Citi Field opened five years ago and the Mets have not had a winning season since. Throw in the last two years they played in Shea Stadium, 2007 and 2008, when they were in first place in September in the National League East only to wind up behind the Philadelphia Phillies, and Mets fans must feel as if they have endured a biblical seven years of famine. Well, fans of our Flushing heroes, get ready for year No. 8.
To say the fan base is dispirited is an understatement. Two years ago it appeared that Mets ownership was going to turn the page on player salaries when it settled with Irving Picard, the trustee seeking compensation for the victims of the Madoff Securities scandal. Picard had determined the Mets owners, Fred Wilpon and his brother-in-law Saul Katz, had been unjustifiably enriched by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme even though they were not complicit.
Much to their fans’ collective chagrin, Mets management has continued to sit on the checkbook when it comes to salaries. Coming into the 2014 season the Mets ranked a puny 22nd out of the 30 Major League Baseball teams in terms of payroll, at around $89 million. In comparison, the Yankees payroll is close to $204 million. Yes, high payroll doesn’t always translate to winning on the field, but the odds are your team is not going to compete for a postseason berth if it is in the bottom third in player compensation. Even the small-town Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers outspend the Mets, who play in the biggest media market but often conveniently ignore that when it comes to salaries.
One reason Mets fans were excited at the end of the 2013 season was that the monstrous contracts of underperforming outfielder Jason Bay and often-injured pitcher Johan Santana were coming off the books. That factor, coupled with the end of the Madoff saga, had even the team’s notoriously parsimonious general manager, Sandy Alderson, chirping about the Mets’ newfound financial flexibility. Unfortunately, the Mets picked the wrong year to come into a windfall because of the extremely poor quality of available free agents.
The best-known free agent Alderson did sign was outfielder Curtis Granderson, who spent the last four years with the Yankees. Granderson signed a four-year $60 million contract, and would certainly have commanded even more money from another team if not for unrelated injuries to his left hand and right forearm that caused him to miss most of 2013.
Granderson can hit for power, has enough speed to get to most fly balls and has a good enough arm to keep opposing runners from taking an extra base on a hit. His biggest detriment is his propensity to strike out. If “The Grandy Man” (as Yankees radio announcer John Sterling liked to call him) is to succeed with the Mets, he is going to have to revert to the kind of player he was with the Detroit Tigers. Instead of trying to jack home runs in cavernous Citi Field, he is better off thinking of making contact and trying to get balls into the outfield gaps for doubles and triples.
Granderson’s arrival will certainly help the most recognizable Met, third baseman David Wright. Not only will his presence in the lineup ensure that Wright gets better pitches to hit but he will also give him pre- and postgame relief in the clubhouse because Curtis enjoys give-and-take with the media and has long been regarded as one of baseball’s really good guys.
While Alderson won plaudits for his successful pursuit of Granderson, his signing of outfielder Chris Young to a one-year $7.5 million contract raised eyebrows to say the least. For a team that has become renowned for its unwillingness to spend money, giving a guy who batted .200 with a dozen homers for the Oakland Athletics in 2013, a player that few Mets fans were clamoring for, seemed bizarre. Young did show more pop at the plate when he played for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2007 through 2012, but he never hit for a batting average higher than a very pedestrian .257.
When the 2013 season ended, the biggest questions for the Mets were, “Who will play first base and who will play shortstop?” Now that the 2014 season is underway the biggest questions facing manager Terry Collins are “Who will play first base and who will play shortstop?”
Spring training was supposed to be a great battle for the first baseman’s job, with Lucas Duda and Ike Davis, who both endured poor seasons last year, battling it out for the position. Instead both appeared to be locked in a contest for who could miss the most March games with injuries. Davis is a better fielder than Duda and when he is going well has far more upside.
Ruben Tejada did a wonderful job taking over the shortstop job in 2012, when perennial All-Star and 2011 National League batting champ Jose Reyes was forced to leave Flushing for Miami (he would subsequently be traded to the Toronto Blue Jays) because the Mets were so cash-strapped that Alderson could not even make him a token offer to stay. Tejada’s performance badly tailed off last year and there were rumors that he wasn’t working as hard at his craft as he should have been. He spent the off-season working on strength and conditioning in the brutal cold of Michigan, which seemed to impress Collins, a native Michigander. It would be nice to report Tejada enjoyed a great spring training but alas, that was not the case.
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud (along with pitcher Noah Syndergaard) was a key piece in the trade that sent Cy Young Award-winning pitcher R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays. D’Arnaud struggled at the plate during his September call-up and did not do much better in spring training. If the Mets are going to surprise their many critics this year, it’s imperative that he both hit and handle their highly vaunted pitching staff.
Every year Daniel Murphy, who has proven to be a fine hitter over the years, is always rumored to be traded and yet every year he is back with the Mets. To his immense credit, he has worked hard on his defense and has turned out to be a very good second baseman.
Eric Young Jr. was acquired by the Mets last June, and it turned out to be a good acquisition as he led the National League in stolen bases last year. Young can play both second base and the outfield, though I have a feeling that both Collins and Alderson wish he could add shortstop to his resume.
Speaking again of pitching, it has long been the Mets’ strong suit, even back in those terrible pre-Tom Seaver days when Al Jackson and Jack Fisher took the mound for the Amazin’s.
Matt Harvey reminded fans a lot of the great Seaver last year as he dominated hitters and was the starting pitcher for the National League at the 2013 All-Star Game, held at Citi Field. As has unfortunately become more commonplace in baseball, Harvey suffered a ligament tear in his elbow and required Tommy John surgery that will in all likelihood shelve him for the entire season (see “Bobby Parnell”). Harvey says he will rejoin the Mets sometime in 2014, but there is no way Alderson is going to rush him back and risk another injury that could be career-ending.
Zack Wheeler, who was obtained from the San Francisco Giants for Carlos Beltran, is being counted on to be this year’s Matt Harvey. That’s a tall order.
Jonathon Niese has proven to be a reliable hurler but he missed a good deal of spring training with arm issues that required him to fly up to New York twice for medical exams. Everything proved negative and Mets management is crossing its fingers that Niese can be the workhorse that he’s been in recent years.
Dillon Gee could be the Rodney Dangerfield of the Mets starting corps because in spite of him being one of the best pitchers the team has had over the last five years, he still never seems to get the respect of many of the media or fans. It could be because he has an unassuming personality or the fact that he gets outs without throwing overpowering fastballs.
I admit I was dumbfounded when the Mets signed corpulent 40-year-old righthander Bartolo Colon to a two-year, $20 million contract. Sure, Colon won 18 games for the Oakland Athletics last year, but there is no guarantee that kind of lightning will strike with the Mets.
My guess is that lefty pitcher and Long Beach, LI native John Lannan, who pitched pretty well for the Washington Nationals for years and was signed by Alderson to a minor league contract during the off-season, will give the Mets their best bang for the salary buck. Lannan will start out in the Mets bullpen but I expect him to be a spot starter before long.
Bobby Parnell finally became the hard-throwing successful closer that Mets management had long envisioned last year. But last year he had surgery on his neck and then tore a ligament on Opening Day this year, putting him out for weeks, and much more than that if he requires Tommy John surgery.
The rest of the Mets bullpen is so nondescript that Alderson brought in former Tigers reliever Jose Valverde. Valverde was fortunate in that he played for some powerhouse teams but he is notorious for poor control, especially under high pressure. My guess is it won’t be long until he is cascaded with boos at Citi Field.
Where will the Mets wind up in all likelihood? Both the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals, who swept the Amazin’s to start the season, have far more talent and should compete right until the end of September for the NL East crown. The Mets are, however, in better shape than both the aging Phillies and the penny-pinching Miami Marlins.
Alderson generated some off-season headlines and a lot of guffaws when he said the Mets can be a 90-win team. If I were Collins I would worry about 82 wins as my magic number since that would mean that the Mets would have won more games than they lost. If Collins can’t break even in the win-loss column then he will probably be out at the end of the year.