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Mets Have Plenty to Be Positive About This Spring

By Joseph Delgrippo ~ February 14th, 2012. Filed under: Digest Contributors, New York Mets.

It is common knowledge among the electorate the 2012 New Mets aren’t going to be that good. Without a deep starting pitching staff and not even a true ace, Mets GM Sandy Alderson has attempted to follow the lead of the Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers by building up a solid bullpen to improve their overall pitching.

Unfortunately, the Diamondbacks had Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy anchoring their staff, with power armed Daniel Hudson, sturdy Joe Saunders and Josh “Iron Mike” Collmenter having above average seasons. These guys kept the games close for Arizona, allowing the deep bullpen Towers put together to help win games.

The Mets have no such talent on their current staff, but do have power arms on the way. The Mets top three starting pitching prospects- Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jeurys Familia-should all start the 2012 season in Double-A Binghamton. Jenrry Mejia, who had Tommy John surgery last season, is on the mend and should pitch in a rotation somewhere to build up innings and endurance. Last year’s second round pick, Michael Fulmer, is also a promising power arm.

While attempting to D’Back your 2012 squad is positive, it might be better to also emulate other top teams in baseball who have built strong, homegrown starting rotations; usually by adding one good arm each season.

I wrote this piece a few years ago, suggesting to the Mets (led by the amazing Omar Minaya) emulate the San Francisco Giants and go with young pitching. Trying to win with free agents doesn’t work very often. Recent successful teams such as San Francisa, Tampa Bay and Texas have all done so with homegrown pitching talent; primarily their starting rotations.

So forget about this season Met fans and look for 2014, when at least two of the top three arms should be in the rotation. But while last place is definitely within reach, this season will not be a total loss.

Sure, the Philadelphia Phillies are still strong and the Atlanta Braves are a playoff contender. The Florida Marlins improved considerably on paper via free agency (an overall shaky proposition), and the Washington Nationals have traded and signed their way to immediate contention.

While all those teams have pretty good starting rotations, if this team stays healthy (that means you Ike Davis and Daniel Murphy), this 2012 Mets lineup could be fun to watch. In addition to Davis and Murphy, they have the anchor in David Wright, plus two youngsters, Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada, who played consistently well last season when pressed into full-time roles.

The projected lineup only has two starters (Jason Bay and Andres Torres) who had an OBP of under .345 last season, and two starters (also Bay and Torres) who will be over 30 years old. That bolds well for the future.

As I said, the key is keeping Davis and Murphy healthy, and hope David Wright returns to form. Bay is who he is, a player the Mets never should have signed. The best thing to happen to the Mets this year would be if Bay has a strong first half, the Mets might be able to unload his contract.

However, if injuries or lack of production does occur, the Mets finally have some young position player options from the system that will provide excitement and solid play.

Both Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Reese Havens are solid offensive players when they are healthy and could supplant Torres (production) or Murphy/Davis (injury). Murphy’s versatility helps him move to first base if Davis reinjures his leg/calf/ankle/foot (or whatever it was) and the Mets doctors end up getting involved again.

Nieuwenhuis has solid tools across the board, with strong baseball instincts, solid defense, plays hard and will take a walk. These team-concept factors help his overall game. Havens is a solid hitter who uses the entire field, has good plate discipline and the ability to hit 30-40 doubles and 15-20 home runs.

As I said earlier, the key for both (especially Havens) is staying off the disabled list.

Other young players knocking on the door include a much improved Reyes-clone Jordany Valdespin (see prior reports here  and here) and the hitter-centric Josh Satin, who has a Barry Bonds-type hand hitch, but always seems to make great contact. Cesar Puello and Wilmer Flores are two talented young guys (who I have not yet seen play) who should also both start in Binghamton, but are a little further away. Also, last year’s first round pick Brandon Nimmo is a natural hitter with power.

Valdespin can play either position up the middle, but also has the speed for outfield; while Satin can play first, second and third. Havens was a short stop in college, but has made the transition to second base.

Until positions get settled, these versatile young players might be the key to the Mets offensive future.

For the first time in almost a decade, the Mets have young guys knocking at the door, while two have already pushed their way through.

I have very positive feelings about both Tejada and Duda, while a little less certain about Josh Thole’s ability to remain as the everyday catcher.

Duda has put up strong numbers since he signed a professional contract. While he has progressed through the Mets system Duda has always shown the ability to take a walk, but also has lowered his strikeout totals while improving his slugging percentage. His 2010 season spread between Double and Triple-A levels, Duda put up a .304/.398/.569/.967 slash line with 40 doubles and 23 home runs. Any other prospect consistent over his pro career who put up those type numbers would be considered a future star.

With his adjustments made in the majors (and improved play) from 2010 to 2011, there is no reason to believe Duda will not continue to perform at a solid, and for at least one season during his Mets career, play at an All-Star caliber level.

Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers recently signed a three-year contract for $14.4 million*, and I see Tejada as a mini version of Andrus. Overall, Andrus will be better defensively, but I believe Tejada can be a similar offensive player than the Rangers newest millionaire.

*Interesting how the Rangers signed Andrus for three years, which is just enough time for top shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar  to get ready for the majors.

Their career minor league numbers are almost exactly similar, with Andrus a few points better across the board in the slash line than Tejada. In the majors, thus far, while playing in three times the amount of games (in a better hitter’s park) Andrus has a .002 point advantage in OBP, but a .030 advantage in SLG. However, due to league and park differences, Tejada has a slightly higher OPS+ and adjusted quite well during 2011.

With Reyes’ hair selling for big money in Miami, the Mets will lose offense at the shortstop position from last year. However, the Mets should announce BEFORE spring training that Tejada is being given the starting shortstop position. That will give Tejada confidence that he can work at his game and not worry about making mistakes and fear losing his job.

I feel they should also announce that Tejada will be the leadoff hitter, but Mets manager will likely go with the veteran Torres (and his .319 OBP in 2011) at the top. However, look for Tejada’s name to be written up top many times before the year’s end.

Thole has always been a high OBP guy with the ability to make consistent, solid contact, albeit with very little power. He should be allowed to be the starting catcher at least through mid-2013, but by that time, at least one of the young power arms should be starting games in Flushing and the Mets need to make the decision whether Thole offers the team solid catching skills to handle these power arms. I don’t think that will happen, and the Mets would be better off with a strong defensive minded catcher who offers some pop.

As mentioned earlier, the Mets should emulate some of the more successful teams who based their futures on starting pitching. To help keep the cost basis in check, it might be best to have one starting pitching prospect enter the rotation each season over the next few years; the Rays and Giants have done this since 2006.

That 2006 Devil Rays season had James Shields (age 24) start, and then in 2007, they had Edwin Jackson (age 23) start. They were followed by Matt Garza (24, acquired via trade) and Andy Sonnanstine (25) in 2008, David Price (22) and Jeff Niemann (26) in 2009, then Wade Davis (24) in 2010, Jeremy Hellickson (24) in 2011 and Matt Moore (22) this season.

And NOT all of these guys were first round draft picks!

With the exception of the very advanced David Price, the Rays have usually worked their starting pitching prospects one level at a time. This means more available and ready starters than spots, which they remedy by trading away one of their current starters to fill other needs. They also appear to have pushed college level pitchers quicker than high school kids.

What the Rays have shown is that for them it is much easier to develop major league ready starting pitching than it is to develop major league ready hitters.

The Giants are in the same boat. Although most of their young starting pitchers were first round picks, that factor is no guarantee that it will breed success. But what the Giants did was integrate one young pitcher each season. Tim Lincecum (23) was brought up in 2007, one season after Matt Cain (21) was put into the starting rotation. Jonathan Sanchez** (25) was brought up a year later, and 20 year old Madison Bumgarner in 2010.

**Sanchez played college baseball at Ohio Dominican College, whose head coach, Paul Page, was my hitting coach at Marietta College.

Even the Texas Rangers with all their offensive firepower have developed starting pitchers Derek Holland, Matt Harrison (acquired via trade) and Tommy Hunter (since traded), all of which were 22 when they began in the Ranger rotation. They also converted relief pitchers C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando into successful starting pitchers, and are planning on doing the same with current closer Neftali Feliz.

They realize that starting pitchers are more important to the success of an organization, and also staggered their starters at no more than two new arms per season.

This staggering of young pitchers into the rotation builds a more financially successful staff over the long run, limiting salaries early and giving time for the team to establish which starters they want to retain long term and which they will trade away or let go via free agency. This time frame allows other young hurlers to develop.

This financial factor sounds like it could be a huge benefit to the current Mets ownership. It is interesting that the Mets ownerships financial woes might be the best thing to happen to the future of the franchise. Prior to the Madoff mess, the front office spent tons of cash on free agents, but now has to rely on the development of young, homegrown talent.

The Mets have a pretty good group of young offensive players who I feel will continue to play at their current or improved levels in future seasons. To further continue their progress as a team, they have an abundance of power arms in their minor league systems, many who are a year or two away.

The current hierarchy might want to follow a combination of factors which Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Texas did. They can bring their starting pitchers up one at a time, but can push certain guys who threw in college quicker than high school kids. Under this plan, Matt Harvey would be promoted before Zack Wheeler, then Familia (if he can hold his velocity late and develop better secondary pitches), a year after that. And if he comes back healthy, Mejia should be placed in the Ogando and Feliz category and converted back into a starter.

Then, by the middle or end of 2014, the Mets can have a power armed group of homegrown stud starting pitchers to coincide with a potent lineup. It would be great for Mets fans to see David Wright still at third base come this time, but that might be wishful thinking. It is a big season for both Wright and the Mets, to see if he wants to remain with the team, and whether the team wants to pay Wright big money to stick around and wait for the young pitching to develop.

This development process has shown to be the blueprint for recent successful teams, and appears to be the tactic Sandy Alderson and his staff are pursuing. I heartily agree with their plan.

But this will take some patience with the New York fan base, something not normally seen.

Joseph Delgrippo is an aspiring sportswriter and TV baseball analyst. He played NCAA baseball, at tiny Marietta (OH) College, participating in the Division 3 World Series. In addition, he's coached baseball at the high school level. His knowledge of this game goes far beyond what is shown on television.
Joseph Delgrippo
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5 Responses to Mets Have Plenty to Be Positive About This Spring

  1. CDop

    A well written article that I believe hits on many of the reasons my outlook on this team remains rosie over the next few years. They’ve reduced their financial outlays, have and will be bringing up some solid talent under low pressure situations, driven by a manager who has some controlled fire, and preparing for the future. If they somehow keep their payroll down around 100-110 m over the next few years, come 2014, the team can have a solid set of young arems and bats with a few years of polish, then spend 15-20 M per year EACH on a few top tier free agents such as replacements for Thole, Bay, & Tejada. That puts them in a solid position through the end of the decade. Thanks for remaining upbeat on these beatniks. I think they’ve finally righted this ship under Alderson and crew.

  2. Chuck Johnson

    If the Mets avoid 100 losses this year, Alderson should win executive of the year.

    They won’t be early ’60′s bad, but they’ve already clinched the NL East cellar.

    So, yeah, 2014 can’t come fast enough.

  3. Sad Met Fan

    Young arms on the way .. please. ALL teams have young players/arms on the way….

    Next years payroll will be cut , followed by the year after that Wilpon will manage to keep the team, give a big speech about the hard times we had bla bla bla…..

    I wonder how many fans will NOT come back ?? Think about the kids — How many will never become a MET fan because of this mess…..

  4. Stu B

    Sad Met Fan represents the glass half empty mentality.

  5. Pablo

    I agree with Mr. Delgrippo. The young arms on the farm give us hope for the future. And I also agree with patterning the way we bring those guys up the way Tampa, San Fran and Texas have done with their young hurlers.

    But more than Harvey, Wheeler, Familia and Mejia, what REALLY excites me is that we have MORE arms down on the farm a bit further behind them. Cory Mazzoni, our 2nd round pick from last year, will start at High A this year. The Low A Savannah staff will most likely feature some very promising young pitchers that will make up the next wave. Akeel Morris, Juan Urbina, Domingo Tapia, Rafael Montero. All high upside arms. And I haven’t even mentioned Michael Fulmer who we drafted in the supplemental round out of High School last year, and will most likely start in a short season league.

    By the time our Big 4 hit the major leagues, the younger pitchers I mentioned will HOPEFULLY be further along in their development process and succeeding at higher levels of the system. At which point, if they continue to show promise, they can either be included in the team’s long term plans, or be used in trades to help us get whatever pieces we need for the big league club.

    Having these young power arms in our system helps open up our options so much more. But like Delgrippo said, it will take patience on our parts. I can wait cuz I have my expectations set pretty low for the big club this year and next.

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