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Potential breakout candidates for the 2018 Mets

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The Mets will need to rely on breakout performances in 2018 to be successful.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Mets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the 2018 Mets, there is certainly a lot to be pessimistic about, especially given recent reports that Sandy Alderson only has about $10 million left to spend this offseason. With the only major additions to the roster being Anthony Swarzak and whatever roughly $10 million can buy the rest of the way, the Mets are going to need a lot of guys who were either injured or underwhelming in 2017 to step up to the plate.

The holiday season is upon us, and since that is supposed to be a time of joy, let us review the potential candidates for whom breakout seasons could help the Mets have a successful 2018 campaign, despite payroll cuts. Ya gotta believe, am I right?

Brandon Nimmo

When asked at the Winter Meetings why the Mets never considered going after Giancarlo Stanton, Sandy Alderson quipped, “With Brandon Nimmo in right field, we just didn’t feel we had a need there.” While this attempt at humor was obviously a shield for the true financial reasons why the Mets were never contenders for Stanton, a lot could potentially hinge on Nimmo’s performance next year.

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies
Brandon Nimmo looks to play a prominent role in the Mets outfield in 2018
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Nimmo was a first-round draft pick by the Mets in 2011 and spent much of his time in the minor leagues as a top 5 prospect in the Mets’ system. Scouts touted him as a very patient hitter at the plate, rarely swinging at anything outside the strike zone. That selective approach has persisted at the major league level, to the tune of a very solid 15.3% walk rate and .379 OBP in 2017. For a team lacking a true leadoff hitter, Nimmo’s skills at the plate could prove valuable in that role. He has shown some pop as well, with 5 home runs and 11 doubles in 177 at-bats in 2017. If he can sustain the 117 wRC+ he put up last season over the course of a full season, that would be a very good thing for the Mets.

Defensively, Nimmo’s strength is his quickness off the crack of the bat, giving him the ability to play all three outfield positions. However, his recent struggles with leg injuries may limit his ability to be a full-time center fielder. Thus far, he has put up good defensive numbers in left field, with limited at-bats in center field. His success with the 2018 Mets may very well depend on whether he can play center field regularly—perhaps in a platoon with Juan Lagares—when Michael Conforto returns to action. Either way, Nimmo is currently slated to have a much more prominent role with the Mets next year.

Travis d’Arnaud

We have all seen what Travis d’Arnaud is capable of. He was a key part of the 2015 Mets’ stretch run, posting a 126 wRC+ in the 2nd half of the season after he returned to the starting lineup. However, the Mets’ catcher has an extensive injury history, which has impeded him from reaching that potential he showed as a prospect and has shown flashes of during his Mets tenure. d’Arnaud’s many adjustments in his batting stance have also been repeatedly noted, as he attempts to achieve consistency.

MLB: Game Two-Atlanta Braves at New York Mets
Travis d’Arnaud had a strong finish to his 2017 season. Will that translate to 2018?
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

But there are reasons to be hopeful as Travis d’Arnaud looks toward 2018. He quietly was one of the few bright spots at the end of the 2017 season, with a blistering 157 wRC+ in the month of September. With Kevin Plawecki also putting together a strong end to the 2017 season, the Mets hope that on a roster with many more glaring holes, they can get average to above-average production from the catching position in 2018.

Wilmer Flores

At this point, we’ve seen enough of Wilmer Flores to know what he is offensively: a pretty solid hitter with some pop that eats lefties for breakfast (and lunch and dinner too, probably). However, what will be potentially different about 2018 that may set him up for greater success will be how he is used. With Dominic Smith hardly a lock to be the starting first baseman, there has been much discussion in utilizing Flores as part of a platoon with Smith at the position. The defensive numbers on Flores paint a stark picture: he is much better defensively on the right side of the diamond. In a recent interview on WOR, Flores said, “If they give me one [position], I’ll work my ass off to be the best I can be at that position.” Perhaps consistent at-bats on the right side of the infield is exactly what Flores needs to be successful in 2018.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at New York Mets
Wilmer’s defense on the left side of the infield leaves a lot to be desired, but more at-bats on the right side of the infield could raise his value in 2018.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Dominic Smith

Ah, the much-discussed enigma that is Dominic Smith. Amid much fanfare, the number 2 prospect made his major league debut last August, soon after his number 1 counterpart, Amed Rosario. However, his first stint in the major leagues didn’t quite go like Smith, or the Mets, had hoped. Smith hit just .198 in his first 183 plate appearances as a Met. What was perhaps more troubling though, was his lackluster defense at first base, which was perplexing, given how highly touted his glove was in scouting reports. Also puzzling was his reputation for being a high average hitter with slowly developing power, when at the big league level he hit for a low average, but with some power, hitting 9 home runs in 49 games.

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves
Smith’s defense was supposed to be his strength, but that hasn’t played out at the major league level thus far.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

However, Smith has already shown this offseason that he is committed to working hard to improve. Soon after Sandy Alderson took a not-so-subtle dig at Smith, implying that the starting job was far from his, Smith seemed to use that as motivation. Smith has already lost 12 pounds since the end of the season, due to changes in diet and conditioning. Additionally, slow starts are nothing new for Smith. It has taken him some time to adjust each time he has moved up a level. For a team with limited finances to pay for upgrades, strong contributions from lauded prospects like Smith and Rosario are essential for the 2018 Mets.

Seth Lugo

Seth Lugo missed the beginning of the 2017 season with a partial tear of his UCL. Given the Mets’ injury history, it’s easy to be to be wary of such a ticking time bomb. However, Lugo himself—even immediately after the injury—was optimistic, citing relatively low levels of pain. Even though his overall numbers after returning from the DL last season were somewhat pedestrian, a reduced workload toward the end of the season seemed to help, as Lugo is a pitcher (like many others) that struggles the third time through the order. Sandy Alderson has already hinted that the Mets may employ the strategy of pulling their starters sooner and Lugo may be a guy that could benefit from that.

MLB: Game Two-Atlanta Braves at New York Mets
SPIN RATE: Lugo’s heavy reliance on his curveball and fewer innings may help him avoid the DL.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Success pitching with a partial UCL tear is certainly not unprecedented. Both Adam Wainwright and Masahiro Tanaka have been able to avoid Tommy John surgery and still be effective. Adam Wainwright and Seth Lugo have another important characteristic in common: usage of the curveball as a primary pitch. While the pitch had been stigmatized for years as an injury risk, recent research suggests that throwing a curveball is actually less stressful on the elbow than throwing a lot of high-velocity fastballs. Limiting Lugo’s innings the third time through the order and utilizing his impressive curveball may be a recipe for success for him in 2018.

Steven Matz

Much like Travis d’Arnaud, we know Steven Matz can be good—even great—when healthy. But in his short major league career, he has rarely been healthy. 2017 was no exception. His alarmingly bad numbers on the mound even when he was not on the DL caused many to wonder whether he had been pitching with some degree of pain the entire season. There is no getting around it: the 2018 Mets need a healthy and effective Steven Matz to be successful.

MLB: New York Yankees at New York Mets
Will ulnar nerve surgery and a reduced workload help Steven Matz pitch pain-free?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A potential answer to why Matz had been pitching through pain came in late August when it was revealed that he required the same surgery to reposition his ulnar nerve that Jacob deGrom had the year before. This gives Mets fans some reason to be optimistic, as deGrom was able to recover completely from the surgery and be very good last season. Perhaps the same will be said for Matz. Additionally, given his injury history, Matz is another pitcher that may benefit from the reduced workload approach the Mets seem to be considering for their pitchers in 2018. For this approach to be successful, however, requires strong contributions from the likes of Zack Wheeler and Robert Gsellman.

Honorable mention: Matt Harvey

I know, I know. I can hear you yelling from here. “Harvey is done! Finished!” There is a chance he may be. There is no sugar-coating his nightmare of a 2017 season, where he put up a 6.7 ERA and a staggering -0.8 fWAR. However, it was only after Harvey went on the DL in June of last year that it was revealed that the muscles behind his pitching shoulder were roughly half the size of those on his left shoulder. It remains unclear whether those muscles were sufficiently strengthened, even after he returned from the DL later in the season. An entire offseason spent working to condition those muscles properly may help Harvey be more effective in the coming season.

It seems new manager Mickey Callaway and new pitching coach Dave Eiland are also cautiously optimistic about Harvey. After rumors had been swirling of a potential Harvey trade, Sandy Alderson revealed that it was Callaway and Eiland pushing to keep Harvey in Flushing that ultimately put those rumors to rest.

It seems hard to believe, even for the most ardent Harvey supporters (and I count myself among them), that Harvey will ever regain his Dark Knight form. But the upside is undeniable. And he did show flashes that indicate that he may at least be more effective next year.

From Fangraphs

The obvious point that sticks out on this chart of Harvey’s velocity throughout his career is the alarming drop in 2017 right before Harvey went on the disabled list. However, after his return, there was a small but steady increase back into the mid-90s. This at least presents a small nugget of hope that the velocity is there. Whether he can command his pitches effectively is what remains to be seen. But even Harvey putting together fifth-starter type numbers is something that could really help the Mets next year.