Flushing, NY, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Johan Santana (57) pitches during the third inning against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field. Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE
It's early yet, but the Mets might have the roster to keep them in the playoff hunt.
The Mets are currently 7-3, and in second place in the NL East just half a game behind the Nationals. It's an unexpected place for them to be, but it's also just 10 games into the season. They aren't likely to stick atop a division that features three legitimate contenders, but there's still a hint of truth to their start.
You would be forgiven this past off-season if you didn't pay much attention to the team the Mets were planning to put on the field. The litany of money problems and questions about ownership overshadowed the on-the-field developments, and the loss of Jose Reyes, the team's most productive player, made many cynical about their immediate future. After all, they finished under .500 and in fourth place with Reyes.
That ignores the changes that were made, though. Justin Turner, who isn't much of a hitter, has been moved to the bench off of second base. David Wright has struggled to produce like he used to back at Shea Stadium, but the Mets moved the fences back in at Citi Field in order to help repair the damage their new park has caused to their best player. Ike Davis, who missed all but 36 games in 2011, is back at first base full-time, allowing Daniel Murphy and his bat to move to second. Lucas Duda and his power are now in the outfield full-time. Ruben Tejada might not be Jose Reyes, but even at 22 he's potentially better than a significant number of other shortstops.
That's just the lineup. The rotation has something it lacked all last year: Johan Santana. Mets fans will hold their breath every time he goes out on the mound, but the fact he's out there at all is a step up over 2011. The rotation isn't incredibly deep, but Jon Niese, R.A. Dickey, and Santana is a very good top three in the rotation. The back-end of the rotation has larger question marks in Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee, but both are capable of being around average, though on which side of that ledger is another question.
The most likely outcome for this Mets team is a .500 season. That's not a spectacular team, but it's not the joke that ownership has helped make them look like they are, either. If you had to bet on one of the National League's teams being the surprise of 2012, though -- to be something like the 2010 Padres of the present-day -- then it's hard not to pick this New York team over the rest of the options.
Santana staying healthy is plausible, and if he does, there's little reason to believe he won't be great. In his three previous seasons with the Mets, he posted a 2.85 ERA and 143 ERA+. He's basically picked up where he left off at the end of 2010, with just one run allowed in his first 10 innings, to go along with 13 strikeouts and just five free passes. Tim Wakefield's retirement leaves R.A. Dickey as the last knuckleballer standing, but the student became the teacher two years ago: Dickey owns a 125 ERA+ and 2.5 K/BB in his nearly 400 innings with the Mets.
There are questions as to just how good Niese is, but the talent is certainly there. If he can get his fatigue issues under control, then he's going to be dangerous to National League hitters. Expecting big things from Big Pelf is asking to be wrong, but maybe 2012 is one of those years where he is above-average instead of well below. Since he became a full-time starter in the majors, that ratio is 1:1, and 2012 will tip the scales in one direction or the other. Should Gee falter, prospects Matt Harvey or Jeurys Familia might be ready to take up the fifth-starter mantle later in the season, and there's always the trade deadline if they aren't.
It's not the Phillies' rotation, but it doesn't have to be if the team can hit. As long as the team stays healthy, then they should be able to do that. Davis missed most of 2011, but heading into 2012 he had hit .271/.357/.460 despite a park that was designed to limit him. He's scuffling early, but if he can build on his strong-but-short 2011 campaign, then the Mets are going to be pleased with their first baseman. Murphy isn't going to be confused with an elite defender, but his career OPS+ of 111 will play very well at the keystone.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis is now in the majors in center, and if he keeps on hitting, there's a chance he sticks. He's not an elite prospect, but he did hit .298/.403/.505 in Triple-A in the International League. He might be better-suited to a corner, as his range isn't a great fit for center, but once Andres Torres comes back that won't be a problem. Duda doesn't have the range for anywhere, but he can shift to the less-damaging left field once Captain Kirk can move to right. This would also result in addition by subtraction, as Jason Bay, regardless of how much he's getting paid, just isn't producing anymore. He's hit .249/.334/.388 in three years with the Mets, and his defense doesn't make that line look any more tolerable.
There's no guarantee Bay is no longer a full-time option, but if the Mets are staying competitive in a year where the league allows two Wild Cards per year, there's a chance that Torres, Nieuwenhuis, and Duda make up the outfield, with Bay around to hit lefties when necessary. Without Bay's bat in the lineup against righties, and with David Wright possibly no longer held back by Citi Field's dimensions, the offense starts to look good. Considering the defense already has Wright, Murphy, and Duda, losing Bay would help them compensate for their most-glaring weakness.
This is a team that lacks obvious superstars, especially with Reyes in Miami. But it's also a club that lacks damaging holes. The worst thing you can say about almost all of the Mets is also the best thing you can say about them: they're solid, and should get the job done. With a little luck, and a little health, solid could get them to October. Or, at the least, a lot closer than you'd think they'd get after shedding $50 million in payroll and losing a star.