Monday, June 21, 2021

Time for the Bats to Show Up

No, not that bat
The New York Mets are inching closer to having their Opening Day lineup back. Jeff McNeil will be back today while Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto are doing minor league rehabs. Oh, and Albert Almora has also returned, though it's hard to imagine his bat contributing very much to the cause. It would be nice to make some sort of declaration that the days of scratching for runs against mediocre pitchers are over. Maybe that will happen eventually, but these guys coming back weren't hitting all that well before they left. I'm sure they'll have some rust to shake off, too.

It wasn't all that long ago that there was some question about whether fill-ins José PerazaBrandon Drury, and Billy McKinney had made a case for themselves remaining on the active roster as backups. Peraza and Drury have fallen to the wrong side of the Mendoza line and seem likely to see Syracuse if they remain with the organization.

I suppose a case can be made for McKinney even as his numbers have come back down to earth. He's a solid defensive outfielder, and Keith Hernandez really likes his bat speed. The problem is, the Mets don't really need another left-handed hitting outfielder once Nimmo and Conforto are back. There is also talk that the lefty-swinging McNeil might get some outfield assignments to get Luis Guillorme's glove in the game more regularly. Guillorme could help his own cause if he can manage an occasional extra-base hit. He has 12 hits this season in 42 AB, all singles.

It strikes me that everyone coming back really makes for the return of questions that have been deferred during the past month or so. Looking around the diamond, there will be some jobs up for grabs as the season progresses.

Catcher: James McCann has rebounded back to offensive respectability in the past month and looks genuinely poised to pull those numbers up further. While Tomás Nido has fallen back a bit from a hot start, he is more than holding down the backup spot. The biggest question remains the lack of depth behind these two.

First Base: Pete Alonso has dealt with injuries and some inconsistencies. His power isn't quite where you'd like to see it, but he's been closer to what you'd expect than most of the Mets hitters in 2021. Dominic Smith is a better defender at the position, but he's primarily a LF this year unless something drastic changes.

Second Base: Now it gets interesting. Jeff McNeil is not a terrible defender at the position, but he needs to hit more like the McNeil of his first three seasons to keep the regular job. He was hitting .242/.336/.374 when he went on the IL, and that obviously won't cut it going forward. On the other hand, if Luis Guillorme can find some extra-base hits to complement the singles and walks he's amassed, he can eat into McNeil's starts at second. I really believe this a pivotal year for Jeff. If he hits like he has done, McNeil establishes himself as the starting second baseman. If not, he becomes more of a utility man or trade bait.

Shortstop: Francisco Lindor has slashed .275/.359/.522 in June. Those numbers are in line with his offensive output in 2017-2019. More of that combined with the great defense and leadership would make shortstop the one position the Mets don't have to worry about.

Third Base: Like McNeil, J. D. Davis came into 2021 hoping to establish himself as a regular MLB third baseman. Unfortunately, Davis has only played in 14 games this season and has yet to begin a minor league rehab. Jonathan Villar has done fine filling in, but a .240/.323/.402 batting line is not really what you want from a starting third baseman. Guillorme can provide solid defense at the position, but the lack of extra-base hits is a problem here, even more than 2B. The Mets can sure use some of Davis' right-handed pop when he finally does come back. It still remains to be seen, however, if Davis can establish himself as a regular. His defense remains a question mark, and we're not even sure of what Davis really is as a hitter.

Left Field: Dom Smith has done a decent job as a defender this season. He looks a bit more confident, and I'm sure the beefed-up analytics department has helped, too, with better positioning. The offense is a problem, however. Dom has slumped badly recently after a nice hot stretch where he looked like the big bat from last year. The bottom line is that the man I hoped would be our best overall hitter is slashing .240/.316/.365 in 2021. I keep wondering when (and if) the sustained hot stretch will come. We all hope that the Mets can be such a better offensive team than they've been so far. Dom Smith providing what's expected with the bat would be a large part of making that happen.

Center Field: Kevin Pillar has been a wonderfully inspirational story but is also slashing .243/.285/.434 on the season. In a small sample size (35 PA), he's doing worse against lefties (.212/.257/.364) than righties. Brandon Nimmo seems likely to get the bulk of the playing time in center when he returns, as long as he can stay healthy. It would be terrific if Pillar can contribute the solid offensive numbers against LHP that he has done over his career (.283/.318/.460). You could see him getting playing time at all 3 outfield positions as long as he does that.

Right Field: Speaking of guys who have something to prove, Michael Conforto would like to elevate his numbers once he returns. That .230/.356/.336 line isn't something Michael wants to carry into free agency this offseason. The Mets really need Conforto to hit and stay in the lineup if they hope to pick up the offense over the remainder of the season.

Bench: Everyone except J. D. Davis will likely return by next weekend. Honestly, the only real battle I see here is between Billy McKinney and Albert Almora. In McKinney's favor, Almora can be sent down, but McKinney would need to pass through waivers. In Almora's favor are his solid defense in CF and his right-handed bat. This decision doesn't need to be made until Nimmo and Conforto return. I suspect they'll keep Almora, but another move wouldn't shock me. I don't think either Almora or McKinney would contribute much to a fully healthy Mets outfield.

I'd like to allow myself to believe that the return of the injured players will cause the Mets to immediately rebound to being the offensive team we all hoped to see coming into the season. That's probably not going to happen. The returning players will need to get some Major League ABs to round into form. Meanwhile, we need Lindor and McCann to continue to hit. Then we need to see more production out of Dom Smith. I'd also like to think Pete Alonso has more to contribute. We'll need Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto to come back as the better versions of themselves. We need Nimmo to return and do what Nimmo always does: get on base.

You can make a case for all of these returning players providing a big lift to the club offensively, but the offense was struggling all season, even when they were here. I wouldn't say I was skeptical of an offensive renaissance for the Mets, but I need to see things fall into place and then stay there for more than a week or two. Yeah, the injuries have hurt a lot, but so have the disappointing numbers from the guys who were still here.

A baseball season is long. Teams get hot and cold in cycles. Sometimes they just run into teams that pitch well and hold them down. And somehow, the Mets have managed to win their share of games even when they weren't scoring much.

Still, a winning team needs to have periods of offensive production to carry them when their pitching and defense stumble a bit. We haven't seen that sort of offense from the Mets for more than a game or two so far, and that has to change if they're hoping to get very far this year. You can't blame cold weather and too many postponed games for their lack of offense any longer, and soon missing players won't be an excuse, either. The Mets have been a pretty good story so far, thanks to some pluckiness, excellent pitching, and surprisingly good defense. If they are to continue to be a good story over the rest of the summer and into the fall, it's imperative that the bats finally carry some of the weight.

Please note this piece was written before today's doubleheader against Atlanta was played. Sorry again for the sporadic posting lately. Thursday, I go into the hospital for surgery on both my back and neck, and it's been a crazy couple of weeks full of doctor's appointments leading up to it. Once I get out of the hospital, I'll have a lot of time to write, I guess, as I won't be doing much of anything else besides healing for a while.


Please be well and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

3 comments:

  1. Mike - Good to read you, my friend. Prayers for uncomplicated surgeries and a swift and complete recovery for you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks. Really cool to hear from you, Dennis. Hope you and your family are doing well.

    ReplyDelete

It’s Not Quite as Dark as It Seems

I've been working on a long post looking ahead to the choices the New York Mets will be facing in the offseason. I've been dissatis...