The most important season for any professional sports team is the one on the horizon. Whether they’re perceived as a rebuilding club or a playoff contender, what happens in the months that follow will have a direct impact on the rest of an organization’s future.
This certainly applies to the 2019 New York Mets, and it’s not hard to see why. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen significantly changed the look of his team’s big-league roster and minor-league system with the hopes of playing October baseball on a consistent basis. Whether that happens or not obviously remains to be seen, but we can be sure that outfielder Michael Conforto will once again be a crucial piece of the Mets’ puzzle.
While killing some time on FanGraphs (what else am I supposed to do with a slow free-agent market and sub-zero temperatures in New England?), I was curious as to which position players accumulated the most fWAR so far this decade. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that David Wright (20.9) easily leads the way, followed by Daniel Murphy (12.1), Curtis Granderson (12.0), and Jose Reyes (11.0).
You can probably guess who’s currently sitting fifth with 10.3 fWAR — yes, it’s Conforto. Despite having at least 660 fewer plate appearances than any of the four above him, he has a good chance of finishing the upcoming season as the franchise’s second-best player from this decade.
Just as 2019 is important for the Mets as an organization, the same can be said about Conforto and his development as a player.
Conforto will be participating in his age-26 season once Opening Day rolls around. It’s his fifth big-league campaign overall and fourth full year with New York. While his cumulative statistics have looked rather impressive, he’s experienced his fair share of ups and downs along the way.
He was exactly what the doctor ordered as a rookie in 2015, slashing .270/.335/.506 with a 133 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR in only 194 plate appearances, but went through a bit of a sophomore slump the following season. In 348 plate appearances that year, the outfielder’s above numbers decreased to .220/.310/.414, 97, and 1.0, respectively (although he could’ve benefited from getting more consistent playing time).
We all know about his true breakout in 2017, which led to an All-Star Game appearance and single-season career highs in his triple slash (.279/.384/.555), wRC+ (147), and fWAR (4.4). We also know it ended prematurely because of an unfortunate shoulder injury he suffered while taking a swing. And while he was admittedly not fully ready to return last April, he did salvage what was a disappointing year by having a strong second half and learning a lot about himself along the way.
Having a Normal Winter
Now that he’s back to 100% and has proved to himself that he can still produce at a high level in the big leagues, it’ll be vital for him to finally put the kind of season together we know he’s capable of accomplishing. Last winter, the focus was mostly on getting his shoulder healthy enough to play, as well as regaining the confidence to swing without reservations. That’s obviously not an issue this winter, and being fully healthy has allowed him to focus on improving in specific aspects of his game — both physical and mental.
The importance of having a normal winter — and as a byproduct of that, a normal Spring Training — can’t be overstated enough, especially for a young player hoping to get into a groove prior to the season starting. Instead of playing catch-up because of going through rehab, Conforto can arrive in Port St. Lucie ready to work and build upon that strong second-half finish he enjoyed in 2018.
Conforto’s first year of arbitration eligibility culminated with him getting quite the raise — after earning $605K in 2018, he’ll be bringing in $4.025 million for the upcoming year. For players going through the arbitration process on a year-by-year basis, each single-season performance is crucial toward their earning power.
While the impact of a performance with regard to the following season’s salary is obvious, it can also impact the rest of his earnings via arbitration prior to hitting free agency. If Conforto can keep the momentum from his strong finish going into 2019, maybe we’ll eventually see him get locked up on a multi-year deal around this time next year.
It looks as if the outfielder is primed to take a step forward in his development as a player. If that does happen, it’ll mean good things for both him and the team, and may even end with some more long-term security for all parties involved.
Taking The Lead
Now that Wright is officially no longer an active player, we’re naturally wondering who will step up to lead the Mets into the foreseeable future. Jacob deGrom makes sense given his ace status, and that will only be solidified more if he eventually signs a contract extension. But when we’re looking at New York’s current core of position players, Conforto is the easy choice.
He’s still very young but has accomplished quite a bit when compared to other players like Brandon Nimmo, Amed Rosario, Jeff McNeil, and Peter Alonso. Conforto has used his short time in the big leagues to collect consecutive seasons of 20-plus home runs, along with making an appearance in both the midsummer classic and the World Series. Combine that with being one of the longest tenured position players on the roster, and it seems like a natural progression if this is something he wants.
Every season is important for different reasons, but it seems as if all the reasons are converging for Conforto. From what we’ve seen and read thus far, he appears to be ready for the challenge ahead in any aspect that could be thrown his way.