I’ve had a fair number of conversations on Twitter with people who think the 2013 Mets have a reasonable prospect of contending. It essentially goes like this:
The pitching depth next year will make the starters a strength. The bullpen was worse than their peripherals, and are bound to bounce back. The offense was good, and the defense has to get better.
Now, I disagree with various points about this case. I’ve pointed out that both Dillon Gee and Johan Santana are coming back from season-ending injuries, and in both cases, those injuries stand a good chance of impacting their abilities to pitch full seasons in 2013. Santana is more an increasing collection of physical problems, while Gee’s blood clot likely came from repetitive motion, which is, after all, what pitching is.
If we take R.A. Dickey/Jon Niese/Matt Harvey as givens, which is not the case since pitchers are inherently susceptible to injuries, Dickey will be 38, and Harvey has eight career starts, the Mets still need either Gee/Santana to stay healthy, or need to find quality starts from a group of Collin McHugh/Jenrry Mejia/Jeurys Familia/Zack Wheeler. Asking any of the four to immediately step in and consistently deliver is asking a lot, for various reasons (limited upside of McHugh, innings issues and poor K-rate at Triple-A for Mejia, command problems for Familia, Wheeler yet to even master Triple-A). Asking two of the four to do so is the height of optimism.
But let’s leave that aside for a moment, and even accept the idea that the bullpen will automatically bounce back, and this seems to be the sum total of the argument, because. The difference between the bullpen’s ERA (4.75) and xFIP (4.33) is 18 runs, so let’s not get carried away by the effect a simple regression to the norm would provide.
Also? The offense is not a given. Period.
The Mets, following Sunday’s game, are 10th in the National League in runs scored. And they are 10th in the N.L. in OPS. In other words, that ability to outpace their relatively pedestrian OPS in the first half, thanks to clutch two-out hits, has disappeared, which makes sense. That’s not really a repeatable skill, while OPS is.
That ranking puts them slightly below league average in runs scored, and just ahead of the contending Pirates and Dodgers. Both teams, of course, have significantly better ERAs than the Mets do.
So if we understand that 10th in the NL is not an impossible place to be for offense to also contend, but a difficult one requiring significant improvement from the Mets on the pitching side, their task becomes far more apparent. Take away the 18 runs that separate the bullpen’s actual ERA from its expected ERA, and the pitching goes from slightly below league average to just above league average, but well shy of the pitching required to make up for a below-average offense. (Also, the Mets would give a couple of those runs back due to their starters slightly outpitching their xFIP, 3.81 real ERA to 3.87 xFIP.)
Let’s not forget that some of this gap isn’t luck; it is a poor defensive team. To really improve in 2013, the bullpen will also need to improve its core performance.
Where else do they make up ground? Is it realistic to expect Santana and Gee to pitch more than their combined 226 2/3 innings in 2012, or at a better ERA than 4.49? If they don’t, is it reasonable to expect McHugh/Mejia/Familia/Wheeler to come in and pitch at that level or better? The starts of Chris Young/Miguel Batista/Mike Pelfrey/McHugh/Chris Schwinden amount to 39 starts at an ERA of 4.77. It is probably a reasonable expectation for those four pitchers, in their first extended time as major league starters, to check in around that level of performance in 2013, and they could easily fall below that.
But please, remember this: the 2012 Mets got about a quarter of their starts from pitchers who didn’t make up the starting five for most of the year.
So really, the 2013 case revolves around the offense not merely being at the same level as 2012, but better. Or, alternatively, the defense improving, which would probably have to happen at the expense of the offense, given the low-cost players the Mets can bring in, and would have to happen via trade. The only place of depth for the Mets to trade from? The starting pitching they’ll need.
And who among the returning everyday players is likely to be much better than they were in 2012? Is David Wright a great bet to even match his 2012, given that he’s outperformed his career OPS+?
So the optimist’s case revolves around green pitchers making a large leap forward or a starting staff’s injured pitchers staying healthy all season, a bullpen not only regressing to the norm but also seeing an improved defense behind it or getting significantly better, and a below-average offense and terrible defense improving with a strong likelihood of returning the same players.
So if you’re keeping score at home, other than starting pitching, relief pitching, offense and defense, the 2013 Mets are ready to contend.