I wrote on Friday — and plenty before that — that this year for the Mets is mostly about next year for the Mets. Obviously the full season will provide the best and broadest wealth of information with which the team can assess its players moving forward. But since the trade deadline is nearly upon us and Mets fans everywhere are looking for ways the team could improve its standings in the short- and long-term future, I figured it’s a good time to look around the roster and try to determine which of the Mets’ young (and youngish) players should figure into their plans for next year and beyond.
The following are all the position players who have played in the Mets this year and are in their age-27 season or younger.
Josh Thole: Thole is 25. He has struggled at the plate a bit this year, but by all accounts his defense has improved. It seems reasonable to expect Thole’s offense to bounce back toward his career norms and, given his age, improve a little bit from there. That’d make him only about a league-average catcher, but since the Mets don’t have much in the way of catching prospects in the high Minors and since going big for a free-agent catcher seems like a bad risk, Thole seems like a passable option to start games behind the plate for the Mets in 2013 and beyond. Ideally, they will find a decent, righty-hitting catcher with which to platoon him.
Ike Davis: Fun with arbitrary endpoints! Since June 6, Davis has a .958 OPS. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he started out so poorly that a month and a half’s worth of excellent production has only brought his season rate up to a .718. Davis appears to have suffered a few more defensive hiccups this season than he did in the past. A strong finish to the 2012 campaign from Davis will go a long way toward convincing the Mets and their fans that he should be their everyday first baseman moving forward, and I’d bet on that. Davis’ career OPS is now at .785, a touch above league average for first basemen even despite his youth and his woeful first half to this season.
Daniel Murphy: While the rest of the Mets have slumped, Murphy’s second-half resurgence has raised his season rates to his career norms. This is Murphy: High batting average, solid but unspectacular on-base percentage, doubles power without many home runs. Murphy’s defense hasn’t been good, but it seems to have improved to the point that it’s worth carrying at second base to keep his bat in the lineup. He’s never going to be Joe Morgan there, but if he hits he can play.
Ruben Tejada: The future looks bright for Tejada, once dismissed as a non-prospect due to his lack of obvious physical talents. For the second straight year, he has gotten on base a lot and played good defense. The biggest thing, of course, is that he’s 22. Just being able to not embarrass yourself in the big-leagues at Tejada’s age is impressive. His .297/.361/.352 line over the past two years suggests he could be a capable-to-plus Major League middle infielder for a long time coming.
Lucas Duda: Duda, as you know, got demoted a couple weeks ago. His defense in right field was atrocious and he didn’t hit enough to make up for it. But despite his offensive struggles this season, Duda has been good enough in the Majors and Minors the past few years to suggest he has a Major League career ahead of him. It’s just not in right field, and it might not be with the Mets. There aren’t many teams on which hitting left-handed is a detriment to your chances of making the roster, but Duda’s handedness doesn’t help his case for the club as long as so many other lefty hitters are around. (For what it’s worth: Duda has been better against lefties than Jason Bay this year.) He needs to start playing left field in Triple-A. If, for whatever reason, he can do that better than he can play right, maybe he resurfaces in the Mets’ starting lineup before long. If he can’t, he’s trade bait or a Triple-A hedge for Davis at first.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis: I argued on the podcast recently that Nieuwenhuis is the young outfielder most likely to emerge as a Major League regular. It’s not now, of course, with the once bro-tastic center fielder heading back to Buffalo to make way for Mike Baxter. Nothing Nieuwenhuis did or didn’t do in the Majors this year should surprise anyone who has been following him since the Minors: He played solid defense wherever the Mets put him, he hit for a little bit of power, and he struck out way too much. The good news is he’s 24 and — though it’s easy to forget — coming off a mostly lost 2011 season. With more reps in Triple-A, Nieuwenhuis should be able to pull it together and become, at the least, a platoon outfielder in the future. Unless the Mets bring in a couple of everyday type players, look for that to happen as soon as next year.
Justin Turner: Justin Turner is great at throwing pies and coming up to the plate to “Call Me Maybe,” and is by all accounts an awesome dude. He’s a justifiable Major Leaguer on a team that needs a second baseman in a pinch or needs a low-cost backup middle infielder. With Murphy looking more like a reasonable starter at second base, though, and Ronny Cedeno around to backup second and short, Turner appears rather redundant on the Mets’ roster. That’s not his fault and it’s not necessarily the case moving forward, but if anyone’s willing to give up anything of value for Turner’s services, the Mets should probably go for it.
Jordany Valdespin: Without looking, how many times has Jordany Valdespin walked this season? Any guesses? It’s twice. He has walked two times in 111 plate appearances: once May 8 and once July 6. His early-career power outburst has been awesome to watch, but it is unsustainable. If Valdespin doesn’t start taking more pitches, he’s not going to get any to drive. Still, his transition to the Majors and to the outfield at his relatively young age has been strong enough to suggest he’ll probably have a big-league career. I can’t think of a great comp, but I’d guess his upside is as a solid utilityman, playing all over the outfield and filling in at second, maybe third, and shortstop in a desperate situation.
Mike Baxter: It’s easy to glorify Baxter based on a tiny, 65 at-bat sample and one heroic moment, so let’s do just that: Mike Baxter is the best. Remember that catch he made? Remember all the timely hits? The Pride of Whitestone returns tonight, and if he hadn’t cemented his status as a folk hero yet, he’ll do it now by taking playing time away from Bay.
Josh Satin and Zach Lutz: Neither of these guys got much of a chance in the Majors this year, but they’re both right-handed and both routinely hit well in the Minors. If Lutz — the more powerful hitter of the two — can stay healthy, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him spend more time with the big club next year as a right-handed bench bat and backup to Davis.
So what’ve we learned so far this season? The Mets have a bunch of guys who appear apt to become capable Major League role players or platoon guys, a few who look like solid regulars, and no offensive player (beyond David Wright) who looks likely to become a bona fide star.
There’s no rule that you must have any set number of guys labeled stars to succeed, of course, and if the Mets happen to get career years out of Davis, Tejada, Thole and Murphy next year along with typical production from Wright, their offense could be very good. They should be looking for outfielders, though — especially outfielders than can hit lefties.