There’s an old baseball adage that to be a contender, a team has to be strong up the middle. This makes intuitive sense, since pitching is the cornerstone of any baseball team, catching impacts pitching, and the double-play combination and center fielder are very important in helping to prevent runs. With spring training a little over a month away, let’s examine how the Mets are looking up the middle.
Pitching: The strength of the 2014 Mets may be their pitching. Sandy Alderson invested $20 million in Bartolo Colon to temporarily lead the rotation, hoping that Colon can come close to his 18 wins and 2.65 ERA of 2013. After Colon, the Mets have the exciting Zack Wheeler, the solid Dillon Gee and Jonathon Niese, and a competition for the fifth spot. Jenrry Mejia may be a candidate for the last spot, along with a veteran who may be brought in on a major or minor league deal. The bullpen, despite some negative publicity, should also be good. Bobby Parnell and Vic Black will provide a solid back end, with Jeurys Familia, Josh Edgin, Scott Rice, Carlos Torres, Gonzalez Germen, and possibly Jeff Walters or Jack Leathersich in middle and long relief. Overall, the Mets can feel good about their mound corps.
Catching: This important position is a question mark. The Mets believe that Travis d’Arnaud can be a starting catcher. Perhaps he can. However, his .202 average and .286 OBP in 2013 may suggest otherwise (although the sample is only 31 games). D’Arnaud handled the pitching staff well last year, so that bodes well for success. However, 2014 will be the young receiver’s first full season in the majors. With a less-than-stellar start to his career, it’s fair to wonder what he will be over a full season. Anthony Recker will likely be the backup catcher, a role to which he is well suited. Recker is a good receiver, with some power at the plate.
Second Base: If Daniel Murphy is with the Mets in 2014 (seemingly he will be), he should be an effective second baseman once again. Murphy has become a serviceable fielder, and his .286 average and 38 doubles provide ample offense. Murphy also hit 13 home runs and stole 23 bases last year, and has become a leader on the team.
Shortstop: This may be the biggest question mark on the 2014 Mets. If the Mets go with Ruben Tejada, there’s no way to know what to expect. Tejada had a dreadful 2013, with a .202 average, a .259 OBP, and a demotion to Las Vegas. One could look at his 2011 (.284) and 2012 (.289) and hope for a resurgence from Tejada. However, in 2011 he was a backup infielder (a role that I believe suits him best), and in 2012 he may have caught the league by surprise. In looking at Tejada from a skills perspective, it’s more likely his 2013 is closer to his reality. Tejada has no power or speed (which negatively impacts him defensively and offensively), and has also been called out for a lack of hustle. The Mets may look to upgrade shortstop, possibly by signing Stephen Drew. However, that has not happened, so shortstop remains a question mark at this point.
Center Field: This is another question mark. Many fans have bequeathed the starting job to Juan Lagares. However, while Lagares made some eye-popping defensive plays last year, the reality is that he is an 8-year minor leaguer who hit .242 with a .281 OBP in 2013. Lagares also is not an accomplished base runner, so his offensive game has to develop significantly. The Mets could choose to use Lagares as a defensive replacement (the role that I believe best suits him), and use Chris Young in center field. Young is also coming off of a sub-par season with Oakland, so in either case, center field is certainly an unlnown going into next year.
Of the five positions that constitute “up the middle” in baseball, the Mets have question marks at three of them (in my opinion). D’Arnaud could have a breakout season, Tejada could bounce back to 2012 form, and Lagares could dramatically improve his offense. Then again, these things may not happen. 2014 is a season that we’ve been waiting for, anxiously hoping for a better product on the field. The good news is that spring training has not started, and there’s plenty of time to seek answers to the questions raised above.