Jason O. Watson
As currently constructed, the Mets' outfield might be decent, which would be a whole lot better than many expect.
The Mets' glaring weakness right now is the outfield. The bullpen is a concern, of course, but the team's five-man, two-position-platoon is part of the team that looks least likely to succeed this year. If the season were to begin today, Lucas Duda would be the everyday left fielder, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Collin Cowgill would platoon in center, and Mike Baxter and Andrew Brown would platoon in right. While that five-man combination obviously lags far behind the outfields of division rivals Atlanta and Washington, it might be considerably better than expected.
Let's start with a look at the league average hitting statistics from 2012 by position. The table below is sortable.
Could the Mets' outfield hit at or above the league average in 2013?
Starting in left field, Lucas Duda's bat is the last of his worries, at least considering how poor he is defensively. Despite a very down year at the plate in 2012, Duda' a career .256/.338/.427 hitter with a .765 OPS and .335 wOBA. If he just matches those numbers, he'd rank above the average left fielder. With a little improvement, he'd be well above average. Eno Sarris wrote up a great piece on what Duda could become — a very similar player to Jason Kubel. That's not great, but there's a shot that he puts up a positive WAR this year.
In center, the Nieuwenhuis-Cowgill combination figures to be a strict platoon, unless the Mets actually do acquire Michael Bourn. Nieuwenhuis is a left-handed hitter, and Cowgill's a right-handed hitter. In the big leagues, Nieuwenhuis put up a .740 OPS against right-handed pitchers and a putrid .515 OPS against left-handed pitchers. Between 2011 and 2012, he racked up a .953 OPS against right-handed pitchers in the minor leagues and a .754 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
Cowgill, too, has shown drastic splits — albeit it in a tiny sample in the big leagues — as he's put up a .784 OPS against left-handed pitchers but a .514 OPS against right-handed pitchers. In the minors, though, he's been virtually identical against both types of pitchers over the last couple of seasons, with an .859 and .866 OPS against righties and lefties, respectively. OPS masks one significant split, though; Cowgill's gotten on base at a .402 clip against lefties over the same span in the minors.
Both players have rated decently, if not spectacularly, in very limited time in center field, but neither one is likely to be a defensive butcher. Properly platooned, it's not difficult to see something like a .750 OPS and .335 wOBA out of the combination, which wouldn't be awful.
At the beginning of the offseason, a platoon of Baxter and Scott Hairston looked like an acceptable way to enter the season in right. With Hairston gone, though, Andrew Brown is currently the most likely candidate to replace him. Baxter, the left-handed half of this platoon, has hit .275/.370/.440 with a .349 wOBA against right-handed pitching. Like Cowgill, Baxter's major league sample is small, but his recent minor league numbers were in line with the major league splits.
Brown, the right-handed hitter here, has destroyed left-handed pitching to the tune of a .980 OPS over the past two years in the minors. He has just 148 big league plate appearances to his name, but in them, he's been slightly better against left-handed pitchers. Despite a .315 wOBA, Brown was still worth 0.3 fWAR in just 126 plate appearances in Colorado last year.
Again, in a strict platoon, it looks like the Mets might have something here, even though Brown's the biggest wild card in the outfield. If he can get it together with proper deployment by Terry Collins, the Baxter-Brown duo could find itself around league average, too.
This still isn't a thrilling outfield, but it probably won't be the worst one in the game, either. It's conceivable that each of the Mets' outfield spots will rank in the top half of the league at the plate, which wouldn't be bad. Whether or not they'll be an asset to the team depends on defense, but only Duda figures to be a major liability in the field.
If all three outfield positions prove to be serviceable, that would be a step forward for the Mets. Considering the team's outfielders had a .309 wOBA and 95 wRC+, both of which ranked fifth-worst in the game, it's not that far fetched to imagine the current outfield taking a sizable step forward.