Yes, there’s some UPSIDE here. UPSIDE is, as you may have heard, good. Ideally, you want to have a pitching staff like the Phillies — four pitchers who are known quantities and fall somewhere between really good and great, plus one fat innings eater for comedy and for eating stuff. Alternately, a pitching staff like the Rays’ — comprised mostly of talented young guys who haven’t hit their peaks — is also not a bad thing to have. The Mets staff falls into neither of these easy categorizations, but it certainly has some UPSIDE. A pitching staff consisting of a bunch of Kevin Millwood’s or another consistently mediocre veteran would stand a good chance of being better than the Mets staff this year, but it would lack the UPSIDE to be good enough to get the Mets into the playoffs if things went right, and also the UPSIDE to improve enough in the coming seasons to make the Mets a contender.
Of course, with UPSIDE comes downside. And there’s a ton of downside. Other than Mike Pelfrey, the Mets don’t have a single starting pitcher who you can rely on to any significant extent, and Pelf isn’t exactly Felix Hernandez. Would you be surprised if Jon Niese’s ERA was 3.5 this season? What about if it was 5.5? Me neither. The same goes for R.A. Dickey. Would it shock you if I came back from the future, Terminator style, and told you Chris Young, Chris Capuano and Dillon Gee combined to pitch about 125 innings with a 6 ERA. It shouldn’t. But it also shouldn’t shock you if I told you those guys combined for 300 IP and a 4.5 ERA. And if time-traveling me told you Johan Santana made 15 starts with an ERA around 3.5, that shouldn’t surprise you. But nor should it surprise you to learn he made only 5 starts on the year.
Remove the names for a moment and the Mets staff consists of one solid veteran, a guy going into this second season, a 35-year-old who just had his first major league success, a guy with 33 career major league innings, a guy who hasn’t even hit 200 combined innings in the last three seasons, a guy coming off Tommy John surgery who last had success as a major league starter came in 2006, and a former Cy Young having his third straight off-season surgery. Even The Riddler didn’t have this many question marks.
Realistically, you have to hope Pelf, Niese and Dickey can make about 95 starts in which Dickey repeats last season, while Pelf and Niese each improve a little; that Santana comes back, makes 10-15 starts around the level he pitched last season; and that a combination of Young, Capuano and Gee (and probably Jennry Mejia, Pat Misch, and others) can combine for 50 passable starts. I’d bet on Capuano as the guy most likely to be good at the back of the rotation. Chris Young seems the more popular choice, but Capuano is coming off a one-time injury that seems very fixable these days. Young is always hurt with this or that. So now transfer that scenario to WAR and you probably end up with something like the following:
Pelfrey: 3.5 WAR Niese: 3.5 Dickey: 3 Johan Santana: 1.5 Capuano/Young/Gee/Others: 2
In this scenario, 13.5 WAR would probably give the Mets just good enough pitching to stay on the fringes of contention, provided their positional players are relatively healthy. As a point of comparison, The Yankees, Rays and Reds (all playoffs teams) had 10.7, 11 and 11.9 WARs for their starting pitchers last season. The downside scenario probably gets you more like six or seven WAR from Pelf, Niese and Dickey and zero (or even a negative WAR) from everyone else. And that’s the downside before considering injuries. What if Pelf gets hurt? (which as I read over at Amazin Avanue via Fangraphs, is a pretty likely occurrence). What if there are no major injuries, but Pelf just misses 3 starts, R.A. Dickey can’t recapture last year’s magic, Niese experiences a sophomore slump, the Mets can’t find a decent pitcher among the Young/Capuano/Gee trifecta and Johan just can’t make it back? We could have an epically bad pitching staff on our hands. You never know. Even Oliver Perez could end up prominently involved.
I just just vomited a little.
And there’s no hope in the minors. Jennry Mejia — who’s looked excellent both times I’ve seen him this spring — is unlikely to be ready. The team’s only other premiere pitching prospect, Matt Harvey, is just starting his first pro season and the rest of the Mets minor league pitchers are more “guys you should remember their names, just in case” than guys with a good chance to contribute anything. So remember the names Steven Matz, Jeurys Familia, Juan Urbina, Brad Holt, Greg Peavey and Robert Carson. Just don’t expect to see them in Queens any time remotely soon, and maybe ever.
Now, I’ve illuminated every scenario from epically bad, to just bad, to good for the Mets pitching and it sounds bad. But going forward, I like this staff enough. There’s UPSIDE! Pelf and Niese should be good, cheap pitchers for the next 5 years. Dillon Gee appears to be a useful fill-in/AAAA/long-reliever, Johan Santana should contribute more in 2012 than in 2011, R.A. Dickey should be a league-average innings eater for the next two seasons and Mejia has all kinds of UPSIDE! The 2011 Mets are unlikely to have good pitching, but the 2012 Mets could find themselves with two good young pitchers, a good veteran pitcher, a solid veteran innings eater and a electric young UPSIDE! arm in the rotation. That wouldn’t be so bad. And who knows, maybe Mejia, Harvey, Pelf and Niese will someday form a good young rotation that is the envy of baseball, Generation K arrived 15 years late. If you want to dream big, just think — Baseball America projects the Mets starters in 2013 to be 1. Santana, 2. Mejia, 3. Harvey, 4. Pelfrey, 5. Niese. If Johan, Mejia and Harvey are all better than Mike Pelfrey in 2013, the Mets will probably have an excellent pitching staff. Pelf as your 4th best pitcher? Niese as your 5th? How’s that for UPSIDE?
The questions in the headline may seem inconsequential, but they get to the heart of the issues with evaluating relief pitching and building a bullpen: How the hell do you make a good bullpen? And, does it really matter?
As to how to make a bullpen, you could do what the Yankees did and add a good closer (Rafael Soriano) and one of the game’s premiere LOOGYs (Pedro Feliciano) to a bullpen that already has the G.O.A.T. closer (Mariano Rivera) plus a few other useful relievers: Damaso Marte, Dave Robertson and maybe even Fat Joba. But the Yankees will also pay whopping $35m for the privilege of employing those guys, an amount that is a little more than how much the new contracts of Carl Crawford, Carl Pavano and Orlando Hudson will pay them combined this season. So that’s probably not a good model, even for other high-payroll teams like the Mets.
You could also build a bullpen from with within. I should specify: It would be very smart to develop a bullpen from within by drafting a ton of really good arms as starters, and when some are inevitably not very good, shift them to the bullpen. This how the Mets came upon Bobby Parnell. It’s how they came upon Aaron Heilman (he was good at one point, remember?). It’s how the Rangers got Neftali Feliz (who should be a starter, but whatever), and how the Yankees got the G.O.A.T., Mo Rivera. What you absolutely should not do is what Omar Minaya did, and routinely spend high draft picks on relievers. During his brief reign of terror, Minaya for some reason thought it sound strategy to spend a 2006 3rd round pick on a reliever (Joe Smith), and a 2007 1st round pick on a reliever (Eddie Kunz). That’s nonsense.
By contrast, the 2011 Mets bullpen will start with one guy they drafted, as a starter (Parnell), and cost them something like $15m this season, and $12m of that will go to K-Rod.
So the Mets managed to build a bullpen for 2011 without employing either of the above strategies, but is that good? That’s where Misch and Parnell come in. The Mets had the option of bringing back Hisanori Takahashi and Feliciano this offseason, paying each $8m or more over the next two seasons to serve respectively as long-relief man and LOOGY. Will the Mets suffer from having Tim Byrdack and Pat Misch in those roles? I’ll admit that’s a valid question, particularly because the Mets starting pitching figures to be crummy, and they may find themselves trailing 6-1 after 3 innings with a starter who has already thrown 90 pitches on a regular basis. If that becomes a trend, everyone will gripe about how the Mets need another Darren Oliver, who pitched brilliantly in long relief for the ‘06 team. So if Misch (and whomever replaces him) sucks, will the Mets be in trouble?
The honest answer is that I have no idea, but my gut says probably not. For starters, the difference between someone like Oliver and someone like Misch is not as great as you probably think, even though Misch certainly sucks. Oliver is not Roy Halladay, otherwise he wouldn’t be put on mop-up duty. And putting Pat Misch in the game is not like putting me in the game, Pat Misch is a professional pitcher. The difference between even someone like Mike Pelfrey and Oliver is probably a lot greater than the difference between Oliver and Misch. In ‘06 Oliver pitched 81 innings and allowed 31 earned runs. Pat Misch has pitched 99 innings over the last two seasons and allowed 43 earned runs. Let’s say Misch was lucky, and that over the course of 81 long-relief innings a pitcher equivalent to Oliver would allow 12 less runs than Misch would. The Mets team with the Oliver-type would probably win a whopping 1 more game than the team with Misch. Don’t get me wrong, you want to win 1 more game rather than 1 less game, but theoretically upgrading the team by one win by paying to get a guy who isn’t good to begin with, and who will pitch most of his innings in games that are already out of hand (making the 1-win seem dubious), seems like it should be, at best, an extremely low priority.
Now take the second question: Is Bobby Parnell a future closer? My answer is yes, he looks like a person who could successfully close at the major league level. But my evidence is limited. Parnell has pitched 92 innings as a reliever. I’m basing my conclusion on the fact he was solid for a bit in 2009, excellent in 2010, throws really hard, and is relatively young. There are presumably a ton of guys in the major leagues right now who fit that description, and none of them are being anointed the Mets closer-in-waiting.
So back to the initial argument…how do you make a good bullpen, barring having the Yankees finances, or already having a slew of young arms in your farm system ready to go? Well, you don’t use Jennry Mejia as a reliever, I’ll tell you that, and you probably do exactly what the Mets are doing. Start with solid closer and another good reliever, pay about $2m total for a couple guys like Taylor Buchholz and D.J. Carrasco, and then bring in a bunch of guys like Pedro Beato, Tim Brydack and Misch and see what sticks.
So the Mets ‘pen will probably be good enough. But relievers are not very good to begin with, and victim to the dreaded small sample size. During one 45 inning stretch last year, Tim Lincecum had a 6.3 ERA. It’s unlikely anyone who pitches in the Mets bullpen from here to eternity will be as good as Tim Lincecum (I was going to include the Mets past too, but Nolan Ryan ruined that).
So now for the third question I asked in the headline. Does it matter? Eh, probably not. In San Diego’s 2010 league-best bullpen, the five most prolific pitchers were Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Mike Adams. Who? Exactly. Bell is the only NAME there, and he was once traded for Ben Johnson. Gregerson was a 28th round draft pick sent to the Padres as a player to be named later in a trade for Khalil Greene, Mike Adams is a 31-year-old once traded to the Mets for Geremi Gonzalez, Mujica and Webb were also both throw-in in trades and this off-season were dealt by the Padres for Cameron Maybin. Could you really predict those guys would form the best bullpen in baseball?
So frankly, I don’t care that Pat Misch is no Takahashi or Oliver, or that maybe Parnell doesn’t have what it takes to be a closer (though I think he does), or that I’d never heard of Tim Byrdack until a week ago, or that someone had to remind me that Pedro Beato was once a Mets prospect, or that K-Rod doesn’t throw as hard as he used. The Mets bullpen is good enough. The only real worry is how to keep K-Rod’s outlandish 2012 option from vesting. Other than that, it really doesn’t matter that much. This bullpen could be as bad as the team’s 2008 bullpen, it could be as good as last year’s San Diego bullpen, and it will likely fall somewhere in between. Talk to me in 12 months when I forget all this and get irrationally excited about Bobby Parnell, Mets closer…well, unless that K-Rod option vests.
So now that we’ve got that out of the way, there is only so much more to say about Wright, and mind you, I’m going to say it all. Wright is at worst one of the Mets 2 or 3 best all-around players (along with Angel Pagan and Jose Reyes). In all likelihood he’s the Mets best hitter. And he seems like a nice enough guy, who — on the diamond — wants nothing more than to play really good baseball, thus helping his team win baseball games. Wright is — apparently — a streaky player, which explains some of why the last few years have been so up and down. But does he deserve the lashing he often receives for not consistently playing like he did in 2007 or 2008?
Look at Wright’s career compared to Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard, three guys who either came into the league around the same time, became good at the same, or are around the same age as Wright. Wright has the highest peak WAR, but in this form, his career ark doesn’t look any more stranger than the comparable players, but it does look better. Of course, this graph (created with Fangraphs super-awesome WAR graph tool) is ordered by each player’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. best season, and we’re far more used to seeing a player’s production graphed chronologically. That way, Wright’s career looks different…
Not as good for Wright as the other version. But it does paint a better picture for Wright than what you might think. Hanley Ramirez — to use one example — experienced a similarly steep decline in WAR, though not quite as large, but that’s because he never reached the peak Wright did. Ryan Howard did as well, though he was never close to as good as Wright, so maybe that’s a useless comparison. And based on the available projections — as well as my gut feeling — I think Wright’s WAR should begin climbing again, even if it’ll never get back to its 2007 peak.
So why am I confident Wright will climb a bit closer to his peak in the coming season? Well, David Wright is a really good hitter. I’m not alone in my thinking — Bill James projects a .389 wOBA for Wright on Fangraphs (Fan voters project .388 and Marcel .365, for what it’s worth), essentially guessing that his BB% will normalize back to its ‘09 level of 12% (though not its peak of 13.2%) and his strikeouts will normalize a bit. Using Wright’s average UZR of the last 3 seasons, that would make Wright about a 5.5 WAR player, and probably one of the 15-20 most valuable players in baseball. Using Wright’s average UZR for just his last two (atrocious) defensive seasons, he still projects as a 5 WAR player, which would only leave him around one of the 25-30 most valuable players in baseball. Neither of those seasons would rank as one of Wright’s 3 most valuable. That’s how good David Wright is.
We take Wright for granted because even during his terrible ‘09, he was one of the ten best 3B in the game (bet you didn’t realize he was just as valuable as Mark Reynolds and Scott Rolen that year, did you?), because as Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran (with whom Wright combines to form the Super Hero BRaW), and Johan Santana have floundered due to injuries, Wright has been out there nearly every single day, doing what David Wright does…which now seems to mean strike out over a quarter of the time…but whatever, you see where I’m going with this.
Like 1B, 3B is somehow simultaneously a top-heavy position and a deep position for the Mets. If something were to happen to Wright (lion attack? kidnapped by ninjas?), Nick Evans, Daniel Murphy and Brad Emaus could all likely hold down the position for a bit without totally embarrassing themselves. And the team’s top positional prospect, Wilmer Flores, is probably going to end up at 3B, a prospect that may have become even more likely if as reported on Mets Minor League Blog, Flores has gone Joba on us. Further down the depth chart — another of the Mets best positional prospects, Aderlin Rodriguez is also a 3B, though there are reports he’s too big and slow to play even there! And then there’s Zach Lutz — who’s apparently pretty good — but much like Fernando Martinez and Reese Havens, is constantly injured.
But there’s nobody like Wright on the Mets major league team. Wright is a proven elite hitter under the age of 30, who’s best skill (his aforementioned hitting) should be able to stay relatively constant over the next 3-4 years. And since Wilmer Flores is the best player in the Mets minor league system, it’s an easy choice to consider 3B the Mets strongest (some would say their only strong) position.
Future Hall of Famer Ike Davis (or FHoFID for short) is the half-joking moniker my friends and I gave the Mets first basemen just about a year ago, when we, like most Mets fans were swept up in Ike Davis fever. We like Ike, and not just because that’s a fun phrase or because it reminds us of the Eisenhower era. If you aren’t a Mets fan, it is probably tough to understand why Ike’s exploits were legend before he ever took a major league swing, particularly since this isn’t exactly Jason Heyward we’re talking about here (Baseball America ranked him the No. 62 prospect last year, just a month shy of his 23rd birthday), and why today, after a ho-hum .791 OPS in his rookie season, I — and most Mets fans — are totally amped on Ike Davis.
The answer is twofold. Emotionally, the Mets haven’t developed a half-decent — let alone good — position player since David Wright came up to the majors in 2004. The team does not have a good record of good players coming from its own system. Quick, name all the players from the Mets farm system that had at least three good years for the Mets in the last 20 years. I’ve got Wright, Jose Reyes, Edgardo Alfonzo, Todd Hundley, Mike Pelfrey, Bobby Jones and Rey Ordonez…if you can count Rey Ordonez as good…which you probably can’t.
So it’s no surprise that Mets fans would take to an exuberant, slugging first basemen who rocked AA in 2009, rocked AAA for two weeks in 2010, then had a pretty impressive debut in the majors as a lonely bright spot on a mediocre team. Also working in his favor: Ike runs like a dinosaur and sported the same sideburns I thought were super-cool in 1999, so there’s an endearing goofiness about him. Oh, and he replaced Mike Jacobs at 1st base. Talk about having the deck stacked in your favor.
But more objectively, Davis’s debut was more impressive than it seems on the surface. Davis has a trifecta of really good skills: Power, defense, and patience. Remember, this isn’t Philadelphia. 19 home-runs in 147 games is not that easy to accomplish when you play half your games in Citi Field. When Ike gets a hold of one, he gets a hold of one. The power is real. As Larry Jones was quoted telling reporters yesterday, “I don’t think I’ve seen a guy, pound for pound, with more pop than he’s got.” Then there’s Davis’s defense, which in between his trademark falling-over-the-fence catches, rated as the best in the league last year. And the third skill in Davis’s triumvirate of things he does really well — drawing walks. Lots of ‘em. Davis drew more walks last year than any rookie since Jeff Bagwell. Jeff Bagwell was really good at drawing walks. So is Ike Davis. Last year, Davis walked a higher % of the time than Adam Dunn and not much less than Chase Utley. Both those guys are also really good at drawing walks. So is Ike Davis.
So to review, Davis is already one of the league’s most adept players at drawing walks, and one of the league’s best defensive first basemen. Throw in what we can assume will be at least 20+ home run power, and even if the only area in which Davis ever improves is a slight increase in his home run hitting prowess, you have a really good player.
Of course, smart money says Davis will improve elsewhere as well, and could develop into a fixture among the league’s better first basemen. Using Bill James’s projections for Davis — and last year’s UZR (the only data available) — Ike Davis projects as about a 4 WAR player next season. For a little context Mark Texiera’s career annual WAR have been 2, 4.5, 5.9, 3.5, 4.2, 7.3, 5.4, 3.5. Paul Konerko has never posted a WAR above 4.4, Ryan Howard has been worth than 4 WAR twice in his five full seasons.
I think we’d all be thrilled if we could ever describe Davis as “almost as good as Mark Texiera,” or “just as good as Paul Konerko,” but it gives you an idea of why Mets fans have objective reasons to be over the moon about Ike. Is it totally unrealistic that in 2012 or 2013 Ike Davis has a .390-.400 OBP, hits 25-30 homers and plays gold glove caliber defense? Then he’d basically be Adrian Gonzalez with less power and better defense. How many current Mets could you use a phrase like “he’d basically be Adrian Gonzalez” for without being laughed out of whatever room you’re in? I count two, Ike Davis and David Wright. Well, unless you described Oliver Perez by saying “he’d basically be Adrian Gonzalez, if Adrian Gonzalez tried his hand at pitching one day…and was drunk at the time.” Which is exactly why 1B and 3B are, in my view, the Mets two strongest positions.
There’s more good news on the 1B front: Davis will be under team control through the end of 2016; Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans would both be capable backup 1B on the 2011 team, and four of the Mets five or six best position prospects (Wilmer Flores, Lucas Duda, Fernando Martinez and Aderlin Rodriguez) could end up as at 1B if need be.
So why rank 1B below 3B? Well, after all, Ike Davis does have exactly 601 major league at-bats. The man over at third has about 4,300. I’m comfortable declaring Ike Davis a future Hall-of-Famer, but not that he’s actually going to be any good.
One of the hallmarks of the Omar Minaya era was a lack of depth. Another was was a reliance on older players. Much like K-Rod and old men, these things do not go well together. When injury struck — as it tends to — that was that. So I find it particularly shocking when looking at the corner outfield positions, that the Mets system seems positively teeming with guys who are already solid major leaguers, might be solid major leaguers, could be good major leaguers down the line, and/or seem like quality major league bench pieces. Apparently Omar Minaya was just starting to hit his stride in that department. Let’s review:
Jason Bay - Nobody loves that contract. And he was awful last season. But I’m guessing he’ll bounce back a little this year, maybe hit 20-25 homers with a .360-.375 OBP and the expected mediocre batting average and lots of strikeouts. One caveat is that I thought his defense and baserunning were shockingly mediocre. Bad as Bay was last year — and he was truly atrocious — I never felt like he was totally useless, the same way I might feel if Adam Dunn was on the Mets and not hitting homeruns or getting on base. Of course, I’d trade Bay for Dunn in a heartbeat, so there’s that. But even Bay should provide slightly above league average play at the position over the next couple seasons, which would be fine if here weren’t grossly overpaid. Thanks Omar. What a lovely parting gift you left us.
Carlos Beltran/Angel Pagan - One of these two will play RF this season. Both should be able to field the position at a high defensive level. And while a healthy Beltran’s bat would look better in RF (as in, it would be good enough to keep him among the elite players at the position), I don’t see how that ultimately matters. Offensively, Pagan and Beltran will produce what they produce. Defensively, you should just be looking for the best combined defense. If you think Pagan is the better defensively CF, but you think Beltran will field RF poorly, but Pagan will field it really well, you may be better off taking the hit in CF to improve the overall D. On the other hand, Beltran’s knees may not be able to handle the increased stress of CF, and keeping his bat in the lineup is so valuable that even if he WAS the better CF, he should still be playing RF. Got that? Good.
Jeff Franceour — I just wanted to point out that Jeff Franceour is currently employed by another team. All other things being equal, not having Jeff Franceour will make the Mets a better team this year.
Scott Hairston — Everyone assumes he’ll make the team, probably since he can play all three outfield spots (and some infield) and then the Mets don’t have to waste a spot on an emergency CF with a bat worse than Hairston’s. So that’s OK, but boy does he strike out a lot.
Lucas Duda — Same deal for Duda, whose upside seems higher. The way Duda destroyed minor league pitching last year augurs well: A .398 OBP, 60 walks, 23 homers, and 42 doubles/triples at AA/AAA last season. Duda then flashed that power in Queens, socking 4 homers in his last 50 at bats. My gut tells me this is your starting RF in 2012. The minor leauge numbers suggest a less pasty Jack Cust, which would be fine next to the rangy Angel Pagan
Fernando Martinez — Everything you need to say about the artirst formerly known as the Teenage Hitting Machine has been said. If he’s healthy, he’s probably at worst a decent major league corner outfielder. But there’s zero evidence that he’ll be able to stay healthy. In good news, he hit a bomb the other day and looked pretty solid against Atlanta pitching not named Jonny Venter’s sinker.
Daniel Murphy — Yea, he can probably still play LF some.
Cesar Puello — Appears to be the Mets best outfield prospect. I like everything I’ve read, he sounds a lot like Angel Pagan, minus the injury issues that plagued the young Angel.
Wilmer Flores — Sounds like if and when Flores, the team’s best position prospect, moves positions, it’ll be to 3B — but there’s a good chance 3B will be totally blocked at the major league level for the next 5-10 years, and the same could be said about 1B. So if things work out for Flores, and he’s not a SS, one of the corner outfield spots could end up with his name on it (and Flores’s major league arrival should come right around the time Jason Bay’s contract is expiring).
Cory Vaughn — Another of the Mets better prospects. He’s only played Rookie Ball though, so don’t hold your breath.
That’s right. I just named ten guys! Ten! So within that group you have one veteran who could provide adequate production as a starter for the next few years (Bay), one good starter this season (Beltran/Pagan), one solid bench player this year (Hairston), a couple solid bench guys this year and beyond (Evans and Murphy) and pair of potentially good starters in the near future (Duda and F-Mart) and three guys who could be good starters 3-4 years down the line (Flores, Puello, Vaughn).
Oh, and by virtue of not giving Jeff Franceour 450 plate appearances, the Mets outfield will be a lot better than it was a year ago! Good times!