Winter Report Card: Mets keep Cespedes, Walker but otherwise stand pat
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the New York Mets.
87–75, second place in National League East; lost NL wild-card game to Giants
LHP Jerry Blevins*, RHP Bartolo Colon, OF Alejandro De Aza, IF/OF Kelly Johnson, 1B James Loney, LHP Jonathon Niese*, RHP Logan Verrett
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season in Review
Hard as it may be to believe, New York did not add a single player to its 40-man roster from another big league club. But to be fair to the Mets, if the above category were called “Key Players Retained” or “Key Players Coming Back From Injury,” it would appear a lot more interesting. For starters, the starters will be back. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz all finished the season on the disabled list, but each is expected to be ready for spring training, as could Zack Wheeler, the 27-year-old righty who has thrown exactly one inning since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014. Wheeler might be ticketed for the bullpen this spring as he gets back up to speed, but New York will need deGrom, Harvey and Matz to re-join Noah Syndergaard in a rotation that was once the envy of the sport for its youth and talent.
The rotation also took a hit with the loss of Colon to the Braves in free agency. For all the laughter the 43-year-old inspired with his bat and his belly, he remained a reliable starter, going 15–8 with a 3.43 ERA in a team-high 191 2/3 innings. Righties Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, who stepped into the rotation last year when the injury bug hit, should have a chance to do so again this year in Colon's absence, at least while the team figures out what to do with Wheeler.
Offensively, the Mets re-signed both outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and second baseman Neil Walker, who combined to hit 54 home runs a season ago. Walker accepted a one-year qualifying offer; Cespedes opted out of his three-year, $75 million contract but ended up signing a four-year, $110 million deal. Simply put, New York could not afford to lose a player who led the team in home runs (31), RBIs (86), OPS+ (133), total bases (254) and on-base percentage (.354), even if that player missed 30 games last season because of injury and can be—fantastic throwing arm aside—as much of a liability as an asset defensively.
Re-signing Walker got fewer headlines, but he may prove to be just as critical despite the fact that he too is coming off a season-ending injury. But assuming his back problems are solved, Walker should continue to provide above-average production from the second base spot.
Catcher Rene Rivera also returned to caddy for Travis d'Arnaud, and the Mets are said to be interested in bringing back lefty reliever Blevins, too. Among the quietly departed are De Aza, Johnson and Loney as well as swingmen Niese and Verrett. None will be sorely mised. Loney put up an 87 OPS+, and De Aza managed a sickly mark of 66. Johnson was decent after being acquired from the Braves, but with Walker, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores, Jose Reyes and David Wright all battling for playing time in the infield, there was really no place to put him. Niese, who helped the Mets reach the World Series in 2015 before being traded to Pittsburgh, was dealt back to New York at the Aug. 1 deadline and posted an 11.45 ERA in six games before being allowed to walk in free agency. Verrett is just 26 but he was traded to the Orioles for cash after going 3–8 with a 5.20 ERA.
Unfinished Business: Trade Jay Bruce
When the Mets acquired Bruce from the Reds at last year's trade deadline, they were expecting to get the player who had averaged 26 home runs a season for Cincinnati since debuting in 2008. But not only did Bruce struggle mightily at the plate—he hit .174 with four home runs in his first 42 games before going 12-for-25 with four homers in his final eight—he also further complicated an outfield alignment that already had two players (Cespedes and Curtis Granderson) who belong in the corners. Bruce's arrival forced at least one of them to continue playing center instead, compromising the team's defense.
Bruce's name was reportedly dangled in trade talks during the off-season, but general manager Sandy Alderson was unable to find a match for the 29-year-old, who has one year and $13 million remaining on his contract. New York will likely count on Juan Lagares, a Gold Glover in 2014 who played just 79 games last season, to play centerfield (assuming he is unaffected by the shoulder injury he suffered playing winter league ball), putting Cespedes in left and Granderson in right and finding at-bats for Michael Conforto as the fourth outfielder. That means that Bruce will be expendable all season long.
Preliminary Grade: C-
Losing Colon will hurt, but not nearly as much as it would have to lose Cespedes, and probably Walker, too. Even with those two back, New York would have been well-served to add some better offensive options to a lineup that ranked 11th in OBP and 12th in runs scored. At 34 years old and coming off two straight seasons in which he's failed to play 40 games due to a degenerative spinal condition, counting on Wright to play like a star again is unreasonable. The only regular to play 150 games last season was Granderson, so assuming the club stays healthy, it should be in the hunt for its third straight postseason berth—a feat the franchise has yet to pull off in its 55-year history.