts. However, it’s the last eight starts of the season that really stand out for Matz, who pitched to a 2.44 ERA, 0.915 WHIP and a No. 2 ranked .166 opposing batting average in that span.
This is still one of the top three starting rotations in the game and it will be the cornerstone of another Mets postseason run in 2019.
4. Seeing Is Believing
It was hard not to notice how much better the Mets played once they got healthier and promoted Jeff McNeil from Las Vegas. In fact the Mets finished 33-22 in their last 54 games and were 45-37 since July 1. In the final month of the season, the Mets won 18 games and posted the 5th best winning percentage (.643) in the majors for September.
After watching how the team performed over the last month and a half of the season, I became thoroughly convinced that their improved play was totally legit and not a fluke or aberration.
Fueling my optimism aside from the rotation which I already discussed, was the way the team bounced back offensively and actually looked a lot like the team that began the season 11-1. The Mets ranked in the top five in hits, extra-base hits, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, runs scored, and wRC+ in the National League. That’s a two month sample size and it didn’t even include their top offensive player Yoenis Cespedes.
In addition to an incredible rookie campaign by Jeff McNeil, who batted .329/.381/.471 with a 140 OPS+ and 2.4 WAR in just 63 games, the Mets got a breakthrough campaign by Brandon Nimmo who led the offense with a .404 OBP (2nd best in NL), 150 OPS+ and a 4.4 WAR. Both McNeil and Nimmo established themselves as fixtures in the top third of the Mets lineup.
Perhaps the most exciting development in the second half was that of outfielder Michael Conforto who turned in an MVP-caliber performance after the All Star break. After proclaiming himself fully recovered from the shoulder injury that marred his first two months of the season, Conforto slugged 17 homers and collected 52 RBI (fourth in the majors) after the break. The 25-year-old slugger set career highs with 82 RBI and 28 homers. He finished the season strong with nine home runs, 29 RBI and 18 extra-base in September, second in the majors in all three categories.
Amed Rosario also stepped up in the second half and among all MLB shortstops he ranked second in hits (72), singles (54) and triples (3), and third in runs scored (43) and stolen bases (18). Only 22, Rosario continues to develop both offensively and defensively and could be on the verge of a breakout season in 2019.
In Nimmo, McNeil, Conforto and Rosario, the Mets potentially have their own version of a Core-Four and the Mets could end up with five core hitters if their number one prospect Peter Alonso is every bit as good as he showed in Binghamton and Las Vegas last season. He was recently awarded the Sterling Award which the Mets hand out to their top minor league player of the year.
5. Strong Free Agent Crop
This winter will bring about an incredibly strong MLB free agent class – especially where the needs of the Mets are concerned. There are about 20 or 25 legitimate star players who could be on the move, and the Mets have too much money and motivation not to get their hands on one or two of them. One fun list of predictions suggested Arizona center fielder A.J. Pollock could be on his way to Citi Field, but he’s just one of many options and a very good one at that.
One area where the Mets could definitely find a significant upgrade is behind the plate and this year’s free agent class features a strong crop of catchers led by Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos. If it were up to me, Grandal would be my biggest offseason priority, but if he decides to stay on the West Coast, Ramos would be a pretty good consolation prize.
While Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo made some huge strides in the Mets bullpen this season, clearly the pen as a whole was maddeningly inconsistent and widely ineffective. Only the Royals and the Marlins had a worse bullpen than the Mets who posted a 4.96 ERA on the year. While the Mets may not have the resources or the stomach to go after Craig Kimbrel who heads a large field of capable free agent relievers, there’s no excuse not to add a couple of arms like a Zach Britton and possibly even bringing back Jeurys Familia, who finished very strong after the Mets dealt him. Familia ended the season with a 2.65 FIP, 1.222 WHIP and a career-high 10.4 strikeout rate.
A Final Thought
The Mets have roughly $125 million in payroll committed to next season including projected arbitration for a dozen players. If COO Jeff Wilpon was truly serious about fielding a playoff contender next season and affording the new general manager the payroll to make an impact in free agency, there’s no reason why the Mets couldn’t mount a legitimate run in 2019 and win the division. I look forward to reading your thoughts.