Cellar dwellers with bright futures: Mets

As the 2014 pennant race starts to kick into gear, we explore a number of teams who need to look to 2015 and beyond for their chance to compete. The third team we’ll discuss is the New York Mets.

For the last few years, they have been playing second fiddle to the other New York team, the Yankees. They have not made the playoffs since 2006, nor even finished with a winning record since 2008. A lot of people blame the Mets’ woes on a hesitance by their owners, the Wilpon family, to spend money. While this may be true, the Mets have done a good job of rebuilding and developing talent at both the major and minor league levels.

Core position players to build around

The current face of the Mets’ franchise is homegrown star third baseman David Wright. The 31 year old was named the fourth captain in team history prior to the 2013 season, about a year after signing a long-term extension to keep him playing in New York through 2020. Wright might not put up 30 home runs and 100 RBIs a year anymore (he’s batting .285 with just 8 home runs in 2014),  but his consistency and leadership have proven invaluable in a period of rebuilding.

Another infielder, second baseman Daniel Murphy, has quietly become one of the best pure hitters in the game. In 2013, his 188 hits ranked second in the league. This year, he is second again with 113 hits, but he has raised his average to .294, earning him his first selection to the All-Star team. Murphy sometimes makes mistakes on the base paths or on defense, but his knack for hitting cannot be ignored. At 29, he is in his prime, and could prove to be the Mets’ answer at second base for the next 5-6 years.

In center field, 25 year old Juan Lagares has given New York hope in what was not long ago a bleak outfield situation. After being called up in 2013, Lagares quickly proved himself to be one of the, if not the best, defensive center fielders in the National League. His speed in getting to the ball, strong arm, and highlight reel catches got fans excited, but he only hit .242. This year, we have seen more of the same from his defensive abilities, but he has raised his average significantly to .293. If he can continue to make contact like he has so far, he will erase all doubts about his importance in the organization.

Behind the plate, Travis d’Arnaud is more of a question mark, but has the potential to be a solid starting backstop. After being traded from the Blue Jays, he was the top hitting prospect in the Mets’ system in 2013, and was given the starting catching job to start 2014. The rookie answered by hitting below .200 until being sent down for a stint in Triple AAA. After being recalled in late May, d’Arnaud has become more consistent, raising his average to .217. The young catcher still has a lot to prove, but a strong second half could help cement him as the Mets’ catcher of the future.

A strong starting rotation

Throughout franchise history, the Mets have traditionally been built around starting pitching, and as they look to emerge as contenders, this time is no different. Starting in 2015, the team will expect their three most highly regarded young pitchers to anchor the rotation, and fuel overall fan excitement.

If all goes according to plan, Matt Harvey will return from Tommy John surgery to be the Opening Day starter in 2015. In 2013, the now-25 year old utilized an arsenal of pitches to become one the best pitchers in baseball. In just 26 starts, he had a 2.27 ERA and 191 strikeouts before falling to injury, ruling out the rest of 2013 and most or all of this year. In his short time in New York, Harvey electrified the city and represented hope for a team that had seemingly lost its moxie.

Harvey will be joined by Zack Wheeler, another young, flame-throwing right-hander. Acquired as part of a 2011 package that sent Carlos Beltran to the Giants, Wheeler has been inconsistent for much of 2014, but has done better of late. He is only 5-8 so far, but has a respectable 3.90 ERA and 105 strikeouts, both numbers he will look to build upon after the All-Star break. In many ways, fans have unrealistic expectations of Wheeler. After Matt Harvey became a Cy Young candidate in his first full season, many unrealistically thought Wheeler would immediately do the same. He is only 24, and still has time to develop into a front-end starter.

Perhaps the pitcher the Mets are most excited about going forward is 21 year old Noah Syndergaard, who the Mets received in a trade  with the Blue Jays after the 2012 season. Not only is Syndergaard the top prospect in the Mets’ system, but MLB.com ranks him as the 10th best prospect in all of baseball. After dominating batters from rookie leagues to AA, this young man has struggled has struggled in 2014 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He still should expect to get the call to the big leagues soon, however, either in late 2014 or early 2015.

Harvey, Wheeler, and Syndergaard have all had the label of top prospect. The Mets also have pitchers who have grabbed fewer headlines, though, who have still done a great job in the major leagues. 27 year old Jonathan Niese is on his way to his third straight sub-4 ERA year, and at 2.96, his ERA is lower than it’s ever been. Meanwhile, Dillon Gee, 28, has missed almost half the year on the disabled list, but still has a 2.56 ERA in 9 starts. He is looking to continue his success after a great 2013, in which he went 12-11 with a 3.62 ERA.

Finally, 26 year old rookie Jacob de Grom was never a top prospect, but after being called up earlier this year, he has surprised many with a 3.18 ERA in 73 2/3 innings pitched. Over the past years, the Mets have stockpiled pitching talent, and in addition to forming a strong rotation, this gives them the ability to trade for players who can strengthen the lineup.

A future filled with hope

In addition to pitchers, the Mets also have many prospects currently in their farm systems. Position players like Brandon Nimmo, Kevin Plawecki, Dominic Smith, Wilmer Flores and Dilson Herrera, and pitchers like Rafael Montero still have a lot to prove. Both Montero and Flores have already gotten a taste of the big leagues, but they couldn’t find their groove. As for the rest, they will get a chance to make their splashes in 2015 and beyond. None of them are blue chip prospects, but they are all young, and have the potential to become solid starters, if not stars.

As of the All-Star break, the Mets are on an 8-2 run and sit at 45-50, 7 games out of first in the NL East. They will likely fall out the playoff race sooner or later, but it won’t be long until they’re back to stay. Frankly, fans are getting tired of hearing phrases like “the future” and “rebuilding process.” They can take solace, however, knowing that it’s not unrealistic to expect 2015 to be the first year in the pennant race since 2008. So to all New York Mets fanatics who expect and want to win, I can confidently say that the time is near.

Joe Setyon, sports editor of The Collegian at Grove City College, contributes to Three for Ten Sports as a baseball writer.

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