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Queens Chronicle

Spring Guide 2013: Baseball Mets outlook

Waiting for d’Arnaud (and Wheeler too)

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Posted: Friday, April 19, 2013 4:00 am

Mets fans have not had much to cheer about in recent years, and it’s fairly safe to say that even the most optimistic can’t picture the boys in Flushing competing for a post-season berth this year. 

But while the team’s 2013 record will probably be abysmal, there is hope down on the farm. 

The Mets traded their Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, RA Dickey, to the Toronto Blue Jays during the winter, as they did not want to obligate themselves to a long-term, multimillion dollar contract with a 39 year-old knuckleball pitcher. 

Normally the fans and media would be up in arms against Mets management for thinking yet again like a parsimonious small-market team, but the reaction was fairly muted. The key reason everyone seemed willing to take a wait-and-see attitude was the gain of the two young players the Mets received in return: pitcher Noah Syndergaard and catcher Travis d’Arnaud. 

Syndergaard appears to be at least a full year away, and more likely two, from making the big league team. The timetable for d’Arnaud’s arrival in Flushing is more imminent. He would probably have been the Opening Day catcher except that the Mets understandably want to delay his ability to demand both arbitration and free agency, so they’re stashing him away in their Las Vegas AAA team until late spring.

If scouting reports are accurate, d’Arnaud will be the best catcher the Mets have had since Mike Piazza served as their backstop from 1998 through 2006. That doesn’t mean, of course, that d’Arnaud will be the second coming of Piazza. Most Mets fans will be content if he is as good as John Stearns, a fine catcher who played in Queens from the mid-’70s until the early ’80s. 

Even though he has not played one game in the majors, d’Arnaud must be a pretty good prospect. He came up through the Phillies organization and was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay. As mentioned previously, he was the key component in the RA Dickey deal.

Sandy Alderson’s first big move as Mets general manager was obtaining pitching prospect Zach Wheeler from the San Francisco Giants in 2011 in exchange for Carlos Beltran, whose contract with the Mets would have expired in two more months anyway. Wheeler is probably ready for prime time right now, but he’s in the same boat as d’Arnaud. The Mets know they are not going to be winning anything this year, so they might as well have both of these young prospects under their control, with fewer economic rights, for as long as possible. 

Mets manager Terry Collins shouldn’t have trouble slotting Wheeler into the starting rotation once he’s called up from Las Vegas. For one, Johan Santana, who missed all of the 2011 season with shoulder surgery, badly struggled with arm problems following his no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 1, 2012. His was the first no-hitter in the Mets’ 50-year history, and it must have angered the baseball gods. Santana was ineffective afterwards, pummeled in six straight starts before the Mets decided to put him on the disabled list in August. 

Team executives fantasized that Santana, who would be earning $25.5 million in the final year of his current deal with the Mets, would do what Ponce de Leon couldn’t; namely discover the Fountain of Youth.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. Santana was understandably treating his left arm, his livelihood, with extreme caution when he reported to the Mets spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. A frustrated Alderson groused about his ace not being in pitching shape. Santana, a man of understandable pride, did not take kindly to the criticism and started throwing hard sooner than he probably should have.

We’ll never know if Alderson’s stinging comments were to blame, but the end result is that Santana reinjured his left shoulder and will probably miss the entire 2013 season. His career is clearly in jeopardy.

The Mets starting pitching staff, while not great, is not terrible either. Matt Harvey will be entering his sophomore season, and he’s shown that he’s able to dominate hitters with his fastball and curve. Jonathon Niese basically has been a .500 pitcher through his first three years in the majors. Of course, given the Mets’ inept play during that time, you can make an argument that Niese has been an All-Star. Dillon Gee missed the second half of the 2012 season with a blood clot in his right arm. Gee was great in 2011, going 13-6, but he struggled in the second half that year, and was mediocre in the first half of 2012. And he didn’t inspire confidence in spring training, as opposing hitters smacked him around.

Shawn Marcum was a rare free agent for whom the Mets opened their wallets. Marcum was a very good pitcher, though far from dominating, in his seven-year career with the Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers. Marcum was on the DL during 2012 with an injured elbow.  During spring training, his elbow was fine but his neck wasn’t. Marcum will start the 2013 season where he ended the 2012 campaign — on the sidelines. 

If the Mets’ starting pitching is questionable, their bullpen is an even bigger mystery. Since they probably won’t have that many ninth-inning leads to protect this year, their bullpen has not received a lot of scrutiny. 

Nominal closer Frank Francisco was a disaster last year, and this year he starts the season on the DL with an injured elbow. Bobby Parnell, who routinely got beaten up like a piñata in the ninth inning, finally showed that he could handle the pressures of the final frame late last season and will be the closer for now, according to Collins. Newly acquired Brandon Lyon, the other “big” Mets free agent signing, should be getting a lot of eighth-inning work. The rest of the relief corps is composed of obscure journeymen such as Scott Atchison, Greg Burke, Scott Rice and one-time Yankees pitcher LaTroy Hawkins.

At least Mets fans won’t have to face a summer of asking themselves will happen to the face of the franchise. In their most significant move of the off-season, the Mets signed David Wright to an eight-year, $160 million contract. And last month the perennial All-Star third baseman was named as the fourth captain in Mets history. 

Wright has long been the de facto team leader but the official recognition of those skills by Mets management is a smart thing. This year, however, David may be sounding as if he is auditioning for “Annie,” as he’ll surely spend a lot of time after every loss reassuring fans that the sun will come out tomorrow — and there will be a lot of them.

Given all the bad news for the Mets’ 2013 season, let me emphasize one very important upbeat note. First baseman Ike Davis is completely healthy. In the past two years Davis has battled both leg injuries and valley fever, which sapped his strength, but now he’s strong. Davis is the Mets’ best power hitter in a lineup with little pop, so the odds are that opposing pitchers will not give him much to hit. Ike will have to be patient when batting.

Another player who will have to learn the art of patience at the plate is leftfielder Lucas Duda. He reminds many Mets fans of Dave Kingman, a guy who couldn’t field and struck out with great frequency but would occasionally get hold of a fastball and hit it a country mile. Duda’s lone asset of belting home runs did not make up for his liabilities last season, and he was sent down to the Mets’ AAA Buffalo Bisons farm club.

An argument can be made that Daniel Murphy is the best pure hitter in the Mets lineup. He missed most of spring training with a mysterious injury but appears to be OK now. Given the Mets’ puny offense, Collins has no choice but to accept Murphy’s fielding errors at second base in order to have his bat in the lineup. In fairness to Murphy, he has worked hard at the position, and hasn’t been the egregious liability out there that many feared.

There was a lot of anger emanating from fans at the end of 2011 when the Mets chose not to make their star shortstop and free agent-to-be, Jose Reyes, even a nominal offer to stay in Flushing. But the truth is that while the team may have been awful last year, no one could fault Reyes’s understudy, Ruben Tejada, who did a fine job both in the field and on offense last season. Tejada struggled at the plate this past spring however.

A lot has been written about the flimsy Mets outfield. Duda will be in left while 35-year-old veteran Marlon Byrd, who was suspended for 50 games in 2012 for using a substance that Major League Baseball frowns upon, will be in right. Not much is known about centerfielder Colin Cowgill, a castoff from the Oakland Athletics. At least Whitestone native and Molloy High School alum Mike Baxter is still on the team, and he should see a lot of playing time.

The Mets are excited about Jordany Valdespin, who can play both infield and outfield positions and possesses home run power. Valdespin, though, is frequently guilty of poor decision-making in the field and at the plate. He became an easy joke for comedians during spring training when he was hit by a fastball in the groin while not wearing proper protection.

The Mets will surely improve in coming years, but odds are Collins will not be around to enjoy them. He’s done as good a job as can be expected with the limited talent that he’s had available, but attendance and interest in the team have been down nonetheless, and the odds are that Mets CEO Fred Wilpon and his son, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon, will want to have longtime manager-in-waiting Wally Backman, a member of the Amazin’s 1986 World Series-winning team, at the helm next year.

As Collins and most Mets fans know, life is not always fair.

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