NL East Report: Can The Mets Hold Up?

Even with a tough walk-off loss last night in Washington, times are good for the New York Mets. The team universally picked to finish fifth in the NL East, including here, is sitting on a 31-25 record and only a game and a half off the lead. How are they doing it and is it sustainable? TheSportsNotebook takes a brief look at the Big Apple’s “other” team…

You’ve heard about Johan Santana’s no-hitter and perhaps picked up on the fact that the one-time best pitcher in baseball is enjoying an excellent comeback year overall—2.38 ERA in 11 starts. And veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is 8-1 with a 2.69 ERA. But in spite of the quality of these two pitchers and in spite of playing in a pitcher’s park, its offense that’s the reason New York is winning and it’s pitching that foreshadows problems ahead if not corrected.

New York is fourth in the National League in runs scored and, befitting a team in a cavernous park, they do it more by consistently getting runners on base than with the long ball. We can start with David Wright at third base who does everything, with a .465 on-base percentage and .585 slugging percentage. Around him is a series of players who just grind it out. I generally use .350 as a cutoff point for determining if a player is a real asset to the offense with his OBP. By that standard only Ruben Tejada (.362) and Josh Thole (.364), the shortstop and catcher would make the cut. But if we make the reasonable extension to .340, you fill in virtually everyone else in the lineup—second baseman Daniel Murphy has been a consistent offensive player, Lucas Duda is contributing in rightfield, Andres Torres has found a little bit of the magic that helped him key the San Francisco Giants’ offense in their World Series year of 2010 and veteran Jerry Hairston keeps on ticking. Then let’s throw in outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who’s starting to get playing time and is up over .350 threshold. The only disappointment is first baseman Ike Davis, but on balance you get the portrait of an offense that has no easy outs.

The good news for Mets fans is that consistency in getting on base is one of the two most sustainable attributes to a baseball team over the long summer months. The bad news is that the other is pitching depth and here’s where we have issues. The bullpen is a major problem, with Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch each blowing three saves apiece and Ramon Ramirez first being a disappointment with a 4.78 ERA and then going on the disabled list to the middle of this month. Manager Terry Collins does not have great arms back year, but it’s incumbent upon him to do what Mike Scoscia has done with the Angels and Bobby Valentine with the Red Sox and at least turn the last few innings into something less than a disaster area.

Collins is less able to control what happens with the starting pitching and here Jonathan Niese and Dillon Gee simply have to step up and pitch better. Working in a National League pitchers’ park there is no reason for either hurler to have an ERA up over 4. Both need to be more consistent and frankly both should be at this stage in their careers.

New York is the one team I gave no chance to winning the NL East to at the start of the year and I’d stand by that—the bullpen is too problematic, the lack of power means they probably won’t rip off a monster win streak and the division itself is too tough. And at the trade deadline, this is still a team that should be thinking about replenishing its farm system and getting younger rather than loading up for a pennant drive. But the Mets also have real strengths, as outlined here and if they keep getting on base, with Santana and Dickey pitching well, and Wright having an MVP year they can have a winning season—something any reasonable Mets fan would have jumped at in April—and maybe even make a spirited run at one of the two wild-card berths.

Around the rest of the NL East…

Washington (31-22): Ryan Zimmerman has got to pick up the pace at the plate. The All-Star caliber third baseman is hitting .237 with two home runs and with Jayson Werth out until the end of July, Zimmerman is the man who has to make sure this team’s high-quality pitching doesn’t go to waste. He will get some help with the return of Michael Morse from the disabled list. Morse posted a .360/.550 stat line last year and can finally start helping the ’12 Nats.

Miami (31-24): An 11-0 loss last night to Atlanta in a series opener might spell the end of a streak wherein the Marlins haven’t lost a series since the end of April. What’s most scary about this team if you’re an opponent is that Josh Johnson in the rotation and Heath Bell in the bullpen are just starting to pitch well again. What’s most scary about this team if you’re a fan is that they really haven’t gotten nailed with injuries yet.

Atlanta (30-25): I’ve harped on the inadequacy of this team’s pitching in previous division reports already, but it really is the exact opposite of what I expected (which, granted, is about the least surprising development of any sports season for me). I thought  Atlanta would have a balanced, top-to-bottom staff with no clear ace. Instead they’re getting a Cy Young-caliber season from Brandon Beachy, but middling performances from Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson, poor pitching from Randall Delgado and outright awfulness from Mike Minor.

Philadelphia (28-29): The general assessment of this team is they can’t hit, but can pitch. Over the long haul I’m sure that will play out as true, but this current team is actually tied for sixth in the NL in runs scored, while ranking just seventh in ERA. The offense is carried by Hunter Pence’s 13 home runs and Carlos Ruiz is quietly having a monster season behind the plate, as he’s put up a .407/.585 stat line. Juan Pierre is swinging a good bat, and even if he cools off, the Phils can expect Shane Victorino to turn around what’s been a tough year. Furthermore, Philly has the cushiest run of interleague play coming up of any NL East opponent. While the rest of the division battles with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, Philadelphia will play Baltimore, Minnesota and Toronto in succession. Granted, they’ll all be on the road and granted, the Orioles and Blue Jays are currently right there in the AL East. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone in Philly is griping.