We're just over two weeks away from the New York Mets' season opener in Washington on April 7. With only 3 exhibition games under their belts, the Mets really don't have much time to prepare for games that count. The offense hasn't looked very good in the early going, beyond a flurry of home runs in the first game.
I watched the Cardinals game on Sunday, and the Mets hitters just looked overmatched against the likes of Miles Mikolas, Drew VerHagen, and Nick Wittgren. I kept telling myself, "relax, it's early, and the pitchers are always ahead of the hitter," but it still made me uneasy to watch Mets hitters dominated by a bunch of palookas. I know that's a bit silly, but the offense was so bad last season that it felt like the worst sort of déjà-vu. Then the next day, the B-team manages two whole hits against the Marlins. Welcome to the Mets, Max Scherzer.
So yeah, I know I'm overreacting, but I have to admit that I'm not wholly sold on the 2022 Mets offense. I like the additions of Starling Marte, Mark Canha, and Eduardo Escobar, but the lineup still feels a bit short to me. It looks like the Mets are counting on good seasons from Jeff McNeil, Dominic Smith, J.D. Davis, and Robinson Cano — at least most of them. If it works, the Mets have a pretty deep, versatile lineup. If it doesn't, we could see a replay of last year.
Now I really don't see it going that badly, but I worry about the outfield depth for the reasons I stated in my post "A Very Early Look at Mets Position Players." I love Brandon Nimmo, but he's missed a ton of games due to injury in his MLB career. Going by their track records, Starling Marte and Mark Canha will likely play in about 120 games each this season. Dom Smith, J.D. Davis, and Jeff McNeil can all fill in, but only McNeil can offer decent defense. And really, they're all backups for left field. None of those guys is really a fit for the challenging right field at Citi Field.
There will inevitably be some injuries. I worry that we will see a guy like Travis Jankowski get too much playing time in the outfield. Jankowski is a great athlete. He can flash the leather and steal bases, but with a bat in his hand, he's a 90-pound weakling. His lifetime slash line is .239/.322/.318 over 7 MLB seasons, good for an OPS+ of 77. Weak-hitting Albert Almora has a higher lifetime OPS+ (81).
The Mets honestly don't need to re-sign Michael Conforto. Neither side seems interested in a reunion. But I still would like them to find a fourth outfielder who can hit and play RF. I could see a solid player get 200-300 ABs as a backup, maybe more.
What seems more likely as things currently stand is that Dom Smith and even J. D. Davis see some time in the outfield in 2022. Maybe you can justify that if they both produce offensively. If they don't, it doesn't make any sense. I'm rooting for both players. I like them personally. But if they don't produce above-average offense, they don't belong on a team trying to win in a tough division.
Both Smith and Davis are fully healthy this year, which should help. Having a hitting coach from spring training through the end of the year should help a lot. Eric Chavez seems like the right man for the job — integrating analytics without overwhelming the hitters with data. Still, if Smith, Davis, and McNeil fail to bounce back, this team could find itself short on offense again this season. The front office seems to be betting on those 3 and Robinson Cano to be productive for the 2022 Mets. We all hope that bet pays off.
I still believe the Mets may try to get a solid fourth outfielder. Frankly, I don't know who that would be at this point unless there is a trade. If that doesn't happen, who winds up backing up Nimmo, Canha, and Marte could depend on whether MLB decides to expand the rosters from 26 to 28 at the beginning of the season. I think it's a given that clubs will start the season with a large bullpen as starting pitchers continue to stretch out. If MLB decides against an early expansion, the Mets probably just go with Smith, Davis, and McNeil.
If MLB temporarily expands rosters or Marte isn't ready by Opening Day, it becomes an interesting question who the Mets decide to carry. The OF prospects closest to the majors are Khalil Lee and Nick Plummer. Both of those guys have already been sent to minor league camp. I think the Mets want to see them get regular ABs in Triple-A to start the season and would only want to use one of them for a bench player for a limited amount of time early in the year.
Beyond those two, the club would have to add someone to the 40-man roster, whether it would be Travis Jankowski or some other pickup. Assuming that pitcher Joey Lucchesi starts the year on the 60-day Injured List, one spot would open up, but they'll probably also need to add a lefty reliever to the 40-man. (More on that later). Luchessi is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won't return until later in the season, if at all. I could see Jankowski go north with the team, particularly if the roster expands to 28. I would hope that Jankowski would primarily serve as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner. I don't want to see a replay of the futile ABs Albert Almora accumulated last season.
As for the front office's bet on production from Smith, Davis, McNeil, and Robinson Cano, we'll need to see how things shake out once the season begins. In fairness, you have to give them six weeks of the regular season to even begin judging what these guys are bringing to the table. And there will be some real tests in those first 6 weeks, with series against the Phillies, Giants, Braves, Cardinals, and Mariners on the schedule. All of those clubs should be post-season contenders. I think the Mets need to get off to a good start this season to shake off their terrible last two months from 2021.
Other than the outfield, my only other big concern with the position players is the depth at catcher. That's an ongoing concern with this club. The only "solution" to the problem is for the club to stock the upper minors with Quad-A types and cross your fingers that James McCann and Tomás Nido stay healthy. Hayden Senger, who was played most of last season at Double-A, is one possibility for a temporary fill-in. Patrick Mazeika is the holdover from last season. Neither of them is a big prospect. Mazeika slashed .190/.253/.266 in 87 PA for the Mets last season. Senger is unlikely to produce at even that low level, but he is a better defender.
The other significant area of concern on this roster is the lack of a left-handed reliever with a track record. It's odd that the Mets spent so much on payroll this season but balked at beating the $7.5 million per year for 2 years that Aaron Loup received from the Angels. (There was also a club option for a third year with a $2 million buyout.) That may seem like a big spend for a lefty specialist. However, it isn't a giant leap, given the rest of the payroll.
Andrew Chafin was reportedly a target. Like so many relievers, he's been up and down in his career. He did pitch well for the Cubs and A's last season. Chafin signed a 2-year deal with the Tigers for $6.5 million per season. Clearly, signing a lefty reliever with some track record of success would cost a team this season. Frankly, Chafin getting that contract makes Loup's seem even more reasonable.
But here we are, heading into a tough NL East division battle against clubs with solid left-handed hitters in their lineups, and non-roster invitee Chasen Shreve is currently the top candidate for a position as a lefty specialist. Another non-roster invitee, Álex Claudio, is Shreve's top competitor. A quality lefty out of the bullpen is a priority for any competitive club. This has to matter even more so for a Mets team whose 5 top starting pitchers are all right-handed.
Contrast this with the Atlanta Braves, who spent $10 million over 2 years to add Collin McHugh to their bullpen, then went out and dropped another $16 million for 1 year on closer Kenley Jansen. The Mets' failure to land a left-handed reliever with some record of success just seems oddly cheap by comparison. It's the one real head-scratcher of the off-season for me.
There are no good options for a lefty reliever in the free agent market. It seems unlikely the Mets will trade for one at this stage. They may have to reconsider that later in the season if none of the in-house candidates can do the job. It probably wouldn't hurt to search the waiver wire and try to catch lightning in a bottle with somebody there. It's extremely unlikely, but it does happen occasionally.
We'll soon be able to judge the decisions that Billy Eppler and the front office have made in constructing this roster. The Mets are an exciting club, but it remains to be seen if they are built to make a real run into the post-season this season. They lack the depth of prospects that competitors such as the Braves, Dodgers, Brewers, Cardinals, and Padres all have. The Mets have done a decent job in building some depth into their roster — more so than last year, I believe.
With all of the spending that owner Steve Cohen authorized, it feels odd to nitpick on a couple of checks the club failed to write. Still, the failure to ink a quality left-hander for the bullpen really does feel like a strange omission. We'll see how it plays out this season.
Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!