Mets at the Break: Back in Contention

Angel Pagan Photo by Icon SMI

The Mets went into the All-Star Break 48-40, four games out of first and one game out of the wild card. What could have been devastating problems have instead resulted in pleasant surprises. Carlos Beltran, perhaps the team’s best all-around player, was originally expected back in May, but won’t make his season debut until after the break. Two-fifths of the starting rotation went down. But Angel Pagan has been a revelation in center, while R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi have turned out to be a big improvement over John Maine and Oliver Perez.

While GM Omar Minaya deserves credit for acquiring Dickey and Takahashi in the offseason, he also allowed the Mets to go into the season with a rotation that virtually nobody outside of the team thought was sufficient. Maine and Perez both battled injuries last season and did not pitch that well even when healthy. But not only did the Mets award them rotation spots in the preseason without making them earn the spots, but manager Jerry Manuel started the season with Maine as the no. 2 starter, while Mike Pelfrey was demoted to no. 4.

Pelfrey responded by going 4-0 in April with a 0.69 ERA. On June 8, Pelfrey was 8-1 with a 2.23 ERA and looked headed for the All-Star game. But Pelfrey has struggled over his last six starts, going 2-3 with a 6.96 ERA and 2.13 WHIP, leaving him with overall numbers of 10-4 with a 3.58 ERA and 1.44 WHIP.

Mets Ace Johan Santana

Johan Santana has had an up-and-down season as well. After allowing at least four earned runs in four straight starts, Santana’s ERA stood at 3.55 at the end of June, leading to speculation that his days as the staff ace were over. But Santana has been sensational so far in July, allowing just one run in 23 innings to leave his overall numbers at 7-5, 2.98 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.  Santana should have more than seven wins, considering that he has four no-decisions in which he has gone at least seven innings and allowed no earned runs.

The leader in ERA among the starters is none other than 35-year-old knuckleballer Dickey, who is 6-2 with a 2.77 ERA. The other big surprise among the starters is Takahashi, who is 7-3 (4-2 as a starter). Takahashi has struggled lately, with his ERA rising to 4.15. If the Mets are able to acquire another starter, he will return to the bullpen.

Jon Niese was struggling in May when he went to the DL after tweaking his hamstring. But when Niese returned, his performance greatly improved. Niese allowed no more than one earned run in four out of six starts. He hits the break 6-3 with a 3.61 ERA.

Closer Francisco Rodriguez has some good numbers – 21 saves, 2.45 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 44 innings, but he also has four blown saves and rarely seems to have a smooth outing. The Mets have struggled to find a reliable setup man. Pedro Feliciano remains the next-best reliever, but he has had his most success as a lefty specialist. Bobby Parnell, who started the season in the minors, could emerge as the setup man in the second half.

The Mets pitch much better at Citi Field than on the road. Their home ERA, 2.84, is tied for second best in all of baseball. The Mets’ road ERA, 4.78, is almost two runs higher.

The Mets’ overall ERA at the break, 3.76, is more than half a run better than it was last year at this time – 4.33.

Part of the reason the Mets’ ERA has improved so much is that the team’s defense has also improved. The Mets have made 41 errors, down from 56 a year ago. The defense has improved at most positions. At catcher, Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco have been an upgrade over Brian Schneider and Omir Santos. Ike Davis has made the whole infield better with his performance at first base. Last year, Carlos Delgado was aging and Daniel Murphy was learning the position. In left field, Jason Bay has been a big improvement over Murphy and Gary Sheffield.

Beltran did play much of the first half last season, but the Mets have not lost much on defense in center thanks to Pagan’s strong play. Jose Reyes played about half the first half last year, but has been healthy most of the first half this time around. Luis Castillo’s injury at the start of June has helped the Mets, at least in the field, where Ruben Tejada has been an upgrade.

Pitching and defense have outpaced the hitting. The Mets are ninth in the NL in runs scored with 396. They are only 11th in home runs with 70, but that is a big improvement from last year’s punchless squad, which had just 52 at the break, en route to only 95 for the year, by far the worst in all of baseball. The Giants were the next worst with 122 bombs.

Last year, Murphy led the Mets in homers with just 12. This season, Wright, who only had 10 last year, already has 14, while Davis and Barajas each have 11.

Wright earned his fourth All-Star start with a .314 BA, 65 RBI (tied for the NL lead) and 15 steals to go along with the 14 longballs. Wright’s average was down to .244 in late May, a month in which he fanned 39 times. But Wright was the NL Player of the Month in June, batting .404.

Pagan is the only other Met starter hitting over .275. Pagan is hitting .315 with 6 homers 40 RBI, 45 runs and 19 steals. Pagan has similar but better numbers than Reyes, who has 6 homers, 33 RBI, 52 runs and 19 steals while hitting .275 in 26 more at-bats than Pagan. Reyes got off to a slow start, but had a great June, hitting .314 with an .893 OPS. However, Reyes strained an oblique at the end of June, tried to come back too soon, and is now missing the All-Star Game.

Jeff Francoeur and Barajas have also had hot streaks and cold streaks. Francoeur hit .211 in May, .310 in June and is batting .152 so far in July. Barajas was hitting .269 with 11 homers and 30 RBI at the end of May, but has hit just .183 with no homers and 2 RBI since then.

Davis has some good rookie numbers with 40 RBI to go along with the 11 homers, but his average has fallen to .258. The Mets started the season with Mike Jacobs at first. Jacobs even batted cleanup on Opening Day. But the Mets realized their mistake within a couple of weeks and brought Davis up to take over first base on April 19.

Bay has similar numbers to Davis – .265 and 44 RBI, but Bay has only 6 homers. Since Davis is a rookie, his numbers show promise for the future. But Bay, as a high-price free agent, has started to hear boos.

In the second half, the Mets are counting on Bay to finally have a hot streak. With Beltran’s return, Pagan and Francoeur could end up in a platoon in right, though Bay could also lose time if the other outfielders get hot while Bay stays cold.

It’s hard to know what to expect from Beltran, but anything close to his top form will make his return more valuable than almost any trade pickup.

Overall, the Mets have enough pieces to continue to contend in the second half, but they will need to continue to be fortunate with the rotation.

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