Friday, February 11, 2011

Why The 2011 Mets Have a Chance

Spring is funny.

It's always the same, even when you think this year - even if ONLY this year - might be different.

But it's February, and I think the Mets have a chance.

Now, before you click away, humor me for a second. The 2011 edition of the Mets is not the pre-season darling like the 2008 Mets, or the 2007 Mets, or the 1988 Mets. But there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this year's squad.

When we last saw our Mess -- pardon me, Mets -- they were crawling to the finish of a 79-83 season. Johan Santana had succumbed to season-ending surgery. Francisco Rodriguez was narrowly dodging jail time. Jason Bay was not recovered from his concussion. Our lame duck manager, Jerry Manuel, was mercifully let go.

If that weren't bad enough, the offseason brought even worse news. Although sabermetric and mainstream fans alike were delighted by the addition of Sandy Alderson and company, the far bigger news surrounded the Mets and their connection to the infamous Bernie Madoff scandal. Even now, there is an enormous amount of uncertainty about Mets ownership and whether they can even keep ownership of the team, much less add players.

So, Brian, when is the good news coming? You know, the part where you explain why you think the 2011 Mets might actually make some noise this season? Well, you got it RIGHT HERE:

Spring is not a time for *meaningless* optimism, but rather, a time when we step back from the real-life difficulties our team faced last season and look at things objectively. Instead of - if you are a serious Mets fan, like most of us are - feeling endlessly buffeted by bad news and simply waiting for the *other* bad news, you get a chance to take a breath and say, without irony, "hey, if my team gets a break or two, we could be in this thing."

And you'd be right to say it. Because baseball is a sport where even the tiniest adjustments can make for enormous differences. Unlike basketball or football where a bad team is hopeless and hard to even be optimistic about, in baseball, a break here or there can make the difference between an 85 and 90 win team. Heck, even if you don't get an actual lucky break, the best teams in baseball only win 60% of the time.

So, why do the Mets have a shot? Well, because -- and you may be shocked to hear this -- almost every single thing last season went WELL for the Mets.

When we were entering the 2010 season, the Mets were a disaster. Wright had come off a terrible season. Reyes was riddled with injuries. Beltran was hurt. Nobody knew what Mike Pelfrey was capable of. Mike Jacobs was the first baseman. It was foolish to expect, at this time last year, that the Mets would be able to compete. At the time, I advocated that the Mets take the year off, and build for 2012. Could they do well? Sure - but they would need a LOT of luck.

For the most part, the Mets actually DID have good luck. Most of the question marks above ended up being answered in a resoundingly positive fashion. Let's go point by point and take a look at just how good things really are:

1. Jose Reyes is back and healthy (and in a contract year).

After a 2009 season where he played only 33 games, nobody knew what to expect from the Mets two-time all star, silver slugger shortstop. Could he stay healthy? Could he return to form? Both questions were answered with a resounding yes.

After returning from his thyroid issue in April, Reyes got into 133 games. So how did he do once he got his legs under him and got to play baseball for a month (remember, he missed most of spring training)? He hit .298/.327/.475 over 300 at bats from June 17 to the end of the season.

That 803 OPS is higher than his career mark. If Reyes does even worse than he did in those four months last year (and there is no reason to suspect that he will regress) to give us a repeat of his 2007 season, the Mets will have a shortstop who will be 4.5 wins or more above replacement.

2. Carlos Beltran is back and sort-of healthy.

It is hard to say how Beltran will hold up over the grind of a full season, and I am not going to put much stock into tweets and blurbs from beat writers saying that Beltran is near 100%. However, one thing is true: when Beltran was back up to speed last year, he was vintage Carlos at the plate.

From August 16th to the end of the season - his whole season minus his first month back from injury - he batted an astounding .282/.368/.500, which is almost identical to his batting line from 2008. Whether he can stay healthy no one can say, but is a performance four or five times a week an unreasonable expectation?

An OPS of approximately 850-870 makes Beltran a 4 win player on offense alone.

3. David Wright bounced back offensively and proved he could hit for power in Citifield.

Ok, can we stop talking about it? Yes, there are other reasons for concern about Wright -- the strikeouts being the primary concern -- but he answered everyone's main concern last year beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Now that he can look back at his baseball card stats from 2010 and see 29 home runs, I expect that he will go back to doing what he does best -- being himself. Wright may never again be the player that was a 7 WAR player and perennial MVP candidate -- but I wouldn't bet against it. I don't see any reason why a player with those natural gifts, that incredible determination, and who had a thousand hits before his 27th birthday, can't return to form.

Even if he doesn't, and he just manages to replicate last year's 4 WAR performance, well, that's pretty darn good.

4. Mike Pelfrey bounced back from a poor 2009 to prove that he is a reliable mid-rotation starter.

Ignore from the moment the fact that I've been yelling from the rooftops for years now that Pelfrey has been essentially the same pitcher every year (xFIP: 4.4, 4.5, 4.4 over the last three years). The bottom line is this -- he bounced back from a season where he posted an ERA above 5 to notch a year with 15 wins and an ERA of 3.66.

Ignore from a moment also the fact that, aside from one poor month, that Pelfrey posted an ERA by month of : 0.69, 3.82, 3.54, 1.82, 3.86. Ignore that.

Take away both the optimistic and the pessimistic sides and look at the bottom line. Big Pelf appears to be a guy who can be counted on for 200 innings and to post an xFIP no higher than 4.50. In fact, there is reason to believe that that kind of season is the absolute worst that we can expect from him. He'll pitch this entire season at age 27 and he's got 683 major league innings under his belt. Perhaps this is the season that we can expect everything to "click" for him and for him to step up his game.

Even if he doesn't, he's a 2 or 3 win pitcher. And that's awesome.

5. R.A. Dickey came out of nowhere, and posted the 7th best ERA in the National League.

6. Jonathon Niese was great last year.

Remember, before the Mets left Niese out to rot on the vine in September, Niese had posted a 3.70 ERA with 124 strikeouts in 148 innings. He's tenacious, he doesn't walk a lot of batters, and he's only 24 years old. There is no reason to believe that he can't build on last season's meteoric -- and for some reason totally understated -- rise.

7. Angel Pagan met the most optimistic of projections

Power, stolen bases, and great defense in center field? Check, check, and check.

8. Josh Thole met the most optimistic of projections.

In fact, he may even have exceeded them. Not only was he league-average for a catcher with the bat, his defense far exceeded expectations. He cut down almost 50% of baserunners who tried to steal on him.

9. Bobby Parnell and Ike Davis had big, big seasons.

I could go on and on, but I'll stop. Here's the bottom line.

The 2010 Mets entered the season with BIG question marks at catcher, first base, second base, with their star shortstop, with their star third baseman, with their #2 starter, with their set up guy, and with their star centerfielder.

Almost all of those questions were resolved favorably. And as a BONUS, several players came out of nowhere to become enormous contributors.

Are the Mets, with the loss of Santana and the specter of the Phillies, the favorite? No, of course not. But when I look at this Mets team, I see a team that can score a LOT of runs. I see a team that has a TON of upside. And I see a team that is beginning to find a new identity.

These Mets remind me a lot of the 2005 Mets. They might not have enough to take it to the finish line, but there is a lot of reason for optimism.

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