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Are the New York Mets really good enough to contend?

  • CLUTCH SUMMARY: The New York Mets have been on fire, moving right into the thick of the National League Wild Card race. 
  • The Mets’ starting pitching is the biggest key to their contention status, but their bullpen will be an X-factor. 
  • The Mets need to continue to get production from up and down the lineup. 

Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, the New York Mets (yes, you heard me) are in the thick of the National League Wild Card race. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s brash decision to buy at the deadline and trade for former Toronto Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman has only emboldened the team, and the Mets had won 15 of their last 16 games heading into Sunday’s game against the Washington Nationals.

Perhaps it should not be this much of a surprise that the Mets are competing again. They were, after all, picked by some as a dark-horse contender to actually win the NL East when Spring Training began. After an offseason that saw them add the likes of Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos to join a cast featuring Brandon Nimmo and Jeff McNeil as well as reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, the Mets indeed seemed primed to challenge for a playoff spot.

However, it quickly became clear that things were not as they seemed. The Mets were a respectable 28-29 at the end of May, but their run differential seemed to suggest they were due for regression. Even though rookie first baseman Pete Alonso was producing, deGrom and the pitching staff — who were supposed to be the team’s strongest asset — had gotten off to a slow start.

In June, the team’s implosion reached cataclysmic heights. The Mets went 10-18 as Diaz and the bullpen totally fell apart. New York actually scored 140 runs and averaged five runs per game, but the team repeatedly gave games away in the later innings.

However, the season began to turn around in July. New York’s rotation — and specifically deGrom — began to find its stride, while bullpen arms like Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson became reliable options at the back end. New York went 14-8 in July and has capitalized on a weak schedule at the start of August.

But can the Mets really be contenders in the National League?

SPs fulfilling their potential

How long have MLB fans and analysts been talking about the New York Mets and their starting pitching? When the Mets reached the World Series in 2015, they were anchored by a starting staff of Matt Harvey, deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. The very next season, Steven Matz emerged as yet another arm in what should have been the deepest rotation in baseball.

That narrative simply has not held up. Harvey’s fall from grace in New York was well-documented, and Syndergaard has dealt with injuries and inconsistencies. The same can be said for the likes of Matz and Zack Wheeler.

Given that this team was really built around their rotation, there was no reason to expect that the Mets would be contenders if they could not get quality starts. That said, the second half of the 2018 season offered an intriguing glimpse into New York’s potential.

Of course, deGrom was terrific all season en route to winning the Cy Young. But in the second half, Wheeler was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, posting a 1.68 ERA and ranking ninth in fWAR during that period. Syndergaard (3.08 ERA) was right behind him, ranking 12th in baseball.

In this case, it seems that history may be repeating itself. After the conclusion of play on Saturday, Mets starters had posted a combined 2.74 ERA in the second half, leading the majors in fWAR since the All-Star break. Syndergaard and deGrom rank first and third, respectively, and Wheeler has been excellent since returning from injury.

Finally, the addition of Marcus Stroman could truly put the staff over the top. Stroman struggled in his first start, but he showed signs in his home debut against the Washington Nationals on Friday night. Despite giving up nine hits and walking three, Stroman gutted through six innings and struck out a season-high nine batters, showing a tremendous amount of intensity on the mound.

Yes, the Mets need to score more runs and provide steadier run support for their starters. However, the rotation is still the unit that will ultimately determine whether or not the Mets can make this run to (and through?) October.

Everyone contributes

If I told you that Pete Alonso had his worst month in July, would you have guessed that the Mets would have a winning record for the month? Probably not.

Mets hitters have been rejuvenated in the second half. Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil have continued their strong seasons, but New York has watched guys like J.D. Davis blossom into potential stars. Before play began on Sunday, Davis had a 1.135 OPS and 197 wRC+ in the second half.

Meanwhile, shortstop Amed Rosario is slugging over .500, and he has already shown some improvements with the glove as well, a potentially massive development for a Mets team whose infield was routinely criticized as one of the worst in baseball throughout the first half.

Wilson Ramos had an atrocious July, but he has already clubbed three homers in August and was slashing .387/.424/.710 entering play on Sunday. The same can be said for Alonso, who has hit four homers this month.

Luis Guillorme was hitting below .200 for the season and had racked up just 34 plate appearances all season, but he hit a game-tying homer off Fernando Rodney on Saturday night.

The Mets really are attacking opposing pitchers by committee, an approach they desperately need to sustain, especially after it was revealed that Robinson Cano (who was off to a torrid start in the second half) suffered a torn hamstring and is likely to miss the rest of the season. Yet, they might grow increasingly dangerous in terms of their offensive versatility should Dominic Smith and Brandon Nimmo return fully healthy.

Bullpen will be the X-factor

We mentioned how crucial the rotation is to New York’s success. However, quality starts mean nothing if you have a bullpen that cannot hold a lead.

The Mets have had an up-and-down year in the bullpen, with many suggesting that manager Mickey Callaway was misusing guys like Diaz, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman in the first half. Things are still slightly tenuous, though they have improved.

New York’s bullpen unit is third in second-half ERA despite ranking just 22nd in fWAR. The peripherals have not been very pretty, but arms such as left-hander Justin Wilson have come in and gotten outs when they needed them the most.

Unfortunately for the Mets, the 86.6 percentage of runners left on base is not very sustainable, and they especially need Diaz to rediscover the form that made him one of the most coveted assets of this past winter.

Lugo might be the team’s closer for the foreseeable future, which would ideally allow Diaz to pitch in low-leverage situations and get a feel for his stuff. Considering how good the Mets staff has it rolling right now, they need a few more gamers in the bullpen that simply refuse to get beat.

If Diaz and Jeurys Familia can become more reliable options for Callaway, that could make all the difference in terms of the bullpen’s effectiveness, which in turn could decide the fate of this team.