One thing I hate doing is proclaiming games as some sort of “jumping off point” or “the turning point of the season” right after they happen. Titles like that should be attached after history provides context. Or else we’ll just look stupid. Thursday’s big 16 inning victory against the Marlins had the chance to be “that game”, especially with the rest of the series started by Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Matt Harvey. With all three of those pitchers delivering quality starts, you would think the Mets would have earned themselves a better fate.
However, a gassed bullpen, combined with some odd bullpen management on Saturday, mixed with Marcell Ozuna picking this week to be the N.L. Player of the week made for a weekend which only added to the long list of late inning misery in a ballpark that on television looks like a Tropical Fruit flavored bag of Skittles. Sunday’s game was as dramatic as they come, as a furious ninth inning comeback followed by a terrific Mets relay to cut down the winning run in the ninth went for nothing as J.T. Riddle hit his first major league home run in a walk off situation.
So we’re 13 games in, which means it’s still April. But it also means that we have enough of a sample size to discuss some things. Not to panic, and not to make blanket statements, but to assess and see what can be improved and how to improve it.
So what’s the fluke? Is it his .277/.343 slash in 44 games after he came back from injury last season? Or is it his .087/.176 slash in his 51 plate appearances this year? It’s tempting to go with the smaller sample size. But with questions about whether Reyes was done when he came from Colorado last season along with his slow start in 16 games before his DL stint last season, the question is worth asking of the player who will turn 34 on June 11th. But the most pressing question is whether the Mets can afford to be patient with Reyes as opposed to other batters in the lineup.
It goes back to the phrase I hate most this side of “low-risk/high-reward”, and that’s “home run reliant”. Both phrases are over-simplistic ways of analyzing players and problems. “Home Run Reliant” tells me that if the Mets hit more singles, they’ll win. And that’s silly. Home runs are a good thing, and as long as the Mets are hitting well with runners in scoring position (.288 this season so far after being last in the league at .255 in 2016), then they’ll be fine. But … they are hitting a paltry .233 this season so far, which is down from .246 last season. When that’s the case, then obviously the Mets could use some more singles hitters to be on base for guys like Cespedes, Granderson, and Jay Bruce. When those guys slump, the Mets can be more patient because there are others like them in the lineup. When they all slump at the same time (entirely possible with the amount of streaky hitters the Mets have), they get no-hit by Dan Straily. Also, the Mets become the 2014 Braves who had a scary lineup which could only win 78 or 79 games because when they were bad, they were atrocious.
But when Jose Reyes slumps, it’s a problem because he’s the one that is supposed to set the table for the big guys, and help them see better pitches. When he slumps so bad that he goes down to seventh in the order, he’s kinda useless. If what we’re seeing from him is what he really is, that is a huge problem for the team going forward. So the question is: What do the Mets do? There’s a temptation to go after a guy like Todd Frazier, who is a free agent after this season. But you don’t really fix your problem of balancing your lineup with singles hitters. With those players in higher demand, you can’t expect one of them to come to the Mets cheap. Ichiros don’t grow on trees. (And singles per game are at an all time league low.) The only real options the Mets have is to bring up somebody from the minors. It will be tempting to bring up the top prospect in baseball (according to Keith Law) Amed Rosario, as he’s hitting .357 so far in Las Vegas. Gavin Cecchini is only hitting .250 but his OPS is actually very close to Rosario’s (.748 for Rosario, .739 for Cecchini) because he’s drawing some walks. One of those would play shortstop and slide Asdrubal Cabrera to third base in this case, if the Mets were so inclined. With this season being too important as there will be a good chance of a ton of turnover in the everyday lineup next year, the Mets may have to have a quick trigger on Reyes.
If the Mets could find a spot for him, Conforto could also bat leadoff. Conforto raked in the spring, and it’s carried over to his limited time in April as he’s batting .353. The easy answer is to bench Granderson, who is hitting .174. (The other possible answer is to trade one of Granderson/Bruce/Duda for a reliever, but with Jeurys Familia set to return from suspension on Thursday, and the Mets issue being offense, you probably don’t want to sacrifice any offense to shore up a bullpen that may not need shoring up.) This is where I don’t envy the position Terry Collins is in. If Collins goes to Granderson and says “look, I gotta get Conforto some playing time and somebody has to sit”, Granderson probably wouldn’t let him finish the sentence before saying “I’ll sit”. Again, with the importance of this season, and with Conforto’s development being too important to stunt, it’s something the Mets should think about pulling the trigger on. But here’s an important distinction here: I’ve never managed a baseball team. Neither have you. I have to think that there’s more to it than just saying “you stink, I’m sitting you”, because we’re not in the age of Leo Durocher and Ralph Houk anymore.
1) Will there be resentment among the rest of the club if Collins makes the move? 2) If Granderson, a team leader, pouts at all, how does that affect the rest of the club? 3) If Conforto becomes the starter and doesn’t hit, then what? Now to me, the answers are: 1) No, the team isn’t that fragile. 2) It won’t affect the club as long as Conforto hits, and 3) It’s a chance worth taking because there is immediate upside here. But again, it’s easy for me to make these decisions because I’m not in the room. It’s not easy for Collins to make these decisions. But then again, it’s not easy for him to make a pitching change at the right time so maybe I’m defending the wrong guy. Point being: It can’t be as easy a decision as we make it sometimes. Not when the center fielder is the team leader. If Conforto had the demeanor of the early days of Gregg Jefferies, this would be an even more difficult decision, and perhaps that “clubhouse chemistry” question would be a little more legitimate.
But I don’t think it is. The Mets are 7-6 where they could have been 9-4. They will learn that April games count just the same as September games. Long term planning is fine, which is why I didn’t have a problem with pulling deGrom on Saturday after 97 pitches. But if the Mets don’t want to let too many early season wins slip away in the name of “it’s a long season and it’s still April”, Terry Collins is going to have to find a way to get this lineup going, and he’ll have to make some tough decisions along the way. Bold moves like sitting Granderson for Conforto and calling up a rookie that’s ready to go could make all the difference. Do the Mets have the guts to make these decisions for once in their lives?