Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Man the Lifeboats, Part 2

Today we look at the New York Mets' position players as we search for some reason to hold onto hope for the 2023 season.

We're doing a series of posts looking at the current state of the struggling New York Mets. Yesterday, we discussed the starting pitching, which was supposed to be a strength for this club but has, at least this far, been their Achilles Heel. I intended to move onto the bullpen next, but with today's callup of prospect Mark Vientos, let's look at the position players instead.

The Mets lineup was a strength of the 2022 club for about 3/4 of the season. Unfortunately, they saved the worst for last. The lineup came up short in September and in their playoff series against the Padres. Owner Steve Cohen acknowledged his club was a bat short this winter and tried to rectify that by signing Carlos Correa in a drama that played out over the holiday season and into the New Year. As I'm sure you know, that didn't work out.

My hope as a fan was that contributions from some of their prospects could boost the Mets offensively this season enough to offset the loss of Correa. Instead, the whole team is struggling offensively simultaneously with the underperformance of the starting pitching. It's a double dose of badness that has contributed to the Mets' dismal 20-23 record and the real possibility that they may not recover.

On the other hand, there have been some positive developments. Although, as with all rookies, Brett Baty and Francisco Álvarez have endured ups and downs, both have held their own offensively and defensively. And no, that's not to say that either is tearing up major league pitching. But they both look like they belong in the big leagues.

Álvarez has slashed .254/.323/.475 over his last 20 games — numbers that 90% of the veteran catchers in MLB would be happy with — while earning raves over his surprisingly solid defensive play. Francisco still needs to cut down on the strikeouts, but he seems to be going in the right direction.

Meanwhile, Baty has scuffled a bit at the plate this month but shows signs of coming out of it. He still gives the club really solid, professional-looking at-bats. Brett is striking out less often than Álvarez. He just needs to tap into his power more consistently. Baty's .244/.330/.397 slash line through his first 24 MLB games this season won't put him as a favorite in the Rookie of the Year balloting, but that's a solid line for a kid still figuring things out.

Up to this point, Baty and Álvarez look like they're here to stay. The hope is that they can find more consistency as they gain more MLB experience and help the Mets turn things around this season. But even if that doesn't happen, their development bodes well for the Mets going forward as the club attempts to transition away from depending completely upon older players at the tail end of their MLB careers.

We'll get to Mark Vientos in a bit. His promotion was great news for Vientos, and I believe it was absolutely the correct call by the Mets. However, it comes at the expense of Luis Guillorme, a once-fringey prospect who turned himself into a legitimate MLB player, combining excellent defense with competent offense.

Guillorme spent a bit of time with the Mets in 2018 and 2019, but his offense was almost non-existent. Luis slashed a combined .227/.303/.297 those two seasons, looking more like a Quad-A guy than a legit MLB utility player. But Guillorme ratcheted things up with the bat from 2020-2022, slashing .278/.367/.344, good for an above-average OPS+ of 103. That offense, combined with Luis's excellent glove work around the infield, made him a valuable utility player.

Guillorme's offense fell back to 2018-2019 levels in the first couple of months of 2023. He slashed .233/.324/.267 over 68 PA, with only a pair of doubles as XBH. Such is the life of an MLB bench player. There are only limited opportunities to prove your value. I believe Guillorme is being sent down to get some regular work in Syracuse with the hopes that he will rediscover his stroke and return later in the season.

As for Vientos, it remains to be seen how many ABs the Mets can find for the rookie. As I've noted, it's extremely difficult to produce against MLB pitchers in a part-time role, and young players, in particular, can struggle with that. But calling up Vientos was an absolute no-brainer that had to happen. The Mets don't have enough power in their lineup. Vientos offers hope of finding that power. It's a very good sign that Mark has dramatically cut down his strikeouts in Triple-A this season. Now we need to see if he can keep that going in the majors.

Mark Vientos has conquered Triple-A. He's had over 600 PA there this season and last. Vientos is a notoriously slow starter in his minor league career but has been raking all season in Syracuse. He's slashing .333/.416/.688 in 166 PA with 11 2B and 13 HR. Mark has struck out 34 times, which represents an improvement from last season in Syracuse. He'll certainly strike out a lot against MLB pitchers but can still provide value if he can make enough hard contact to give the Mets some of the power they are lacking this year.

My worry is they can't get Vientos enough work to give him a fair shot at solving major league hurlers. I still believe Mark's best bet would be to go to a team that can play him a lot at 1B along with DH, which is why I see him as a valuable trade chip for the Mets. I hope they don't diminish his value by not giving him a fair shot. But I also believe that you can ruin a kid by keeping him in Triple-A too long. Mark Vientos has earned this shot with his performance this season. Now Buck Showalter has to figure out the best way to use Vientos to help his struggling lineup.

There is, of course, one more move that the Mets can make with a promotion from Syracuse. Ronny Mauricio, once a top-100 prospect who lost his prospect luster thanks to really poor swing decisions, has earned his way back into that status. First Mauricio enjoyed a terrific season in winter ball, then carried that over into the spring and then the Triple-A season. He's slashing .354/.390/.615 so far with 17 2B, 2 3B, and 7 HR. From what I've read, Ronny's swing decisions have improved, but more improvement is needed to compete against MLB pitchers. With that left to accomplish, and far fewer Triple-A ABs than Mark Vientos accumulated, Ronny Mauricio doesn't look like an imminent call-up. I think with Mauricio, the Mets believe he can be a really good MLB player someday. They'll avoid rushing Ronny to the bigs to try to solve short-term issues and instead try to do what's best for him. I agree with that.

I've written a lot about the kids so far. I do believe that in a discouraging season, they've provided a precious few bright spots. Moving on to the regular players, I break them into different areas of concern. The only player I have zero concern for is Brandon Nimmo. As everything melts down around him, Brandon is playing a fine CF and producing at the plate like the player he is being paid to be. A little bit more power would be nice, but that's not Nimmo's game.

None of the core of Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, and Francisco Lindor are having great seasons at the plate. That's indisputable. But I don't have major worries about any of them. I think their reduced production is more reflective of being in a lineup that currently lacks one more big bat. This trio often looks like they're trying a bit too hard to make something happen. That tends to happen when a lineup is crying out for a key piece that's missing. As much as I like Baty and Álvarez, it would be asking a lot to expect a rookie to step up enough to fill that role. Ditto with Mark Vientos. The Mets could try to swing a deal at the deadline — provided, of course, that they haven't completely fallen out of it by then.

Daniel Vogelbach hasn't been the worst offender at the plate but simply has to hit for more power to justify a roster spot. Vogie is limited to only being a DH against right-handed pitching. Vogelbach is not a defender and not a great baserunner. What he does with the bat provides all his value. Daniel is slashing .250/.376/.369 in just over 100 PA. He's drawing walks, as he always does, but the power needs to come or Vogelbach might find himself out of a job. He has no minor league options left, which should work in his favor. But that .369 SLG sticks out like a sore thumb. Something has got to give here. I like Vogelbach, but he's not pulling his weight right now, no pun intended.

Of even more concern are starting OFs Starling Marte and Mark Canha. Both are in their age 34 seasons — an age where decline comes into play. Canha has been an on-base machine in his career, but his OBP is under .300 currently. Marte has been dealing with injury issues, which only makes his anemic slash line of .236/.296/.286 that much more concerning. While the Mets have a 2024 club option on Canha that looks likely to be declined, Marte is under contract for 2024 and 2025 for ~$20 million per. If Marte can't turn things around, that is an obligation the Mets will seriously regret. In the short term, both players are needed this season if the Mets are to turn things around, particularly Starling Marte.

Fourth OF Tommy Pham is only under contract for this season, so there are no long-term worries. But the Mets need him to be decent, as the only other OF option currently on the roster is McNeil. Pham has had bursts where he's looked okay but hasn't been able to maintain that. The end result is a .188/.284/.348 slash line for a 35-year-old who's close to the end, just hopefully not there already. Pham was signed because he's hit lefties well over his career. However, this season, in a small sample size, Tommy is only hitting .204/.281/.388 against southpaws.

If the Mets were to cut bait with Pham and bring someone up, the top choices at Syracuse are journeyman Abraham Almonte, who owns an OPS+ of 83 over 10 MLB seasons, or the even lighter-hitting Tim Locastro. Perhaps utility man Danny Mendick might also be a consideration. Or they could bring up Mauricio to play 2B and put McNeil in the OF. The best thing would be for Pham to just pick things up and be the solid fourth OF that he was signed to be. If Mark Vientos figures things out enough to justify a spot, it's likely to come at Pham's expense unless Tommy picks up his level of play greatly.

Another player I'd like to talk about is Tomás Nido, currently on the IL with a dry eye problem, at least that's what they're saying. As Álvarez continues to look comfortable in MLB and provide the Mets some much-needed offense out of the catcher position, the question of what happens to Nido becomes an important one. Tomás has no minor league options remaining. When he returns from the IL, Nido will take over as the backup catcher again. When Omar Narváez returns from his IL stint, likely sometime next month, what happens next will be interesting. The only player with options would be Álvarez. But if Nido continues to be an automatic out, leaving him on the roster might be tough to justify. I doubt the Mets will elect to keep 3 catchers on a roster that already carries Vogelbach and, perhaps, Vientos if he hits. Not sure what Nido would be worth as a trade piece if he continues to hit on the Interstate. This situation definitely bears watching.

The only position player I have yet to discuss is Eduardo Escobar. As with Canha, the Mets are likely to decline Eduardo's club option for next year unless his production ramps up dramatically. Escobar's spot on this year's roster would seem to depend on upping his offensive production. Over his last 12 games since Baty took over as the primary third baseman, Eduardo has slashed .344/.382/.719 in 34 PA. Escobar, a switch hitter who is much better as a right-handed batter, is slashing .233/.267/.512 against lefties this year. Continuing that trend can help Eduardo hold onto a roster spot. If not, and providing Guillorme shows signs of life in Syracuse, Escobar may not survive the season with the Mets.

The Mets are fortunate to have prospects that are ready or close to ready. That is to the credit of their determination not to trade their best kids for rentals. The Mets need to get younger. But it's important to remember that prospects take a while to figure things out. As a Mets fan, I'm very happy with the progress that Baty and Álvarez have made. I'm looking forward to seeing what Mark Vientos can do, and possibly Ronny Mauricio later on in the season. But I don't expect any of those guys to carry the team and right the ship on their own.

If the Mets are to turn things around in 2023, they'll need better starting pitching than they've received up to now. Just as important, they'll need bounce-backs from their best position players, especially Starling Marte. They need Mark Canha and Tommy Pham to be better. They need the core of Alonso, Lindor, and McNeil to relax a bit and just do what they can do. The Mets need the kids to continue to grow, and some of their non-core players to just figure it out and be productive. I don't foresee a Hail Mary that can save this team like the Yoenis Céspedes deal in 2015 but, then again, you usually don't see those coming.

As bland as it is to say, the Mets' best hope for returning to relevance this season is for their guys to just be better. If they play their next 43 like they've played the first 43, this season will be all but over long before there's a chance of making a deadline deal. Despite how bad things have looked, the Mets have the pieces in place to turn things around. But those players simply have to figure things out. If the Mets are to be saved, they'll need to save themselves.

Be well and take care. We'll be back soon with the next part of this series.

Part 2 of Man the Lifeboats, Position Players (This Post)

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