Conforto: 'We've just got to do more' in NL East

April 17th, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- Eighteen games into the season, the National League East is about as tangled as most anticipated. The Mets, in losing a 3-2 game to the Phillies on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park, fell 1 1/2 games back of Philadelphia for the division lead. The Braves and Nationals are both squarely in the family photo as well.

“It’s been what we expected,” said Mets outfielder , who homered for a second straight game in the loss. “Three or four really good teams. Great lineups. Every time we go out, we’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game. We’ve just got to do more. We’ve got to put the whole thing together.”

Of course, it will be another few months before scoreboard-watching comes in vogue, and for good reason. April is about evaluation. In that light, the Mets have demonstrated some clear strengths and weaknesses over its first two weeks. Here’s how they’ve stacked up in the division:

1. Starting pitching

NL East rank: 5 of 5

Consider this one of the East’s most significant early-season surprises. Despite 's solid effort -- seven innings, three runs -- in a losing effort Wednesday against the Phillies, the Mets have posted by far the highest rotation ERA of any NL East team. When they walked off the field after that game, their 5.48 mark was second-worst in the NL.

Everyone has been culpable:  has allowed nine runs in his last nine innings,  has delivered one quality start in four attempts, Wheeler walked seven batters in a game earlier this month, and  and  have both had games in which they’ve failed to escape the first. After Matz’s eight-batter, eight-run outing Tuesday in Philadelphia, manager Mickey Callaway said he’s “not worried” about the issue because “they’re great pitchers and they’ll start getting it done.”

Perhaps Wheeler’s outing in Philadelphia was a nudge in that direction. The Mets need more like it in the weeks to come, particularly given their commitment to staying in-house for now. If Dallas Keuchel arrives to save the day, it won’t be anytime soon.

2. Bullpen

NL East rank: 4 of 5

The Mets’ 5.61 bullpen ERA would look more alarming if not for the Nationals, who entered Wednesday’s play sporting an unsightly 7.83 mark. One scout predicted that the first NL East team to address its relief corps will win the division.

The most troubling issue for the Mets has been setup man , with nine walks and a 6.43 ERA in 8 1/3 innings. The Mets considered Familia a steal this winter at three years and $30 million, but the early returns on that deal have been poor. His ability to self-correct will be critical for a bullpen unlikely to invest in free agent Craig Kimbrel -- especially with Arodys Vizcaino’s shoulder surgery heightening the Braves’ need for an extra arm.

Another factor to watch is , whom the Mets do not plan to use for anything more than three outs per night. In that way, the Mets feel they can optimize their star closer’s value. But it comes at the cost of the ability to use him flexibly, as the Nationals often do with Sean Doolittle. On Monday, that nearly cost the Mets a game.

3. Offense

NL East rank: 3 of 5

Here’s where the Mets have shined. While they rank just third in the NL East with 5.7 runs per game, they’re virtually tied with the Nationals. Only the Phillies (6.0) have been better, despite not getting an overwhelming amount of production from Bryce Harper.

The Mets have likewise received little from their third hitter, , though recent exit velocity data from Statcast indicates that won’t be a permanent issue. The rest of what the Mets are doing also seems sustainable. , after an early-season slump, has morphed back into the player he was last season.  has collected multiple hits in six consecutive games.  has slipped into a bit of a funk after a roaring start to the season, but the Mets are confident in his ability to stick as their two-hole hitter. Conforto looks like a potential MVP candidate.  is hitting the ball harder than ever.  has given the Mets a brand of offensive punch they haven’t had behind the plate in years.

Beyond that, the Mets are relying heavily on bench players like  and  for both late-game production and to keep others fresh. Will New York be a top-five offense in the Majors all year? Maybe not. But top 10 seems reasonable for this revamped bunch.

4. Defense

NL East rank: 5 of 5

Alonso hasn’t been an issue at first base, but the Mets have struggled nearly everywhere else around the diamond. And while defensive metrics tend to take some time to stabilize, it’s worth noting the Mets entered Wednesday ranked last in the NL with -31 Defensive Runs Saved.

At third base, McNeil has been a revelation, making two critical diving stops in Monday’s win over the Phillies. But he’s been less impressive in left field, and that’s where he’ll receive the bulk of his reps once  and  return from the injured list. Rosario has struggled a bit at shortstop, committing two errors Tuesday, and  hasn’t played enough to make a significant impact in the outfield.

Worth watching here is Ramos’ performance behind the plate. While scouts peg his arm as his best defensive asset, Ramos has thrown out just two of 13 base stealers so far this season. Some of that blame goes to the Mets’ pitchers, but it’s on the defense as a whole no matter the root cause.