Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Some Final Thoughts Before Opening Day

Hello, Syracuse? Please hold
for Mr. Eppler...
Spring training is almost over, and the 26-man roster is set. We share some observations on the choices the Mets made.

Although I had Brett Baty on my potential Opening Day roster, I did note that I wouldn't be surprised if Billy Eppler's front office made the decision to start Baty off in Syracuse. So, when the news came that Baty was being sent down, I wasn't surprised, but I was a bit disappointed. Sending Baty down was definitely the "safe" choice for Eppler and company. However, I was hoping for a bit of boldness on their part. For all of the reasons set down in my post on Baty from earlier in the month, I thought that he gave the Mets a great opportunity to upgrade their offense a bit.

As The Athletic's Tim Britton noted in his terrific "This Week in Mets" column:
Amid the disappointingly unspecific explanations general manager Billy Eppler provided on Saturday night for sending both Brett Baty and Mark Vientos down, one comment stood out:

"They're a phone call away," Eppler said. "They don't need something to happen at the major-league level. They have the type of talent where they can push their way up here.
Eppler and his lieutenants certainly can defend sending Baty down. Eduardo Escobar is a competent third baseman, albeit below-average defensively. After suffering through a disturbingly sub-par offensive output for most of the year, Escobar came back in September scorching hot after returning from a brief stretch on the Injured List. Reportedly, Escobar had worked through some personal issues and also made some mechanical changes that led to the resurgence.

So now Eduardo gets the start of the season to prove that the Escobar we saw in September was no fluke. If he does that, he likely holds onto the job for the season. If he slips back into his performance from earlier in 2022 — he was slashing .220/.273/.390 when he went on the IL in August — then Eppler needs to get on the phone with Syracuse. And no, I'm not talking about replacing Escobar if he has a bad first week, but if he doesn't produce in April then the Mets should be considering Baty.

Although I absolutely believe Eppler's decision is defensible, his remarks about the number of games played in the minors were a bit silly. Eppler mentioned that Nolan Arenado, like Baty drafted after High School, played in over 400 minor league contests. Baty has played in 273, but that doesn't count that Brett likely would have had around 100 more games on his resume if the 2020 minor league season wasn't canceled by COVID-19. Baty was one of the prospects getting some work in the alternate site that year — valuable experience even if not actual gameplay.

Another point I see made is that projection systems do not foresee Baty significantly outperforming Eduardo Escobar in 2023. I was looking at FanGraphs ZIp projections for the 2023 Mets. Zips was quite bearish on Escobar, projecting a .232/.292/.417 slash line and a 96 OPS+. They had Brett Baty at .253/.331/.424 with a 110 OPS+. Even this dark outlook for Escobar only valued Baty at just over a single win higher for the season. I'm going to guess the Mets' internal projections are more generous to Escobar. Even so, if they are projected at roughly equal production, isn't there a benefit to working the rookie into the major league lineup? Tim Britton subtitled the column quoted above "The Mets can only be patient with their prospects for so long." At some point, you have to live with the growing pains if you hope to achieve the goal of integrating young players onto this aging roster.

The upshot is that Brett Baty will start off the year in Syracuse, getting more experience in the field and at the plate. If Escobar falters, then Baty should get his shot. What might prove more interesting is how the Mets elect to handle Baty if Eduardo Escobar produces offensively. If Escobar holds onto that starting third baseman job on merit, but Baty is hitting the hell out of the ball in Syracuse and continuing to improve defensively, what does Billy Eppler do? Does he leave Baty in Triple-A all season, or does he find another way to get Baty into the major league lineup? That scenario would present a positive dilemma for Eppler and Buck Showalter. Having too many good options is a situation that any club would be grateful to fall into.

We'll leave this topic alone for now. I reserve the right to revisit it if Escobar struggles for a protracted period and the Mets stay with him the way they would have in the Wilpon years. And don't get me wrong, I'll be rooting for Eduardo Escobar to succeed. I like the guy, and he's wearing the Mets' uniform. But if Eduardo can't pull his weight with the bat, that phone call needs to be made sooner rather than later. With Darin Ruf out of the picture, those carrying the torches and pitchforks will be looking for a new focus for their anger. If Escobar falters over the first month of the season, they are likely to turn their focus on him. The Mets' offense isn't good enough to carry nonproductive players for too long.

While I've shared a lot of thoughts on the pitchers and position players in my recent posts, here are a few more on some of the men who secured spots on the 26-man roster for the opener:

Tim Locastro: Locastro is a feel-good story for this year, echoing the nice start Travis Jankowski had with the 2022 Mets. I appreciate what he brings to the Mets with his speed and ability to steal some bases. But Jankowski is no longer with the Mets because his offense fell back down to the level of his lifetime MLB numbers. Travis's lifetime OPS+ is 75. Locastro's is only 2 points higher at 77. Moreover, as I pointed out in my last post, over the past two seasons Locastro's numbers have fallen to .181/.257/.275, with an OPS+ of 47. Doug Flynn was one of the worst-hitting Mets regulars in my lifetime, but his OPS+ in his 5 seasons with the Mets was 55.

This isn't me dumping on Locastro. My point here is that he's on this roster to be more than a late-game baserunning or defensive replacement. Buck Showalter plays everyone. If Tim Locastro can't find a way to up his offensive game, he won't be here long.

Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander: The Mets have made a huge gamble that these two pitchers — one turning 39 in July, the other already 40 — will continue to pitch at an elite level at an age when most other pitchers simply can't. I was talking with a friend today about the Mets. He asked me what was my biggest fear about the 2023 Mets. I didn't even have to think about it. If Scherzer and Verlander can't get the job done, the Mets don't have enough quality young pitching to cover over that. Those two absolutely have to perform, at least at an above-average level.

The Bullpen: With Edwin Díaz out of the picture, the Mets aren't looking for a single guy to take up the slack. They need David RobertsonAdam Ottavino, and Brooks Raley to be solid. They need Drew Smith to stay healthy and consistently pitch like he belongs in key late-inning situations, as he has done for stretches of his career. They need John Curtiss to return the form he showed before Tommy John surgery and join the crew above as arms that Buck Showalter can rely upon.

Beyond that, they need guys to step up from the next group. Stephen Nogosek has enjoyed a productive spring, looking ready to take the next step into being a full-time reliable reliever. Remember, he's out of options.

The Mets gambled on picking up Dennis Santana off waivers. Like Nogosek, he's out of minor league options. Santana has had limited success in MLB. He throws hard but has only averaged 8.3 K/9 over his career. He's fairly stingy with hits, allowing 8.1 H/9 lifetime in MLB. Unfortunately, Santana has been very generous with free passes: 4.7 BB/9. He's a project.

In 3 spring training games with the Mets Santana has pitched pretty well:
    3 GA  3.0 IP  0 H  0 R  0 ER  1 BB 2 K

He pitched decently with the Twins before they waived him. Combined for both clubs this spring:
    9 GA  9.0 IP  6 H  3 R  3 ER  1 HR  2 BB  9 K

Only 2 BB over 9 IP is very promising. We wait to see what happens in the regular season. I guess the most likely scenario is that he ultimately fails as he has done elsewhere, but maybe Dennis Santana is the guy the Mets "fix" and turn into a solid MLB reliever. It's worth keeping an eye on in the early going.

If the Mets are going to succeed this season, it will be because they get deep production from their bullpen, as no one left standing can make up for Díaz's absence. Getting real contributions from Smith, Curtiss, Nogosek, and possibly from Dennis Santana can turn the trick.

This is going to be a really interesting season for the Mets. There certainly are challenges to be overcome, but Steve Cohen has certainly spent enough to give them a solid opportunity to have a successful year. Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

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  1. LoCastro is a bench player with a limited role. Used only in certain defined situations.
    #26 on team. Who would you replace him with?

  2. I have nothing against Locasteo. However, with teams usually only carrying 4 bench players, there is no room for limited role players on a roster. Locasteo will have to hit well enough to justify playing time. I hope he does but, based on his track record, I doubt it. Hope I'm wrong


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