Don't look now, but the Mets could be good again soon. But seriously: Don't look now -- it probably won't be this year.
Ever since the collapse of the last good Mets teams from the latter half of last decade -- which came around the same time our nation's economy went into free-fall for reasons that are not coincidental in the slightest, given the well-publicized financial problems of the team's ownership -- the New York Mets have been something of a joke. They haven't won more than 79 games in a season since 2008 and have seen their payroll heavily slashed over the past few seasons, with no apparent end in sight, despite occasional assurances otherwise. That said, even though a team in the New York media market that's unwilling to break a $100 million payroll is a bit of a laughingstock, the team has made moves at both the major league and organizational level that could make it competitive by 2015 -- or even this season, should absolutely everything break the Mets' way -- even on a shoestring budget.
At the major league level, the team made one big-name free-agent acquisition -- outfielder Curtis Granderson -- and two intriguing second-tier pickups: outfielder Chris Young and starting pitcher Bartolo Colon. The signings of Granderson and Young are interesting because both are centerfielders by trade, and both will be getting starting-player innings -- and neither is actually the best defensive centerfielder on the team. That honor belongs to Juan Lagares, who by all rights should earn the majority of the innings in center next year for the Mets after an exceptional season in the field last year, despite not becoming a full-time player until mid-June. He's a light hitter, however, so while the usual outfield will probably be Lagares in center, Granderson in left, and Young in right, it wouldn't be odd to see either Young or Granderson spell Lagares in centerfield once a week while the team's presumptive fourth outfielder, Eric Young, Jr., or one of the other outfielders the Mets will have hanging around on their 40-man roster gets a start at the corners. Considering some of the players that the Mets were giving innings in the outfield in 2013 -- Andrew Brown, Mike Baxter, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Matt den Dekker, Collin Cowgill and even Rick Ankiel -- this sort of immediate, proven stability is the most obvious upgrade between the 2013 and 2014 squads.
Of course, the vast majority of that upgrade is Granderson -- Young is merely this year's version of Marlon Byrd, a veteran outfielder in town on a one-year deal looking to maybe get traded to a contender late in the year and build his value for next offseason. There's a lot more to like about Young going into 2014 than there was about Byrd going into 2013, certainly, but there should be considering the Mets are paying Young $7.25 million next season whereas Byrd made the veteran minimum. Young won't be part of the next capital-G Good Mets team, but a career year from Young -- or even just a repeat of his 2010 or 2011, when he hit a combined .247/.336/.436 with great defense -- could not only help the cause of his own payday substantially, but also help the Mets make some noise in a polarized National League East, where the haves in Washington and Atlanta look great, but the have-nots in Philadelphia and Miami have proven over the last 18 months or so that they lack either the will or the ability to contend again for another few years.
The team's infield situation remains mostly unchanged going into 2014, which is only good because that infield still features David Wright, who remains one of the top third basemen in the game, and bad because that infield still features just about everyone else that was there last season. Justin Turner has departed to the Los Angeles Dodgers, meaning that the second base job belongs to Daniel Murphy; Murphy can hit well for the position (a 108 OPS+ from second base is nothing to brush off, even in this run-scoring environment) but he still can't handle it defensively. The team has brought back Omar Quintanilla for another season of utility and bench work, and the Mets are hoping to keep him in that role; if Ruben Tejada's complete collapse last year doesn't turn around into something workable in 2014, they'll once again have a rotating, replacement-level shortstop. And the saga of Ike Davis at first base has continued over the winter; the Mets and Brewers were supposedly in talks to ship him to Milwaukee as recently as a few weeks ago, but nothing came of it because right now there's no real reason for a team to want to acquire Ike Davis. Considering they can't even platoon their two first base options -- both Davis and Lucas Duda bat left-handed and are weak against left-handed pitching -- it might be best to make them compete in camp for one spot on the roster and then try to dump the other either in Triple-A or for the best organization fodder they can get from a team such as the Brewers. One would think that with his performance last year, the other half of the first base platoon would be Josh Satin's to lose.
Other than Wright, however, this unit remains a disaster and it's going to take multiple breakout seasons (or barring that, at least turnarounds) from the non-third base positions to make it anything but that. The infield is the biggest reason why the Mets can't be relied on to even make noise in the wild-card race next year; the possibility of replacement-level starters at shortstop and first base is too high.
That brings us to the pitching, which is the most interesting part of the 2014 New York Mets -- and the most volatile. The conversation about the Mets staff, of course, is mostly dominated by who won't be joining it: 2014 breakout sensation and staff ace Matt Harvey will be spending the year recovering from Tommy John surgery. In his place, the Mets signed Bartolo Colon, who has experienced a career resurgence in his late 30s the past few seasons with the Oakland Athletics -- when he wasn't serving a suspension for using PEDs. If the Mets rotation were Harvey/Colon/Niese at the top with Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler and Jenrry Mejia fighting for innings on the back end, I'd give them an outside chance at one of the wild cards. In addition to those three, the Mets also have Noah Syndergaard -- one of the top pitching prospects in baseball following a phenomenal season last year in his first real test against advanced hitting at Double-A Binghamton -- ready to make his debut midseason as Wheeler did last year and Harvey the year before him, barring setbacks of any kind. If Wheeler lives up to his potential -- he's still got a first-round pedigree and a lot of promise, and a mediocre first half-season of MLB ball is hardly a death sentence to a young starting pitching prospect -- and Syndergaard is as good as everyone from Keith Law on down is saying he is, the Mets could have had a terrifying late-season rotation in 2014 if Harvey were healthy, even considering that at Colon's age, he tends to become less effective the longer the season goes. Without Harvey, it's merely an interesting rotation that could become elite next year.
Wheeler and Syndergaard aren't the only highly-touted young players on the team, however -- the Mets' new catcher, Travis d'Arnaud, was the team's best positional prospect going into 2013 and is a guy to watch for National League Rookie of the Year this season (the majority of his time in the big leagues last year came in September, so he's still eligible for the award). D'Arnaud, 24, came to New York with Syndergaard in the R.A. Dickey trade, and even with Syndergaard's emergence in the Eastern League, d'Arnaud remains the most valuable prospect that the Mets got out of that deal -- so long as he can stay at catcher. The Blue Jays were willing to part with d'Arnaud because a nasty leg injury he suffered the year before he was dealt hurt his value substantially. On the bright side, while his cup of coffee last season wasn't inspiring from an offensive standpoint, it demonstrated that he could still play the position -- and no one's really too concerned about a catcher not being able to hit in his first 100 PA in the majors.
So the usual jokes will still be made this season about the team's budget and its front office and its general Mets-ness, and that's unavoidable -- these are, after all, still the New York Mets. But there's a lot to like in New York's "other" baseball team, even if they're not spending like they should be able to spend -- and unlike in years past, when the Mets lose this year, even if the Mets lose a lot -- their fans may stomach it easier, knowing that it's all finally building toward something better.