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Are the New York Mets on Track to Become New York’s Top Team?

July 15th, 2014 at 11:39 AM
By Mike Phillips

One of the annual topics of fodder for local columnists is the state of the New York baseball teams. The New York Mets have pretty much been the little brother franchise compared to the New York Yankees for the last 20 years. The Yankees have missed the playoffs only twice since 1995, while the Mets have only made three postseason appearances in that span. While it seems silly to bring up whether the Mets can become the talk of the town again, the question is again being raised at the All Star Break.

The Mets weren't always the second act in New York. During the 1980's the Mets were one of the top teams in the National League while the Yankees were struggling to find their way in the post Bronx Zoo era. Once the Mets' 1980's team fell apart, the Yankees managed to snag their first championship of the "Core Four" era in 1996 and went on an unprecedented run of success for the modern era. 

The Mets, on the other hand, haven't been nearly as successful. While the Yankees have won five World Series titles since 1996, the Mets haven't even been in the playoffs five times since then. The Mets have missed the playoffs every year since 2006, and after collapses in 2007 and 2008 the Mets have spent the last four years trying to rebuild their roster. 

While the two teams have been on opposite directions for the last two decades, it appears that the tides may be turning. The Mets look as if their rebuilding efforts are finally bearing fruit, and a strong (albeit short) run prior to the break showcased their young pitching and improved hitting. The Yankees, on the other hand, limped into the break with 4/5 of their starting rotation on the disabled list and a rapidly aging roster.

The Mets have given their fans every reason to be optimistic about their direction going forward of late. The Mets young pitching has shined, headlined by Zack Wheeler's improvement and Jacob deGrom's emergence. The Mets starting staff has been unbelievable, as the team's 3.67 ERA from starters ranks in the top 10 in the major leagues. The figure could be even better as the staff has gone without Dillon Gee and Jonathon Niese for stretches and hasn't had their ace, Matt Harvey, for the whole season. The Mets have even more young pitching in the pipeline as Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero await their chance (or in Montero's case, second chance) to contribute. 

The Mets have also seen dramatic improvement in two problematic areas, their bullpen and offense. The Mets have had trouble assembling a bullpen for years, trying to plug a group of questionable veterans in to disastrous results. After dumping cannon fodder arms Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde by May, the Mets' bullpen has improved significantly. Jenrry Mejia was moved from the rotation and has shown a knack for the closer's role, while young power arms Vic Black and Jeurys Familia are thriving as set up men. Josh Edgin has taken Scott Rice's place as the resident lefty, and the unit should get even stronger next season when Bobby Parnell returns from Tommy John surgery.

Offensively, the Mets have gotten more production and less strikeouts from their group. After struggling mightily in April, Curtis Granderson has shown that he can handle playing in the National League, clubbing 13 home runs and 36 RBI's over the remainder of his first half and raising his batting average from .145 to .237. The Mets' power leader is actually Lucas Duda, who has shown he can be at least part of the answer at first base after hitting .256 with 14 home runs and 49 RBI's. Juan Lagares has hit better than expected at .293, and Travis d'Arnaud has looked like a new man since returning from Triple-A Las Vegas. Factoring in captain David Wright and All Star second baseman Daniel Murphy, the Mets could legitimately be a slugging left fielder and shortstop away from contending. 

The Yankees, on the other hand, look as if things could fall apart for them really quickly. Captain Derek Jeter is retiring at the age of 40 after the season, but needing a new shortstop may be the least of their problems. All of the Yankees' free agent hitters from last winter (Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury) have either underperformed (McCann, Ellsbury) or battled injury (Beltran). The Yankees are committed to that trio for at least three seasons, with McCann under contract through 2018 and Ellsbury until 2020. The Yankees are also dealing with injuries to their starting rotation.

C.C. Sabathia has been out of action since May with a knee issue that may linger for the rest of his career. Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka was terrific until he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and is staring Tommy John surgery in the face. Ivan Nova already underwent the procedure and Michael Pineda has been out of action for a while with injury concerns of his own. The last man standing, Hiroki Kuroda, is 40 years old and likely will retire after the season. 

The Yankees' big concern going forward is the fact that they have so many declining players on bad contracts. The Yankees already have 161 million dollars in payroll committed to 10 players (Sabathia, Tanaka, Beltran, Ellsbury, McCann, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner, Matt Thornton, Brendan Ryan, and Alex Rodriguez). Assuming Tanaka has to undergo the surgery, the Yankees will need to add at least two starting pitchers, a shortstop, second baseman, and possibly a third baseman if Rodriguez isn't in shape following his suspension. The Yankees don't have a good farm system to acquire players like they did in the mid 90's, so they will have to buy more expensive veterans to fix the holes they have.

While the long term outlook isn't great for the Yankees, it is too soon to declare the Mets are about to become the top team in New York. The Mets haven't had a winning season under the Sandy Alderson regime, and a lot of the team's hope lies in unproven prospects. While the prospects have a lot of promise, the Mets may not have the money to augment them with strong free agent additions, leading to Alderson likely needing to strike a big trade to acquire the slugger necessary to put them over the top.

It is also too soon to count the Yankees out given their financial muscle. The Yankees could use their financial resources to add Max Scherzer to their rotation in the offseason and pick up Troy Tulowitzki's entire contract from the Colorado Rockies. It seems impossible, but the Yankees haven't had their collection of bad deals burn them yet. The Yankees have dodged Father Time for almost two decades, but if they miss the playoffs this year it will mark the first time in two decades that the Yankees have missed the playoffs in consecutive years. The Yankees are leaving the door open for the Mets to become New York's top team, but the Mets need to show they are committed to making the moves necessary to gain that status.  

Tags: Baseball, MLB, New York, New York Mets, New York Yankees

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