May 26

Matz Passes Watershed Moment; Collins Should Be Applauded

There comes a time in every player’s path from prospect to star when he faces a watershed test he must pass, which is what happened to Mets pitcher Steven Matz Wednesday afternoon in Washington. Hopefully, it will be something Matz will wistfully recall down the road, perhaps before All-Star and playoff games.

MATZ: Passes the test. (AP)

MATZ: Passes the test. (AP)

Pitching coach Dan Warthen immediately recognized it and told manager Terry Collins, “we’re going to see what the kid is made of.”

The Mets were hanging to a slim 2-0 lead when the Nationals had a runner on with two outs in the eighth. Collins knew it, too, when he glanced into the Nationals’ dugout and saw Bryce Harper, the 2015 NL MVP, selecting a bat.

Matz was at 100 pitches and this was his last inning regardless and Collins had a warmed-up Jerry Blevins in the bullpen. The conventional choice, one Collins has frequently made in the past, was to go to the mound with his hand extended for the ball and pat Matz on the back.

Instead, Collins nodded to Warthen and did nothing.

“When you have a young player in certain situations, you have to challenge him,” Collins would say to reporters. “If he’s going to be a big winner for us, he’s got to learn to get the big out.”

It was an important gesture Collins and it was more than symbolic. It was one of confidence not lost on the young left-hander. It might turn out to be the most important decision Collins will make this season.

“It definitely means something,” said Matz, now 7-1 this year and already 11-1 in his young career. “As a competitor, you don’t want to come out in that situation. And for your manager to have faith in you to leave you out to face arguably the greatest hitter in the game right now, it’s pretty awesome.”

And, awesome was Matz’s response as he threw four more pitches – all fastballs – to wrap up his gem, the last one to get Harper to meekly ground out to second. From the other dugout, Nationals manager Dusty Baker made a comparison Mets’ fans should appreciate.

“You don’t see many lefties like that,” Baker told reporters. “He was very determined. He’s a good athlete. He reminded me of Jon Matlack back in my day, with the Mets. He was throwing the heck out of the ball, working quick. He threw a heck of a game. A heck of a game.”

Yeah, “heck” was a good term for Baker to use. We can go on for a long time raving about Matz, but for now Mets’ fans should settle for being grateful to have him.

And, for Collins’ unconventional, yet essential decision of loyalty to trust him.

As Matz’ career hopefully progresses to stardom, this will be a moment he will frequently recall.

May 24

Time For Matt Harvey To Man Up

It has come to this for the Mets’ Matt Harvey: Like a minor league call-up, his manager said he’s pitching to raise his confidence. The key isn’t to beat the Nationals – which would put the Mets back in first place – but to look good. Get some style points.

What is this, figure skating?

“I’m hoping, more than anything that he goes and gives us quality innings just to raise his confidence,” manager Terry Collins told reporters. “Because once that confidence starts to come up, he’s going to be fine.”

HARVEY: Head up or head down tonight? (AP)

HARVEY: Head up or head down tonight? (AP)

“More than anything,” huh? “Just to raise his confidence,” huh? I’d rather have Harvey get chased in the second inning and the Mets rally to win than have this pitcher puzzle leave with a good feeling about himself and they lose. What’s next, giving him a participation trophy?

“Once that confidence starts to come up,” is another way of saying he doesn’t have any right now. And, offering him the out of not pitching is another way of Collins saying he doesn’t have much confidence in his “ace.” That might be true, but you don’t broadcast it. That’s a fine pat-on-the-back. What must the Nationals be thinking? After Harvey was booed off the mound last week, even Bryce Harper said he felt empathy for him.

Sweet.

As with most things surrounding Harvey, the Mets turned it into a drama.

Collins initially said he wasn’t sure if Harvey would start. Then, they floated the idea of moving him up to Monday, which would have bumped Bartolo Colon. In hindsight, that would have been a huge mistake.

Harvey threw a simulated game Saturday, was given the choice of skipping tonight if he wanted, then was given the start.

If you’re Collins, after Harvey was torched for nine runs in 2.2 innings, unless he’s hurt you say, “we have no intention of taking him out of the rotation.”

Collins said he was encouraged Harvey didn’t back down and wanted to pitch, but what else was he going to say? What other choice does Harvey have?

There’s a list of at least a dozen deep as to what is wrong with Harvey. Reasons or excuses? Take your pick.

Screw the issue of looking good, confidence and style points. If he’s the star both he and the Mets believe he is, then just pitch.

And if gets ripped again, Collins should send him out again. But, if there are any doubts, any thoughts of needing to do something, then send him to the minor leagues to get his head on straight.

Please follow me on Twitter

 

May 03

Conforto Comparisons, Contract Speculation Premature

When Michael Conforto finished second to Bryce Harper for NL Player of the Month honors for April came the inevitable comparisons and with them predictable comments the Mets might be wise to consider signing him to a long-term contract.

That won’t happen anytime soon.

CONFORTO: Too soon to talk contract. (AP)

CONFORTO: Too soon to talk contract. (AP)

While the thought of securing Conforto is appealing, it’s not on the Mets’ priority list for a variety of reasons.

If the Mets sign a player to a long-term deal before declaring free-agency, they will be inclined to do so with Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey, although I still maintain the last one will eschew any early contract negotiations and wait until he’s on the market.

The Mets have the money to sign all four pitchers, plus Conforto, if they are inclined, but that’s not the way they do business. It’s early in all their careers and so much can happen, such as injuries and poor performance that could derail plans all together on long-term contracts.

Let’s not forget Tuesday night’s game against the Braves was the 80th of Conforto’s promising, yet still very young career. Conversely, Harper – a three-time All-Star – is in his fifth season and has played in 535 games. Putting the brakes on the comparison even further, Harper has 106 career homers while Conforto has 75 career hits.

It’s way too soon to compare Conforto to Harper or Mike Trout, or to a lot of people. Eighty games, people. That’s half a season.

I like Conforto. There’s so much about his game to like, including his potential. His career is off to a good start, but the reality of it is it’s way too soon to be talking about such things as long-term contracts.

Apr 30

Revisiting Top 20 Mets’ Questions

Entering the season I suggested  20 questions the Mets would need to answer in the positive for them to return to the World Series. From performance to health to various intangibles, every team faces important questions and they don’t disappear just because it played in the World Series the year before.

At the time, I wrote I would periodically revisit those questions to measure how the Mets are progressing.

Here’s how they are doing:

Q: Will they have a World Series hangover or let down?

A: There were a few red flags and a 2-5 start, but they closed the month with a power surge, clubbing 31 homers in their last 14 games. Last April they won 11 straight. They closed the month winning eight straight and 13 of 15. There’s no appearance of any hangover and it looks as if we’ll have our Mets-Nationals pennant race.

WALKER: Mets' player for April. (AP)

WALKER: Mets’ player for April. (AP)

Q: How will manager Terry Collins respond to being a favorite?

A: So far, so good. I wasn’t crazy about him calling the eighth game of the season “must win.” And, I didn’t like him playing David Wright for the whole game Friday with the explanation he wanted him to face the Giants’ lefty relievers in preparation for facing Madison Bumgarner Sunday. What, Wright has never faced a lefty before? But, I do like him moving Michael Conforto to the No. 3 hole, which was the catalyst for the offensive surge. I also liked how he let Hansel Robles face Freddie Freeman when he could have played the lefty-righty percentages. Best of all, I liked how he admitted the Mets might have made a mistake in not giving his starters enough work during spring training. Overall, he’s done a solid job worthy of his extension.

Q: What’s going on with Matt Harvey?

A: After a 7.50 spring training ERA and 0-3 start, there were understandably questions about Harvey. A lot is always demanded from Harvey, and after making it through last season without any problems following Tommy John surgery, the expectations are even higher. He’s pitched better in his last two starts, both wins. No reason for concern right now.

Q: Will Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard pitch to ace status?

A: Syndergaard has been incredible consistently throwing in the high 90s. His secondary pitches have also been dominant. DeGrom missed time with a strained lat muscle and tending to his family because of complications following the birth of his son. Both child and lat are doing fine. He didn’t have a smooth start Saturday against the Giants, but as usually the case with him, he finds a way to pitch through trouble.

Q: What can we expect from Steven Matz?

A: I would say an awful lot. He was hammered in his first start, but won his last three. Matz has been terrific, but like deGrom and Harvey, he’s throwing too many pitches for the innings he works. That eventually could catch up to the bullpen.

Q: How long can the Mets ride Bartolo Colon?

A: Nothing has changed, the plan remains for him to be in the rotation until Zack Wheeler is brought up, which should be around July 1. He would then move to the bullpen.

Q: How thick is Jeurys Familia’s skin?

A: So far, it has been like leather. Familia recently has worked his way out of a tough stretch. He’s converted all seven of his save opportunities with a 2.45 ERA.

Q: How sturdy is the bridge to Familia?

A: This might have been the Mets’ most important pre-season issue, but the bullpen has been solid in all phases. Addison Reed has been a very capable set-up reliever and Antonio Bastardo has pitched well despite a poor spring training. Jim Henderson and Logan Verrett have been more than pleasant surprises. Robles is getting more chances to shine and he’s delivering.

Q: Paging Travis d’Arnaud, are you there?

A: Nope. Once again, he’s on the disabled list, this time with a strained rotator cuff. The Mets still don’t know what he can produce over 500 at-bats and might not find out this year, either. He wasn’t hitting or throwing well at the time of the injury.

Q: Will Lucas Duda be more consistent?

A: When Conforto was moved to the No. 3 hole, Yoenis Cespedes went to clean-up and Duda was dropped to fifth. He’s hitting .240 with four homers and 14 RBI, and again has proven streaky. Four homers a month will give him 24 for the year, which is short of his expectations. Also short of what the Mets want from him.

Q: Will Neil Walker make people forget Daniel Murphy?

A: Walker has been the Mets’ Player of the Month for April with nine homers, tying him with Dave Kingman (1976), Carlos Delgado (2006) and John Buck (2013) for the club record. Sure, Murphy was a terrific month, but Walker has been better than advertised. The question now is: How hard will the Mets try to bring him back?

Q: Is Asdrubal Cabrera an upgrade over Wilmer Flores at shortstop?

A: Cabrera has done it both in the field and at the plate. There’s no uneasiness when a grounder is hit to him.

Q: What can we expect from Wright?

A: Still nobody knows. It takes him two hours to get ready for a game and his back is always a question. Which is why it was foolish to let him play nine innings in a blowout game Friday night. Why push the envelope? Wright has two homers and only five RBI hitting mostly in the second spot in the order. He’s only hitting .143 (3-for-21) with RISP. It’s not about hitting for power, it is about hitting a single when you need it.

Q: One and done for Cespedes?

A: That’s the chance the Mets took when they gave Cespedes an out clause after one season in his three-year deal. If it does happen that way, it has been a fun ride. Cespedes still has his lapses in the field, but he’s locked in at the plate with seven homers and 23 RBI for the month. However, he is on pace to strike out over 200 times.

Q: A breakout year for Conforto?

A: it is sure looking that way. Conforto lit the offense on fire since moving to the No. 3 hole. He closed the month reaching base in 17 straight games and tying a club record with doubles in six straight. He has four homers in his last 14 games. Everything he hits seems to be hard and on a line. Plus, he’s making the plays in the field. He’s not a star in the making. He already is a star.

Q: Will we get another 90 walks from Curtis Granderson?

A: After a slow start Granderson is on a roll. He’s scored 15 runs in his last 13 games and has a .350 on-base percentage. He also has four homers. Granderson still strikes out a lot and isn’t trying to steal anymore.

Q: How deep is the bench?

A: Kevin Plawecki is now a starter with d’Arnaud’s injury. Collins needs to find a way to get Alejandro De Aza and Flores more at-bats. Eventually, the Mets will need them. Rene Rivera is now the backup catcher.

Q: Who gets injured?

A: That’s always the wild card. Right now it is d’Arnaud. Cespedes missed several games with a bruised right leg, then hit a pinch-hit three-run homer to tie a game this week against Cincinnati. Harvey entered the season a question because of a bladder infection. He’s fine now. DeGrom’s lat was a scare, but he’s also fine. Wright, of course, is always a concern.

Q: What’s going with the Nationals?

A: The Nationals sprinted out of the gate and opened up a five-game lead on April 16 that is now down to a half-game. MVP Bryce Harper is playing as if he wants to win it again. Their pitching has also been strong and Murphy is playing well.

Q: Can the Mets get off to another fast start?

A: An 11-game winning streak keyed a 15-8 April record last year and gave them a buffer to overcome injuries and a drastic hitting slump. The Mets had another strong April this year at 15-7, which they needed to keep pace with Washington. The Nationals come to town for a three-game series, May 17-19, and the Mets are in Washington, May 23-25.

Please follow me on Twitter.

Apr 02

Top 20 Mets’ Questions

Fortunately, spring training results don’t count. While the Mets won’t carry their exhibition record to Kansas City, let’s hope they don’t bring with them their quality of play.

After all, there are reasons why they finished 8-17 this spring, and some of them include their regulars not playing well. (The Nationals were 19-4 this spring, and if things counted they would open the season with a 12-game lead on the Mets).

Can the Mets get back to the World Series? Well, of course, they can, but it is dependent on how they answer the following questions:

COLLINS: Doesn't have the answers, yet. (Getty_

COLLINS: Doesn’t have the answers, yet. (Getty)

Q: Will they have a World Series hangover or let down?

A: Things happen during a season that have nothing to do with cockiness or an emotional let down. You certainly can’t draw a definitive conclusion based on spring training, but there were a few red flags, such as Matt Harvey letting a few back-page headlines get to him and Yoenis Cespedes’ brain cramp. Will there be a carryover? We shall see. But admit it, you weren’t pleased with how they played this spring. Nobody was.

Q: How will manager Terry Collins respond to being a favorite?

A: No Collins-run team has had expectations this high. It’s not enough for him to maintain a steady hand. There will be times when he has to go to the whip. I thought he let Harvey play him last season, which only inflamed the innings issue. This year, Harvey and no other pitcher can bully him to stay in a game. This will be Collins’ most demanding season. He’ll also need to formulate a playing time plan with David Wright and not take any garbage from Cespedes when be decides to mail it in. Collins got a free pass for the most part in previous seasons because the expectations were so low. They aren’t low anymore.

Q: What’s going on with Harvey?

A: Let’s face it; a 7.50 ERA stinks, whether it is in the exhibition or regular season. A lot is always expected from Harvey, and this year is his second coming off Tommy John surgery. That makes the expectations even higher. Harvey marches to his own tune, which is fine if he can back it up. So far, he’s only shown glimpses. Time to back it up, big boy. If you want to be Batman, you’ll need to develop a thicker skin.

Q: Will Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard pitch to ace status?

A: Many scouts think their ceilings are higher than Harvey’s. That’s one of the reasons, along with their current contractual status, why I believe they should be signed to long-term deals before Harvey. This will be our first season of watching Syndergaard full time, and frankly that’s one of the most intriguing things of the season for me. And, who can’t envision deGrom winning a Cy Young?

Q: What can we expect from Steven Matz?

A: This will also be our first season watching Matz fulltime. As a lefty, his ceiling is enormous, but he must stay healthy. There were concerns, voiced by Collins several weeks ago. Most starters get up to six starts and 30 innings in spring training. The Mets’ starters got far less.

Q: How long can the Mets ride Bartolo Colon?

A: The plan is for him to be in the rotation until Zack Wheeler is brought up, which should be around July 1. He then could be sent to the bullpen. They shouldn’t be too hasty to cut ties with Colon, especially if he’s pitching well because things happen. You’re a Mets’ fan. You know things happen.

Q: How thick is Jeurys Familia’s skin?

A: As much as a having a signature pitch, a great reliever needs the ability to bounce back and forget. Mariano Rivera said one of the best things to happen in his career was when Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar beat him in the 1997 playoffs with a home run. He said it shaped his emotional development. Familia wasn’t as effective and blew a save in the World Series. Maybe he got the job by default after Jenrry Mejia kicked away his career, but it’s Familia’s job to keep.

Q: How sturdy is the bridge to Familia?

A: As of now Addison Reed is the set-up reliever and Antonio Bastardo the lefty specialist. In recent years, the composition of the Mets’ bullpen has been fluid at best. The Mets will also carry lefty Jerry Blevins. Hansel Robles will open the season serving a two-game suspension. Robles is a hot head that needs to learn composure. The Mets will also keep Jim Henderson and Logan Verrett, the latter whom can pitch in long relief or as a spot starter. Henderson, who has major league experience, should be interesting to watch. However, this isn’t a proven group collectively. Seriously, does anybody here take your breath away? Ideally, the bridge to Familia would be even stronger if the starters can go seven innings.

Q: Paging Travis d’Arnaud, are you there?

A: The Mets need a healthy d’Arnaud to give them a full season. He’s shown occasional pop, but what can he do with 500 plate appearances. His career high is 421 plate appearances in 2014, when he had a .302 on-base percentage with 13 homers and 41 RBI. However, he hit 12 homers with 41 RBI and a solid .340 on-base percentage in 268 plate appearances last year. The pitchers like how he calls a game, but he needs work holding on runners and his throwing.

Q: Will Lucas Duda be more consistent?

A: Although his on-base percentage has been decent, .352 and .349 in 2015 and 2014, respectively, he still strikes out too damn much for my liking (138 times last year and 135 times in 2014). Maybe I’m just too picky. He’ll hit eight homers in one month and one in another. Five a month, which is roughly one a week, would be perfect. It adds up to 30. But, hell yes, I’d love to see 40. Who knows, back-to-back with Cespedes can give the Mets their best power duo since Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson. I like watching Duda and think he can develop into a real basher. I’d like to see more productive outs.

Q: Will Neil Walker make people forget Daniel Murphy?

A: Murphy was a terrific Met, despite his occasional mental and fielding lapses. Walker is a .272 lifetime hitter with a .338 career on-base percentage. However, his 162-game average is 18 homers and 81 RBI, which surpasses Murphy. It won’t be easy forgetting Murphy, as he’ll face the Mets 19 times while with the Nationals.

Q: Is Asdrubal Cabrera an upgrade over Wilmer Flores at shortstop?

A: While their 2015 power numbers are similar, sending Flores to the bench deepens the bench, which is a significant plus. Cabrera hit 15 homers with 58 RBI last season for Tampa Bay, while Flores hit 16 homers with 59 RBI. Cabrera is considered better defensively. Cabrera committed nine errors in 443 chances last year while Flores made 14 in 400 chances.

WRIGHT: Nobody knows. (AP)

WRIGHT: Nobody knows. (AP)

Q: What can we expect from Wright?

A: It’s only a coincidence the 13th question is about Wright, who hasn’t played in 150 games since 2012. Injuries have limited him to less than 140 games in four of the last five years. To project 140 games, much less his production is folly. Right now, I’d take 120 games and be happy. In addition to his pregame hitting and fielding, Wright puts in at least 90 minutes before games with exercises designed to loosen up his back.

Q: One and done for Cespedes?

A: That’s the chance the Mets took when they gave Cespedes an out clause after one season in his three-year deal. I have limited confidence he won’t be sidetracked by the money and glitz of New York. Never mind his brain cramp in spring training, but last year in September and during the playoffs he had some head-scratching moments. But, if Cespedes lets it all out, this could be another special season.

Q: A breakout year for Michael Conforto?

A: I’m not saying he’s another Tony Gwynn, but the expectations are high. Let’s just hope Collins isn’t tempted to rest him against left-handers. Let him play and give him a chance to develop into a real talent, not a part time flash.

Q: Will we get another 90 walks from Curtis Granderson?

A: I confess I didn’t like Granderson leading off, but his ability to draw walks changed that thinking. If Granderson can improve his walks by cutting down his 151 strikeouts he can be a greater offensive force. If he does that he might hit 30 homers (he hit 26 last year with 70 RBI) again.

Q: How deep is the bench?

A: I like Flores’ ability to play anywhere in the infield, but hope he doesn’t languish for weeks before getting a chance to play. Alejandro De Aza was to be a big piece before Cespedes was brought back. His role is undefined at best. Juan Lagares won a Gold Glove in center field two years ago but is now coming off the bench. When he does play, it has to be in center. Eric Campbell has always produced coming off the bench, but his weaknesses are exposed the longer he plays. Kevin Plawecki was kept, but I don’t want him to wither on the bench for weeks. If that happens, he’s better off in Triple-A.

Q: Who gets injured?

A: That’s always the wild card. None of the starting pitchers are ailing. Cabrera missed significant time in spring training, but will play Sunday night. Conforto and Cespedes missed some time, and Wright is always a question. If they stay healthy and produce, there’s no reason they can’t make the playoffs again. Health is always the biggest variable for any team.

Q: What’s going with the Nationals?

A: The Nationals were a buzz saw in Florida and appear to have a federal budget sized chip on their collective shoulders, beginning with MVP Bryce Harper. Their rotation isn’t as deep as the Mets, but their front three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg (in his walk year) and Gio Gonzalez can stack up with the front end of most staffs. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has a lot to prove, and if Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman stay healthy there’s no reason they can’t wrestle back the NL East.

Q: Can the Mets get off to another fast start?

A: An 11-game winning streak keyed a 15-8 April record last year and gave them a buffer to overcome injuries and a drastic hitting slump. The Mets lost their first-place lead on May 20 (it grew to a 4.5-game deficit in July) before they wrestled back the division for good from Washington, Aug. 2. The Mets caught a break last year when the Nationals stumbled. They can’t count on that again.

I will revisit these questions periodically throughout the summer.

Please follow me on Twitter.