This weekend's three-game series between the Mets and Phillies will be meaningful for a number of reasons. The Mets are under a lot of pressure to return to the postseason and don't want to be seen losing to a supposedly inferior squad at home. New York is also looking to start its first winning streak of the year after bouncing back from Sunday's season-opening loss.
It would be more meaningful for both players and fans, however, if the Phillies were good again. Back in the late 2000s when both teams boasted championship-caliber talent, Mets vs. Phillies was a baseball event on par with the top rivalries in the game. However, we're now eight years removed from Philadelphia's 2008 world title and five years from its last winning season.
That length of time has been enough for the Mets to finally reinvent themselves as a contender with a promising young pitching staff. The Phillies seem to be on the road to recovery as well with the trades of Cole Hamels and Ken Giles bringing back enough talent to give the organization one of the top farm systems in baseball. Later this year, we could see young studs like outfielder Nick Williams, right-handed pitcher Jake Thompson, and shortstop J.P. Crawford take the field for the Phils, but right now the roster is decidedly less exciting.
Injuries to outfielders Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche have forced manager Pete Mackanin to start fringe major leaguers Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos at the corner spots, while first base is a mix between the replacement-level Darin Ruf and Ryan Howard, whom the Phillies wish was affordable enough to be trade bait.
There are bright spots, though. Odubel Herrera showed up last year as a Rule 5 pick and hit .297/.344/.418 while playing solid defense in center field. At 24 years of age, he's someone who might be around when this new group of Phillies matures into a winner. The cornerstone of that future team might be Maikel Franco, who hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs last year as a 22-year-old. The young Dominican has a chance to hit at least 25 home runs per year as a third baseman, making him a very valuable piece going forward.
We're also starting to see some potential in Philadelphia's rotation, not just from Aaron Nola, who looked like he belonged in the majors last season just a year after being drafted out of LSU, but also from today's starter Jerad Eickhoff. Following his move to Philly from Texas in the Hamels deal, the young right-hander pitched 51 innings spread over eight big league starts in which he posted a 2.65 ERA with 49 strikeouts and 13 walks. Those figures sounds like they should be worth more than the fourth spot in Philadelphia's rotation, where Eickhoff currently sits. If he can continue to pitch well, he'll work his way past veterans Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton in the pecking order.
|Date||Time||Television||Phillies Probable Starter||Mets Probable Starter|
|April 8, 2016||1:10 PM||SNY, MLBN||Jerad Eickhoff||Jacob deGrom|
|April 9, 2016||7:10 PM||WPIX, MLBN||Vince Velasquez||Bartolo Colon|
|April 10, 2016||1:10 PM||SNY||Jeremy Hellickson||Matt Harvey|
Speaking of Hellickson, he's another guy pitching against the Mets this weekend. The 28-year-old fly-ball pitcher struggled in 2015 after he was traded from Tampa Bay to the launching pad of Chase Field in Arizona, but it could have been worse if he didn't raise his ground ball rate to a career-high 43 percent last year. Following another trade back to the east coast, he's due to give up more than 20 home runs again if that ground ball rate doesn't continue to improve. Per Baseball Prospectus, Hellickson is one of the worst pitchers around at working from behind in the count, so it will be fun to see if the patient Mets can take advantage.
Saturday's starter Vince Velasquez might prove to be a stiffer test for New York. He posted scary strikeout rates while moving through Houston's farm system before making seven starts for the Astros in 2015. Eventually pushed out of the rotation by veteran acquisitions and shipped to the Phillies in the Giles trade, Velasquez still has plenty of untapped potential left due to his outstanding stuff. If he can improve his command (over three walks per nine innings last year), the right-hander can be a diamond in the rough for Philadelphia.
If the Mets are stymied by the Philadelphia rotation, there's always hope to come from behind against the bullpen. With Giles now working in Houston, the team is lacking an elite relief arm, and that issue reared its ugly head on Opening Day, when potential closer David Hernandez entered the game versus Cincinnati with an ERA of 0.00 and left with a far less desirable figure.
The Mets, as we've come to expect, are not being very aggressive with their pitching staff this weekend. The team's unusual opening to the schedule would allow Matt Harvey to pitch on normal rest this afternoon followed by Jacob deGrom's season debut on Saturday (provided his wife isn't giving birth on that day) and Noah Syndergaard on normal rest Sunday. However, it appears the Mets plan on using deGrom today followed by Bartolo Colon and then Harvey on extra rest.
On the offensive side, Michael Conforto went 0-for-4 on Tuesday following an excellent Sunday performance in which he reached base four times. According to OPS, he is still the team MVP so far, and he'll hopefully build on the hype against a trio of Philadelphia right-handers. We should also have high hopes for Neil Walker, who drove in all the Mets' runs on Tuesday and has been much stronger against righties than lefties in his career.
Prediction: Mets win two of three.