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Breakout candidates for the 2018 Mets, revisited

With the book closed on the first half, we take a look back at predictions from the offseason.

MLB: New York Mets at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Star break is often a time to reflect on preseason predictions—where we were right and where we were wrong and why. Back in December, I made a list of potential breakout candidates for the Mets in 2018. With more than half a season’s worth of games under their belts, I now reevaluate whether those players have lived up to the potential I saw in the offseason and keep myself honest about the accuracy of my predictions.

Where I was wrong

Travis d’Arnaud

d’Arnaud finished the 2017 season hot, so there was a good reason to be hopeful about him going into 2018. However, as has been the stumbling block his entire career, he has once again failed to stay healthy. Tommy John surgery cost him almost the entire 2018 season and instead of having a breakout year, his future with the Mets is uncertain.

Dominic Smith

Smith is another player whose future with the Mets feels pretty uncertain right about now. He got a limited and disappointing cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2017, but I cited his weight loss and his tendency to take awhile to adjust each time moving up a level as reasons to believe 2018 might go more smoothly for him. However, Smith has posted just a 46 wRC+ in his 74 plate appearances since being called up this season and has not shown much to indicate he has taken any steps forward. What’s perhaps even more concerning is the fact that—unlike in 2017—his numbers at Triple-A Las Vegas were not impressive prior to joining the Mets.

To his credit, however, those 74 plate appearances this season have not come in an every day role. He has been shuttled between first base and the outfield in an effort to get him at-bats and lately has been relegated to the bench altogether. Getting out of a slump and figuring things out with spotty pinch-hitting appearances, along with trying to learn a new position is not easy, but it’s also hard to argue Smith has truly gotten a real shot this year to prove himself.

Where I was right

Brandon Nimmo

Nimmo did more than break out this year—he positively burst onto the scene, far exceeding even my offseason expectations. I figured if Nimmo could simply sustain the 117 wRC+ he put up during his limited 2017 run, he would be a very useful player for the 2018 Mets. He’s done far more than that. He carries a 139 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR into the second half. With injuries to Juan Lagares, Jay Bruce, and Yoenis Cespedes, Nimmo has had the opportunity to play every day and has clearly established himself as an every day major league outfielder. One of the few true bright spots of 2018, it’s hard to imagine Nimmo will see the bench again.

Seth Lugo

Given the fact that Lugo was nursing a partial UCL tear going into 2018, there was certainly reason to be wary about how his season would go. However, I predicted that a reduced workload may help him find success, not only in staying healthy, but in being more effective on the mound, given he had struggled during his career the third time through the order. Lugo’s first half supports that assertion, as he has been tremendously effective for the Mets coming out of the bullpen, utilizing his curveball more often and gaining some velocity on his fastball. He has also been good the few times he has been used as a starter this season, but it seems like the Mets really like him as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen.

Wilmer Flores

Even though Flores’ Fangraphs page still says “3B/SS,” I wrote that consistent at-bats from the right side of the infield where he is better defensively was a key to his 2018 success. Like pretty much every season, injuries have meant that Flores has gotten his at-bats. He holds a 112 wRC+ for the season, which is pretty much in line with what he has produced at the plate over his Mets career. However, unlike previous seasons, the majority of his innings have come at first base since the release of Adrian Gonzalez. As a result, he is on pace to have his most valuable season since 2015, when he was an every day player. Of course, Flores logging so many innings at first base is what has spawned the Dominic Smith conundrum in the first place, but if Asdrubal Cabrera is dealt by the trading deadline, there may be at-bats for both players to be had on the right side of the infield, should Smith remain in the major leagues late into the summer.

Steven Matz

After struggling with—and at times pitching through—a litany of injuries in his career it seems that Matz is finally healthy again. And the results show it. He carries a very solid 3.38 ERA into the second half. However, worth noting is the fact that his FIP, which stands at 4.81, is not too far off last year’s mark of 5.05. And his K/BB ratio is a career-low 2.30. These are somewhat concerning indicators that make one question his ability to sustain this success into the second half. That said, he is generating more ground balls and fewer line drives than he did last year and pitching to contact has mostly worked out for him so far this season.

Where I was sort of right

Matt Harvey

Harvey is having a bounce back season. It’s just not with the Mets. Since being traded to the Reds for Devin Mesoraco, Harvey has a 3.64 ERA. He boasts a 1.65 ERA in the month of July thus far. And his velocity is up. Maybe his Reds coaches saw something Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland did not. Maybe the change of scenery really has been to his benefit. It’s hard to know exactly what factors are at play here, but it’s hard to deny that the results are there for Harvey. He may still be a far cry from the pitcher he once was, but to even be a mid-rotation type starter after coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery is a major accomplishment. Harvey is still not striking out hitters at the rate he used to; his K/9 with the Reds this season is 6.9, which is well below the 2018 league average of 8.53 and well below his pre-TOS marks. This may be an indicator that his success is not sustainable. However, if he really has learned to have success as a contact pitcher with somewhat reduced stuff, then he may very well have resurrected his career.

Players I should not have overlooked

Zack Wheeler

Wheeler is clearly my biggest miss, as he is absolutely having what would qualify as a breakout season. His 2018 season has been downright impressive, so much so that he perhaps finds himself on the trading block with the way his stock has risen. While he had his struggles early in the season, he has gotten better and better as the season has gone on. His velocity has returned to pre-Tommy John surgery levels and he’s throwing harder than he ever has in his career. His 2.65 K/BB ratio is also a career best. And while early in his career he struggled to go deep into games, he is now routinely pitching into the seventh inning. Much like Matz, it seems that finally being healthy has made all the difference in the world for Wheeler in 2018. Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland deserve credit for the strides Matz and Wheeler have made this season.

Kevin Plawecki

When thinking about Travis d’Arnaud’s potential for a breakout season, I should not have passed over his battery mate, Kevin Plawecki. Like d’Arnaud, Plawecki had a strong finish to 2017 and committed to swing adjustments in an effort to raise his launch angle. While that specific effort has not exactly translated to results (Plawecki’s launch angle is actually down from last season), Plawecki has still been very productive at the plate since coming back from the disabled list. He has a 118 wRC+ for the season, which is well above average for the catching position.

Robert Gsellman

Like Lugo, Gsellman has benefitted greatly from moving to the bullpen and rebounded nicely from his disappointing 2017. He has also seen increased velocity on his pitches being able to air it out over shorting outings. He hit a bit of a skid recently and it seemed that the workload was finally catching up to him, but he seemed to be back on track heading into the All-Star break.

Unforeseen pleasant surprises

Devin Mesoraco

While Matt Harvey has found new life with the Reds, the success Mesoraco has had as a Met cannot be overlooked. Mets hitting coach Pat Roessler has worked with Mesoraco on his swing in an effort to generate more power and it seems to have paid dividends. He has a 99 wRC+ since joining the Mets, which is still a far cry from his 2014 All-Star season in which he posted a 147 wRC+, but it is still his best offensive mark since then. Like so many other players mentioned here, the key for Mesoraco has been health and consistent at-bats. If he can keep going at his current clip, he should earn himself a nice contract in the offseason as a catcher on the younger side that is an alternative to ponying up for Wilson Ramos or Yasmani Grandal.

Jose Bautista

After his short Braves tenure, many thought the 37 year-old Bautista’s days as a useful major league player were behind him. I confess to have counted myself among them. But Bautista has proved his doubters wrong by posting a 132 wRC+ as a Met this season while moving surprisingly well in the outfield. His Mets tenure has gone so well, in fact, that there is an outside chance he could be dealt for a prospect at the deadline.

Many of the players I predicted would have breakout seasons in 2018 have indeed put together successful campaigns. However, outside of Jacob deGrom, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jeurys Familia, there has been little in the way of consistency around these breakout performances, between injuries to many key players, a down season from Michael Conforto, an at times underwhelming season from Amed Rosario, and ineffectiveness out of the bullpen and back end of the rotation.