Meet the Mets, top challengers to Braves in NL East (really)

New York Mets' Francisco Lindor (12) is congratulated by Michael Conforto after scoring on a solo home run during the fifth inning Tuesday, March 23, 2021, against the Miami Marlins in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
New York Mets' Francisco Lindor (12) is congratulated by Michael Conforto after scoring on a solo home run during the fifth inning Tuesday, March 23, 2021, against the Miami Marlins in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Credit: Lynne Sladky

The postscript for the 2020 Braves, and the preface for 2021, is that they were 10 outs away from the World Series. They were that close to finishing off the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLCS. That ending continues to reverberate because the Braves return the core of their lineup and they now have enough pitching to give them a better chance to make the World Series this time.

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Embedded within that storyline is the assumption that the Braves will return to the postseason. It’s reasonable to believe they will win the NL East for the fourth straight season. If they don’t, the Braves still can earn one of two NL wild cards. But they want nothing to do with a one-game “playoff” that could end their postseason run before it even starts, so my focus is on the division.

The Braves are set to begin the season as the betting favorites to win the East again. Yet there is one big obstacle in their way. It’s not a thinner bullpen, the hole at third base or inexperience in the pitching rotation. The biggest threat to the Braves is external.

Meet the Mets.

I know what you are thinking because it’s the same thing I’ve been thinking. The Mets have the richest owner in MLB and an improved roster. It’s still tough to shake the feeling that they are still the Mets. They are known for looking good on paper before flopping on the field.

That’s one reason I like the Braves to win their fourth straight division title. If the Mets are their top challenger, then it’s not much of a challenge at all because New York will find a way to mess up. But lately I’ve been thinking that view is too dismissive of the Mets. Their reputation has made even a numbers guy like me wave off the statistical projections that have persistently placed them well ahead of the Braves.

As of Monday, FanGraphs gave the Mets a 58 percent chance to win the East with the Braves the second choice at 34 percent. Baseball Prospectus gave the Mets a 67.7 percent chance to win the East and projected the Braves to finish fourth (BP’s PECOTA system is down on Braves pitching). The Braves are favored over the Mets in betting markets, but only slightly.

Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna just beats the throw to New York Mets Robinson Cano for a double during the second inning Friday, July 31, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta. In 10 games against the Mets during the 2020 shortened season, Atlanta went 7-3. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)
Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna just beats the throw to New York Mets Robinson Cano for a double during the second inning Friday, July 31, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta. In 10 games against the Mets during the 2020 shortened season, Atlanta went 7-3. (Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Mets last won the East in 2015. They lost an NL Wild Card game to the Giants in 2016 and since then have finished fourth, fourth, third and fourth in the East. The Mets undershot their “over” win total by 18 games in 2017, five games in 2018 and seven games last season. They just squeaked over the win total in 2019 with an 86-76 record but finished third in the East.

The Mets finished 26-34, nine games behind the Braves and five behind NL Wild Card winners Miami and Cincinnati. New franchise owner Steve Cohen responded by plowing more money into the roster—ex-majority owner Fred Wilpon hadn’t spent as much as the market indicates—and now there’s a lot to like about the Mets if you can get put aside their history of underachieving.

The Mets should hit plenty. New York’s weighted on-base average ranked third in MLB in 2020 behind the Dodgers and Braves. They couldn’t convert enough scoring opportunities and finished 13th in runs. That’s likely to be less of a problem this season with Francisco Lindor in the lineup.

Lindor is the rare shortstop who does it all: hits for power, makes a lot of contact, swipes bags and fields his position very well. Shortstop and catcher were the weak links in New York’s 2020 lineup. Now the Mets have Lindor and catcher James McCann, who signed for $40 million over four years after an All-Star season with the White Sox.

Lindor is one of four Mets players projected to finish top five in fWAR at their positions. The others are first baseman Pete Alonso and outfielders Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo. The Braves boast five projected top 5 fWAR position players. The Mets look to have the deeper lineup, though, so it’s plausible they’ll score more runs than the Braves.

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Pitching was New York’s main problem in 2020. Left-hander Jacob deGrom dominated, as usual. Rick Porcello was good on a one-year deal. David Peterson had a promising debut season. There just weren’t enough quality, reliable arms.

The Mets decided that still would be a problem even with two key pitchers returning after missing last season. Noah Syndergaard is scheduled to return from elbow surgery in June and Marcus Stroman is back after opting out of 2020. The Mets tried to sign reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer. The Dodgers beat them out.

But the Mets had already acquired right-hander Carlos Carrasco from Cleveland as part of the Lindor trade. Carrasco was great for the Indians in 2017 and 2018, before Leukemia sidelined him, then returned to post a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts last season. The Mets last month signed Taijuan Walker, who finished 2020 strong after he was traded to the Blue Jays.

The infamously bad injury luck for Mets pitchers surfaced late in spring training. Carrasco suffered a hamstring strain as he was working his way back from elbow soreness. The difference for the Mets is they now have enough good starters to survive such misfortunes. If Syndergaard comes back in form and there are no more injury calamities, the Mets will challenge the Dodgers for MLB’s deepest rotation.

New York’s bullpen is thin. Closer Edwin Diaz’s results were great in 2018, terrible in 2019, and very good in 2020. Diaz looked sharp during spring training. The Mets signed right-hander Trevor May for two years and $15.5 million after he had four solid season as a Twins reliever. He was the only major veteran addition for a ‘pen that’s been bad for a while.

Even good teams have holes (squint and you can see some for the Dodgers). It’s the bullpen for the Mets. It might be the same for the Braves. Both teams should hit plenty. The Braves improved their starting rotation, but it will include three pitchers with less than three years of MLB experience. The Mets have four projected starters with at least five seasons of experience, including one of MLB’s best.

The Mets are good enough that major statistical models give them a significantly better chance than the Braves to win the East. The betting markets like the Braves a bit more. My hunch is that’s because the humans making wagers can’t overcome the fear that, no matter how good the Mets look on paper, they’ll once again flop on the field.

I get it. I’ll feel the same way until proven otherwise. Maybe this is the year the Mets finally do it.

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