Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What Could've Been, and What is

Before the Mets' 2012 season began, the team was covered as the factual coming of the fictional 1989 Cleveland Indians as depicted in the movie "Major League."  Not only did they have no chance to compete on the field or draw fans to the ballpark, they were broke.  Here's what's happened since:

The cloud created by the Bernard Madoff situation has been lifted.  Instead of facing the possibility of having to pay close to $1 Billion, the Mets settled the lawsuit for $162 Million, a fraction of which they'll actually have to pay.  The problem the team had attracting outside investors resolved itself.  The team that was broke was suddenly broke no more (if not exactly flush with cash).  They flexed their new-found financial stability by almost immediately handing Jonathon Niese a five year contract extension, buying out a few of his arbitration years in a low-risk, potentially high-reward maneuver.

The team that many in the media had speculated would trade David Wright around this year's All-Star break (even though that made zero sense considering Wright would've been able to void his 2013 option had he been dealt - making him much less valuable to interested clubs), is now seen as likely to re-sign Wright to a long-term deal - likely this offseason.

The fan revolt that was supposed to leave Citi Field deserted has simply not happened.  Through the weekend, the Mets were currently averaging 29,300 fans per game, compared to an average of 30,108 in 2011.  And with school now out and the team in contention, one would expect the average attendance to rise if the team continues to play the style of ball they've been displaying thus far.  Before the season began, Keith Law of ESPN penned an article citing the likelihood of when the most crestfallen Major League clubs would realistically be able to next contend.  He opined that the Mets' next shot at contending would be in 2016.  Well, it's June 27th, 2012 and the Mets are contending.  They're 40-36, one game out of a Wild Card spot in the National League, four games behind Washington for first place in the National League East.

The team has showed tons of resilience so far this season, and unlike their faux flirtation with contention early in 2010 and 2011, it appears this team has staying power due to the strength of its starting rotation.  Aside from #5 starter Dillon Gee, who currently has a 4.42 ERA, the other members of the rotation have ERA's between 2.31 and 3.55. Chris Young's results have come in a small sample size, but for RA Dickey, Johan Santana, and Jonathon Niese, their impressive ERA's match up with their strong peripherals.  If one of the starting pitchers were to go down, we've probably reached the point in the season where the call-up would be prospect Matt Harvey (and not a conveyor belt of Chris Schwinden clones), who's worked lately on refining his offspeed pitches in Buffalo and appears to be just about ready to contribute at the big league level.  The organization's other top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler has dominated for AA Binghamton for the most part, and appears to be nearing a promotion to AAA - allowing us to peer over a horizon at what could potentially be a tremendous starting rotation in the near future.  Aside from Bobby Parnell, Tim Byrdak, and at times Frank Francisco, the bullpen has been a mess.  It's the one area the team has to improve in the coming weeks (whether it's via trade, call-ups, role changes, or a combination of the three).

If the season ended today (and it doesn't, but we have nothing to go by but the results so far), it could be argued that the Mets would have:

-The Manager of the Year in Terry Collins, who has completely transformed the way the team goes about its business since taking the helm - implementing "the Mets way" as heralded by Sandy Alderson and the rest of the front office.  Since shorting out during stints Managing in Houston and Anaheim, Collins has changed as a person and as a Manager, and is exhibiting a mixture of assertiveness, honesty, and tenacity that has his club in the thick of the Playoff race.

-The Cy Young Award winner in RA Dickey, who has come from the depths of hell (both personally and baseball wise) and emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball.  With a knuckler he can somehow control and throw at a velocity no one has ever seen from a knuckle ball pitcher, Dickey currently sits at 11-1, with a 2.31 ERA, 106 K's, a .196 BAA, and a WHIP of 0.91.

-The MVP in David Wright, who's currently hitting .357 with a .449 OBP.  Wright is on pace to finish the season with 53 Doubles, 102 Runs Scored, 200 Hits, 100 RBI's, and 17 Homers.

Along with the above trifecta, the rest of the team has the Mets sitting firmly in both the Wild Card race and the race for the National League East title.  The Marlins, with all of their offseason spending, sit at 34-40, losers of 17 of their last 20.  Heath Bell has been a disaster (as his declining K's per 9 foretold), Carlos Zambrano has begun his yearly implosion, Ozzie Guillen is still an imbecile, and Jose Reyes is having an underwhelming first season in Miami.  The Phillies (36-40) are a mess.  Roy Halladay is out for a few more months, the offense is so bad that Cliff Lee is winless, and Charlie Manuel has begun to openly question their effort.  Chase Utley is returning, but with the same degenerative knees that have derailed his career.  The Braves have been up and down this season, but just took an enormous hit after learning that Brandon Beachy (who was sporting an ERA of 2.00) has been lost for the season due to Tommy John Surgery.  That leaves us with the Nationals, who have been good so far, but whose offense is putrid (23rd in the Majors in Batting Average, 25th in OBP, and 27th in Runs Scored).  The biggest question surrounding the Nats, though, is the strict 160 inning limit they've set for their ace Stephen Strasburg.  He has already thrown 90 innings, leaving him with 70 more in the tank.  Strasburg is averaging 6 innings per start, and if the Nats actually shut him down at the 160 inning mark, his season would be over after about 12 more starts. 

Regardless of who ends up at the top of the National League East, the Mets have proven that they should be able to stay in the thick of things through September.  Due in large part to the addition of the 2nd Wild Card, and the lack of any real standout teams in the National League, the Mets could conceivably finish the year in 3rd place in the National League East and still find themselves in the Playoffs.  On Monday, the Mets emerged from their toughest stretch of the season (22 consecutive games against teams that would be in the Playoffs if the season ended today) with a record of 11-11.  After the conclusion of today's 3 game series against the Cubs (the ugliness of the first two games not-withstanding), they find themselves firmly in contention.

The team has shown their fans and Management that they have what it takes to stay in the race.  In the coming weeks, it's on the front office to step up make improvements to the bullpen, which will hopefully give the club the boost it needs.  The front office should under no circumstances entertain trading any of their top prospects for immediate help in the pen.  However, dealing redundant prospects and/or taking on a bit of money from a team in exchange for a quality pen arm are two potential routes they can take in acquiring relief help.

It's an exciting time to be a Mets fan.  That refrain was uttered by a smattering of fans before the season began, and has begun to reach the lips of many others as the 2012 season nears the halfway mark.  The 4-0 start that was mocked has become a 40-36 start that, while not eye-popping or incredible, is a large enough sample to take this team seriously.