Here are some things that have just happened: The Mets have lost 10 of their last 11 games. They have plummeted to 300 games* out of first place in the NL East and six games back in the Wild Card. They demoted Lucas Duda, whom they expected to be a lineup cog this season, to Buffalo on Tuesday. Johan Santana and Dillon Gee are on the disabled list, and the pitching has been six-run-a-thon all July. The Mets are three games below .500 and after making some noise in the first half, look now to be on the fringes of contention at best.
*rounding to the farthest 300.
There’s a lot of unhappiness in Mets-land, so let’s start with the Duda and go from there. Lucas Duda was not playing good baseball. He didn’t hit left-handed pitching this season, batting .225/.275/.324 against lefties in 120 plate appearances. He was also one of the worst — if not the clear worst — defensive players in baseball, ranking by the numbers as the worst right fielder. He just wasn’t helping the Mets win games. Duda could be used as a break-even player against right-handed pitchers, maybe making up for his miserable defense with his bat. (Maybe.) But he was a huge negative against lefties. Position players need to hit or they need to field, and Duda was only doing half of one of those things. And so it goes.
This isn’t entirely Duda’s fault, of course. The Mets played Duda out of position in right field, and he failed. He didn’t appear to handle the transition well, and his defensive struggles perhaps affected his offense. Lucas Duda has a Major League future, but not as a right fielder.
So now the bigger picture. The New York Mets are in the second year of the Sandy Alderson era, and it’s worth looking at the returns for signs of something. What do the Mets have going forward? If we start in the lineup: David Wright has reestablished himself as an elite player. Ruben Tejada is an average to above-average Major League shortstop and only 22. After a slow first half, Daniel Murphy has proven he can fake second base as a real .300 hitter. Josh Thole has improved his defense enough to be an above-average catcher if he can pull his bat back together and just an average one if he can’t.
But then it’s question marks everywhere else. After crawling out of Bane’s giant prison pit to take a step forward in June, Ike Davis decided to jump back in for the month of July. And the Mets’ outfield is a mess: Duda we covered, Kirk Nieuwenhuis can’t hit lefties, Jordany Valdespin isn’t really an outfielder and is a .750 OPS hitter in the Minors, and Andres Torres has disappointed. Outside of Matt Den Dekker, who has struggled with his batting average in Triple-A, no outfield prospects are close.
The pitching staff looks a bit brighter, but perhaps only in comparison. R.A. Dickey is a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, Jon Niese may have taken that elusive step, and the now-injured Dillon Gee can fill out the back end of a Major League rotation. Matt Harvey will debut later this week and Zack Wheeler could be special. But Santana’s health is a question again and Chris Young’s right arm is held together with silly putty and magic from his brother Hagrid’s umbrella. And Jenrry Mejia and Jeurys Familia have had uninspiring seasons in the Minors.
Plus the Mets have one useful reliever pitcher in Bobby Parnell, and Terry Collins may have burnt out their only other, Tim Byrdak. The bullpen isn’t good. Did you guys know that? The Mets bullpen hasn’t been good.
The Mets have pieces though, maybe more pieces than they did two years ago. They have an infield, a decent catcher, a few starting pitchers, and . . . uhhh . . . one relief pitcher. They have a bunch of bench players because enough of their position players have proven themselves fringe bench types. So they need an outfield*, a bullpen and a few more starting pitchers.
*This is actually a huge problem. The Mets outfield has pieces – Baxter, Duda, Nieuwenhuis, Valdespin — but it doesn’t look like any of the pieces are everyday pieces. The Mets don’t have an everyday Major League outfielder in their organization.** Terry Collins can and does platoon like crazy, but the front office might need to bring in two everyday types this winter.
**For anyone curious: Fernando Martinez has destroyed the PCL with the Astros’ Triple-A affliate this season. The Astros did call up Martinez up last month. He went 1-15 before diving for a ball, hitting his head, and going to the DL for a concussion. He’s back playing in the Minors again. Some things never change? I don’t know. I think the Mets are going to regret this one.
The big question is this one: How far away are the Mets from contending for real? Although they managed to undo all the goodwill they built over the season’s first half in only 11 games, the answer seems to be: Not far. Strong first halves from David Wright, Johan Santana, and R.A. Dickey carried the Mets and made them seem serious contenders for the postseason through three months. With a not-terrible supporting cast, three or four players can make things happen. (See: The Wright-Reyes-Beltran 2006-2008 Mets) The Mets have at least one great player in Wright and maybe another in R.A. Dickey. They have enough elsewhere to make a not-terrible supporting cast. If one of the young pitchers or position players can take the step forward, or the supporting cast moves from not-terrible to decent, the Mets are right there.
Also a bullpen. The Mets need a real bullpen. There’s like seven relievers down there at a time, and another three shuffling between the Majors and Minors. That’s ten guys. How are all ten bad? How does that happen? How do the Mets keep finding ten guys who are all bad? What’s going on out there in the Mets’ actual, physical bullpen? That has to be the answer, right? Maybe the relievers play really competitive Jenga in the bullpen during the early innings and just don’t have the adrenaline left for relief pitching later.
Anyway. The past two weeks have been a pretty obvious low-point for the Mets. They suffered injuries, a team-wide pitching collapse, and knocked themselves nearly out of the playoff race in only 11 games. The Mets got everyone to believe just enough to make this part hurt. But if it hurts, it’s because you did believe. That’s nice in its own way. The Mets may not be there yet, but they’re getting closer.