The New York Mets entered the eighth of inning of Saturday afternoon's game against the San Francisco Giants ahead by three runs. They entered the ninth ahead by just one. Jeurys Familia, in to close the game for the Mets, surrendered a leadoff single to Denard Span on his third pitch. Tying run aboard, no outs, Angel Pagan at the plate. On a 2-2 count, Pagan chopped a slow ground ball to the right side. Mets second baseman Neil Walker charged, gathered, and shuffled the ball to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera, while hurdling the sliding Span, gloved the ball, toe-tapped second base, and fired a strike to the outstretched Lucas Duda at first to beat Pagan by a quarter-stride. Four. Six. Three. Double play. No men on, two men out.
It was exactly the kind of sharp, momentum-swinging defensive play that seemed to elude the Mets throughout the 2015 season, and never more so than in the five-game loss to the Royals in the World Series.
The Mets acquired Walker and Cabrera, via trade and free-agency respectively, within a day of each other as part of a December overhaul of the middle infield. When Daniel Murphy declined the Mets’ $15.8 million qualifying offer in favor of unrestricted free agency, general manager Sandy Alderson declined to pursue Murphy, fresh off a historically great postseason, at his market value. Instead, on December 9 the Mets exchanged lefty Jonathon Niese—the odd man out in a rotation of rising stars—for Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. The very next day, the club signed Cabrera to a two-year, $18.5 million contract.
The Mets are now 22 games into the 2016 season, and Walker and Cabrera have started every single one. That in itself is a feat Alderson can be proud of. However, the level of production that the pair has given the club in the first month of the season is something no one could have anticipated. Cabrera, who has fluctuated lately between the second and sixth spot in the lineup, is batting an even .300, fourth-best among major league shortstops, with a .764 OPS, seventh best. While Cabrera has given the Mets contact, Walker has brought pure power. His nine home runs and .625 slugging percentage are both tops among MLB second basemen.
Defensively, Walker and Cabrera have been as solid as the Mets could have hoped for, both individually and in tandem. They left Saturday’s game having made just a combined two errors on the season, and while the Mets are still one of the bottom 20 teams in terms of double plays turned per game, they are up six spots from 26th to 20th from last season. Behind a pitching staff comprised almost entirely of strikeout specialists, that increase is significant.
"I’m very pleased," said Manager Terry Collins of his new middle infield. "You know the reputations, they’re both first-class guys. We hoped that when they came in they’d blend in the middle of the infield together, and they have. Offensively they can be dangerous, and they’ve shown that so far. I think as we get into a rhythm you’re going to see these two guys make a big difference for our club."
That difference is becoming clearer with each passing game. While Murphy’s April has been magnificent with Washington on both sides of the ball, the consistency that Walker and Cabrera have brought to Flushing has done wonders for the stability of the Mets’ lineup and defense. It is all but certain that all three veterans will cool down and return closer to career averages as the season progresses, but even then, Alderson’s maneuvering of the middle infield during the offseason seems to have objectively bettered the team as a whole.
Said Alderson, "Before we acquired Cespedes late in the offseason people accused us of going for the steak and not the sizzle, but I think their play so far proves the value of the steak." For now, that "steak" is at the meat of the batting order and the heart of the defense, and if Walker and Cabrera can maintain their above-average production, barring injury, that won’t change.