Sunday, February 12, 2023

It All Begins Again

I'm excited by the return of baseball this week, with the opportunity that 2023 represents for the Mets to continue to turn the page on their past struggles and build something special.

Spring training officially begins for the New York Mets this Wednesday. I've always looked forward to the day pitchers and catchers officially report, even in years when I knew the Mets wouldn't be very good. These days it feels more special, knowing that the Mets are heading into action with a powerful ballclub that will likely repeat as a playoff team this year. Think about that for a minute because that hasn't at all been common for this franchise. The Tom Seaver-led Mets of the 60s and 70s never did it. The powerful Keith Hernandez/Gary Carter mid-to-late-1980s juggernaut never appeared back-to-back in those pre-Wildcard days. Indeed, they only made two playoff appearances during that entire run. A late-season collapse in 2007 doomed the David Wright/Carlos Beltrán edition from accomplishing that rare feat.

In the 61 years of the Mets' existence, they've only made it to the playoffs in consecutive years twice. It first happened in 1999 and 2000, led by Bobby Valentine in the dugout and Mike Piazza on the field. The last time it happened was in 2015 and 2016, including a disappointing one-and-done exit in the 2016 NL Wildcard game. So if, like me, you're still feeling a bit bummed out by how the Carlos Correa saga ended for us, console yourself with the knowledge that the 2023 New York Mets are still quite likely to accomplish something exceedingly rare in Mets' history. In my case, that removes some of the sting when contemplating how much stronger the Mets' lineup could have been with Correa.

While the Mets are running out a lineup that will be quite similar to last year's edition, there have been changes that will give this year's offense a chance to be an upgrade over last year's — which, in fairness, was pretty good overall. The struggles to score in September and in the playoffs leave us with a somewhat distorted perception of that team. But still, they were pretty good, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the Mets' offense improving this year:

Addition by subtraction
James McCann will be a Baltimore Oriole this summer. I'm not a McCann hater — he was a hard worker and a good defensive backstop. Pitchers seemed to really like pitching to McCann. He had some tough luck with injuries when it appeared he might be figuring out his offense at least a bit. But James McCann was an automatic out for most of his time with the Mets. His OPS+ over two seasons with the club was 70 — 30 percent below the league average. And last year, it was worse than his first season at a lowly 55.

McCann's primary replacement to start the year will be Omar Narváez. While Narváez wasn't an offensive powerhouse last season, either, he has a lifetime OPS+ over 7 MLB seasons of 100 on the nose. Plus, Omar bats left-handed. His career slash line against righties is .268/.345/.406. Tomás Nido will never be mistaken for Johnny Bench as a hitter, but he slashes .245/.291/.377 against southpaws. There is every reason to believe this tandem will provide a significant upgrade over the production the Mets received from their catchers in 2022. And prospect Francisco Álvarez could play a substantial role with the club, even if he does seem likely to start the season in Syracuse. It is intriguing to consider how much Francisco's rare combination of power and hit tool for a catcher might contribute to the 2023 Mets.

Addition by addition
Eduardo Escobar carried the Mets in September when Starling Marte was hurting, and the club had trouble stringing runs together. I'll always be grateful for that production. Escobar was popular in the clubhouse and genuinely liked by most fans. But man, he was lousy for most of the season. As I pointed out in a post from last month:
Eduardo was awful from May-August and then was hurt in mid-August. At that point, Escobar was slashing .216/.269/.384 on the season — an offensive black hole in the Mets lineup.... In the 34 games played from the time he returned until the end of the regular season, Eduardo Escobar slashed a very impressive .317/.376/.575 with 8 HR and 25 RBI. Thanks to recency bias, it felt like Escobar had a better season than his full-season line of .240/.295/.430. Even that added up to a 106 OPS+, solidly above league average. But the real question is, which Eduardo Escobar shows up in 2023?

As with Francisco Álvarez, prospect Brett Baty seems most likely to start the season in Syracuse. Baty accumulated even fewer Triple-A ABs than Álvarez last season — only 26 ABs in 6 games before the callup to the Mets. As noted in the post quoted above, Eppler indicated that he wants players to "ace" the test of Triple-A before beginning their MLB career. Brett Baty is already seen as an advanced bat, so it remains to be seen precisely what would constitute acing the test. But one thing seems clear. I don't believe that the Mets will live with inadequate production from Eduardo Escobar if he again struggles for months, without dialing "B" for Baty, unless Brett is absolutely face-planting in Syracuse.

Of course, the best-case scenario would be that Escobar is providing potent offense, forcing the Mets to eventually figure out how to get Baty's bat into the lineup and keep giving Escobar ABs. Having more than one good option is a problem I can only hope the Mets might face this summer. That represents a big upgrade over last season. Either way, Brett Baty is likely to contribute to the Mets this season, and, unlike in 2022, it won't be as an emergency rush job borne of desperation before the kid is ready.

More addition by addition
Daniel Vogelbach got off to a hot start after his trade to the Mets and seemed destined to be a fan favorite. Alas, he cooled off and was dealing with a hamstring problem. Although known for his patience at the plate, Vogelbach often appeared too passive in some key at-bats. Despite that, Daniel was actually very good with the Mets, slashing .255/.393/.436 over 55 games with 6 HR and 25 RBI. Vogelbach's OPS+ was an impressive 139 while with the New Yorkers. He was undoubtedly an upgrade over Dom Smith, who batted .194/.276/.284 with 0 HR and 17 RBI in 58 games, with an anemic OPS+ of 62. Frankly, if Vogelbach can produce at his 2022 level for an entire season this year, he would be a huge upgrade over what Smith provided last season.

The bigger question, of course, is who gets DH ABs for New York against southpaws. We all understand how awful Darin Ruf performed after a trade in which I thought the Mets gave up too much to obtain him. Still, Ruf has a track record of hitting lefties in his career. Also, veterans tend to adjust better to part-time roles than prospects like Mark Vientos. Some Mets fans might not like this opinion, but I believe giving Ruf the first shot at the job makes sense. However, no way in hell Ruf will be given the same amount of rope that the departed J.D. Davis was handed in 2022.

The right-handed side of the Mets' DH platoon killed them last season. It was worse than what they received from their catchers, given the only reason a DH exists is to provide offense. The Mets have an excellent chance to improve this weakness in 2023. Between Ruf, Vientos, Tommy Pham, and Francisco Álvarez, the Mets should be able to get more production. More importantly, they can move on to other options if one comes up short. Meanwhile, if Vogelbach doesn't do the job, there is another potential slot for Baty to get some ABs. Bottom line: the Mets are likely to be significantly better from their DH slot this season.

And still more addition by addition
The Mets definitely improved the 2023 club over last year's by signing Tommy Pham to be their fourth outfielder. Of course, this is not the same Pham who batted .277/.373/.472 from 2015-2019 while playing good defense. Tommy turns 35 next month and has slashed 231/.324/.372 over the 3 most recent seasons. But that's still an upgrade over Travis Jankowski, Tyler Naquin, and the other guys who played in the OF for the Mets last season.

Tommy Pham is better equipped to contribute something to the cause when one of their starters goes down to an injury. Despite his offensive decline, Pham can still hit lefties, slashing .273/.338/.446 against them last year. If Pham can do that again this season, he should also see some work at DH against lefties. The Mets don't need Tommy to hit high in their order and provide star-level play for them. They need him to be better than those guys that failed to provide much help in 2022.

Summing it up
I still worry about the Mets' offense a bit. There is no escaping the fact that Carlos Correa would have deepened their lineup and made them more dangerous. But I keep hearing media pundits opine that the Mets haven't improved themselves at all offensively from last season. That's just not true.

The Mets had some terrific come-from-behind wins last season. Many of those came early on, however. As the summer progressed, the prolonged struggles of James McCann, Eduardo Escobar, Dom Smith, J.D. Davis, Darin Ruff, and Tyler Naquin really hampered the offense — thinning out what seemed like a really deep lineup. While the Mets certainly could have benefitted from more power, the later months of the season also exposed the failure to receive offensive contributions from the catchers, DHs (especially the right-handed ones), and extra outfielders.

Improving the production from those areas could help a lot this season. While it would undeniably be wonderful if one or more of the players discussed in this piece had a star-level season, merely better performance from this crew would significantly improve the Mets' offense from last year's version. As I already felt that the starting pitching and bullpen were improved, there's good reason for optimism about the 2023 New York Mets.

I've been following this game for a long time. I understand how fragile any club's title hopes can be — dependent on good luck with health and the ability to make adjustments to whatever the long MLB season tends to throw at any club. Still, going into the winter, I was skeptical that the 2023 Mets could match last year's 100+ win season. While I know better than to allow myself to feel overly confident about any team's chances, I really do think that winning around 100 games is a realistic goal for this club.

More importantly, this club should accomplish what the Mets have only managed to do two freaking times in a six decades-long history: make it to the playoffs in back-to-back years. That's a big freaking deal.

What always bothered me most about the Mets coming short in the playoffs, as they did against the Padres last October, was the fear that a singular chance had been lost. The idea of "we'll get them next year" didn't seem to apply when the idea of being in the playoffs for consecutive seasons seemed like a pipe dream. Not anymore. After decades of rooting for a club with the "wrong" owners, rooting for a team owned by Steve Cohen feels like the gift that keeps on giving. Be sure to allow yourself to appreciate the new reality for Mets fans.

Be well and take care. Spring training begins this week. Let's go Mets!

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  1. I hope Mark Vientos has a mind blowing spring training. At least then if they continue to forget he exists he would increase his value as trade bait. Having him as a RH DH instead of Ruf is smooth and easy.

    1. It's hard to see a prospect adjusting to MLB pitching while only receiving part time ABs. But they really should consider giving Vientos a shot or trade him. His value will only go down if they keep him in Syracuse


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