Opening Day! Just what are these 2012 New York Mets capable of?
For the New York Mets, whose season begins Thursday afternoon when they host the Atlanta Braves at a possibly sold-out Citi Field, the variables that can separate an OK season from a disastrous one are greater than usual. Most likely, they'll need a ton to go right just to stay competitive in an extremely difficult division.
A team that won 77 games last year with a full season of Jose Reyes, and two-thirds of a season from Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez, won't have any of them. Those three players were worth around 10.5 wins last season.
The Mets are hoping for a full season from David Wright, who missed a third of last season; Ike Davis, who missed three quarters of it; and Johan Santana, who missed all of it. But even a full return to health from all three probably doesn't vault the Mets into contention.
But let's take a closer look at what scenarios exist, and what they are likely to mean in the win column.
The Happy Recap Scenario: The new, hitter-friendlier dimensions of Citi Field restore David Wright's home-run swing, revive Jason Bay's offense from the dead, and position Ike Davis and Lucas Duda each to hit 30 home runs. Also, Duda doesn't embarrass himself in right field. Daniel Murphy can handle second base, continues to hit as his career rates, and thus becomes one of the most valuable second basemen in the game. Ruben Tejada learns to hit for power, and Josh Thole learns to hit lefties. Andres Torres recovers to his 2010 numbers with the Giants, when he was a key starting member of a world champion.
Johan Santana returns, and is the pitcher he was back in 2008. R.A. Dickey continues to eat innings at a rate well above the league average. Jon Niese finally sports an ERA to match his walk and strikeout numbers, and finishes the season healthy for the first time. Mike Pelfrey is the beneficiary of luck and sees his numbers return to 2010 levels. And Dillon Gee blossoms.
In the bullpen, Frank Francisco is every bit the closer the Mets hoped he'd be, Ramon Ramirez sets him up, Jon Rauch is serviceable, Bobby Parnell becomes the Mets' answer to David Robertson, and Miguel Batista mentors them all. Dickey, and even some reissued Batista poetry, reach the New York Times bestseller list.
Result: 85 wins.
The Realistic Positive Scenario: Wright returns to form, but Bay doesn't. Torres is effective, but misses some time due to injury. Duda is an absolute mess in right field, but finds detente with his glove after the Mets call up Kirk Nieuwenhuis and move Duda to left field. Tejada and Thole lock in their gains from 2011, improve a bit. Murphy is error-prone but a solid bat. Davis plays 140 games at a level between 2010, when he was solid, and 2011, when he was a star before his injury.
On the mound, Santana makes 25 starts, but command comes and goes, and his ERA hovers around 4. Dickey is solid, Niese takes a step forward, Pelfrey is eminently hittable and Gee's ERA lands around 4.50. The bullpen performs like a collection of known mediocrities, with Parnell stepping forward and Batista largely unneeded. Dickey's book is well-reviewed and a niche buy.
Result: 74 wins.
The Realistic Negative Scenario: Wright stays healthy, but performs at his lesser recent levels. Bay is released by June, and Nieuwenhuis isn't great in his first time facing major league hitters. Duda is disastrous in right field, plays there a few days a week, and also spells Davis at first base, where he can only play around 100 games. Tejada regresses, his average production in 2011 turning out to be a batting-average-on-balls-in-play mirage. Thole proves to be a platoon player, and Mets have no one to platoon him with. Murphy cannot last at second base, and takes spells around the diamond in a reserve role, while the light-hitting Ronny Cedeno plays regularly at second base by August. Torres is in and out of the lineup all year.
Pitching-wise, Santana makes six starts, needs to be shut down for three months, then rallies for four more in September. Dickey declines a bit from 2011, is still an average-plus starter. Niese is inconsistent, pitches 150 innings. Pelfrey suffers due to the defense behind him. Gee's ERA reaches 5, and when prospect Matt Harvey is summoned to replace him, Harvey isn't ready yet. Dickey's book sells fewer copies than Len Dykstra's post-championship work, Nails.
Result: 64 wins.
The Doomsday Scenario: David Wright, hobbled by that torn abdominal muscle suffered this spring, is on and off the field all year. Jason Bay continues to hit terribly, and stays remarkably healthy and on the field. Torres struggles with performance and health. Lucas Duda is haunted at night by the ghost of Roberto Clemente until he agrees to stop shaming the idea of right field, and is moved to first base in June, since Davis hasn't managed to hold up after avoiding surgery on his injured leg from last season. Tejada hit .220, and gets a "Jose, Jose Jose Jose" chant from fans that is not meant to be nice. Daniel Murphy, already felled twice by season-ending injuries at second base, suffers through Kirby Kyle's fate from Radio Days. Oddly, in this scenario, Thole still hits .270.
As for the pitchers, Santana never reaches 100 pitches, and rehab does little but provide brief bits of hope in fits and starts. Dickey has a down season a la Tim Wakefield, and his ERA balloons to 5. Niese gets hurt, Pelfrey's ERA jumps to 5-plus thanks to the awful defense behind him, and Dillon Gee struggles all season. Dickey's book gets the James Frey treatment.
Result: 50 wins.