One year ago today, the New York Mets were in the thick of the wild card race. A late surge began in August, where they rode a wave that took them from middling third place team to a team that actually had a shot at meaningful October baseball. At this point in the 2016 season the boys from Flushing stood seven games over the .500 mark and 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Nationals. The season ended on a sour note, running into the October Superhuman that is Madison Bumgarner, but even still the game was fantastic, a classic duel between aces Noah Syndergaard and the aforementioned Bumgarner.
It made sense that people had the Mets pegged for at least another wild card run this year. Even if the Nationals distanced themselves early, the Mets had the talent to hang around, and 2015 is evidence of what can happen if you let good teams hang around. But after the Mets began the season with a 7-3 record, the season took a serious nosedive.
It began harshly, the nosedive, with Yoenis Cespedes coming up lame while running the bases, with what would later be diagnosed as a hamstring strain. However, in their infinite wisdom, the Mets rushed him back. You can all see where this goes, he exacerbated the injury and was on the DL for more than a month. Not much later into the year, there was more drama to contend with, as ace Noah Syndergaard complained of bicep pain in his right arm. Erring on the side of caution the Mets scheduled him an MRI. But in typical Mets fashion this didn’t go according to plan. Syndergaard didn’t go to his MRI and decided to pitch his next scheduled start. He lasted only 1 1/3 inning in what would become a 23-5 bludgeoning at the hands of the Nationals. Syndergaard had torn his lat and would be shelved for months. The Mets had to play without their best hitter and best starting pitcher.
Those are the headlines many point to when discussing the Mets this year; the injuries. Of course, the injuries have been rampant. Only two players from the Mets 25-man opening day roster remained on the team the whole season, never being sent down, traded or being placed on the DL. Two out of 25. Those men are Jacob DeGrom and Jerry Blevins. That’s certainly not a number to strive for, however it isn’t simply injuries that have been working against the Mets this season.
The Mets have one of the best closers in baseball in Jeurys Familia. His stuff is filthy, it’s hard with tons of movement, and he can locate. No wonder he paced the MLB in saves just a season ago. However to begin this season Familia was serving a suspension for domestic abuse. Thus two of the Mets players have been suspended for such an offense, Familia and Jose Reyes. Familia’s suspension had lingering effects on a bullpen which had not been bolstered during the offseason. GM Sandy Alderson decided, instead, to bring the same pitchers back to the relief corps as the year before, signing lefty Jerry Blevins and righty Fernando Salas. Without Familia for the first month of the season, the Mets would have to make due with this depleted bullpen. It didn’t work out that way, as the relief corps was given huge workloads to start the season to the point where it’s a marvel that Addison Reed, Salas and Blevins can still even pitch.
This level of overwork and, frankly, ineffectiveness on the part of the Mets relievers had lingering effects as well. The starters for instance felt they needed to be spotless in their outings to protect from the bullpen. The offense never felt safe with a lead so they felt pressured to put up more runs.
Straight Up Bad Play
Again, injuries have hampered this team like few in history. The team is beyond snakebitten, as the injuries have ranged from avoidable (Cespedes’ hamstrings) to plain weird (Flores’ broken nose.) However, to focus solely on the injuries would be to focus on a part of the problem. Another part of the story is that the Mets, even when they had most of their designed team, didn’t play very well. The rotation, which was supposed to be the best in baseball, and carry the team as in 2015, was bad outside of Noah Syndergaard and Jacob DeGrom. Matt Harvey had a handful of effective starts before an implosion both on the field and page six. Zack Wheeler showed flashes, but rarely was able to stretch them into anything more, and Robert Gsellman, who looked, on the season’s eve, like an outside chance for Rookie of the Year, was just bad for much of the season.
Poor starting pitching leads to heavier use of the bullpen, which we already established the Mets did not have a good one. Once Noah Syndergaard went down, the Mets had to forge a patchwork rotation. DeGrom became undisputed ace, and even though he often looked like it, he has been far from spotless posting his highest ERA of his career with a 3.65 at time of writing. The Mets would have to fill the rotation until Steven Matz and Seth Lugo could return from preseason injuries. Around the same time, Yoenis Cespedes returned from the DL and Familia’s suspension would soon end. When they did it looked promising, that perhaps they could make a run at contention. They couldn’t as Matz, after a few great starts, faltered before being placed on season ending DL and another surgery. Seth Lugo has been mired in mediocrity, Cespedes struggled for much of the season before straining his other hamstring and Familia required surgery to remove a blood clot.
At least they still had a solid lineup headlined by all-star Michael Conforto, and some promising prospects. The fans began clamoring to see the crown jewels of a depleted farm system SS Amed Rosario and 1B Dominic Smith. The front office resisted; waiting until August to call them up. Poor play had made the Mets were sellers at the deadline, so gone was Jay Bruce, as were Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker, Addison Reed, Lucas Duda, and essentially any veteran on an expiring contract.
The current Mets team is near unrecognizable to the original squad. Jose Reyes leads the team in plate appearances. Michael Conforto had surgery to repair his shoulder after he dislocated it on a swing, one of those odd injuries I mentioned. Terry Collins contract is almost finished and few expect him back in 2018. Hitting first and second in the order are Jose Reyes and Nori Aoki. The Mets are 19 games under .500 and falling fast. Perhaps worst of all, David Wright got another surgery to repair his broken body in a last ditch effort to come back to the game and team he loves. But how the Mets could have used his leadership this season.
A stable veteran presence on a young team could have helped a lot. Perhaps Syndergaard gets that MRI with the captain in the clubhouse, maybe not. Maybe Matt Harvey doesn’t get suspended for being hungover with Wright there, maybe he does. Point is, the Mets have been diseased this year. Plagued. One could point to injuries, David Wright’s absence, managerial miscues, just plain bad play or a bitter cocktail of all four. Maybe 2018 will be the year, or maybe it will at least be better.
It has been nearly two years since the Mets played in the World Series, and they could not be further from it this year if the series were played in the icy caverns of Pluto. This 2017 Mets squad really reminds Mets fans, of which I am proud to be, that last year doesn’t matter. Next year can always be worse, but by the same token, it can always be better because… ya gotta believe.