Mets Have Exploded from MLB Laughingstock to Contenders' Worst Nightmare

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2019

New York Mets starting pitcher Marcus Stroman collects himself as he waits for manager Mickey Callaway to remove him from the team's baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fifth inning in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Not so long ago, the New York Mets looked like an unequivocal bust.

Despite losing 92 games in 2017 and 85 games in 2018, they went for it in the offseason under new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, adding veteran second baseman Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz among other pieces via trades and signings.

However, things initially did not go according to plan.

As they fell in the standings, the Mets seemed to be unraveling. The low moment might have come on June 23, when manager Mickey Callaway and left-hander Jason Vargas confronted a reporter. Vargas reportedly threatened physical violence against the reporter and had to be restrained by teammates. 

The Mets had just lost 5-3 to the Chicago Cubs. They sat at 37-41, buried in fourth place in the National League East. Callaway was asked about his use of the bullpen and didn't take it well, to put it mildly.

Both Vargas (who was later traded to the Philadelphia Phillies) and Callaway received $10,000 fines. There were calls for Callaway to lose his job. All was not well in Queens.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

By mid-July, the Mets were 11 games under .500. Ace Noah Syndergaard and right-hander Zack Wheeler were featured in countless trade-deadline rumors. 

Then, a funny thing happened: The Mets started winning.

Instead of a sell-off, they acquired All-Star right-hander and Big Apple native Marcus Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline, boosting an already stout rotation. 

Entering play Thursday, New York sat at 59-56, 8.5 games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves but only 0.5 games out in the wild-card scramble. They had won six straight games and nine of their past 10.

The Mets are far from a perfect team. Their pitching staff ranks 14th with a 4.39 ERA. Their offense is 14th with a .763 OPS. Their plus-13 run differential is also 14th.

By the numbers, they are entirely mediocre.

But they're also scaldingly hot. More than that, they're a team no one wants to face in a short playoff series with everything on the line.

It starts with the rotation, which boasts lethal potential. Who wants to roll into a best-of-five or best-of-seven tussle and handle the gauntlet of Jacob deGrom (2.77 ERA, 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings), Stroman (3.07 ERA, 7.1 K/9), Syndergaard (3.96 ERA, 8.9 K/9) and Wheeler (4.20 ERA, 9.6 K/9)?

And don't forget about lefty Steven Matz, who tossed his first career complete-game shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 27.

Few starting-pitching contingents in baseball compare with that.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 12:  Noah Syndergaard #34 and Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets walk to the dugout before the game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on September 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
G Fiume/Getty Images

If the Mets can squeak into the postseason, they could conceivably ride their arms deep into October. Stranger things have happened.

"We're trying to accomplish something as a team, together, that can be very special," Callaway told reporters. "And then the things that we've gone through, some rough patches, have only brought us closer together."

The offense has been humming, scoring 51 runs through the first eight games in August behind first baseman Pete Alonso (37 HR, .958 OPS) and right-fielder Jeff McNeil, who currently paces both leagues with a .339 average.

"Getting to this point has been really tough," Alonso told reporters. "But now, anything can happen."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 03:  Jeff McNeil #6 of the New York Mets celebrates his first inning home run with Pete Alonso #20 of the New York Mets against the New York Yankeesduring their game at Citi Field on July 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Al B
Al Bello/Getty Images

There are caveats. Diaz has a 5.32 ERA, and the Mets' bullpen, which they didn't bolster at the deadline, ranks 26th with a 5.04 ERA. Alonso and McNeil, the lineup drivers, have zero playoff experience between them.

With that said, FanGraphs gives the Mets a 41.9 percent chance to make the playoffs. If they keep reeling off victories, that figure will rise like a helium balloon.

The next six games could tell the tale. The Mets open a three-game series against the wild-card rival Washington Nationals on Friday. Then they have a three-game set against the Braves.

If the Mets emerge from those half-dozen contests in better shape than they're in now, consider them legitimate contenders and a threat to ride their starting pitching to a Cinderella finish.

Put the Nats, Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and any other Senior Circuit playoff hopefuls on notice.

The Mets might be amazin'.   

                  

All statistics and standings current as of Thursday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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