Five questions: New York Mets

It has been a rough few years to be a Mets fan. The team has not made the playoffs since 2006, and Citi Field has yet to see a winning season. Meanwhile, the crosstown Yankees won a title their first year in the new Yankee Stadium, while National League East rivals like Philadelphia and Washington experienced real success in the same period.

Will 2013 be the season when the Mets turn it around? We shall see, but given that I usually dabble in the realm of history, this column will present not just questions, but also my Official Prediction to make it easy for history to judge me and for all of you to see what the season will hold. Let’s begin:

What is there to look forward to?

We’ll cover this more in a bit, but I don’t think I’m spoiling much to say that when it comes to the actual on-field performance of the 2013 Mets, there is not much for fans to look forward to. Though teams do surprise—as any follower of the Baltimore Orioles can tell you—the Mets are unlikely to contend this year.

For the fans, therefore, what there is to look forward to in 2013 is primarily centered on the performance of individual players, both at the major league and, more importantly, minor league level.

In Flushing, the most interesting player to follow will be Ike Davis. After a truly brutal start (Davis was hitting barely over .200 at the All-Star break, in no small part because he recorded just eight hits in his first 18 games), the first baseman turned it on in the second half, slugging 21 home runs and putting up an OPS over .900.

This season will be a true test for Davis, who is entering his age-26 season and has to prove the injuries of 2011 and early struggles of 2012 were exceptions rather than the rule when it comes to his performance.

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The face of the Mets’ franchise (US Presswire)

In large part owing to some of their moves the last couple of seasons, the Mets farm system is well-regarded within baseball.

It is highlighted by three prospects acquired in trades: right-handed starter Zack Wheeler (picked up in the Carlos Beltran trade with San Francisco in July of 2011), catcher Travis d’Arnaud and right-hander Noah Syndergaard (both acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade with Toronto).

Wheeler and d’Arnaud—who both played in Triple-A last season—are ahead of Syndergaard, who has not pitched above High-A. Nonetheless, Baseball America ranked all three as “A-” prospects heading into this season.

For the moment, the Mets’ announced plans are to start Wheeler and d’Arnaud in Las Vegas, home of the team’s Triple-A affiliate, though strong performances could earn both a trip to Queens by midsummer.

For those who like their baseball heavy on the symbolism, there is a chance Wheeler and d’Arnaud could be debuting at Citi Field around the same time the All-Star game is taking place, perhaps portending a bright future for the pair.

Thus we come to my Official Prediction that while those players breaking camp with the Mets this season are unlikely to be the source of much excitement, for fans willing to track those players toiling in Las Vegas, Binghamton and elsewhere, there is much to look forward to.

David’s contract: the Wright move?

(We also would have accepted David’s Contract: Wright-Sized? or David’s Contract: The Wright Stuff?)

After much Sturm und Drang this offseason, Wright signed an eight-year, $138 million contract that takes him through the 2020 season (though the contract contains an amount of deferred money that will keep Wright on the Mets’ books through 2025). The third baseman will be 37 at the end of the deal, and it seems likely it will keep Wright in Flushing for the entirety of his career. The contract includes a full no-trade clause, though he will acquire 10-5 rights soon, anyway, and allows Wright to firmly establish himself atop the Mets’ career leaderboards.

Nonetheless, that is quite a lot of money for a player who will be playing in his age-30 season during the contract’s first year. It is true that Wright had a strong season last year, batting over .300 for the first season since 2009 and—aided by the new dimensions of CitiField—hit half-again as many home runs as he had in 2011.

If 2012 is representative of the type of season Wright puts up over the life of the deal, then the Mets will be pleased with the results. On the other hand, he is still just a year removed from his 2011 season when, battling injuries, he missed 60 games and was unable to produce when on the field, producing the lowest OPS of his career.

Signing any player in his 30s—even one whose peak is equal to that of Wright’s 2007-08 prime—to a long contract is a risky move. Despite this, my Official Prediction is that, while Wright may not be “worth” his contract in the pure value for dollars sense, Mets fan will not mind.

To lose their franchise player would have been the ultimate sign that the Wilpons were unable to run the team as anything more than a shell of itself. Whatever production Wright gives them over the life of the deal, the Flushing Faithful will be happy to have a position player who will be as inexorably linked to the history of the franchise as Tom Seaver is on the mound.

How low can they go, part I: attendance

As recently as 2008, the Mets were drawing more than 49,000 fans per game and were within 3200 per of the Yankees. That was always going to change when the Mets moved into smaller Citi Field, but the drop in attendance nonetheless has been shocking.

Last year the team drew just 27,689 fand per game, the second-lowest attendance of any New York baseball team in the millennium. (They were beaten, so to speak, by the 2003 Mets, the worst and least interesting Met team in recent memory.) Last season, the Mets were significantly closer in attendance to the New York Red Bulls than they were to the New York Yankees.

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Travis d’Arnaud asks Fred Wilpon when payroll will be going up (US Presswire)

Of course, this is to be expected. Since 2009, the Mets have lost an average of 87 games and seen the likes of Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Reyes, and Beltran leave the team, with Dickey heading out of town this offseason.

It is an open question as to just how poor Mets attendance will be in 2013. The Mets have not drawn fewer than 25,000 fans per game since 1997, so a drop below that level is profoundly unlikely.

Even so, a drop of just less than 950 fans per game would be enough to make this the least-watched Mets’ team in 15 years.

(And this is aside from the issue of how many of those fans are actually showing up at Citi Field. The likely answer is “not many,” given that last year the Wall Street Journal sent a reporter with a decibel meter to a late-season Mets game and determined it was generally in the same volume range as “washing machine” or “electric toothbrush.”)

Even though the team has attempted to woo additional season ticket holders with the promise of All-Star game tickets—an attempt accompanied by a ham-handed rise in ticket prices—my Official Prediction is that the 2013 Mets will go down as the least-watched New York baseball team of the millennium, averaging approximately 26,650 fans per game.

How low can they go, part II: record

There’s no nice way to put this, so I might as well just say it: there’s a real chance the Mets are bad, really bad. Not 1962 Mets bad, but perhaps 1993 Mets bad.

As of right now, the team’s projected outfield, left to right, is Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Mike Baxter. Last year, in nearly 1000 plate appearances, the three totaled—totaled!—a negative WAR. Duda is actually a decent hitter, but his defense is miserable, while Nieuwenheis and Baxter are severely stretched in full-time roles.

Meanwhile, having traded away Dickey, the Mets now have just one pitcher on their roster who threw more than 120 major league innings last season, and the ZiPS projection for their pitching staff was characterized (in perhaps a bit of an undersell) as “discouraging.”

It is true that there is more hope than an ordinary projection would suggest, largely on the back of Johan Santana, who was excellent in his first 11 starts (3-2, 2.38 ERA, with a strikeout per inning) before going to pieces (3-7, 8.27 ERA) and being shut down thereafter.

As noted above, the team’s greatest hope (and strength, candidly) lies in the minor leagues. Of course, minor league players—even ones with the pedigree of d’Arnaud or Wheeler—sometimes require an adjustment to the major league level. So while their arrival may herald better things in the future, it is an open question if it will meaningfully improve things at Citi Field.

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A rebound season from this man would do a lot to help the Mets in 2013 (US Presswire)

Last season, the Mets went 74-88, good for fourth place in the National League East.

Since that time, they have lost two of their five hitters with a WAR over 1.0 (Scott Hairston and Andres Torres), the reigning Cy Young winner and added no major league players of any consequence.

As such, my Official Prediction is that the team will match, but not worsen, the record of the aforementioned 2003 Mets and finish at 66-95.

For Met fans put off by that prediction, they can at least take comfort in knowing that just three seasons after that pathetic year, the team went 97-65 and all the way to Game Seven of the NLCS. Which leads us to our next question.

Is there any hope?

I know this seems, on its face, very similar to the question about what there is to look forward to. I am thinking not so much of 2013, or 2014 or farther along, but rather in a general sense. Ever since Adam Wainwright froze Beltran with his curveball to end the just-mentioned 2006 NLCS, it seems the Mets franchise has been cursed.

The curse sometimes has seemed tragic—twice missing out on the playoffs with defeats on the season’s last day—and sometimes comic, such as Luis Castillo’s infamous drop of a routine pop-up to lose a Subway Series game. Perhaps worst of all for the franchise and its fans, the team’s ownership found itself caught up in the Bernie Madoff scandal, forcing a slashed payroll.

In fact, the shadow of Madoff looms large over the Mets. The indefatigable Howard Megdal has been following the story of the Wilpon’s financial issues since it broke and recently published a piece noting that despite Fred Wilpon’s claim to the contrary, debts of both a personal and business nature continue to plague the team. By 2015, the Wilpons will need to either pay back or otherwise account for nearly a billion dollars in debts.

With that kind of financial burden, it seems to be a reasonable question if the Mets will be able to create a winning team without the kind of extreme cleverness that the Tampa Bay Rays and other low-payroll teams have used. For a franchise which as recently as 2009 had the second-highest payroll in baseball, that is a sad state of affairs.

The 2003 campaign marked the first full season that the Wilpon family were sole owners of the Mets, having bought out Nelson Doubleday during the previous year. Since then, the Mets have played ten seasons. Only one of them ended with a playoff appearance, while more than half have seen a losing record, including three seasons of 91 or more losses.

All things being equal, it is clear Wilpon is willing to spend, but all things are not equal right now, and, of course, mere spending does not equal success. (After all, the 2009 Mets with the National League’s highest payroll were one of those 90-loss seasons.)

With that in mind, and knowing what we do about the Wilpons’ financial situation and their apparent willingness to attempt to mislead the Mets’ fans about it, my Official Prediction is that, while the team may improve and may even reach October in the future, until the Wilpon family is no longer in control of the team, the Mets have little chance of establishing themselves as the dominant force that their status as a team in the nation’s biggest media market demands.

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Comments

  1. Joseph Zalman said...

    Media needs to pressure Wilpons to either get out or field a decent team.
    WFAN or ESPN radio need to call ownership on the
    lack of a competitive team.
    Also they should remind ownership no one will attend their games until they field a winning team

  2. Paul G. said...

    What, no love for Matt Harvey?

    If this year goes well, we should see if the kids are going to build a nucleus of a good team in a year or two or if this is going to be ugly for a while.  If it shakes out well, a few good free agent signings could push them into contention.

    And talking about free agents, losing Jason Bay has to be worth a couple of wins, doesn’t it?  It would be difficult to find someone worse.

  3. papasmurf said...

    I wish the Wilpons would sell the team. They are horrible owners. I was devastated when Doubleday left the team under the sole control of the Wilpons 10 years ago because I expected some rough years ahead. With the exception of 2006 it has been ugly.

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