COMMENTARY | It's open season on the New York Mets. Allow me to join the disgruntled, if only for a few moments.
The Mets are knocked for finishing in fourth place four years in a row. They're knocked in some quarters for getting rid of R.A. Dickey, the first Met to win the Cy Young Award since 1985, and the first Met to win 20 games since 1990.
Ownership has been taking hits for years, but now fans feel they have a little extra ammunition when they call on Fred Wilpon to sell the team. Raising ticket prices and charging a minimum of $63 for an Opening Day seat doesn't help. Not when the Mets are projected to once again finish in fourth place.
When you win 74 games and don't make any obvious improvements heading into the next season, fans aren't going to be happy. When your ace pitcher is sent packing and your outfield consists of nothing but question marks, it's kind of tough for fans to believe.
And to think that the Mets used to get ridiculed for collapsing in September. That's right, in the good old days they at least stayed in the pennant race for five months. Then they started losing. Fans would welcome another September collapse if it meant the Mets would be playing meaningful baseball at Citi Field beyond the All-Star break.
While it's hard to argue that the Mets have fallen on tough times, a case can be made that the future is looking brighter by the day. That's because a plan has been put into place.
First, the idea that Mets ownership has ever been unwilling to spend money is a myth. In the last two-plus decades, the time period in which the Mets haven't been able to repeat the success they had in the mid to late 1980s -- they've spent big money on some of the game's best players. Bobby Bonilla was brought in prior to the 1992 season. Mike Piazza signed for more than $90 million after the 1998 season. Mo Vaughn came aboard in 2002. Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran were signed prior to the 2005 season. And most recently, Jason Bay joined the club for big dollars starting in 2010.
It's not that the Wilpons are unwilling to spend money. It may just be that right now they're not able to. Or perhaps because they've been burned so many times before, they're a little hesitant to spend big when the Mets may still be a few years away from competing for real. Can you blame them? This is a team building for the future, after all.
This is the message that Mets brass needs to get across to the team's fans. Contrary to popular chatter, the Mets' future is bright. There are plenty of reasons why Sandy Alderson and the rest of the organization would be able to sell that mantra to fans.
The pitching is where it all starts, and no matter what you think of the Dickey trade, the Mets future starting rotation has promise. Consider that Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard are projected to anchor what could be a dominant staff. Of course, we were saying the same thing back in the mid 1990s when the Mets brought up Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson. But you at least have to be excited about the fact that the Mets have three of baseball's top pitching prospects in their organization. (Harvey started 10 games for the Mets last season.)
Give Alderson credit here. He brought Wheeler in from the San Francisco Giants in the Carlos Beltran trade, and Syndergaard was one of the key pieces the Mets got back from the Toronto Blue Jays when they traded Dickey. (Harvey was taken seventh overall in the 2010 amateur draft when Omar Minaya was still running the team.)
While the Mets clearly plan to build a team around a strong starting staff, it's not the only area of the club worth noting.
The worst thing that you can say about the infield is that Daniel Murphy doesn't have a position. For now, he's the Mets' second baseman. Hitting is not his problem, though he's a work in progress in the field. He hit .320 in 2011 and .291 in 2012. I got annoyed with the Don Mattingly comparisons when he first came up, but the fact of the matter is that Murphy can hit.
Elsewhere around the infield, David Wright at third base is the Mets' best all-around player and he's now locked up for eight years and $138 million. Ruben Tejada proved last year that he's a more-than-adequate shortstop, a real good fielder who has hit over .280 for two consecutive seasons. He may not be Jose Reyes, but he also isn't costing the Mets $106 million. At first base, considering he was so bad in the first half that there was talk of sending him down to the minors, Ike Davis finished with remarkable numbers, hitting 32 home runs and driving in 90 runs. He's a prototypical middle-of-the-order guy.
The bottom line with the infield is that you can win with that group. Maybe Murphy is used as trade bait at some point -- perhaps to bring in an outfielder -- but for now, the infield is pretty much set.
Which brings us to the infamous outfield. If it looks bad out there, that's because it is. Right now the Mets don't have a single proven Major League player on their roster to fill any of the outfield spots. Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who is expected to be the starting center fielder, struck out 98 times in 282 at-bats. Lucas Duda, who has a lot to prove at the plate and in the field, for now is the Mets' left fielder. And Mike Baxter and Jordany Valdespin are really fourth outfielders, but at this point at least one would be forced into a starting role.
Having said all that, the Mets are right not to hit the panic button and go after an average outfielder who they'd have to overspend to get. (To show you where the market is, Shane Victorino got $13 million a year from the Boston Red Sox.) The Mets are going to have to see if there's anyone they can bring in for a reasonable rate in 2013 and hope that Nieuwenhuis cuts back on the strikeouts and that maybe they get some power from Duda. Then, next offseason, when Johan Santana's exorbitant contract comes off the books and they're able to spend a little money, they can go out and look for a stud outfielder, whether via free agency or trade. While fans don't want to wait another year, that plan makes sense.
Until earlier this week, the Mets second biggest question mark -- right behind the outfield -- was behind the plate. Now the Mets have their future catcher in Travis d'Arnaud, who they acquired in the Dickey trade, and who's ranked as the best catching prospect in baseball. He may be ready to have an immediate impact, and the Mets really have nothing to lose by throwing him into the fire and seeing what he's made of.
The last time there was this much excitement about acquiring a catcher was when the Mets traded for Mike Piazza in 1998. Two years later, they were in the World Series, though it must be said that the circumstances, and player, were far different.
Despite all the noise about how the organization is in disarray, the Mets are building a solid club that could compete as early as 2014. It starts with the young arms, of course, and they'll have to hope that the infield stays intact, that d'Arnaud develops into an everyday catcher, and that when the Mets go shopping for a power-hitting outfielder, they have more luck this time around than they did with Bonilla and Bay.
Yes, the Mets are asking for more patience and trust. But the payoff could be huge.
At the very least, give the Mets this: They have a plan.
Charles Costello has followed the Mets closely since the rookie years of Darryl Strawberry (1983) and Dwight Gooden (1984). He was a beat reporter assigned to cover the Mets during the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
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