Pitching remains top key for Mets' success

January 25th, 2016

The New York Mets may be the best team in the National League. But they didn't achieve that status because they signed a below-average center fielder with a lifetime .319 on-base percentage.

The Mets were, in fact, the best team in the NL last October. That happened because they had terrific starting pitching. And if they win another pennant in 2016, that pitching will once again be the primary reason.

Still, there is a widespread view that the Mets have graduated in some way because they signed Yoenis Cespedes to a three-year, $75 million deal with an opt-out possibility after one season. But it could be argued that New York already earned an advanced degree last autumn.

True, Cespedes was a key factor in moving the Mets forward from also-ran to division-winner status. After being acquired from Detroit in a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal, he had a wonderful six-week stretch for New York, carrying its offense.

But if you combined Cespedes' last 16 games of the regular season with his postseason production, he hit .220 with just two home runs over 30 games. And against Kansas City in the World Series, while hitting .150, he also demonstrated his shortcomings in center.

With power at a premium, you can understand Cespedes' appeal on the free-agent market, although far larger contracts went to outfielders with less power potential, such as Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. He is an exciting player, even though the metrics say that he'd be more help if he was playing regularly in left field rather than in center field.

Maybe part of the excitement around Cespedes' signing was that the Mets, out of the big-ticket market in recent years, kept him even though he was also sought by an NL East rival, the Nationals. Washington's offer to Cespedes was reportedly for a greater sum than New York's but for a lower average annual value.

Again, reaching the World Series seems like a far bigger deal to some of us than merely spending big on an outfielder. But values can differ, even among reasonable people.

In this case, there was some question about what exactly the Nats would do with Cespedes if they actually landed him. They already have the NL's 2015 MVP Award winner, Bryce Harper, in right field and veteran Jayson Werth in left field. Plus, they acquired Ben Revere to play center field, meaning that a young outfielder with considerable potential, Michael Taylor, could be reduced to the role of a fourth outfielder.


Barring a subsequent trade, the acquisition of Cespedes would have made Washington's outfield situation particularly crowded.

The Nationals have had a quiet offseason, and they didn't sign Cespedes, but they cannot be arbitrarily disregarded due to either or even both of these occurrences.

Washington lost a stalwart starter in Jordan Zimmermann, but it still has a rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross, who demonstrated considerable potential in a 13-start debut last season.

If the Nationals had signed Cespedes, would we say that they had moved ahead of the Mets? No, for the reasons already stated above. But the Nats do have some reasons on their side of the argument, reasons that could transcend their 83-victory showing last season.

The Nationals had injuries last season, but most of their work could be summed up in the category of underachievement. They fired Matt Williams, who had won the NL Manager of the Year Award in 2014, and eventually settled upon Dusty Baker as his replacement.

Baker was a very good choice. A three-time NL Manager of the Year Award winner, he has a well-earned reputation for being able to relate to a wide range of players and individual personalities. He will provide this team with a unifying center.

In the battle for the NL East title -- and possibly more as October unfolds -- the Mets will have something that nobody else has. Given good health, that would be the starting rotation of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Matz and, eventually, Zack Wheeler.

Nobody else will have Cespedes, either. But the big difference-maker on this club will continue to be the one-of-a-kind pitching.