With spring training now underway, a number of the New York Mets storylines have begun to develop through early reports at camp.
However, compared to the offseason, things are actually happening on a baseball field, and for that reason fans should be excited. While what happens in games will be more important in the end, hearing about players performing baseball activities well should be appreciated.
Below are the initial reports from spring training and what they could mean for the Mets' 2014 season.
Some of the more exciting reports from the beginning of camp have been the early impressions of prized pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. Fans have been reading all offseason about how he is the Mets’ best prospect and how he will likely be in the majors this season, but hearing about something he is doing on an actual mound is different.
The reactions to Syndergaard’s first bullpen were exciting, but Terry Collins added fuel to the fire with a quote on the session, which was tweeted by Mike Vorkunov of The Star-Ledger.
Terry Collins said Noah Syndergaard was "throwing 97 MPH w/ a hook from hell." Syndergaard: "That’s what Terry said? I was pretty amped up."— Mike Vorkunov (@Mike_Vorkunov) February 17, 2014
When the Mets acquired Syndergaard as part of the R.A. Dickey package last summer, they received a hard-throwing Texan with promising control but fringe secondary offerings.
The fact that Syndergaard’s curveball, which was his weakest offering in 2012, was described as a “hook from hell” is big news not only because it adds a potentially dominant offering to go along with his great fastball, but also because it exhibits the improvement he has made in such a short period of time. He is by all accounts a hard worker who attacks the weight room, which is substantiated by how he appears at camp (via SNY’s Kevin Burkhardt).
Syndergaard is a Moose. Looks like a power forward.— Kevin Burkhardt (@kevinburkhardt) February 17, 2014
With Syndergaard, it appears as if the Mets not only have an additional front-of-the-rotation arm, but a player who has the physical gifts to succeed and the desire to get better every year.
While there is plenty of reason to be excited about Syndergaard, this is still just an early report from spring training, and he still needs to prove plenty on the field. It is important to take Collins’ positive attitude with a grain of salt, but beyond this one bullpen session, Syndergaard should be a monster for the Mets in the near future.
The Mets sent some of their players to a fitness and nutrition camp this offseason, and Wilmer Flores has made a noticeable change to his body that could improve the Mets' fortunes moving forward.
Flores has never been deemed a good athlete. He was slow with a doughy body, but his natural hitting ability, soft hands and strong arm in the field allowed him to advance up through the Mets’ farm system.
This offseason was the first time Flores had focused on his athleticism and fitness instead of playing, and the results are visible. As SNY’s Robert Brender’s tweet below shows, Flores worked out at home as well as in Michigan and has slimmed down significantly.
Flores just told me he went from 215 lbs at the end of last season to 202 lbs now. He feels great. Worked out in Venezuela all offseason.— Robert Brender (@robertbrender) February 23, 2014
Flores’ best position would be third base, but he won’t play there with the Mets unless David Wright suffers an unfortunate injury. Flores spent a significant amount of time playing second base last year, but Daniel Murphy has been one of the team’s best offensive players for years, and Eric Young Jr. would likely be the second option there. Flores could be relegated to first base because of his lack of athleticism, but his bat would become significantly less valuable there.
Coming up through the minors, Flores spent most of his career as a shortstop. He has experience at the position, but the idea of him playing it at the major league level seemed absurd because of his lack of range. With the shortstop position in flux, Flores is being given an opportunity to play there in spring training, as evidenced in the below picture taken by Adam Rubin of ESPN.
And here's Wilmer Flores at shortstop: pic.twitter.com/JjChmzsTf4— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinESPN) February 23, 2014
If Flores and his new body prove he can play shortstop, an idea that a year ago would be laughed at, the Mets will solve two of their biggest problems—where to play Flores and who will play shortstop. While the likelihood of him being capable at shortstop is still minimal, Flores proving his doubters wrong could change the course of the Mets' future.
Answering the Leadoff Question
Heading into camp, it seemed that if everything went smoothly the starting outfield would be Curtis Granderson, Juan Lagares and Chris Young. However, one of the biggest early storylines of camp is figuring out who will bat leadoff. Terry Collins has a strong opinion from the outset, as the NY Post’s Mike Puma tweeted:
Collins: "As we sit here today, Eric Young is the guy you kind of want to see at the top of the order."— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) February 14, 2014
This brings up a major issue, as putting Eric Young Jr. in the lineup so he can bat leadoff would likely mean Lagares is the odd man out (outside of an injury).
With Lagares in the lineup, the Mets would not have an ideal leadoff hitter at their disposal. Via Anthony DiComo of MLB.com, Collins laid out two options who could bat leadoff if Young Jr. isn’t the choice.
Asked about leadoff alternatives to Eric Young Jr., Collins mentioned Tejada and Chris Young. Did not mention Murphy. #Mets— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 14, 2014
Chris Young has hit leadoff before, but he is coming off back-to-back poor seasons and has always been more power-oriented in his approach instead of patient. Ruben Tejada would also be far from ideal, as he has been unproductive in the recent past and is not a base-stealing threat.
The desire to put Young Jr. at the top of the order is understandable, especially since he led the National League in stolen bases last year, while becoming a full-time player halfway through the season. However, despite his impressive 46 stolen bases, he had a meager .249/.310/.336 line (with the .310 OBP being the most concerning) and a 0.8 fWAR.
Replacing Lagares with Young Jr. just because he fits the model of an ideal leadoff hitter is a mistake, as Lagares proved to be one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball and had a 2.9 fWAR, despite still being raw offensively.
Who do you think should hit leadoff?
The report that Collins wants Young Jr. in the lineup is one of the most important for early spring training because it will dictate how the rest of the lineup is formed. Young Jr. would be best suited as a part-time player who can come in and play multiple positions, but having him start everyday would make the Mets sacrifice a more valuable piece of their lineup.
This situation could play out a number of ways. Ideally, the Mets will realize Young Jr.’s best role and utilize him off the bench. If not, they could send Lagares to Triple-A to work on his offensive approach while using Young Jr. in a corner outfield spot. Or, they could start him at second base and move Daniel Murphy to first base if both Lucas Duda and Ike Davis struggle in camp.
If somebody gets hurt, Young Jr. can be an ideal player to slide into the lineup, but if the roster stays healthy he should be coming off the bench.
First Base Competition
A topic I have written about at length, the Mets' first base competition between Ike Davis and Lucas Duda this spring will be one of the main storylines throughout camp (unless it resolves itself with a trade).
The early reports out of camp are positive on both players, but that is to be expected. Both players have big power that make them impressive in batting practice, but their issues have come in game situations.
After shopping Davis all offseason, according to Andy Martino of the Daily News, Duda appeared to be the Mets’ preference at first base, but now it seems as if Davis is the favorite to start. Duda came into camp having lost weight and reportedly feeling faster. This has led to inevitable reports that he could be moved back to the outfield, but as I discussed above, the outfield is crowded as it is, and Duda has shown in the past he is not capable of playing there adequately.
The reports on Davis have also been positive, but that means little at this point. Terry Collins told the media Saturday about what he has seen from Davis:
I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen. His swing is absolutely, completely different than it was last year. He’s really quieted down all the action he had at home plate. He knows he needed to do it. The batting practices are outstanding.
This sounds all well and good, but impressing with his power in batting practice has never been a problem for him. Metsblog’s Matthew Cerrone dissected Terry’s comments well:
Save it Terry. I appreciate the positivity and, while what you say may be true, it’s not going to matter unil we see Ike hit real pitching. Frankly, it’s probably not going to matter until we see Ike hit real pitching in real games through the first few weeks of the season, and even then I’m not sure most fans will believe what we’re seeing.
While the reports sound good on both players, they both still need to put it together on the field before fans start getting excited.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.