6 Reasons New York Mets Could Still Be Contenders in 2013

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2013

6 Reasons New York Mets Could Still Be Contenders in 2013

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    If everything unfolds perfectly for the New York Mets, they may stand a chance at fighting for an MLB postseason bid in 2013.

    Seriously, stop laughing. Come on. 

    It's certainly a long shot for the Mets to rise up the National League East standings after a fourth-place finish last year, and trading Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays makes the hill to the playoffs that much steeper to climb.

    But is there at least a speck of hope for the Mets to accomplish the unthinkable?

    ESPN.com's Mark Simon posted a piece breaking down what would need to happen for the Mets to contend in 2013. It basically boiled down to every player staying healthy and outperforming expectations.

    Simon made some substantial leaps of faith (their outfield delivering sizable value, Jonathon Niese becoming a borderline ace on Cole Hamels' level), but there are some realistic reasons to approach the season with cautious optimism. 

    These factors, if they play out right, can contribute to the Mets finishing with a better record than anyone expects them to earn this season.

1. David Wright Can Deliver MVP-Caliber Production

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    With little help from the rest of the offense, the Mets held their own during the first few months of the season largely on the strength of David Wright’s bat.

    Ruben Tejada, Mike Baxter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis all played over their heads early in the year, but Wright kept a lineup full of contact hitters afloat.

    Despite Ike Davis providing reprehensible production far worse than an average replacement player, the Mets still entered the All-Star break above .500 and alive in the playoff hunt. Fans can thank Wright for offering a glimmer of hope before reality materialized.

    As he faced questions over whether he could ever settle into the role of a franchise player, Wright hit .351/.441/.563 over the first half of the year with 11 homers, 59 RBI and a 1.004 OPS.

    Some inevitable slumps sending Wright down to earth still did not stop him from finishing with a .306/.391/.492 slash line.

    According to FanGraphs, Wright finished with a 7.8 WAR, tying him for fourth-best in baseball with Robinson Cano and placing him just 0.2 wins shy of NL MVP Buster Posey. Had the Mets finished as a playoff team, Wright would have figured prominently into the MVP discussion.

    Now that Wright has re-upped with the squad for the next eight years, the Mets will need another outstanding year from their star player if they want to think about contending.

2. Starting Rotation Is Still Above Average

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    For the Mets to hold any shot at pulling off an improbable run in 2013, the entire rotation must step up in a massive way.

    Even without Dickey, it’s not totally unfeasible for this rotation to stack up as one of baseball’s better groupings this season.

    Finally making the long-awaited leap forward, Niese posted a 3.40 ERA and 1.17 WHIP while avoiding the late season slides that have plagued the southpaw throughout his young career.

    Niese has decreased his walk rate in each of the past three seasons, while consistently striking out more than seven batters per inning. He still could grow further into a role as a formidable No. 2 starter.

    Dillon Gee’s rookie campaign sparked more attention because he accumulated 13 wins, but he actually progressed during his sophomore season despite attaining seven less victories.

    The 26-year-old showed much more capability as a back-end starter in 2012, dropping his ERA and WHIP to 4.10 and 1.25, respectively. Gee also catapulted his K/BB ratio from 1.61 to 3.32, making significant strides in both facets of the marker.

    Matt Harvey made a lasting impression in his debut, registering a 2.73 ERA and 10.62 K/9 ratio in 10 starts. Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come for the 23-year-old.

    If they can re-acquire Chris Capuano from the Los Angeles Dodgers or unleash Zack Wheeler fresh out of the gate, this staff could become something special.

    But for the rotation to truly reach greatness, its veteran leader must rediscover his past stardom.

3. Johan Santana Is Not Done Yet

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    It’s easy to surmise that Johan Santana is down for the count.

    In a fall from grace that commenced a month after registering the franchise’s first ever no-hitter, Santana surrendered at least six earned runs in five straight starts before the team sidelined him for the season.

    Through those five starts, Santana gave up 33 earned runs in 19 innings, amounting to a 15.63 ERA.

    It’s also easy to forget the earlier stretch of the season, where Santana looked like the ace the Mets once thought they had upon acquiring him in 2008. Before those treacherous five outings, Santana had accrued a 2.76 ERA during 98 innings pitched.

    Are five starts enough to discount a future Hall of Famer?

    Some poor luck could have piled onto his unsightly finish: The 33-year-old notched a .478 BABIP in July despite a 41.2 percent ground-ball rate.

    His velocity has gradually dropped each year, but Santana is a highly intelligent pitcher who can utilize his off-speed pitches and encyclopedia of baseball knowledge to get by.

    Regardless of New York’s playoff hopes, it’s imperative for Santana to regain his touch. If he returns strong and the Mets are out of the race in July, expect Santana’s name to heavily frequent the trade deadline rumor mill.

4. Help Is on the Way

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    For the first time in a while, Mets fans actually have a reason to get excited.

    Reinforcements in the form of top prospects should arrive eventually this season. While their potential to reshape the future is truly what gives fans hope, they also could offer immediate upgrades.

    Harvey started off with a bang, and they’ll count on him to continue that production into his first stab at a full MLB season. Even if he suffers through some growing pains, he still beats Mike Pelfrey.

    Two premier prospects in Wheeler and Travis D’Arnaud could give the squad a much-needed jolt once they receive promotions.

    Regarded as New York’s top pitching prospect even before Harvey’s big-league arrival, Wheeler recorded a 3.26 ERA and 1.17 WHIP last season in Double-A and Triple-A.

    He’ll likely stay in Triple-A a bit longer for more fine tuning, as well as prolonging the start of his arbitration clock, but he’ll appear soon enough barring ravishing starts from all five starters, which fans would also equally appreciate.

    Wheeler should cement his place in the rotation earlier than Harvey did last season, who joined the Mets toward the end of July.

    Perhaps the real difference maker is D’Arnaud, an offensive stalwart behind the plate who can give the Mets their first above-average production at catcher since Paul Lo Duca’s 2006 campaign.

    One of baseball’s top young prospects at any position, D’Arnaud amassed a .333/.380/.595 slash line in 67 Triple-A games last year before a PCL injury cut his season short.

    Even through some rookie jitters, it’s easy to see D’Arnaud far outpacing Josh Thole’s offensive merit. Thole held his own at times, but served as nothing more than a decent singles hitter with solid plate discipline.

    While we’re holding our breath in anticipation for his call-up, the Mets can plug in John Buck, who they also obtained in the Dickey trade, for a power boost.

    Perhaps they’re not through in the free-agent market, either.

5. Sandy Alderson Knows What He's Doing

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    Say what you want about the current state of the Mets, but their player evaluation under Sandy Alderson has been top notch.

    The Wilpon brothers mismanaged the Dickey situation by trying to portray a fan-favorite as a greedy villain, even though he was willing to stay for significantly less money than he would have secured on the open market. The front office, however, masterfully turned the veteran pitcher into two elite prospects.  

    Alderson also transformed two remaining months of Carlos Beltran into Wheeler and has shown a propensity to find serviceable players (Capuano, Scott Hairston, Tim Byrdak) on the cheap, while making the farm system a top priority.

    After steering clear of any wallet-busting moves since Alderson’s arrival, the Mets now might have some cash to throw around.

    Jon Heyman recently reported that the Mets have money they are looking to spend before the season begins. Well, don’t tell Dickey that.

    This does not mean that they’ll abandon all financial responsibility and fling blank checks at Michael Bourn or Kyle Lohse. Don’t expect either of those guys to play in Flushing this April.

    But maybe they can cover up a few blemishes to make this squad presentable.

    Names like Carl Pavano have emerged as possible stop-gap options to keep the fifth slot warm for Wheeler, but perhaps they actually have enough disposable income to pursue Shaun Marcum instead.

    A dire need for upgrades exists in their lackluster bullpen that ranked near the bottom of baseball last season. Hopefully this is where the Mets can strike gold and bolster a subpar unit.

    That doesn’t mean they should overspend on Rafael Soriano, Jose Valverde or Matt Capps, but buying Brian Wilson for pennies on the dollar could pay off.  

    After years of cutting costs and erasing ugly contracts off the books, the Mets could finally have recovered enough from the Bernie Madoff scandal to spend a little more dough.

    And for once, Mets fans should feel confident that the team will pick the right players at the right price. 

6. Luck

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    Hey, the Baltimore Orioles did it last year, so maybe the Mets can make a run fueled by blind luck.

    Baltimore played at an average level, posting a plus-seven run differential in 2012. Not only did seven teams sitting out the postseason accumulate a higher margin, the Tampa Bay Rays fell short of Baltimore despite outscoring their opposition by 120 runs.

    Baltimore excelled in close affairs, finishing 29-9 in one-run games and winning 16 out of 18 extra-inning matchups.

    The Orioles displayed the talent and effectiveness of an average squad, but all the little breaks fell in their lap to help them earn the chance to knock off the Texas Rangers in the new one-game playoff.

    The Mets slid by in similar fashion through half of the year before their fortune faded. At the end of May, the Mets sat pretty at 28-23 despite a minus-24 scoring margin.

    In a season riddled with so many close victories that it felt more like a clichéd sports movie, the credits rolled before the Mets could pursue a serious push to the postseason.

    For New York to realistically voyage into meaningful October baseball, some bounces will need to fall its way. A few bloopers will need to find empty grass in the outfield, while scorching liners will have to locate Met gloves.

    They’ll need to face teams that conveniently just employed their ace the previous night. They’ll need to stay healthy, and they can’t afford an early meltdown from Davis, arm fatigue from Santana or more disastrous work out of the bullpen.

    And the rest of the NL will have to endure stretches of poor fate that inflict their superior squads.

    These openings usually don’t last through a full 162-game season, but Baltimore’s success showed that it can happen.

    It's not likely, and counting on a team to receive unpredictable luck defies all conventional logic, but it's the only real way the Mets can win 90 or more games. 

    As Tug McGraw once said, “ya gotta believe.”