The playoffs are far away and every team's magic number is in the triple digits. It's too early -- and will be too early for some time -- to declare anyone on the Mets "most improved." Still, it's the time of year to speculate about what will happen in 2013. When the season ends, which Mets player will be named "most improved" in the Mets' yearbook, as compared to his 2012 performance? Here are three players who might be the answer to that question, for various reasons.
The valley fever that plagued Ike early in the 2012 season is long gone. To hear him tell it, the affliction played a role in his disastrous first two months of that season, during which he hit .170/.228/.296 with just five home runs. Here's Ike discussing that forgettable stretch (via Adam Rubin):
"I didn’t feel like myself. I wasn’t the same guy on the field. Obviously, you could tell. I didn’t do anything. When I play, I have the potential to make an impact. I just wasn’t doing anything to help."
Ike rebounded nicely in the second half: he posted an OPS of .888 after the All-Star break and finished with 32 home runs. His final batting line was about average for a National League first baseman. Had Ike not come down valley fever, and we take him at his word about how he felt, could he have hit all season like he did in the second half? An .888 OPS last season would have placed him behind only Joey Votto for National League first basemen.
Disease-free, Ike seems like a good bet to improve on his 2012 season in 2013. He's probably not as good as he was in an injury-abbreviated 2011 season but an OPS in the low-to-mid-.800s is a reasonable projection. Combine that with characteristically good defense and Ike has a decent shot to be the second most valuable Mets position player behind David Wright.
Even before his Opening Day grand slam, Cowgill was a burgeoning fan favorite because of his perceived "dirt dog" mentality. Mets television and radio announcers have been talking him up for his hard-working nature. That's all well and good but will it translate to on-field achievement? Cowgill has a history of modest minor-league success and won the full-time center field job out of spring training, so the answer is... maybe.
Cowgill put up a slash line of .269/.336/.317 in 116 plate appearances with the Oakland Athletics in 2012. That's not great, but he did it without the luxury of regular playing time in a crowded A's outfield. This season, he'll get the chance to play his way out of the starting job. I plugged Cowgill's 2011 minor-league stats into the minor-league equivalency calculator, and it returned an MLB slash line of .294/.355/.444. That's a bit optimistic to expect in 2013, considering his projections, but if he could approach something like .265/.325/.395 he could end up being a league-average player. That would be quite acceptable in this team's outfield, and a marked improvement over his 2012 season. Let's see if he can be a fan favorite for more than just his hustle.
Parnell might seem out of place here. After all, he had a fine 2012, during which he posted a 2.49 ERA in 68.2 innings. He was the Mets' best reliever, a generally solid option in a bullpen of dubious hurlers. And yet, something about his performance continued to disappoint. He ended up with a negative win probability added (WPA) in 2012, just as he has in every season of his career. In short, he has struggled in clutch situations.
Who knows exactly why this has been the case, and there's a strong chance it's just bad luck. However, Parnell has not been able to settle into one set relief role during his time with the Mets. Perhaps the constant uncertainty about his position over the years -- set-up man? middle reliever? closer? -- has contributed to his struggles in big spots. That uncertainty is gone, for now at least, with Parnell taking over as closer with Frank Francisco on the shelf. It's little more than speculation that Parnell can improve in the clutch simply because he knows his role. But many relief pitchers are known to be creatures of habit. They like knowing what to expect about their usage. If he can settle into a routine as closer, maybe the high-leverage success will follow.