Sunday, March 28, 2021

Some *Fearless* Predictions for the Season

Hey, this prediction
business is tough!
When I began writing yesterday's post, my intent was that it would be my season preview piece. After all, this is the time of year, with Opening Day approaching this week, when these pieces are supposed to be written. While you can never predict what injuries might crop up, you usually have a pretty good idea of how most of the players on your team are going to perform. This year really is different, however. There are a lot of variables in play, including some limited data for key performers. It led me to write a season preview that was relatively light in actual prediction. It also makes this New York Mets club a little more fascinating as we approach Thursday's season opener.

Despite the uncertainties heading into the season, I'm very optimistic about the Mets this year. I really believe that they're going to be right around that 90-win threshold. But when it comes down to predicting exactly how this will happen, I don't have a really clear picture. Beyond Jacob deGrom, who, if healthy, will undoubtedly be transcendent, it's a little harder to pin down exactly how I think others will perform. There are so many questions surrounding key players on the team.

Take Francisco Lindor, for instance. You can expect above-average offense for the position, and his defense should be top-notch. Exactly what Lindor's offensive contribution will be, however, is at least questionable. Some of Lindor's value as a hitter was tied to his home run output, and that's liable to drop off a bit with the deadened baseball. I'm not sure that a 30+ home run total is something we should expect from the guy, given the change to the baseball and Lindor playing his home games in Citi Field. It depends on how he adjusts to those changes and playing in a tougher division than the AL Central. My bet would be he will make those adjustments and provide real value as a hitter with somewhat lesser home run totals.

Michael Conforto is another key player for the Mets this season. I don't think anyone expects Conforto to hit .322 again like he did in last year's 60-game sprint. Michael also put up a 153 OPS+, which was the best of his career. Hitting that number again would make him one of the game's best hitters, albeit a level below the absolute superstars of the game.

The question about Conforto is whether last year was at least somewhat of a small sample size fluke. People who believe that will point to 2018 and 2019 when Conforto slashed a combined .250/.356/.471 for an OPS+ of 125. For a corner outfielder, those are productive numbers, but nothing outstanding. I tend to look at Michael's 2017 season when, as a 24-year-old, he slashed .279/.384/.555 for an OPS+ of 148. Conforto went down in September of that year with that terrible dislocated shoulder while swinging in a game. At the time, I thought he was poised to become the star that he looked like in 2020.

I thought Michael Conforto really struggled to get his swing back in that intervening pair of seasons. I also thought that the Conforto we saw in 2020 looked an awful lot like the pre-shoulder injury player. So, while I don't expect a .300+ batting average, I think a batting line similar to the .279/.384/.555 from 2017 is a very reasonable expectation.

Trying to predict how it will go for Jeff McNeil this year is a little trickier. I don't know why, but it feels like McNeil has been a Met for a long time. Maybe it's because he's a bit older than most guys heading into their fourth MLB campaign, turning 29 a week after the season starts. Thanks to a mid-season call-up in 2018 and last year's truncated schedule, McNeil only has amassed a bit over 1,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. He's consistently put up strong offensive numbers, but the way he's done it has been a bit inconsistent.

McNeil hit an outstanding .329 in 2018, coming up to the Mets in late July. In the first half of 2019, he hit .349/.409/.509 with 7 HR, then hit 16 HR in the second half while slashing .276/.353/.561. Last year he got off to a rough start, hitting .258 in August, but rebounded to a .356 average in the final month. This year he is enduring an absolutely brutal spring training, with only 4 hits in 36 AB through yesterday. He's looked lost at the plate the few times I've been able to watch him, although he's been hitting some balls hard lately. It's concerning, but after decades of watching the Mets, I've seen plenty of examples of guys who couldn't hit a lick in camp and then were fine once the season started — and visa versa, also. If he still is scuffling like this in April, then it becomes important.

Some people I respect are pessimistic about McNeil. Others really like him. I'm a fan. I always appreciate scrappy players with talent. I also like his bat-to-ball skills in a game that features way too much swing and miss. I believe that he is as natural of a .300 hitter as anyone on the roster. Even in his minor league career, he was consistently over that mark. In Double-A and Triple-A, the two highest levels, he averaged .315 and .327, respectively. Lack of power and trouble staying healthy limited his prospect stock early on; there was never any doubt that he could hit.

I find it interesting that McNeil has a track record of hitting .300+, but Baseball Reference projects him to hit .298 this year, and the various forecasting systems at FanGraphs have him in the .277 - .297 range. The skepticism is likely based on a relatively small MLB track record and how difficult it is to hit over .300 in MLB.

McNeil is a better defender at second base than late-career Robinson Cano, but nobody expects Jeff to win a Golden Glove. I think he benefits from playing mostly one position and playing next to Lindor and provides the Mets with adequate defense. I don't expect Jeff to hit 20+ home runs this season with the de-juiced balls. I expect him to hit over .300 and establish himself as a legit contender for a batting title. However, if I'm wrong and McNeil hits .280, I would expect him to lose time to Luis Guillorme and possibly Jonathan Villar. Guillorme, in particular, can make a case for himself if he produces offensively in 2021. His defensive value is well-established.

Some other key Mets this season:

  • Carlos Carrasco: He's already got a new league and division to get used to. Add to that the injured hamstring. Also, he's 34 — an age when many MLB pitchers are on the downside of their career. I'm not down on him, by any means, but I have genuine concerns.

  • J.D. Davis: I'm a fan of his bat, but I think there is a legitimate question whether he's a full-time player or a right-handed bench piece. He'll need to hit closer to his 2019 campaign to prove that he's the former. I'm optimistic, as it seems likely he'll benefit from Chile Davis being back in the dugout. A line such as .280/.350/.495 earns him 120 starts. Less offense than that, and he's another candidate to lose playing time to Guillorme.

  • James McCann and Tomás Nido: Catching has been a black hole for the Mets for such a long time. These two staying healthy, excelling defensively, and providing adequate offense would mean the Mets would finally have strength at that position. The biggest worries are Nido's offense and the frightening lack of depth behind these two.

  • Miguel Castro: You could talk about anyone in the bullpen, really. We're all hoping for the best from our volatile closer. We hope that Trevor May and Aaron Loup can stabilize the backend of the bullpen. We pray that a couple of fading right-handers making a combined $17 million don't sink our chances. As good as Castro has looked this spring, however, it makes him such a big wildcard for the season. If he can continue to pitch at a level close to what he's done in March, the Mets' bullpen looks so much stronger, and we can worry a lot less about those unnamed overpaid righties.

  • Luis Rojas: The training wheels are off now, dude. You're managing for your job.

  • Gary Disarcina: This might seem out of the blue, but I was watching Saturday's game against the Astros, and Disarcina made a couple of brutal decisions as Third Base Coach. First, he tried to stop Kevin Pillar at third on a ball the outfielder clearly bobbled. Pillar, who was watching the play, ran through the stop sign and scored easily. Then he waved Lindor home on a hard-hit ball to center. The speedy Lindor was out by 30 feet. Everyone is entitled to have a bad day, but Disarcina simply has to be better once the season starts. With baserunning made a priority this year after a brutal 2020, the Mets just can't afford Disarcina making such bad decisions once the games start counting.

The 2021 Mets are definitely at a crossroads. While I can't argue that they're the favorite to win it all this season, you can't bet against any team in October that will be sending deGrom and Noah Syndergaard to the mound. Yet there are so many question marks, and their Division is so tough. There are no guarantees the Mets will even be playing in October. While I remain very optimistic, facts are still facts.

If that sounds negative at all, I don't mean it to be. I'm very excited about this season and the chance to get some of those questions answered. The lack of depth in recent seasons has sabotaged the club's chances, to be sure, but, even worse, it's made them barely watchable at times. As much as I wanted baseball to be a pleasant diversion in 2020, the lack of starting pitching led to many games that were essentially over early. I know from a lifetime of following baseball that even a good team will be terrible at times, but I'm excited at the prospect of watching a Mets club where the September games will still matter.

A legacy of the last few dismal years of Wilpon ownership was starting the season with the sinking feeling that your team didn't have enough to truly compete, then watching that feeling become an ugly reality. For as hard as it is to predict exactly how everything will play out this year, to have optimism back is a wonderful and very welcome thing.

You know, I won't even pretend to have any insight on whether the Mets can sign Lindor and/or Conforto long-term. I was thinking about it earlier today, however, and it occurred to me what a gigantic PR bonanza it would be with the fans if, heading into the season, the Mets announced that they had deals set with both guys. I know it's easy for me to spend so many hundreds of millions of Steve Cohen's money. Realistically, the chance of it happening is small. Still, Steve, if you're reading this, imagine what an adrenaline rush you'd be giving to the fans if the Mets pulled it off. Isn't that worth giving up a couple of Picassos in the hallway?

Please stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

2 comments:

  1. I wonder if I'd give up a couple if my oil paintings or watercolors for a pennant? As long as the manager isn't named "Art" it's a question worth pondering.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm in — unless I have to give up my velvet glow in the dark Elvis

    ReplyDelete

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