Breaking Down New York Mets' Key Position Battles
As the Grapefruit League season progresses in Florida, the New York Mets are one of spring's most interesting teams.
No, not just because their general manager, Sandy Alderson, think the team can win 90 games, per John Harper of the New York Daily News. That juicy tidbit is enough to sell papers in New York, but not quite enough to pique day-to-day interest in exhibition games.
In order to keep fans captivated through meaningless games of March, roster intrigue is a must.
For the 2014 Mets, that intrigue is in abundance in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and throughout parks around the Grapefruit League.
On the surface, watching a high-profile arm like Noah Syndergaard is enough to excite, but the 21-year-old is likely ticketed for more seasoning in the minors.
Beyond phenoms, there are five position battles for manager Terry Collins to decide on before Opening Day.
If the Mets are going to come close to cracking the 80-win plateau for the first time since 2008—let alone surpassing the 90-win mark—they'll need to field the best 25-man roster possible.
With five key battles highlighting spring training, there's much to be decided before the Mets head north to fulfill internal and external expectations in 2014.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
First Base: Ike Davis vs. Lucas Duda
It's come to this for Ike Davis.
Without a productive spring, the former first-round pick and 32-homer monster of 2012 is likely ticketed for another stint in Triple-A, possibly sealing his fate as a bust in New York Mets lore.
Two years ago, as Davis was posting a .888 second-half OPS, first base looked be a position of strength at Citi Field. With a powerful left-handed swing, Davis was in position to be the middle-of-the-order run-producer tasked with protecting David Wright in the lineup for years.
Of course, 2013 happened for Davis. When the Mets awoke on June 10, their first baseman was sporting a .161/.242/.258 slash line, casting a shadow over the team and forced to answer questions about a minor league stint on a daily basis.
Davis' spring competition, Lucas Duda, also spent some time in Triple-A last season, leaving a sense of uncertainty around this battle.
Regardless of who wins, it's possible that neither profiles as an above-average offensive player during the 2014 campaign.
When looking at Grapefruit League performance, keep an eye on on-base percentage and power. If statistics will be used to determine the winner of this battle, those will be key for New York.
As Anthony DiComo of MLB.com recounted, both began their spring slates with extra-base hits. According to Collins, both players came ready to compete and produce, per DiComo's reporting.
"It was great, Ike and Duda both," Collins said. "Really good to see. They came ready to play, they came ready to make the club, and certainly it was a great day for them both."
Bleacher Report's Jason Martinez currently has Ike Davis slated to open the season as New York's first baseman and No. 5 hitter, illustrating just how big of a role the winner of this battle could play for Collins' lineup and the fate of the 2014 Mets.
With a 32-homer season on his recent ledger, give the upper hand to Davis if the production is even this spring.
First base prediction: Ike Davis
Center Field: Eric Young vs. Juan Lagares
In baseball, runs are the ultimate tenant to winning games. Regardless of the style or method, finishing games with more runs than the opponent is the nightly goal.
When it comes to determining the center field battle in Port St. Lucie, Fla., we'll find out which method is more important to the Mets' decision-makers: manufacturing offense or saving runs on defense?
In Eric Young, the Mets have a speedy, athletic center fielder capable of stealing 50-plus bases, flustering opposing pitchers on the bases and scoring 100-plus runs.
In Juan Lagares, one of baseball's best defensive players emerged in the expansive real estate of Citi Field's outfield last summer. According to Baseball-Reference, Lagares' defense was worth 30 defensive runs saved last season.
Unfortunately for the Mets, the battle is complicated by the offensive shortcomings of both players.
As of now, Young is more accomplished offensive player. Yet, despite his speed, stolen-base ability and .377 on-base percentage for the 2012 Rockies, only 20 players have posted a worse adjusted OPS over the last five years, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Since debuting in 2009, Young's OPS+ sits at 76. When factoring in league and park factors—necessary when Coors Field in Colorado is part of the debate—Young has profiled as a hitter more than 25 percent worse than league average.
Last year, during Lagares' first taste of the majors, he wasn't much better offensively. An 80 OPS+ is poor, but 30 DRS made him a valuable contributor. Lagares wasn't providing much offense, but he was taking runs off the board for Mets' opponents.
It seems shortsighted to stunt Lagares' potential offensive growth and defensive potential in center field for the lure of speed and stolen bases. Yet that's exactly what the Mets are likely to do. Collins' affinity for Young's speed and excitement is evident, per Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal.
"All's I know is what an impact this guy made on our team when we got him," Collins said. "When he got on, exciting things happened, and we scored runs."
Center field prediction: Eric Young
Shortstop: Ruben Tejada vs. The Field
Pick a shortstop, any shortstop.
For Mets fans, that sentence could double as a cry for help to team management. With Stephen Drew still available on the free-agent market and Seattle's Nick Franklin on the trade block, per Larry Stone of The Seattle Times, shortstop upgrades are attainable.
Yet, as of now, the Mets look poised to head into the 2014 season with Ruben Tejada as the starter at one of baseball's most vital positions, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
During Tejada's four-year career, the now 24-year-old shortstop has been a mix of potential and inconsistency.
If the 21-year-old that posted a .360 OBP re-emerges this spring, this battle—or infatuation to create one—is a moot point for the Mets. Shortstops with the ability to get on base at a 36 percent clip are very, very valuable.
Of course, Tejada's OBP slipped to .259 last season. Not only was the 101-point drop in a two-year span stark, it was enough to merit a demotion to Triple-A.
For now, the battle lies in the hearts and minds of Mets fans. The team would be wise to upgrade through free agency or trade, but Tejada remains the starter until a true contender enters the roster.
Shortstop prediction: Ruben Tejada
No. 5 Starter: Matsuzaka vs. Lannan vs. Mejia vs. deGrom vs. Montero
Experience vs. potential.
For Collins, it seems as if track record is more important than imagination.
After Daisuke Matsuzaka's two-inning stint against the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend, the Mets manager gave the seal of approval to the veteran arms competing for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation, per Adam Rubin of ESPN New York.
"It's obvious that when you're Daisuke Matsuzaka, you come with a track record," Collins said. "He'a a quality guy, and he knows how to get himself ready. And certainly, with what he's done in the past, you might have to say he and Lannan would probably be the two leading guys right now."
If Collins is referencing Matsuzaka's 4.52 career ERA, that quote seems erroneous. If, however, Matsuzaka's 1.37 ERA down the stretch of last season is weighing into the thought process, it makes more sense.
As this competition continues throughout the Grapefruit League schedule, Montero is the pitcher to monitor.
Based on the eye test, he's the best arm of this group right now. During his first outing last week, the 23-year-old righty impressed by tossing two perfect innings against the Washington Nationals, per Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News.
Boosting Montero's case for the job: Unlike many young prospects, injuries or setbacks haven't stunted his development through the minors. After tossing 155.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013, there's nothing stopping Montero from winning this spot and giving the Mets 190 innings in the big leagues this year.
No. 5 starter prediction: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Veteran Bullpen Arm: Kyle Farnsworth vs. Jose Valverde
One year ago, LaTroy Hawkins was a veteran arm in Mets camp, there to act as depth and serve as a mentor to younger arms with higher upside.
Six months later, Hawkins filled the role of veteran sage and mentor. Along the way, he tossed 70.2 innings of excellent baseball out of the bullpen. That performance was good enough to garner a free-agent contract from the Colorado Rockies.
As the Mets search for the new Hawkins, two veteran arms are in camp, possibly fighting for one spot on the 25-man roster: Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth.
The two non-roster invitees are former closers with fastballs that have disappeared as age has set in.
Farnsworth, 37, sported an average fastball velocity of 92.6 MPH in 2013, per Fangraphs. For some aspiring arms, that's more than enough to retire major league hitters. For Farnsworth, it's a major step down for a reliever that once routinely hit 96-99 MPH on the radar gun.
Valverde, 35, recently sported a 92.8 MPH fastball, per Fangraphs. That velocity, or lack of heat, contributed to a 5.59 ERA last season for the former Tigers reliever.
With leadership a major factor in this battle, the bond Valverde has formed with some of his new teammates could go a long way to keeping him around in April and beyond.
According to Mike Puma of the New York Post, Valverde has emerged as the leader of a pack of Mets referring to themselves as the team's "Dominican Mafia."
Thus far, the leadership qualities are evident to Collins, per Puma's reporting.
“It just tells you the quality of person he is,” Collins said. “You can be the biggest star, but if you don’t have the heart that is needed to be around younger guys, you’ve got your own agendas and everything else, they don’t gravitate to you. This guy wants to help.”
Barring an injury to relievers Bobby Parnell or Vic Black, the winner of this battle should simply be about bullpen depth and leadership. If a solid contributor emerges, it's a bonus.
As long as the "Dominican Mafia" sticks together, Valverde has the inside track to this unique role.
Veteran bullpen arm prediction: Jose Valverde
Who should win each of the Mets' position battles this spring?
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