Hopeful signs for Alderson's Mets, if the owners can back him up
The New York Mets lost more than they won this weekend, but they provided tantalizing nuggets of hope, and the path the team must follow this winter to be relevant in 2014 got a bit clearer.
On Friday night, Jon Niese, back from a tear in his rotator cuff that sidelined him for two months, looked like a frontline starter for the seond time in two starts. His velocity was back, his pitches fooled enough hitters to accumulate nine strikeouts in six innings, and the Mets came out 4-1 winners. Niese had been the Opening Day pitcher for good reason, having entered 2013 as one of the known quantities on this roster. And with a contract through 2016, one of only two Mets signed for 2014, a Niese they can count on is pretty important.
That was further emphasized Saturday night, when Jenrry Mejia, who has been revelatory in his month of good health, reminded everyone of how rare such good health is for him, coming out of the fourth inning with elbow discomfort. At the very least, it seems like a terrible idea to have pitched Mejia through bone chips in his elbow, a problem that the Mets previously acknowledged would require offseason surgery.
Either the problem is worse now, or Mejia will simply enter 2014 off of elbow surgery, with just over 52 innings logged in 2013, and exactly one season with more than 100 (and barely, at that) in seven professional campaigns. With Jeremy Hefner also expected to find out on Monday whether he'll need Tommy John surgery on his chronically torn elbow, or he's just a pitcher with a chronically torn elbow, the Mets, if they ever did, no longer have the kind of pitching depth that makes trading young pitching for hitting help palatable. There's Niese, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, and three pitching prospects in Noah Syndergaard (who's been destroying Double-A), Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom (both excelling for Triple-A Las Vegas). That's seven exciting starters, but all but three teams used eight in 2012, for instance. And trading one or more of those arms only depletes the depth further.
They do, however, need many holes filled in the lineup. They got their first look at their only real in-house option to do so at catcher, prospect Travis d'Arnaud, who walked plenty in his first two major league games. Since at each minor league level until 2013, d'Arnaud has hit, hit for power, just never displayed plate discipline, seeing him continue that trend matters. He'd actually walked more than he'd struck out in 131 minor league plate appearances this season, en route to a .934 O.P.S. He's ready, and the only real question with d'Arnaud is whether he can stay healthy enough to play more than the 101 games, total, he's amassed over the past two seasons. For the moment, let's assume all the Mets need for d'Arnaud in 2014 is a capable understudy, able to step in in case of injury.
The Mets, this weekend, had a number of other positions, and its bullpen, with needs on display, without any reasonable options in the organization, or a way to trade for some without giving up some of their prized, but needed, young pitching. Eric Young's O.P.S. dropped to .646 after Sunday's game, his production in line with the bench player he is on a good team. Juan Lagares' 0-for-4 dropped him to .678, with his continued inability to recognize pitches resulting in six unintentional walks in 256 plate appearances, and questions about whether he can hit enough to justify his elite glove in center field. And Marlon Byrd had two more hits Sunday, a reminder that the Mets get to decide whether to reward the hitter providing a large portion of their offense right now by betting he'll repeat a career year next year at age 36, or be forced to replace this production before even getting around to improving the lineup.
That doesn't even factor in shortstop, where Omar Quintanilla has found his own level, and Ruben Tejada continues to struggle at Triple-A, or first base, where Ike Davis is producing, finally, but still only against righties.
So the Mets have many holes that require offseason additions, not to mention a bullpen that is better than last year's disaster, but still only 11th out of 15 National League teams in E.R.A., with the best of the bunch, Bobby Parnell, seemingly headed for neck surgery, and the second-best, LaTroy Hawkins, 40 years old and headed for free agency.
So while the Mets worked diligently through June and July to float the "trade young pitching" idea, the reality of what the Mets need, and the only real way to get at least most of it, costly free agency, has settled upon most of the fan base. There's no question the front office understands this as well.
All eyes turn to Mets ownership, to see exactly what kind of free spending Mets winter is to come, in amongst the enormous debt against the team coming due next June.
If Fred Wilpon and his partners don't figure out how to spend money this winter to allow Sandy Alderson complete the team he's put together, admirably, through a farm system and bits of string, the optimism around Citi Field, which would be justified with a monetized ownership group in charge, is going to curdle fast.