Are the Mets Now NL East Favorites?

Posted: 08/08/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

The New York Mets started the year extremely well. They were 13-3 following an 11 game win streak and were six games up on the Nationals, who had started the season with some puzzling losses against pretty bad teams. That’s when the “Can the Mets win the NL East?” narrative started, but most people (including myself) still believed that the Nationals, the World Series favorite and a much stronger team on paper, would pull away. And guess what? By mid-May, the teams were even in the standings. And even after the Mets won six of their last seven games before the All-Star break to pick up a couple of games in the standings, the Nationals were two games up heading into the midseason break. The race, for all intents and purposes, seemed to be over, as the Nationals had withstood the Mets’ early surge and were slowly returning to full strength. If you had asked me a month ago what the NL East would look like on August 8th, I would have predicted a five or six game Nationals lead. And after the Mets lost six of their first eight games after the break, that prediction would have looked good. Since they fell to 49-48 and three games behind the Nationals, though, New York is 10-2, while Washington is 4-8. All of a sudden, the Mets are on a seven game winning streak and hold a 2.5 game lead on the Nats with about a third of the season still to play. The sample size is large now, and the Mets are still in front. So should they now be considered the favorites?

This is one of the weirder contending big-market teams I’ve seen because they are being managed as if they play in Oakland and not the Big Apple. I don’t really know much about the connection between Mets owner Fred Wilpon and Bernie Madoff, but the Madoff scandal has certainly had a huge effect on the amount Wilpon has been willing to spend on his baseball team. The Mets have been one of the lowest-spending teams in baseball over the last few years and finally re-broke the $100 million salary mark this season. But their $112 million salary this season is still just 18th in baseball, and all of the teams below New York reside in traditionally small baseball markets. This only matters in the context of the 2015 Mets and their NL East championship chances because of what happened at the trade deadline. A couple of days before the deadline, the Mets were reported to have traded for Carlos Gomez, one of the best all-around players on the market and a perfect replacement for the struggling Juan Lagares. The acquisition of Gomez, whom I wrote about as a darkhorse trade candidate, would have legitimized the Mets as a potential playoff team if not the NL East favorite. But hours after Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported the trade, Mets GM Sandy Alderson shot it down. The Mets say they backed out because of a Gomez hip injury, but Gomez has never had a hip injury in his career and was traded to the Astros the next day. The speculation has been that the Mets backed out for money reasons, opting instead to trade for Yoenis Cespedes, probably a lesser all-around player and a free agent after this season. Did the Mets really pick Cespedes over Gomez simply because he was a shorter-term commitment and because the Brewers wouldn’t take money back in the Gomez trade? I don’t know, but it seems pretty likely, and it’s a decision that has a pretty big impact on New York’s chances.

So instead of Gomez, the Mets ended up with Cespedes. Fine. Their fans are angry that they won’t spend more money, but who cares, right? This is still a team that’s heavily reliant on its rotation. Jacob DeGrom has turned into a bonafide ace and is suddenly an NL Cy Young candidate who sports a 2.13 ERA and is striking out more than a batter per inning. Top prospect Noah Syndergaard had given up just 12 earned runs in his last nine starts before running into some trouble today. Matt Harvey is back to dominating the league, as he’s posted a 1.64 ERA in his last nine starts. Jon Niese is a terrific #4 starter, as he’s posted 10 quality starts in his last 11 outings. Even 42-year old Bartolo Colon has provided some quality innings. So yeah, if the rotation can continue to put up these incredible numbers over the final couple months of the season, they’ll win the NL East.

The more interesting question is whether the offense can lift the team to the NL East championship if the starters stumble a little bit down the stretch, as Syndergaard did today (by the way, the Mets trail 5-4 in the sixth as I write this) and as can be expected from the team’s other young starters. I think the offense can do it. First of all, the team is going to get some help. David Wright is finally about to start a rehab stint, so he could return from the 60-day DL before the end of August. Remember, Wright has been the team’s best player for nearly a decade, and it’s hard to overstate how important he is to the team’s offense. Meanwhile, Michael Cuddyer’s stint on the DL will be a short one, and the outfielder will hopefully be revived by the few weeks off. And when Wright and Cuddyer return, the team will have a pretty deep and productive lineup that’s slowly been improving. Even before he hit two homers (and counting) today, leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson had a .907 post All-Star break OPS after hitting just .243/.340/.417 in the first half of the season. Cleanup hitter Lucas Duda, who hit 30 homers in a breakout season last year, is now hitting .270/.360/.689 after the break with nearly as many homers (nine) as he had before it (12). Second baseman Daniel Murphy, the prototypical average-only player, has upped his slugging percentage from .405 pre All-Star break to .449 since the break. Shortstop Ruben Tejada has taken the job from nearly-traded Wilmer Flores and run with it, as he’s hitting .329 since the All-Star break. The team is hitting a lot better than it did before the break, and that’s even without factoring in the big addition of Cespedes, who has immediately slotted into the #3 spot in the lineup.

The Mets don’t have a great offense on paper, but they do have some talent, and they were always likely to perform better than they did early in the season. And while the team’s still just 28th in baseball in runs scored, I’d say they are closer to average than 28th talent-wise. And you know what? That, along with the team’s stellar pitching, might just be enough to stave off the struggling Nationals. Putting aside six games against the Nationals, the Mets have just eight games remaining against winning teams (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, NY Yankees), and six of those come at home, where they are 38-18. Meanwhile, the Nats still have to play tough series’ against the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Giants, with all three coming on the road. The Mets have the softer schedule to go along with their 2.5 game edge and stronger rotation, and that’s enough for me to give them the slight edge in the NL East race over their more talented rivals. It’s taken more than four months, but the Mets have finally done enough (or the Nationals have finally struggled enough) to make this a race worth watching down the stretch.

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