Mets look to big-ticket stars, young arms in 2014
New York counting on Wheeler, Gee, Syndergaard to step up in Harvey's absence
NEW YORK -- These aren't your grandfather's Mets, your father's Mets or even your older brother's. No, the 2014 Mets already have an identity all their own, for better or for worse.
Fans of the 2013 edition may hardly even recognize this year's team, which will mix big-ticket free agents such as Curtis Granderson, Chris Young and Bartolo Colon with a host of other newcomers. Matt Harvey will not play at all as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. But Zack Wheeler and Travis d'Arnaud expect to log full seasons in the big leagues, while Noah Syndergaard also eyes his debut.
With change, of course, comes uncertainty. Some of the organization's most pressing questions at this time last year still apply, though many have taken on different shapes or increased urgency. With that in mind, here are the 10 most important issues facing the Mets heading into 2014:
10. Who will close?
The last time Bobby Parnell strolled through the Mets' clubhouse, he was sporting a sizeable bandage over his neck after doctors replaced a herniated disc. Underweight and unable to perform baseball activities, Parnell hardly looked like ninth-inning material. So heading into 2014, while the Mets hope Parnell can return to being the dominant closer he was last summer, they are making contingency plans. Vic Black is a favorite of both the manager and front office, and he will be the leading candidate to close if Parnell's not ready.
9. To what extent can David Wright carry the Mets?
When Wright signed a new eight-year, $138-million deal with the Mets last winter, he did so expecting to compete for playoff spots over the life of the contract. For the Mets, however, it's a race against the clock. Few expect Wright to remain an elite player deep into his 30s, meaning the Mets must become contenders before their best player's skill set begins to erode. For now, Wright remains a top-flight (albeit increasingly injury-prone) player entering his age-31 season, capable of carrying the Mets more than anyone else on the roster.
8. How quickly will Harvey progress?
This question would rank far higher if Tommy John surgery were not such a straightforward proposition. No news will be good news for Harvey, who plans to spend regular time at Citi Field as he completes his 12-14 month rehab. The goal is for Harvey to be back to his old self by Opening Day 2015, and the promising history of Tommy John surgery suggests that he should be able to do it -- perhaps even with an extra mile per hour or two tacked onto his fastball velocity.
7. Which mid-level players will remain part of the Mets' future?
The Mets entered last winter with myriad questions surrounding Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada, Parnell and Dillon Gee -- homegrown players who may not be stars, but who have nonetheless played critical roles for the club throughout the past few seasons. Most of them did little to clarify their status in 2013, putting their roster spots at risk. Even Gee and Murphy, the two constants in that group, are a trade offer or an injury away from drifting off the Mets' radar. The team needs more than one of them to become permanent solutions.
6. Will the payroll ever increase?
Making good on their promise to spend heartily after the 2013 season, the Mets by mid-December had committed more than 17 times as many dollars to big league contracts as they did all last winter. But fans were left wondering when -- or if -- the payroll might climb all the way back into big-market territory. For now, the Mets seem content to proceed with a budget in the $85-90 million range, which is below-average for a big league team -- and mere fractions of what big-market clubs such as the Yankees and Dodgers are spending.
5. How good can Syndergaard be?
Like Harvey in 2012 and Wheeler in 2013, Syndergaard will enter 2014 as the crown jewel of New York's farm system. All eyes will be on the Texas-sized right-hander this spring, as he looks to establish himself as one of the brightest young pitchers in baseball. If all goes well, Syndergaard will follow the path that Harvey and Wheeler blazed in making their debuts sometime around midseason; the Mets hope to have all three of them manning the same rotation by Opening Day 2015.
4. Will Wheeler become the next Harvey?
Like Harvey, Wheeler was electric but inconsistent throughout his rookie season, displaying long flashes of potential but also some lapses. The Mets hope that like Harvey, Wheeler will grow rapidly in his first full campaign, breaking camp as a ready-made top-of-the-rotation arm. To do so, he will need to continue limiting walks as he racks up innings, though that could result in another issue -- expect the Mets to cap Wheeler's innings at around 200 this season as they continue to break him into big league life.
3. How much will age affect the Mets' newest acquisitions?
The Mets did exactly what they had to in the early months of the offseason, spending $87.25 million on Young, Granderson and Colon. But there is no telling how the latter two in particular will fare, given their relatively advanced ages. Granderson will be 33 on Opening Day, and is coming off a season mostly lost to injury. Colon will be 41 in May and is no stranger to the disabled list. The Mets will need both to stay healthy if they want to surprise in the NL East.
2. What type of player will d'Arnaud become?
For all the recent talk surrounding Harvey, Wheeler, Granderson and Colon, perhaps no one will be as important to the Mets' 2014 success as d'Arnaud. Unlike Wheeler, d'Arnaud did not show many flashes of greatness in his first taste of the big leagues, but he remains a supremely talented young prospect. If he develops into the above-average offensive threat that the Mets envision, it will go a long way toward shaping the big club's future roster.
1. Is the NL East simply too tough?
The Mets hope to be better next season, and there's reason to believe they will be. But they still must battle a Braves team that ran away with the division last summer, a recharged Nationals squad that may be as talented as any in the game, a Phillies club facing the urgency to win and a Marlins organization continually pumping top-flight young talent into the big leagues. Merely improving may not be enough. The Mets need to be great, which will require hearty contributions from players up and down their roster.