Depth Will Determine Success of 2019 Mets

Poor depth was the main reason the Mets had failed in 2017 and 2018. This year it seems as if GM Brodie Van Wagenen may have done what was necessary to build in stronger back-up plans.

Brodie spent his first offseason as the Mets General Manager revamping the organization as best he could. He brought in new analytics staff as well as two new Assistant General Managers in Allan Baird and Adam Guttridge who appear to be his go-to guys along with Omar Minaya.

Beyond that, he made the blockbuster trade of the offseason with the Seattle Mariners, swapping Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Gerson Bautista, and top prospects Justin Dunn and Jarred Kelenic for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

That deal was completed late in November and Brodie didn’t stop there. He added Jeurys Familia, Wilson Ramos, Gregor Blanco, Rajai Davis, Keon Broxton, J.D. Davis, Hector Santiago, Walker Lockett, Luis Avilan, Justin Wilson, Jed Lowrie, and Devin Mesoraco, among others.

Brodie even took a player in the Rule 5 Draft, which is something the Mets haven’t done in years. They selected Kyle Dowdy from the Indians. Dowdy is an interesting pitcher that could prove to be a steal for the Mets.

The players I mentioned above will be used in various roles; some everyday starters, some backend relievers, and many as major league bench players or depth in AAA. In years past, the Mets have had solid lineups, rotations, benches, and bullpens that could compete for playoffs as long as everyone performed to their capabilities and/or stayed healthy. But that never happened and depth was tested early.

The Position Players

All Mets fans know that not everyone performs to their expectations and there is no chance that the key contributors will stay healthy as a whole for the long haul of a 162-game season. Sure, Wilmer Flores is a great bench player and he can start admirably for long stretches, but who takes his place as the best bat off the bench?

Jose Reyes was Amed Rosario’s mentor and would start from time to time around the infield, but should he have gotten 200 AB’s as a declining 35-year-old? Anthony Swarzak had a great 2017 and Jerry Blevins had been a proven lefty specialist, but should they have been trusted as set-up men on a contending team? A lot of question marks were there but were hidden by an 11-1 start.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought the 2018 Mets were built to contend with their 25-man Opening Day roster and I thought the prospects they had stocked in the minors would be solid bench contributors if they had to come up for a week or two. However, the players the Mets had in the minors were unproven and had little-to-no major league experience.

This year the Mets are a bit stronger all around even without Yoenis Cespedes, who isn’t expected to return until after the All-Star break, if at all. They improved at catcher with Wilson Ramos who has been a top-three offensive catcher for the majority of his career even with a lengthy injury history.

At second base, they improved from an already strong Asdrubal Cabrera to one of the best offensive players of this generation in Robinson Cano, who, even at 36, can still hit. At third, they improved with Jed Lowrie who will supplant Todd Frazier as the team’s third baseman. Frazier will slide over to first until top prospect Peter Alonso shows he’s ready to take the reigns. Anyone playing first for the Mets should be better than Adrian Gonzalez and company from 2018.

In the outfield, Conforto and Nimmo will return as mainstays, hopefully in the corners for the majority of the time. Unfortunately, they will be without their best slugger, Yoenis Cespedes, for the majority of the season. On the bright side, they do have a healthy Juan Lagares who hopes to prove his solid offense from the beginning of last season was not a fluke.

Let’s take a look at my projected starters for the 2019 Mets next to the 2018 Opening Day Mets:

(2018 left 2019 right)

  1. C. Kevin Plawecki            C. Wilson Ramos
  2. 1B. Adrian Gonzalez      1B. Todd Frazier
  3. 2B. Asdrubal Cabrera     2B. Robinson Cano
  4. 3B. Todd Frazier              3B. Jed Lowrie
  5. SS. Amed Rosario            SS. Amed Rosario
  6. LF. Yoenis Cespedes       LF. Michael Conforto
  7. CF. Brandon Nimmo      CF. Juan Lagares
  8. RF. Jay Bruce                    RF. Brandon Nimmo

On the infield, the Mets improved everywhere, especially if you, like me, believe Rosario is due to break out this season then there is no question that offensively the infield is improved throughout. As for the outfield, Nimmo is an improvement over Bruce, Lagares is better defensively, but worse offensively, and a good Conforto is just as good as a healthy Cespedes, even without the swagger.

Offensively the Mets starting lineup is stronger as of now, but stick with me, I’m just as excited about the bench and minor league depth.

To start 2018 the Mets bench had Wilmer Flores, Jose Reyes, Phillip Evans, Travis d’Arnaud, and Juan Lagares. Evans was just a placeholder for Michael Conforto, who returned a few games into the season.

For 2019 the Mets bench will look something like Keon Broxton, Travis d’Arnaud, Jeff McNeil, J.D. Davis, and Luis Guillorme. Guillorme will fill a similar role that Evans did last year; he is a great defender that could be a solid utility player if he can find a way to hit a little. The Mets will stock top prospect Peter Alonso in the minors for the first two weeks of the season to allow the Mets to get another year of team control out of him. When Alonso comes up, he will push Frazier to the bench and Guillorme to the minors.

Comparing the benches is harder to do, but that’s what I’m here for, isn’t it? Broxton mirrors what Lagares was used for last season, a defensive replacement late in games that will start against tough lefties. Travis d’Arnaud was on the bench to start last season, but he was supposed to be part of a platoon, this year he is purely a backup.

McNeil dominated in 63 games last season as his .329/.381/.471 slash line speaks for itself. He was a big reason the Mets why the Mets were above .500 after the All-Star break. Right now, he is planned to part of the outfield mix this year, starting a few games a week in one of the three spots out there and he will play on the infield from time to time as well. He is a big improvement over Evans, who had a different role but earned a roster spot in Spring Training because of his flexibility.

J.D. Davis is supposed to replace Flores as a lefty killer that gets moved around the diamond, however, he can actually handle the corner infield and outfield spots defensively as opposed to Flores who, well, couldn’t. Davis has great minor league numbers, but he was on the uber-talented Astros and never got a real shot at the big leagues. While he doesn’t have the track record of Flores, the Mets believe the talent is there.

The bench for 2019 should be a bit stronger this year if not because of the players I listed above, it will be due to the fact that the players in the minors this year are better suited to step up as bench players and start from time to time if and when injuries pop up.

In the minors last season the Mets had Matt den Dekker, Gavin Cecchini, Ty Kelly, Jose Lobaton, Luis Guillorme, and Dominic Smith as the backup plans. Den Dekker, Cecchini, and Kelly had been seen plenty by Mets fans to know that them being in the majors would be trouble. Lobaton would be alright as a backup but unfortunately, he was thrown in as a starter and that went poorly. Smith was in the same position last season as Alonso is now and fans hoped he would earn the first base job, but that never happened.

As of now, the Mets will have Rajai Davis, Gregor Blanco, T.J. Rivera, Dominic Smith, Devin Mesoraco, Rymer Liriano, and Peter Alonso in Triple-A to start the year. Davis and Blanco are not the starters they used to be, but both are still worthy of bench spots on decent teams, a role they both had last year. Instead, they will be the backups to the backups, better options than den Dekker and Kelly.

T.J. Rivera would have been on the Mets bench last season had he not torn his UCL at the end of 2017, he deserves a spot on a major league roster and will be fighting with J.D. Davis for one. He could beat Guillorme for the fifth bench spot, but I just think the Mets will opt for a defensive specialist to start the year. He is much better than Cecchini, who is still part of the organization despite being DFA’d to make room for Justin Wilson on the 40-man roster.

Smith and Mesoraco both deserve to be in the major leagues as bench players and I’m sure they will be there at some point, but they will start the year in Triple-A barring Spring Training injuries to guys higher on the depth chart. Alonso seems primed to be the first baseman of the future. It is his job to lose and he’ll have a shot to win it in mid-April.

Those are the first guys up for injuries and all have proven talent or true potential to prove it. Beyond them, Rymer Liriano, Arismendy Alcantara, Danny Espinosa, and Dilson Herrera will be available as well. These guys have skills and are very similar talent wise to the backups of 2018, but for them to be in the majors the Mets would have to lose a lot of guys to injury.

This should show you the Mets are better positioned to succeed depth-wise, should the injury bug stick around Queens, yet again.

Pitchers

While the Opening Day starting rotation of 2018 had Matt Harvey on the list and not Zack Wheeler, that didn’t last for long. For the majority of 2018, the rotation had Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, and Jason Vargas and barring a signing of Gio Gonzalez, that same group will be the five starters for the Mets heading into 2019.

That group was largely successful last season with career years for deGrom and Wheeler, a strong season from Syndergaard when he was on the mound, and Matz finally stayed healthy for a full season.

The main problem was Jason Vargas who, ironically, was brought in to eat innings and be a constant in the rotation. Unfortunately, he was anything but that until his last 11 starts when he posted the numbers expected of him as he had a 3.81 ERA over that time.

The big problem in 2018 was once Harvey was traded, there was basically no backup plan. They had Chris Flexen, Corey Oswalt, and PJ Conlon in AAA as the only options available if a starter went down. They also had Seth Lugo, who started a bit, but spent most of the year in the bullpen, but we’ll get to him in just a bit.

As of now, the Mets are still weak in this department, but the slow-moving free agent market has left about 10 guys that have major league starting experience with decent success available as possible Triple-A depth options for the Mets. Right now, the Mets have Hector Santiago as their number one option with Corey Oswalt, Kyle Dowdy, and Walker Lockett to follow.

Santiago has actually had a lot of past success as a starter in his career and he fits the depth role perfectly. I personally am a big fan of Oswalt and think that he can be a solid fifth starter, similar to the Yankees Jordan Montgomery, if given the opportunity. Beyond that, the Mets will be in trouble if their starting-five doesn’t stay healthy. If they sign Clay Bucholz, Ervin Santana, or someone of that talent level they will be in better position for 2019.

Finally, we have reached the bullpen, which was the second worst part of the 2018 Mets, behind their dreadful offense. To start the season they looked great, but the back-end combination of Jeurys Familia, AJ Ramos, Anthony Swarzak, and Jerry Blevins quickly faltered with Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo having to step into unaccustomed roles early in the season.

The Mets actually had a lot of depth in 2018 with young arms stocked in Triple-A ready to step up if needed. However, injuries to Ramos and Swarzak forced the Mets to use Lugo and Gsellman as setup guys for Familia instead of as middle/long relievers, which was a role they expected to fill. Blevins had his worst major league season and before you knew it, the Mets had more rookies than veterans in the bullpen.

The depth for this season is just about the same, but there is more talent at the back end of the pen that should hold up even if injuries occur. The Mets now have two top-10 closers in their bullpen. Yes, I believe in Familia and his stats prove me right. They also have the young flamethrowing Edwin Diaz, who was the best closer in baseball last season with 57 saves and an ERA below 2.00, to be their new anchor.

Familia is still good enough to close for a contending team, but the Mets will be able to use him as their setup man for Diaz and as a closer only on occasion. They recently signed Justin Wilson to be the seventh inning guy that can also get out lefties if necessary, which he is an improvement over both Swarzak and Blevins.

Although Lugo and Gsellman were thrown into the fire before they were ready last season, they came out okay with Lugo proving he has the talent to be used like an Andrew Miller late in games for multiple innings. Gsellman struggled after a strong start, likely because he had been a starter his entire life and pitching every day tired him out. However, these two will be huge pieces in the pen for 2019.

The sixth and seventh spots for the bullpen are up for grabs with about 10 guys fighting for them in camp. I think veteran Luis Avilan will get one spot to be the traditional lefty specialist. He signed with the Mets on a minor league deal and I think he very well could prove to be Brodie’s steal of the offseason. The last spot will be fought for between Kyle Dowdy, Walker Lockett, Hector Santiago, Drew Smith, Tyler Bashlor, Paul Sewald, and Daniel Zamora.

The losers of the competition are bound to see time in the big leagues at some point this season as bullpens are extremely fluid these days.

It may be my optimistic Mets fan nature taking over, but after being burned badly with my predictions being way off I have tried my best to temper my expectations. The point here is not that I think the Mets will win the World Series because of the depth they have. My belief is that the injuries this team sustains throughout the season will be easier to handle because their lineup and bench are stronger as a whole and the players in Triple-A that may have to step up are more qualified to do so than they have been in years past.

The rotation needs another arm to pair with Santiago, but any long term injury to deGrom, Syndergaard, and/or Wheeler will mean the end of the season for the Mets no matter what. The bullpen is better and if they only need one or two depth pieces at a time to step up they will be fine there as well.

On paper the depth chart looks healthy, time will tell how strong that piece of paper is.

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