By: David Weiss
We love spring training. Regardless of the weather, everyone knows that this is the end of winter. It is a time of optimism as we are undefeated in regular season games and tied for first. While the purpose of spring training it practice, there is also another purpose. Players who are competing for their spot on the team will use this as a battleground. The Mets are no exception. This season, there are several key battles that will take place in Port St. Lucie.
Dominic Smith seemed to be the first baseman of the future. Taken in the first round of 2013 draft, Smith shot through the ranks. After batting .314 from 2015-2017 it was time to enter the big leagues. Sadly, he underachieved in his first stint. He slashed .198/.262/.395 while whiffing in almost 30% of his at bats. Smith was noticeably overweight and looked uncomfortable at first. While Smith trimmed down a lot this offseason, he needs to prove he can be the producer we want him to be.
The Mets responded by picking up Adrian Gonzalez this past January. After being involved in a salary dump oriented trade, the Braves released Gonzalez. While he is owed over $22 million, the Mets are paying the league minimum of $545,000. The San Diego native has had an excellent career. He is a 5 time all-star and four time gold glover. He has over 300 career homers and has driven in over 1,100 runs. After underperforming in an injury plagued 2017 season, he wants to rebound. Mets fans remembering him terrorizing the team in the 2015 NLDS. As of now Gonzalez is not a hall of fame player. However, he knows well that he needs to have a few more good years to join the discussion.
Prediction: Gonzalez will start on opening day. Smith will be the everyday first baseman by the end of the year and will get playing time even if Gonzalez does well. Smith could start in AAA.
Asdrubal Cabrera is currently the front runner for this job. After batting .280 in back to back seasons, the Mets picked up the option on his contract. However, there are cracks in the façade. Cabrera in 2017 was not the same player from 2016. His WAR dropped from 2.7 to 1.1 and his home run total went from 23 to 16. While he walked more and struck out less, his defense was poor leading him to lose his job as a shortstop.
The Mets have two backup options. Jose Reyes returned and Wilmer Flores is under team control. While it is likely we will see Reyes is a super-sub role, Wilmer is a guy that many see as a sleeper. Last year saw career highs in battings average, OPS and homers. He also showed that he can his righties. Unfortunately, Flores had multiple trips to the DL including the last month of the year. Many have said that he should be the second baseman since watching Flores at third is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Prediction: Cabrera get the job initially and Wilmer will play every game against lefties. If healthy Wilmer will be the everyday second baseman by the middle of the season.
After 2014 Juan Lagares seemed like the centerfielder of the future. Many injuries later, he has turned into a burden of sorts. When healthy Lagares can still field but his offense (or lack thereof) have relegated him to a bench role. During this offseason, he has worked a lot with the swing doctor, Craig Wallenbrock, in the hopes of putting it together offensively.
Last year was the first season that the Mets got a lot of action from Brandon Nimmo. After being taken with the 13th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of high school, the Mets had hoped that he would turn into an everyday player. In 2016, he seemed to only get singles but last year, the power started to show. With a slash of .260/.379/.418 in 69 games, there was a lot to like. His ability to work out walks caught a lot of people’s attention. While Nimmo isn’t as good as Lagares defensively, his bat has earned him a right to play.
Prediction: Righty / lefty platoon. Lagares comes in late in games for defense.
I’m putting myself out there on this one. The Mets catcher situation will be fine this year. Despite all the noise made in the offseason, the Mets are going to be fine with their backstop. The reason is that there is more depth than people realize.
Travis d’Arnaud had a career year in 2017. 112 games, 16 home runs and 57 RBI’s were all best. His dWar was 0.6 which was also a career high as he only gave up two passed balls. However, his inability to throw out runners was obvious. Five out of every six stolen base attempts does not end well for Travis. He is way below league average. It is why the Mets are worried about him long term.
Kevin Plawecki was a backup most of the year but when he played, he wasn’t bad at all. The slash line of .260/.364/.400 is more than respectable. Plawecki’s caught stealing rate for his career is 23% which is a bit below average but acceptable. If we take out his two passed balls, he actually had no errors on the year. Some speculate that as he moves into his prime, the former first rounder may surprise people.
As insurance the Mets have Tomas Nido and Jose Lobaton. Both will likely start the year in AAA. Nido was not on anyone’s radar until he had a breakout 2016 season in A+ ball. Lobaton is an experience veteran backup catcher.
Prediction: If healthy, TDA will have a similar offensive season to last year and play most games while batting seventh or eighth in the order. Plawecki will be a backup and get 30-40 starts. Lobaton will be the first to get called up someone gets injured so that Nido can have a full season in AAA.
This is on everyone’s mind. While injuries are impossible to predict, we need to assume they will happen. For arguments sake, let’s go crazy and assume that everyone is healthy by opening day. The Mets will need to pick a starting five.
The Mets best starters are deGrom and Syndergaard. As long as they are healthy they should be the top of the rotation. Vargas will probably be the third or fourth starter after he just got the two year deal. The rest is a questions mark. Harvey could be the number three guy but after not being healthy for two years, it is not clear how much he still has left. Matz and Wheeler are set to battle for the last spot but neither have spent any significant time off the DL since 2014. That means that guys like Gsellman and Lugo know that even if they are not officially starters on opening day, they could be in the rotation shortly thereafter. The odd man out seems to be Montero. However, Montero is out of options so he needs to be on the roster or he’ll be released. Look to find him in the bullpen.
Prediction: I think there are going to be surprises here. Mickey Callaway is considered to be a pitching guru. Hopefully he’ll be able to help out the guys. There is no shortage of talent. The question is just one of endurance. I think that the big surprise is that either Lugo or Gsellman will end up in the rotation. Montero will be the last man in the bullpen until the Mets get rid of him. In addition, I think Harvey will be better than expected since he is on a walk year and wants a big contract.
Fifth Outfield spot
This is one that most people aren’t paying much attention to. Right now, Cespedes, Lagares, Bruce and Nimmo are expected to be the four outfielders on opening day. Most teams will want to have five for depth purposes. The Mets actually don’t have anyone yet on their 40 man roster who is an outfielder besides Conforto. There are some interesting choices. Matt den Dekker is back. After a reasonable good 2015 season in DC, he has done nothing of relevance in the last two years. Ty Kelly is signed to a minor league deal. Kelly had an OBP of .352 in 2016 and was a big part of Team Israel’s surprise WBC run before having a bad regular season in Philly. Zach Borenstein, also of Team Israel, was added for depth. After hitting 24 homers in AAA and putting up an OPS of .924 he looks ready for a crack at the big leagues.
Prediction: If the Mets decide to go with an extra outfielder, expect Ty Kelly to get the nod. He is a switch hitter who can play almost any position. If Borenstein continues to hit well in AAA, he will get a crack at the big leagues.
(David Weiss is a lifelong Mets fan. He has lived in Israel since 2008 and runs the Facebook page ‘Jewish Mets Fans’.)