On April 6, the Mets will travel to Washington, D.C., to open the 2015 season against the Nationals. When Max Scherzer throws his first pitch, it will bring a definitive end to our winter and the beginning of the annual quest for postseason baseball.
While all 16 National League teams will begin the season with hopes of reaching the postseason, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and several other sites project the exact same division winners: the Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers.
That leaves 13 teams competing for the two NL Wild Card spots. Of these 13 teams, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus each predict seven teams—including the Mets—to win between 79 and 85 games. Now, Amazin' Avenue has spent a great deal of time and words this winter previewing the Mets' 2015 season. We have previewed every player on the roster, examined the Opening Day starter, and debated who should bat leadoff. If healthy, we know that the Mets have the pitching to contend, and an improved offense that could be good enough to break the team's nine-year playoff drought.
Today, we look at the six teams expected to contend with the Mets for the WIld Card spots. Those teams are the Marlins, Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, Padres, and Giants. Last season, the Mets played one-third of their games against these six teams, finishing 23-30.
What does 2015 have in store? And do these teams have enough to keep the Mets from playing their first October baseball since 2006?
Versus Mets in 2014: 8-11
2015 PECOTA Projections: 81-81 (636 runs scored/634 runs against)
The Marlins, by committing long-term to Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, were decidedly un-Marlins-like this offseason. In doing so, the team ensured that they would be thorns in the sides of Mets pitchers for at least the next half-decade. But do they have enough to contend in 2015?
Their superb young outfield of Stanton, Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna is projected to be worth 10-12 wins. The team also signed Michael Morse, who last season very quietly had an .811 OPS and a 133 OPS+ in just under 500 plate appearances. Long-time Braves infielder Martin Prado—and his projected 2.5 fWAR and career .786 OPS at Citi Field—returns to the division to round out what should be an improved, if still top-heavy, offensive attack.
Last year, the Marlins had the youngest pitching staff in baseball. With Jose Fernandez not ready to start the season, the team will rely on Mat Latos, Henderson Alvarez, and Dan Haren—who has not been a league-average pitcher since 2011 (4.33 ERA, 85 ERA+ from 2012 to 2014)—to keep the staff afloat until his return.
Like the Mets, the Marlins should benefit from playing nearly a quarter of their games against the Braves and Phillies, predicted by many to be two of the worst offensive teams in baseball. In early September, the Mets play six games in thirteen days against the Marlins, a stretch that could dictate which team is still in contention come mid-September.
Versus Mets in 2014: 5-2
2015 PECOTA Projections: 85-77 (677 runs scored/643)
You might have read an article or 100 about the Cubs or Kris Bryant heading into the 2015 season. There is not too much to say here that has not been covered ad nauseam. All we will add is that Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Anthony Rizzo, and Miguel Montero are projected to hit a combined 120 home runs. With Starlin Castro, Dexter Fowler, and Chris Coghlan each projected to be worth two wins, this has the potential to be as deep a lineup as there is in baseball. Perhaps mercifully, the Mets visit Chicago for four games in early May, when it could still easily be 45 degrees on the North Side and the balls are not yet flying over the ivy.
The Cubs also signed a legitimate front-of-the-rotation ace in Jon Lester. In 2014, Lester was worth nearly six wins (5.6 fWAR), and brings his career 21.8% strikeout rate and 3.58 ERA (121 ERA+) to the NL. With Lester and Jake Arrieta as their number one and two, the Cubs will depend on Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, Kyle Hendricks, and Edwin Jackson to provide quality innings in a division that is predicted to have four of the seven highest-scoring teams in the NL.
What makes the Cubs a serious threat to the Mets is their deep farm system and even deeper pockets, which could help them facilitate a deal for another arm if they're in contention.
Versus Mets in 2014: 4-3
2015 PECOTA Projections: 81-81 (672 run scored/674 runs against)
The bad news for the Mets: An offensive core of Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, Khris Davis, and Aramis Ramirez should be able to keep the Brewers in Wild Card contention. In fact, the Brew Crew has seven starters capable of hitting 15 or more home runs in 2015.
The good news for the Mets: The Brewers are expected to have a bottom-five pitching staff in the NL. Only one starter, Mike Fiers, is projected to have an ERA and FIP safely under 4.00. Fiers will be joined in the rotation by Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza. Unfortunately for the pitching staff, the Brewers will play more than a third of their games against the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates, all of which are predicted to have among the five best offenses in the NL.
Of the six teams, the Brewers seem to be the least likely to keep the Mets from the playoffs. Unless, of course, they pull off a surprise trade for a starting pitcher, à la CC Sabathia in 2008. Mets fans probably remember all too painfully the role he played on the season's final day.
Versus Mets in 2014: 4-3
2015 PECOTA Projections: 81-81 (689 runs scored/688 runs against)
The Pirates have made consecutive trips to the one-game Wild Card playoff, and retain the core of those 2013-2014 teams. Thankfully for the Mets, though, gone is catcher and team leader Russell Martin and his five wins in 2014.
However, A.J. Burnett returns to join Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole atop what should be a pretty good starting rotation. While Burnett's return did not generate the type of headlines garnered by the signings of Jon Lester and James Shields, it could prove to have a significant effect on the Wild Card race. In 2013, Burnett was nearly unhittable at PNC Park, posting a 29.6% strikeout percentage, 1.06 WHIP, and .553 OPS against. Fifteen home starts by Burnett could be enough to secure a third-consecutive appearance in the one-game playoff.
Like the Brewers' high-powered offense, any team that runs out Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, Neil Walker, and Starllng Marte on a daily basis should hit enough to remain in contention. After exiting in the NLDS in 2013 and losing the one-game playoff in 2014, the Pirates might feel pressure to go for it and make a mid-season acquisition if they are indeed contending. And while PECOTA is not as high on this year's squad, Fangraphs likes the Pirates to challenge the Cardinals in the NL Central.
San Diego Padres
Versus Mets in 2014: 3-3
2015 PECOTA Projections: 84-78 (620 runs scored/592 runs against)
Last season, Padres pitchers finished second in the National League in ERA, ERA-, and fWAR, and third in strikeout percentage and WHIP. Despite these numbers, the Padres finished 77-85. That's what happens when your team finishes last in baseball in runs scored, slugging percentage, and offensive fWAR.
To compensate, the Padres spent the offseason signing or trading for roughly half the offensive players in baseball. Of these acquisitions, the four highest-profile position players—Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Derek Norris—are projected to be worth a combined 10-11 wins. While Upton and Kemp are coming off of great seasons with the bat, the Padres are betting heavily that the other two acquisitions will bounce back from subpar 2014 campaigns.
James Shields will join Ian Kennedy at the top of what is expected to be one of the three best pitching staffs in the NL. Despite Shields experiencing a declining strikeout percentage and an increasing WHIP and ERA- in each of the last two seasons, his velocity has remained steady, and a move to PETCO Park should stave off immediate decline as he enters his age-33 season.
The Padres are the polar opposite of the Cubs, in that budgetary restraints and a decade of poor drafts leave them with little to use in a deadline move. Their pitching, however, should have them in contention with the Mets throughout 2015.
San Francisco Giants
Versus Mets in 2014: 6-1
2015 PECOTA Projections: 84-78 (635 runs scored/611 runs against)
The 2015 season could be a struggle for the defending World Series champions, and not just because of how weird Jake Peavy looks with his hair grown out this spring.
After folk hero Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, the Giants seem to be counting on 300 innings from two pitchers who struggled mightily in the second half of 2014. The first, Tim Hudson, will turn 40 in July and produced a .791 OPS against and a 1.450 WHIP. Despite being a decade younger, Tim Lincecum fared even worse, and you can pick almost any second-half statistic to make the case: a 25.9% line-drive percentage, 20.8% home run to fly ball ratio, .988 OPS against, and 1.78 WHIP.
On paper, the Giants have a bottom-five offense in the NL, devoid of nearly any power. Only three players—Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Hunter Pence—are expected to reach double-digits in home runs or have a slugging percentage greater than .400. While losing Pablo Sandoval to the Boston Red Sox will hurt, three straight seasons of a declining OPS and wRC+ suggest that the Giants were not entirely wrong for declining to commit nearly $100 million to him. Also, as discussed in the Marlins section, losing Michael Morse could be a significant hit to their lineup. Relying on a combined 1,500 plate appearances from Joe Panik, Angel Pagan, and Casey McGehee could make it difficult to generate enough offense to return to the postseason.
Do not sleep on the Giants' recent of history of pulling off deadline deals, like Pence in 2012 and Peavy in 2014, if they feel they are in contention.
Of all the teams expected to contend in the NL Wild Card race, the Mets might have the best offense-pitching balance, as they are expected to rank around fifth to seventh in the league in both runs scored and runs against. The Padres also have the pitching, but their offense is a major unknown, much like the Giants'. The NL Central teams are loaded offensively, meaning that they could spend the season beating up on each other. Can newcomers Jon Lester or A.J. Burnett help push their respective teams into October? If the Brewers are hanging around, can they go out and get a starting pitcher?
The Mets finish the 2015 season with nine games against three teams—the Braves, Phillies, and Reds—who are expected to be out of the race, before playing their final three games at home against a Nationals team that could have already clinched. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, if the Mets are within striking distance come mid-September, "you gotta like their chances."