4:01 pm Feb. 28, 2012
There's plenty of reason to expect bad things of the 2012 New York Mets.
They're having an extraordinarily eventful off-season, of course, and not in a good way. And then there's the relative strength of the rest of the National League East, which happens to be filled with talent from top to bottom.
They're not hopeless, though. Johan Santana is coming back, and David Wright can still play, and who knows—maybe Jason Bay will bounce back, miraculously.
But while Plan A looks OK, maybe, if you squint, the real problem is what happens if the Mets need to go to a Plan B at virtually any position. A consequence of general manager Sandy Alderson's limited budget is that the Mets are now top-heavy in precisely the way they were supposed to have gone away from when former general manager Omar Minaya left.
Here's a look at what happens should injuries hit at each position.
Plan A is Josh Thole. While Thole has stayed generally healthy during his career, and is just 25, he's never caught more than 114 games in a season, so his ability to handle a full-season major league workload is untested so far. Catchers also tend to pick up more injuries than the average major league player.
Plan B is Mike Nickeas, a perfectly serviceable defensive catcher, with a career .190 batting average. Alderson explained earlier this winter that the decision was made to spend money on a bullpen, rather than a backup catcher. Left unsaid, of course, is that most major league teams shell out for both.
Plan A is Ike Davis. The strong, likeable Davis is a solid major league starter if healthy. But that is anything but assured. Davis played just 36 games last year before a severe ankle injury ended his season. He chose to rest his ankle rather than have surgery on it, and whether it can withstand the rigors of a full year remains to be seen.
Plan B is, according to manager Terry Collins, Justin Turner. While Turner has plenty of time at second base, third base and shortstop, he's played just one professional game at first base. Moreover, his OPS+ of 93 would have ranked him 24th of 27 first basemen last season. The dropoff in production from Davis would be extremely steep. Minor league slugger Val Pascucci should be the real Plan B, but there's little indication that the Mets plan to give him a real shot at even making the team.
Plan A is Daniel Murphy, who provides a plus bat at the position. However, two separate season-ending injuries have befallen Murphy, each one occurring while manning second base. So between a return from the most recent injury that ended his 2011, and questions about his ability to handle the position, Murphy is iffy.
Should Murphy falter, the backup plan at second base is the free-agent utility infielder Ronny Cedeno. The falloff in offensive output is enormous. Murphy's career OPS+ is 111; Cedeno's is 68. Prospect Reese Havens lurks in the high minors, with star talent, but Havens has struggled to stay healthy, playing in just 61 games last year, and never topping 97 in a full season.
The man tasked with replacing Jose Reyes is Ruben Tejada. This isn't bad, necessarily: His OPS+ of 96 was perfectly adequate for the position, his defense is average for the position, and since he just turned 22 in October, there's room for improvement.
But having posted an OPS+ of 62 the season before, it is also possible that Tejada will regress from his half season of averageness. Moreover, should he get hurt, the Plan B is the aforementioned Cedeno. If both Murphy and Tejada go down, the double-play combo would be Cedeno and Omar Quintanilla, whose career OPS+ of 40 makes Ronny Cedeno look like Jose Reyes.
Plan A is one of the Mets' remaining bright spots: David Wright, despite playing much of the year with a broken back, still managed an OPS+ of 114. His production was even stronger after he returned, healthy, to the lineup. There's less reason for worry with Wright than any other player on the Mets roster.
However, should he get hurt—and he did miss two months last year—Plan B is unclear. The only other natural third baseman on the roster is Murphy, penciled in at second. Perhaps it would be Zach Lutz, a slugger whose first position is third base. But Lutz has also struggled to stay healthy, logging just 61 games last year, and has no major league track record whatsoever.
Jason Bay is Plan A, thanks to a massive contract that will pay him $16 million in 2012 and $16 million in 2013. It certainly isn't due to his performance over his first two Mets seasons, with OPS+ marks of 105 and 96, near the bottom among left fielders.
The Mets are hoping his strong September, when Bay posted a .964 OPS, carries over into 2012. If it doesn't, Plan B is actually the strong backup outfielder Scott Hairston, whose 112 OPS+ last year suggests he might be a better option than Bay right now. The downside to Hairston as backup is twofold: One, he is also the Plan B in center field and right field, and two, chances are a healthy Bay will have an incredibly long leash, due to that contract. Other corner alternatives include the converted pitcher Adam Loewen, minor league slugger Vinny Rottino, onetime prospect Mike Baxter and prospect Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who is returning from labrum surgery that ended his season.
Plan A is Andres Torres, acquired from the Giants this offseason for Angel Pagan. The Mets are hoping that Torres' offense bounces back—the 34-year-old posted an OPS+ near the bottom of the National League center fielders last year, at just 82. But his 122 and 126 marks in the two prior years provide aspirational marks for Torres, and his defense provides much added value.
Should Torres falter or get hurt, Hairston is the Plan B, with his defense in center field limiting, to some extent, that value of his plus bat there. In addition, if Hairston is needed at either corner, there's no clear center fielder even in the organization, with the unpalatable option of rushing Matt Den Dekker the only real alternative.
Lucas Duda is Plan A, and he certainly has the bat for the position. But Duda struggled mightily in the field, reminding Mets fans of what converted catcher Todd Hundley looked like when he was pressed into service out there in the late '90s. Whether Duda can be more former than latter remains to be seen.
If the Mets determine that they simply can't abide Duda's defense, Hairston is the Plan B, assuming he isn't taken in either center field or left field. Beyond that, the Mets have the same group to drawn that they have for left field, with the added cautionary note that none of them is likely to have the arm to play right field as it should be played.
Plan A is a rotation of Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jonathan Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee. That should be a solid (if unspectacular) group. The problem is in relying on that group to stay intact.
Last year was the first since 2000 in which the Mets received 26 starts from five starting pitchers. One of those five, Chris Capuano, left to join the Los Angeles Dodgers. So the Mets need to avoid injuries with a group of five starters that includes Santana, a pitcher who missed 2011 due to a complicated shoulder surgery that normally takes around two years to heal.
Plan B is uninspiring. Assuming the Mets don't rush their elite starting pitching prospects like Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia and Zack Wheeler, any missed starts by Santana or others will be taken by 41-year-old journeyman Miguel Batista, who posted a 6.26 ERA the last time he got any regular work as a starter, Chuck James, who posted a 9.10 ERA for the Braves in seven starts the last time he worked in the role, and Garrett Olson, who posted a 5.65 ERA working partly as a starter back in 2009. Needless to say, any of the three would be a severe dropoff from Santana, or from any other Mets starter.
The bullpen, it must be said, has plenty of depth. From closer Frank Francisco to middle-relief options Ramon Ramirez and Jon Rauch, right down to pitchers like Bobby Parnell at the fringe, the Mets should be just fine, pitching-wise, in the later innings.
What they'll be pitching is another question entirely, particularly if absolutely everything doesn't go just right with the rest of the team.