It would be extremely hard to argue against anyone who made the claim that the National League East is the best in the senior circuit in 2012.
You have the always solid Atlanta Braves, the new found powerhouse Washington Nationals, the new look Miami Marlins, and the dangerous Philadelphia Phillies, all of whom were garnering playoff buzz coming into the season.
To this date, Atlanta and Washington have delivered while Philadelphia and Miami have been sluggish, but remain within striking distance. It's going to be a great four-team race all summer long to see who will reign superior in this stacked division.
Am I forgetting anyone?...Oh that's right the lowly New York Mets, who were expected to be one of the worst teams in the National League this season. After all, it's hard to argue against the notion that the Mets got progressively worse (at least on paper) during the offseason. Gone was one of the greatest players in Mets history, Jose Reyes, who had been the cornerstone of the organization for seven years (alongside David Wright). To make matters worse, Reyes bolted to not only stay within the National League, but remained in the division signing with Miami. To go along with losing Reyes, the Mets traded away one of their biggest power-hitters, Carlos Beltran, before the end of last season.
So what did the Mets do to improve in the short term this offseason? Not much, it had seemed. To Sandy Alderson's credit he did look to sure up the always shaky Mets bullpen by adding Ramon Rameriz, Jon Rauch, and Frank Francisco. But with their lineup of no name players alongside a massively disappointing Jason Bay and potential future trade bait David Wright joining a starting staff whose projected ace was a 37-year-old knuckleballer, the Mets 2012 outlook looked less than promising.
But here we are on May 8th and a funny thing has happened, the Mets are actually dare I say it, not that bad of a major league club.
After winning tonight against Philadelphia (their second straight over the Phillies on the road) the Mets moved to 17-13, putting them just 1.5 back of Atlanta and Washington for the division lead and good enough for the best record of a non-division leading team in the NL.
The season started with a bang with the Mets sweeping Atlanta at home, but many expected it to just be a mirage, and quickly enough the Mets fell back into mediocrity falling around the .500 level for the second half of April and into early May.
But somehow the Mets just keep coming back every time it seems like they are going to enter into an epic losing streak to put them back where they belong at the bottom of the heap.
Leading the way is Wright, who has come out of the gates smoking hitting at a cool .375 (which is actually down from his numbers for most of April) while knocking in a team-high 17 runs. Simply put, this team only can go as far as Wright takes them. With Reyes gone, not only is Wright their best player but he also now the undisputed leader in the locker room. Despite the numerous trade rumors surrounding him, Wright continues to show why he has become such a fan favorite with his outstanding play on the field and his top notch attitude off of it. Wright is not, and never will be, a superstar but he is a darn good player and if New York was smart they'd lock him up for as long as possible.
But other than Wright, it has been a mishmash of different hitters in the lineup contributing at different moments, making this team truly fun to watch. Daniel Murphy and Josh Thole have been gotten off to hot starts to help the Met lineup, while Ruben Tejada and rookie Kirk Nuwenheis have been pleasant surprises.
The Mets lineup still continues to be no more than average however thanks in large part due to the struggles of Lucas Duda, Jason Bay (who is now injured), and most of all Ike Davis who were all expected to contribute in masses to the middle of the Mets lineup this year. They are hitting .247, .240, and .167 respectively with a combined 10 home runs and 29 RBI. Their struggles have been difficult, especially for Davis who is the Mets cleanup hitter and had shown such potential in his first year in the league. His Albert Pujols-less slump has continued into May, and the Mets can only pray he can turn it around soon.
As for the pitching staff, that 37-year-old knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey is actually really good and so is the front of the Mets rotation. Dickey has started the year 4-1, and his 3.76 era is good but it is also deceiving as much of it comes from just one poor start.
Johan Santana has come back after missing the entire 2011 season, and although the former CY Young award winner will likely never get back to the level he pitched at in his days in Minnesota and early on with New York, he has shown he still has what it takes to be one of the top pitches in the National League. Santana has got virtually no run support so he has managed just one win thus far, but has put up an impressive 2.61 ERA in his six starts with a team high 34 strikeouts.
Jon Niese also started hot, flirting with a no-hitter on Easter but has since cooled off. Niese and the rest of the back end of the rotation will be huge factors in the future success of the Mets this season.
The "improved" bullpen has actually been anything but, continuing to struggle and managing only the 27th best bullpen ERA in the majors thus far at a measly 4.57.
Despite their struggling bullpen however, the Mets have shown a knack for winning close games. The Mets are 12-6 in games decided by two runs or less so far this season, a testament to manager Terry Collins who has made all the right moves dealing with this young Mets team.
So the question is, when is it okay to start believing in this team as an actual playoff contender?
The answer is not yet. The Mets still have tons of questions and even with the emergence of players like Tejada, Thole, Murphy, Nuwenheis, and Niese, they can't really hold a candle to the depth of talent of the other four teams in the division.
Unfortunately, it is only May 8th. We could be having a very different conversation a month from now. After all every season there are teams who shine bright in April and May and then fade away while the most talented teams slowly but surely climb their way to the top. That could very well happen this year and only time will tell if the Mets really have what it takes to stay in the hunt all season long.
Still Terry Collins and his team deserve to be commended for their efforts so far this season, and who knows maybe the Mets have another miracle in them in 2012.