Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Mets Offense is a Bit Healthier

The New York Mets have picked things up on offense as of late, but more improvement is needed if they are to become a championship-caliber club.

The Mets' offense got a little healthier on their western road trip, despite their blip on Tuesday night returning home against the Nats. Pete Alonso is so hot, I honestly wonder why teams are throwing strikes to the Mets one truly dangerous slugger. Brandon Nimmo has an OBP of .456 and a fabulous OPS+ of 167. At least right now, Nimmo is playing like the star he is being paid to be. Jeff McNeil is back to being the pest to opposing pitchers we all know and love. Francisco Lindor has been a bit up and down, but he's driving in runs and is the only real home run threat in the lineup besides Alonso. Daniel Vogelbach is getting on base as expected, slashing .256/.407/.372. We'd all love to see some more power from the big guy but, frankly, the biggest problem is the huge black hole in the lineup behind him. Not much point in getting on base so often if nobody can drive you in.

And therein lies the ongoing problem. The bottom 3 spots in the Mets' batting order are still remarkably unproductive. Mark Canha is at least showing some signs of coming around. His slash line of .240/.337/.400 isn't what you would like from a corner outfielder on a contending team, but it does add up to an OPS+ of 106, a bit above league average. Everyone else populating the bottom of the order is below average, some almost comically so.

The veteran holdovers, Tomás Nido and Eduardo Escobar, have failed to produce much of anything. Nido's OPS+ sits at -20. I guess we could take heart that Escobar is in positive digits, albeit with a puny 31 OPS+. Their performance through the Mets' first 24 games has taken a lot of the pressure off youngsters Brett Baty and Francisco Álvarez. Both have gotten off to predictably slow starts after their respective promotions. However, they're both still getting their share of playing time because their numbers are better than their veteran competition.

Brett Baty is slashing .250/.280/.292 through 25 plate appearances. His AVG and OBP are both about 100 points higher than Escobar's. Baty has shown a fairly mature approach at the plate, striking out only 8 times while walking once. It took Baty until Tuesday night to contribute his first extra-base hit, a double, but he's hit some balls hard. Escobar, meanwhile, has looked lost at the plate, although he did go 4-16 on the recent road trip with a homer against the Giants. Baty still looks like a much better bet to contribute going forward, but it would be great if Eduardo could bounce back enough to justify a bench role.

Francisco Álvarez has struggled more than Baty with the Mets. He's only hitting .167/.167/.267 through his first 30 PA, with 0 BBs and 11 Ks. Francisco has looked like he's trying too hard at the plate, with an overaggressive approach that MLB pitchers are exploiting. Things have gotten a bit better of late, however. In his last 4 games, Álvarez has gone 4-15 with his first HR of the season. He'll likely get the bulk of the playing time unless Nido starts hitting. Tomás's offensive production has been downright offensive in the early going. Nido has 5 singles and 2 walks to show for 44 plate appearances, striking out 13 times. Buck Showalter isn't going to be tempted to give Nido the bulk of the starts while he's hitting like that.

Of course, as I write this post on Wednesday afternoon, the announced lineup has Baty and Álvarez sitting in favor of Escobar and Nido. Nido is likely in because Kodai Sanga is starting, while Baty is sitting against the leftie starter MacKenzie Gore. I'm genuinely curious about how much of a platoon Buck Showalter sticks with at 3B if Eduardo doesn't start hitting. Escobar is slashing .161/.188/.290 against southpaws over 32 PA, while Baty has gone 1-6 against lefties so far. Batting as a right-hander against lefties is traditionally Escobar's strong side, but not as of yet in 2023. Nothing has really clicked for Eduardo so far in this young season.

Some Mets fans have understandably got a bit impatient with Álvarez in particular. After getting a hit in his first MLB game this year against the Marlins, Francisco went his next 3 starts without a hit. As noted, he has picked it up over his last 4 games. The defense still looks a bit raw, but it hasn't been awful. Moreover, Nido's lack of production has taken incentive away from Showalter and the club to keep Francisco Álvarez on the bench. I believe this will pay off in the long run. I like Nido. He seems like a really good guy, and he's solid defensively. But I just can't believe there is offensive upside to Nido this far into his MLB career. The overwhelming evidence over 7 seasons with almost 800 PA under his belt is that Tomás Nido is a bad MLB hitter.

I still believe there is a good chance that Álvarez will return to Syracuse when Omar Narváez returns in a couple of months. Unless, of course, the kid really starts to produce offensively. Then I believe Showalter and GM Billy Eppler might face a bit of a dilemma. Particularly if Francisco starts tapping into that power we know he's capable of. Then the Mets might have a choice to make with Nido, who has no minor league options remaining. That decision is for the future, however, and only comes up if Álvarez becomes productive. As always, having too many good players is a better problem to have than too few.

With Ronny Mauricio continuing to stay hot in Syracuse, there is some speculation that he might be called up at some point this summer. Ronny is hitting for average and power in Triple-A this spring. He's also, by all reports, being more patient at the plate. It's not translating to a ton of walks — 4 in 86 PA  — but reflected in the fact that Ronny is getting more pitches to hit and is getting himself out by chasing much less often. The Mets are now playing him at 2B as well as SS, which opens a door to playing time for the Mets. The thought would be that Mauricio would play 2B and Jeff McNeil would get more reps in the outfield.

A couple of thoughts here. I don't see Mauricio getting a call while the Mets are still trying to successfully work Brett Baty and Francisco Álvarez into the lineup. Integrating a third prospect into the lineup would be far from ideal for a team that sees itself as a contender. Mauricio represents a lot of potential, but is still very likely to struggle at first. Ronny has 20 Ks in 88 PA in Syracuse this season. That's still a high number, one that is likely to go up against MLB pitchers. The Mets are very unlikely to live with 3 young players simultaneously trying to adjust to the majors.

I'm not so sure about the idea of him playing 2B, either. At 6-3 and over 220 lbs, Mauricio would be quite large for the position. He seems better suited for an outfield spot, though the Mets reportedly do not want to play him there, at least right now. McNeil has become a really fine defensive second baseman. Only time will tell how well Ronny Mauricio could play the position. Do the Mets really want to risk taking a step down at such an important defensive position as second base?

It would seem to make more sense to prepare Ronny to play outfield in New York. Without overreacting to a poor start, I am becoming somewhat concerned about the struggles of Francisco Lindor's snuggle buddy, Starling Marte. At age 34, coming off that core muscle surgery, not producing, and still under contract for another season, Marte's play is a bit worrisome. I still believe he will bounce back close to the numbers he produced for the Mets last season, but Marte is at an age when a decline could begin. Starling is also likely to miss more than a few games due to injury.

If the Mets really believe that Ronny Mauricio can be a productive MLB hitter, preparing him to play outfield would make sense. None of the Mets' outfielders are candidates for the iron man award and, at least in the early going, Nimmo is the only one who is hitting. If Mauricio is to get an opportunity later this season, getting reps in the outfield could open the door for him.

The other prospect we might see in 2023 is Mark Vientos. Usually a slow starter in the first month of the season, Vientos is killing it in Syracuse so far. Like Mauricio, Mark has hit 6 HR. He's hitting for average and power so far. However, Vientos has struck out 20 times in 81 PA. Like Mauricio, Mark would likely be exposed by MLB pitching if the Mets promoted him. Also, there is the question of a lack of a defensive position other than first base.

I have to believe that a Vientos promotion would be a long shot, maybe more so than Mauricio because of the question of where Mark would play. Still, the power is impressive, and the Mets aren't getting enough pop from anyone other than Alonso and Lindor. It's possible. It just remains to be seen if the Mets are willing to dedicate one of four bench spots to a right-handed DH.

Circling back, I have hopes that Brett Baty could be a productive major league hitter and help the Mets' offense. To my eyes, he's not that far away right now. I still dream of Álvarez figuring it out enough to give the Mets another true deep threat beyond Pete Alonso. What seems to me to be the primary reasons for the Mets' offense looking so flat at times would be the need for a bit more power and Marte's early struggles. Starling, when he is productive, is such a focal point of the attack.

Again, 24 games in is far too early to make definitive judgments about this team. There is a lot of baseball left to be played. But it will be interesting to watch the continued adjustments of the young hitters and where things go for Starling Marte. With the pitching injuries and questions going forward, the Mets' offense needs to pick things up, or contending for the division is going to be really difficult.

Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

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