Mets: Year in Review and a Look Ahead

noah-syndergaard

Arthur Pardavila III/Flickr

The New York Mets’ Wild Card playoff game against the San Francisco Giants was a smaller representation of the overall pattern in 2016: A solid night on the mound, a quiet night at the plate, and some runners were left stranded. The only thing that seemed to be missing was the plethora of home runs.

But, from a wider lens, it wasn’t just the dingers that seemed to misplaced.

Jacob deGrom. Matt Harvey. Steven Matz. Zack Wheeler. Neil Walker… David Wright.
The Mets successfully salvaged an injury-plagued season by returning to the playoffs for a second consecutive season, and in the end, the 2016 campaign should be seen as a positive one that allowed the team to groom farmhands like TJ Rivera, Brandon Nimmo, Robert Gsellman, and Seth Lugo. Heading into next season, the Mets will now have more options than anticipated, and in an upcoming offseason of uncertainty surrounding Yoenis Cespedes, the farmhands will provide the Mets with some useful trade bait, if necessary.
Outfield
Notably, the Mets have options in the outfield should Cespedes decide to walk, but the fact of the matter is that the Mets were a sub-.500 team when Cespedes was not in the lineup. Jay Bruce, Michael Conforto, Juan Lagares, Nimmo, and Curtis Granderson are expected to be a part of New York’s plans heading into Spring Training, and most importantly, Mets fans desperately hope Bruce is able to settle into New York. Nimmo, for all of his promise and value, isn’t ready to be an every day player. Juan Lagares is an outstanding defensive player, a former gold glover, and has potential as a hitter, but Terry Collins has always limited his playing time. All things considered, there are enough questions in the outfield to warrant a strong push to retain Cespedes. Bruce is inconsistent, and although his return is likely, it is not a sure thing; Conforto endured a sophomore slump and may explore a shift to first base; and Curtis Granderson, despite a late-season resurgence once he moved down in the order, spent most of the season lagging behind in hits, RBIs, and walks. Granderson will also be 36 years old on opening day.
Key pickups
The crowded outfield is a good problem to have for Sandy Alderson, who has done an outstanding job piecing together this team in recent years. On the surface, acquiring players such as Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Reyes, and Rene Rivera did not seem to be all that impactful at the time, especially compared to the big splash when the team retained Cespedes. But the Mets would not have made the playoffs without these guys, and all three of them managed to carve out an important role on the team: Rivera became the only viable defensive catcher and served as an extremely important veteran presence for the young pitchers; Cabrera exceeded expectations, especially considering his age, and performed both defensive and offensively; and Reyes returned to the Mets as the leadoff spark plug he was when he left, only this time he was much more humble and remorseful after an alarming and disappointing domestic abuse case last offseason. It should also be noted that Neil Walker, despite missing the end of the season, still played 113 games and tied his career-high in homers with 23.
Infield
Heading into 2017, the infield will be prepared with plenty of backup plans. David Wright will tentatively return to third base, which would likely move Reyes over to second base with Cabrera returning. Lucas Duda is expected to be tendered, which would pave the way for his powerful bat to return to the lineup on a daily basis. However, if Wright’s offseason rehab backfires, Reyes may return to third and the Mets could explore re-signing Walker, but that is not as likely. The Mets will probably treat his case like Murphy’s in that they will send him a qualifying offer, then leave it at that if he wants to go elsewhere. If he departs and Reyes shifts to third in the event that Wright can’t return, the Mets would likely prefer to see TJ Rivera and Wilmer Flores fight for the job at second base. Flores will likely see plenty of playing time anyway, with Wright’s spinal stenosis limiting his playing time.
Meanwhile, the Mets are said to be considering Conforto at first as a backup option if Duda gets hurt. Alternatively, Conforto could be inserted at first when Duda needs a day off in order to get Conforto some much-needed at-bats.
Pitching
Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard matured immensely in 2016, and deGrom’s late-season injury should not overshadow the fact that he managed to keep his composure after a rough start to the season. As always, he powered through when he didn’t have his best stuff — including a dip in velocity for awhile — and ultimately learned even more about how to get himself through tough innings and tough outings. Syndergaard’s biggest achilles hill — his slow delivery — was exposed and exploited, but he is working on it. He is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and once he trims his pitch count, he will be even more spectacular.
As for the rest of the rotation, it is not a given that they will have a perfectly smooth return. And, although Bartolo Colon kept the magic alive for another season and hopes to return, he will be 44 next season. The Mets will be preparing for anything, making the emergence of Gsellman and Lugo that much more important. In the bullpen, the Mets should be thrilled that the two most important pieces, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia, will be back in Flushing. Lefty specialist Jerry Blevins played well and seeks a return to the Mets, but it is too early to know how exactly they plan to fill in the rest of the bullpen. For all of Familia’s postseason struggles, he still was an outstanding piece of the puzzle in 2016. He gave up only one home run, collected the most saves in a season in Mets history, and finished the season with the most saves in baseball.
Keys for 2017:
  • Average: If Cespedes walks, the Mets should look to spend on a player who can hit for average. The team is so power-heavy and so reliant on home runs that the scoreboard tends to show all or nothing. Further, the team’s inability to hit with runners in scoring position is alarming enough that this player could simultaneously help put runners on base and drive runners in. It does not help that Granderson’s on-base percentage dipped, ultimately limiting the team’s chance to score extra runs on the long ball.
  • Lefty specialist: The Mets may retain Blevins, but if not, they cannot settle for a mediocre lefty like they did with Antonio Bastardo, who was a disaster before the Mets shipped him back to Pittsburgh. Between Reed, Familia, and even Robles, the Mets have plenty of right-hand options in the bullpen. Lefty Sean Gilmartin was decent out of the bullpen in 2015, but struggled mightily in 2016.
  • Production from the catcher position: The Mets are growing impatient with Travis d’Arnaud, who has underperformed defensively and offensively. He also has a problem staying healthy. Things are certainly not looking up for a player who was such a disappointment that the team felt more comfortable with a 33-year-old catcher who only hit .222. If d’Arnaud can rebound with a season reminiscent of the one he had in 2015, it could ease the concerns, but as it stands today, the Mets know they are not getting what they need at the position. They have also provided plenty of opportunities to Kevin Plawecki, but he has demonstrated that he is not a regular option at catcher and simply cannot hit. If d’Arnaud struggles out of the gate in 2017, the Mets should look to make a mid-season move in 2017 by acquiring a true catcher. Time is running out on the clock to groom young catchers at this point.
  • Health: The Mets lost nearly the entire starting rotation and nearly the entire infield. Ideally, they’re looking for the exact opposite in 2017, but the infield is not young. Wright, Cabrera, Reyes, and Duda are all in their 30s, and more than one of them have had a long history of injuries. To counter this, the good news is that Flores can play any position in the infield and TJ Rivera serves as a viable option as a middle infielder. Conforto may be able to slide in at first, if necessary, and the Mets were even considering Travis d’Arnaud at first base in spring training in 2016.
  • Coaching Staff: Terry Collins is retaining his entire coaching staff in 2017, and with the exception of Teufel, Collins and his staff did a great job utilizing the limited resources they had to work with in 2016. They deserve another shot. But Terry Collins, despite his reputation for being a great manager off the field, has lost far too many games on the field — a more important job and one that should weigh much, much more than what he does off the field. It is likely the reason why the Mets were considering firing him in August. He needs to be more aware of the circumstances and should listen to his own gut instinct rather than just going by how the pitchers feel in the later innings. He lost far too many games with poor judgement and his lineups have always been inconsistent and questionable — both in the regular season and postseason. Meanwhile, Teufel was wildly inconsistent and indecisive as a third base coach. Kevin Long has been credited with turning players such as Daniel Murphy into hitters, but outside of home runs, the team turned in a lackluster season at the plate. While Collins has his problems, the rest of the coaching staff needs to do a better job of assisting him down the stretch. The obvious silver lining on this coaching staff was Dan Warthen, who deserves the most credit for the job he did with the limited pitching staff.

Follow Matt on Twitter @matttracy or contact him via e-mail at mail@matttracy.com

Mets’ Collins Should Keep Starters in Rotation

Noah_Syndergaard,_Jacob_deGrom_and_Matt_Harvey_on_August_10,_2015

SLGCKGC/Flickr

Amid all of the talk surrounding the unusual nature of Major League Baseball’s opening week — for the New York Mets, this means a whopping three days off — Mets manager Terry Collins should make one thing clear: starters do not belong in the bullpen this early in a season that lasts 162 games.

The Mets’ skipper, entering his sixth season at the helm, has not denied that the team is
weighing its options. Southpaw Steven Matz, who held the Royals to just two runs in his World Series debut, may very well end up pitching in relief in game two against the Royals

after the team announced he is scheduled to start an exhibition matchup against the Chicago Cubs just before opening day.

Meanwhile, Matt Harvey, who was declared the opening day starter, told the media on Tuesday morning he is suffering from a bladder infection that led to blood clots. He said he should be ready to go by opening day in Kansas City. Noah Syndegaard is expected to pitch the second game of the two-game, season-opening series against the Royals. Jacob deGrom will likely pitch New York’s home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 8.

It is no secret that starting pitchers are creatures of habit, often grumbling at the thought of a six-man rotation that would throw off their routine and space out their starts far too often. The same goes for starters entering in relief, especially at the very beginning of the season, although most players will play it safe to the media and say they will do anything to help the team win. If the issue is whether or not the pitchers will be too inactive during the course of opening week, the Mets should make a simple adjustment and have them throw during the off days, just like they do between starts throughout the regular season.

All things considered, the only time a manager should consider using starters in relief is when the team is facing elimination at the very end of the season or during the playoffs. Notably, the Mets did use Bartolo Colon, Noah Syndegaard, and Jonathon Niese in relief during the postseason last year — when it made sense.

In an MLB season that spans three seasons of weather, 162 games, and plenty of ups and downs, it is not wise to put everything on the line in the opening series. After all, it is a marathon, not a sprint.

Follow Matt on Twitter @matttracy or contact him via e-mail at mail@matttracy.com

 

 

ESPN and Gender Issues: Why We Shouldn’t Expect Anything to Improve

The so-called ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’ has been anything but a leader in its recent coverage of gender issues in sports. 

From its odd coverage of Michael Sam’s career journey to barely mentioning a thing about the first woman to become a fulltime NBA coach, the list of examples is seemingly exhausting – and they seem to keep on coming. All things considered, ESPN may as well just stop this week’s coverage of the Ray Rice scandal considering they ruined any shot at reasonable discussion on the topic months ago when Stephen A. Smith made offensive comments about women provoking domestic abuse. 

In hindsight, the network was already off to a poor start in the gender issues department. It has failed miserably in its efforts to ramp up its women’s coverage since the launch of ESPN W in July of 2010. ESPN W was made out to be a positive step in the right direction; instead it has served to be no more than a sad way for the network to stash its women’s coverage on a separate, hidden page while boasting that it increased coverage of women’s sports. Moreover, women’s coverage is rarely featured on the mainstream area of the network’s website. In fact, I tracked the online coverage of the hiring of coach Becky Hammon and ESPN only allocated a middle-of-the-pack headline on the site’s sidebar – and for a very short period of time. Hours after the news broke, her name was completely gone from the front page of the network’s website even though she was named the league’s first full-time female assistant coach.

On the topic of Michael Sam, viewers became increasingly annoyed at the way ESPN drilled the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year onto headlines on a daily basis for trivial reasons – an obvious reflection of modern day media practices to boost ratings and traffic – but this annoyance reached a climax when Josina Anderson talked about Sam’s showering habits on live television. Despite this, the NFL’s first openly gay draftee has handled the media attention with ease and continues to remain humble. He is patiently sitting on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad and we could hear his name called to an NFL roster anytime. 

Meanwhile, shifting gears back to the Ray Rice scandal that is continuing to unfold, Stephen A. Smith is continuing to use his national platform as a way to continue his relentless narrative by saying this week that Terry O’Neill, the President of the National Organization for Women, has “lost her mind” for saying NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should be fired over the incident and that the domestic violence issues in the NFL have been “dealt with.” Far from it. Although ESPN “suspended” Smith following his initial comments earlier this summer, the network most likely enjoys his controversial manner because it fuels engagement among its consumers. 

Over time, it has become clear that ESPN, aside from a few notable contributors and writers, is not equipped with the proper writers and on-air talent to navigate the realm of gender issues and diversity as a whole. The network does bring in expert voices and writers from the outside, which helps to some degree, but this is not consistent enough and ultimately the wrong people end up having the final say on the national stage.

As long as ratings run everything and until ESPN is actually challenged – and I mean seriously challenged with pressure – the network will continue to do what it wants without much resistance.

The irony of Nike’s LGBT Sports Summit

Oh, the irony.

When I had first learned of a new LGBT Sports Summit, I was thrilled because it meant we would be bringing about a much-needed discussion about LGBT and human rights issues in sport.

But then I learned that it was going to be sponsored by Nike.

Nike is using the issue of LGBT rights to cover up the fact that it has long neglected human rights.  Instead of being able to stamp a “made in the USA” sticker on its products, Nike has long had a tradition of taking advantage of other countries where minimum wage is shockingly lower than in the United States. A 2001 BBC documentary highlighted cases of child labor in Nike factories and showed six girls who worked seven days a week and worked two shifts per day. Furthermore, Nike has even pulled contracts with colleges after student protests exposed the company’s abusive conditions abroad. The supervisors in these factories abroad are so brutal that one worker even said he had his mouth taped shut.

Despite Nike’s claims that the company has since cleaned up it’s act in recent years, it is just yet another attempt by the company to mask it’s abuse and unfair conditions. Just a few months ago, there was a report that workers in an Indonesian Nike factory were intimidated by the military and forced to sign a petition exempting that factory from having to increase wages. According to ABC, there is footage of a supervisor telling the workers that they “have to” sign the petition.

“We got summoned by military personnel that the company hired to interrogate us and they intimidated us,” said one of the employees.

Nike made up some kind of story about how there would be an investigation, but released a statement which said that “Nike expects contract factory workers to be paid at least the minimum wage required by country law.” The problem with this is the whole reason Nike has factories abroad, which is to take advantage of lower minimum wages in that respective country.

So as we hear endless reports about how Nike completely disregards human rights, how can we take anything seriously from them about LGBT rights? The very reason an LGBT sports summit even exists is to bring about discussion and to obviously improve human rights for gay people. The company is only contradicting itself.

Until we start seeing Nike making sincere changes, I don’t see how we can take the company seriously with an LGBT Sports Summit.

The significance of Jason Collins’ opening line

I vividly remember a moment during my semester abroad in South Africa when I was sitting on the Jammie Steps at The University of Cape Town. I was discussing issues of race with a student who is black and South African and he asked a question I will never forget.

“Why do Americans always call black people ‘African-American’ when many are not African at all?” he asked.

I really didn’t have anything to say except, “Great question.”

From that point forward, I’ve paid special attention to the linguistic choices made by the American media when referring to race. Perhaps one of the most profound examples arrived last week with Jason Collins’ article for Sports Illustrated, which was co-authored by Franz Lidz.

Collins set a great example for the LGBT community with his coming out story last week, but what many people don’t realize is that he also helped correct the countless number of Americans who use the offensive term African-American.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center, I’m black, and I’m gay” was about as powerful of an opening line to an article as you’ll find.

And he did it right.

I learned many things while studying abroad in South Africa last year, but perhaps nothing was as important as realizing how wrong Americans can be with the linguistic choices about race. The term African-American is overused and offensive to many black people in America, yet nobody even thinks about it. This term assumes that black people are automatically from Africa when the reality is that many black Americans are not African at all. Calling a black person “African-American” without knowing whether he or she actually is from from Africa only serves to “other” black people even more by failing to recognize them as a regular Americans. It is almost like an asterisk except it replaces the asterisk with “African.”

And while we sit and realize that this term has evolved into one about race, it is difficult not to think about the Americans today who are African-American and how they feel when others call themselves African even when they are not. Or how about the African-Americans who are not black – how do they feel when this country tries to frame a term about nationality into a term about race?

Taking it one more step further, the other issue is that people cannot even argue that the term African-American can be used to classify a nationality because Africa is an entire continent making up over 50 countries. We often hear of people who are Italian-American or Canadian-American, but rarely do we ever hear of someone who is a white Zimbabwean-American. Who knew?

The impact of Jason Collins’ SI article was felt nationwide and worldwide, and his decision to describe himself as black in the opening line instead of African-American was wise and smart. The SI website had some of its highest traffic ever last week and that article helped plant some seeds in the minds of many Americans who need to rethink the words they use in describing people of other races.

Jason Collins’ coming out story shows reality of LGBT progress

I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

-Jason Collins

Think back to February of 2010 when Tim Tebow was featured in a Super Bowl commercial for Focus on the Family, a homophobic organization that campaigns and fundraises against same-sex marriage and even once opened an ex-gay ministry.

If it were discouraging enough to see bigotry distributed through millions of televisions and computer screens across America, Tebow’s unique rise to fame as a late-season replacement and later as a backup quarterback allowed conservative hate groups to raise him up on a pedestal to serve as an example of someone who practices “traditional family values,” the offensive term used to intentionally exclude LGBT people by saying that there is only one kind of family: One with a mother and a father.

But since that Sunday evening in the winter of 2010, there has been a remarkable shift in acceptance for LGBT people in sport. While we often speak of the 1969 Stonewall Protests as a major turning point in progress for equality, we can even look at the last few years as a major turning point for sports.

People around the playing field such as members of the media, team executives, and former players came forward with positive coming out stories. Straight allies spoke out in support of gay players and professional sport organizations began recognizing equality on more levels. Even the president voiced his support for marriage equality, saying, “It’s the right thing to do.”

As people around the playing field paved the road for someone on the playing field, it became inevitable. The country worked its way from the outside in and somehow arrived one of the most ironic conclusions ever. As I mentioned before, think back to that evening in February 2010 — the same evening that homophobic group was sending its homophobic message across the nation. Now, think about the headlines on April 29, 2013.

On the same day we saw Jason Collins become the first modern day openly gay male athlete in a major American professional sport, the New York Jets cut Tim Tebow.

Of course, the timing of this news was coincidental but serves as a powerful way to reflect on the atmosphere in this country. The people who worked hard to bring about equality are sleeping peacefully tonight; the people who used and exploited Tim Tebow to dump millions of dollars into the wrong hands are not. Now that we have an openly gay player, would that commercial even be able to run on a national level anymore? Would enough people accept it or would it be considered a slap in the face to Collins and the rest of the LGBT people and allies in the world?

The timing of Collins’ coming out story is also a reflection of the contemporary hegemonic structure permeating our male-dominated society and a reminder that we have a long way to go. Homophobia has always been a problem in sport because our society has placed such rigid, gendered expectations on men to be as masculine as possible. We have been falsely led to believe that all men should be masculine and therefore male athletes must produce a better show to watch than female athletes.

If our society wasn’t so male-dominated, we would actually respect women’s sports enough to give people such as Brittney Griner more than 15 minutes of fame when they come out. I also doubt many people knew about the Nigerian soccer team’s recent ban on lesbians because that was also swept under the rug shortly after being announced.

But for as long as female athletes have been coming out, it took us much longer to come around to accepting a gay male athlete. In the coming days, weeks, and months, it will be interesting to see the way Collins is framed by the media. By coming out, he already disproved many of the ideas and scenarios put forth by the mainstream media. At 34 years old, he has already helped dismiss the idea that a player, out of fear of getting cut or rejected because of his sexual orientation, has to have a stable career and superstar status in order to come out. That was the case in the past, but not anymore.

Collins finally succeeded in setting the example we were all waiting for, and he did so on his own. I had always said that we needed to allow an athlete to open his closet door himself rather than get pushed out. Now that he is out, we will have a chance to see for the first time that there is no need for an irrational fear of gay males on a professional sports team.

Here’s to hoping more players will follow behind him.

Osi Umenyiora’s legacy in New York

Osi Umenyiora’s time in the Big Apple will be remembered by times of success, disappointment, injuries, ups, downs, but most of all — two Super Bowls.

As the soon-to-be free agent defensive end prepares for what is likely his final game in a Giants uniform at the Meadowlands, it will be rather interesting to see how the fans react to his departure. Umenyiora is seeking more money next season and a starting job, which would be difficult to find with the Giants already set with defensive ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.

The Giants (8-7) still have an outside shot at making the playoffs if they can beat Philadelphia and find some help elsewhere this weekend, but missing the playoffs would almost certainly mean there will be changes. Last year’s Super Bowl win has been the lone bright spot in the team’s recent history — if the team misses the playoffs this season, it would be the third time in four years.

Umenyiora has been unhappy with his contract for a number of years, and his mediocre numbers this season (six sacks, two forced fumbles) will only help push him out the door. But through all of the controversy surrounding his contract and his relationship with the front office, Osi has been a fan favorite in New York since he arrived as a young defensive end.

His emergence onto the scene as a fan favorite stems from his exciting style of play. Perhaps his most memorable game in a Giants uniform was in 2007 against the Philadelphia Eagles when he broke the franchise record with six sacks in a game. His two Pro Bowl appearances, coupled with his performance as a member of the fierce defensive line in Super Bowl XLII will forever solidify his resume and legacy in a Big Blue uniform.

At age 31, Umenyiora still has some gas left in the tank, but the question is how much? His days as a dominant force in this league have seemed to pass us by. A change in scenery could very well make a difference as he could find some more playing time, but I am skeptical about his chances of returning to his glory days as he continues to get older.

Umenyiora admits that things did not have to end this way. Last week he told members of the media that he does, in fact, have regrets about the way he handled his recent years in New York. He wanted to remain a Giant forever, but he believes he burned that bridge when he refused to shut up about his contract.

Fan favorite or not, those days are in the past. As he continued to talk, he digressed on the field and ended up losing the edge he thought he had in the contract talks. We all enjoyed watching Osi in New York and we will always remember his role in helping this team win two Super Bowls. But in this situation, I don’t blame Big Blue. Osi Umenyiora’s ship in New York has sailed.