Over at MetsBlog today, Matt Cerrone took issue with Ben Shpigel’s assertion that the Mets, “in all likelihood,” would not contend in 2011. I can’t fault Shpigel for the prediction — the Mets, as we all know, are coming off two sub-.500 seasons, have made few roster moves, and will start the year without Johan Santana in their rotation.
But as Matt points out, unpredictable things happen in baseball all the time. I didn’t talk to Cerrone about the post, but if I had to guess I would assume it was at least in part motivated by the sense of fatalism that seems to be growing in Mets fans, especially since the Phillies signed Cliff Lee. There’s nothing wrong with making predictions and taking stabs at what will likely happen, as Shpigel does. Writing off any team entirely before the season even starts is silly.
For what it’s worth, last winter I listed both the Reds and the Padres as “unlikely to contend” in my National League preview for the Maple Street Press Mets Annual. Captain Hindsight can look back now and identify the ways in which both clubs were primed to compete, but at the time it hardly seemed I was taking controversial positions.
Anyway, on to the point. If we’re talking optimistically and trying to figure out the things that reasonably could happen to launch the Mets into contention, I’ll point out that the Mets might have a very good offense next season.
Fangraphs currently lists two 2011 projections for most players — Bill James’ version, and their crowdsourced fan projections. In most cases, the two are reasonably similar. Because I’m trying to see the cup half-full for the sake of this post, I took the better of the two projections for everyone slated to be in the Mets’ lineup and plugged them into David Pinto’s lineup analysis tool.
I even gave Josh Thole a bit of a boost, figuring Ronny Paulino will take some at-bats away against tough lefties. Since Thole was projected at a .358 OBP and a .378 slugging by the fans, I unscientifically bumped those numbers up to .360 and .415, seeing as Paulino has a lifetime .390 OBP and .490 slugging against lefties. I’m painting in broad strokes here.
I plugged in Daniel Murphy for second base, which assumes he can capably man the position. His Bill James projection seemed so optimistic that I didn’t bother adjusting it for any sort of platoon. James’ system projects Murph to post a .339 OBP and .455 slugging in 2011, which would put him among the top handful of second basemen offensively.
Anyway, with a lineup of Jose Reyes, Angel Pagan, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay, Ike Davis, Murphy and Thole/Paulino all performing up to the most optimistic of reasonable projections, the Mets would score just short of five runs per game (4.959, to be exact) according to the tool.
That’s nearly a full run per game better than the Mets scored last season. It would have made them the NL’s top offensive club in 2010.
Obviously the system is not perfect for a variety of reasons. For one, it assumes all players play 162 games at their positions, which clearly won’t happen. There’s a dropoff when you start plugging in bench players for the starters, and even in full health every team needs to plug in bench players with some frequency.
But even despite the team’s impotent offense last year, I don’t think it’s crazy to expect the Mets to score a lot of runs next season. There’s no obvious gaping hole in the lineup, and amazing things can happen when you replace out machines with capable Major Leaguers. Subbing in Jeff Francoeur’s 2010 Mets line for Beltran and Rod Barajas’ for Thole/Paulino would cost the team about a half-run per game, per the tool. (Pinto’s script fails to factor in smiles and leadership.)
If the Mets could only prevent runs as well as they did last year, using the Pythagorean win expectancy formula with that lineup projection, they’d finish with right around 100 wins. So that, well, that’d be cool.
Problem is, it’s just not that likely to happen. The Mets enjoyed very good pitching last year, but they also had a healthy Santana throw 199 innings. Jon Niese and R.A. Dickey, two of the three starters penned in for the 2011 rotation, experienced lasting big-league success for the very first time in 2010. And throwing Murphy in at second base could have repercussions for the defense.
The Mets lineup, as currently constituted, probably won’t score 800 runs. But it will probably be pretty good. That is what we can hold onto until April. That and the knowledge that lots of crazy things happen in baseball.
I’d say neither of those things makes the Mets likely to contend in 2011, but together they should be enough for us to recognize that it’s not downright impossible for the Mets to contend in 2011.