By Dave Mills
With a little more than a third of the season in the rear view mirror, even intrepid loyalists are losing interest in the current incarnation of the New York Mets. Fannies in the seats, SNY viewers and WFAN listeners are dwindling as rapidly as the hair on Sandy Alderson’s pate. And when the numbers go south (to the extent that they have), somebody had to do something. Some teams would have made some wholesale changes at the top—by firing managers and coaches, but frankly, the on-field staff did not put this roster together. The front office failed to step up last July, when the proverbial s–t hit the fan. It appears the same may not be true this year, or so we hope!
The obvious changes were made in the past 48 hours when Rick Ankiel was cut loose in favor of a Kirk Nieuwenhuis recall. Then, little used starter and Gee/Hefner/Marcum-clone Colin McHugh was sent down in favor of David Aardsma—and—Ike Davis was finally demoted to Vegas, along with Mike Baxter and Robert Carson. But much more has to happen before this team can be competitive, it will take some out-of-the box thinking, maneuvering, and dealing because as Jay pointed out the other day, all the Mets have really done is reshuffle the deck, not replace the cards.
Can the Mets afford to keep Jordany Valdespin on the bench and auditioning for a position, or is he better off under the wings of Wally Backman, so that attempting to steal 3rd with two outs becomes a thing of the past? Can the team afford to keep playing Lucas Duda in LF when there is an opening at 1B? A look at Duda’s stats reveals that he is best suited to platoon against right-handed hurlers. In fact, he is batting .252 against RHP and .180 against southpaws (with 2 HR and only 5 RBI). Can Terry Collins find some lineup consistency and defined roles for all his players? Moving Daniel Murphy to clean-up or to 1B, when he has become a plus defender at 2B, is sheer madness.
These are just some of the questions that will need to be answered between now and the All-Star break (just five weeks away), but certainly not the only ones. Issues surround nearly every facet of this club and so here is my humble attempt at covering all the bases.
SHORING UP THE STARTING STAFF
For the most part, Mets starters have been very good for most of the past month. The truth is that Alderson & Company are intent on building a power staff with Harvey, Wheeler, Niese, Montero and Syndergaard in the lens. They also have four soft-tossers—Hefner, Gee, Marcum and McHugh—three of whom have been very good as of late, are in the rotation and have shown some semblance of brilliance in the recent past. That’s nine arms (without even mentioning Meija, Mateo, Fulmer, Tapia, DeGrom, Robles, Mazzoni, Lara, Ynoa, Verrett and several others on the horizon). Gee and Marcum are coming off off-season surgery. Harvey and Wheeler will be on an innings limit. Matt will probably be capped out at about 205 innings (on a pace for 230 right now) and Zach at about 180 cumulative AAA and MLB innings. Jonathan Niese has always pitched better on five days rest—look it up. So, why not go to a six-man rotation now? Such an out-of-the-box maneuver will guarantee longer appearances, reduce arm weariness as the season evolves and keep the bullpen fresher.
Adding another southpaw to the mix (none of the prospects are lefties) is desirable. The Chicago White Sox have Newark native and Mets fan Hector Santiago in the pen and spot starting. Just a few weeks ago, he pitched at gem at Citi Field. Sunday, he replaced the DL’d Jake Peavy and pitched another gem. With four lefties in the rotation and holes at 3B, C and LF, as well as two aging first sackers, the ChiSox can certainly stand to make a deal. Would Wilmer Flores (destined for the AL), Gee and Buck get it done?
John Buck had a great April. Perhaps the best month any receiver ever had for the Mets? But since May 1, he has reverted to his old self, which is still better than what the Mets got from any of their backstops since Paul LaDuca. Problem is, he is overworked and Anthony Recker is underworked. Why not send down Recker for a host of at-bats until Travis d’Arnaud recovers and bring up Juan Centeno for a look-see for a few weeks? He is the ubiquitous left-handed hitting catcher who could be the match for Buck, d’Arnaud or Plawecki for quite some time. Have him catch 2-3 games a week until the All-Star break and Recker will get about 100 at-bats in the interim. There’s no loser in this scenario.
Create a strict platoon of Duda and Josh Satin, who was brought up to replace Davis. Duda hits righties. Satin rakes against lefties. Andrew Brown may have been the call-up, but a recent stint on the DL foiled his re-ascendance. Again, there are five weeks or more to see what this platoon can do while Davis sees if he can regain his stroke and confidence a la Eddie Kranepool in 1970, when he was a seven-year veteran.
To his credit, Daniel Murphy has made major strides in becoming the plus defender that few pundits thought he could be. He is also a doubles machine and a good fore-hitter to David Wright. If he had a quality leadoff hitter and another speedster in front of him, the plethora of two-base hits would turn into lots of rib eye steaks. Keeping him at 2B is of the utmost importance in terms of consistency and his continued development.
Ruben Tejada has been a huge disappointment thus far. He may have been out-of-shape to start the season and some of the cold weather, especially in Minnesota and Denver, really sent his defensive mojo reeling. Worst of all, he just couldn’t get going offensively. Omar Quintanilla is a useful piece and perhaps placeholder for a year or more while some of the deep SS talent on the farm matures. His left-handed bat, along with Murphy’s, should deliver more at-bats to Justin Turner, who has been one of the four best hitters on the roster and deserves more at-bats. Who knows what will become of Tejada, but expect him to be the SS at Las Vegas for a good long time when he comes off the DL.
THE OUTFIELD MORASS
The clear message of Sunday’s events indicate there will be five guys in the outfield mix, all of whom should get a pretty decent number of at-bats for the short-term. Nieuwenhuis and Lagares will likely be a strict platoon in CF, while Byrd or Cowgill will give way to Valdespin when a righty is on the hill. Cowgill is likely on the hot seat for two reasons: (1) Andrew Brown, Jamie Hoffman and Cesar Puello have all been prospering down on the farm; and (2) It is hard to imagine that the Mets won’t make some deal for a quality major league outfielder between now and July 31. They have loads of pitching prospects, some catching depth and a few other interesting prospects. Also on-point is that Buck, Byrd and Marcum/Hefner/Gee could be very useful chips for a real contender, especially if they are beset by injury.
Suddenly Bobby Parnell and Scott Rice have lost their magic touch. Familia and Atchison are likely out for the balance of the year and Frank Francisco has been written off. LeTroy Hawkins continues to be LaTroy Hawkins—up one day and middling the next. On the plus side—Brandon Lyon looks like he has returned to form; Greg Burke seems to have worked out some of his rough edges during his stay at Triple A; The Aardsma pickup may have been well conceived. Hopefully, Josh Edgin returns to form and spells Rice from the constant abuse to his left limb. One of these arms will have to be sacrificed to accommodate a six-man rotation.
An interesting and low-cost lead-off option could be Piscataway native Eric Young Jr. Andre Ethier may well be on the block, but he is the same age as Jason Bay when he signed with the Mets and with an even higher tariff for the next four campaigns. Perhaps the Dodgers would be willing to part with the offense Dee Gordon might someday provide. One of the soft-tossers, Tejada or Valdespin, and a couple of high-quality prospects could get the deal done, but only if the Dodgers eat some of the Ethier contract. Clearly, the Mets have their eye on Shin Soo Choo, who would be preferable to Ethier, and a big draw to the huge Korean community around Citi Field and in the NY Metropolitan area. Can he be had before the trade deadline? A batting order that starts with Young, Quintanilla, Wright, Ethier or Choo, d’Arnaud, Murphy, Duda/Satin and Nieuwenhuis/Lagares is a lot better and provides David Wright with a lot more protection than he has currently. It should also deliver more stolen bases, more RBI for Murphy and greater depth and balance.
Mets fans deserve something more than just clearing payroll and developing a powerful farm system. Not to say those areas did not demand attention and remediation. They did. But the system is loaded with arms. The existing MLB roster now has three long-term fixtures (Harvey, Wheeler and Niese), at least one soft-tosser worth keeping (Hefner or Gee) and a couple of A+ prospects (Montero and Syndergaard), who should provide stability for many years to come. There will be bullpen arms aplenty from the other starter prospects, as well as Parnell, Familia, Leathersich and others. The catching is much deeper than one year ago. A host of outfield and middle infield prospects are presently patrolling minor league stadiums. And Alderson & Co. just spent their first round pick on a left-handed hitting first-baseman who may have to fill a significant hole in about three years.
The moves highlighted here, combined with the roster manipulations of the past few days, may go a long way to reawakening the fan base. No one expects a post-season appearance this year, but the players, coaches and fans deserve a wholehearted, all-in approach to making things better on every front—for the love of the game.
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