There’s a team in New York that’s worth watching these days, one that has struggled to score runs much of the season, has been entangled in some legal issues and is in need of a shortstop.
I’m talking, of course, about the New York Mets.
Just like their rivals from the Bronx, the Mets aren’t going to make the playoffs; unlike the Yankees, however, the Mets have a future that isn’t full of aging stars, bloated payrolls and Vernon Wells.
That future was on display on Tuesday night in the form of Zack Wheeler and a right arm that has enough electricity to light up at least a few of the auto body shops that surround Citi Field. Wheeler took a shutout into the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves, pumping up a home crowd on a warm August evening in Queens. The Mets held on for a 5-3 victory, and while everyone will be talking about the Yankees’ doubleheader sweep of the Blue Jays, it’s Wheeler and the Mets that are more exciting.
Wheeler is the future to Matt Harvey’s present, a guy with a big fastball and ace potential. He may never reach that apex -- he doesn’t yet have Harvey’s command, let alone his complete arsenal of secondary pitches -- but he has pitched much better than I expected after watching his first couple big league starts, with a 3.49 ERA through his first 12 spins in the rotation. Those outings included a 12-strikeout gem in his previous start in San Diego and a one-run, no-walk effort the game before that in Arizona.
Wheeler’s fastball is a weapon almost by itself. Since his recall on June 18, only 10 pitchers have struck out more batters on fastballs. His other pitches -- slider, curveball and changeup -- are works in progress, with the slider looking like it will become his top off-speed pitch. Ask Jason Heyward about the one he struck out on in the third inning.
Wheeler tired a bit in the seventh, walking Joey Terdoslavich and Heyward with one out, and then watching Andrelton Simmons clear the bases with a three-run double off reliever Carlos Torres. But I like that Terry Collins initially left Wheeler in there to try to work out of a jam; he’s a young pitcher who needs to learn how to close out those innings. He didn’t on this night (he left after 114 pitches) but the belief is that he’ll get there soon.
On a night Wheeler pitched, catcher Travis d’Arnaud picked up his first major league hit. He’s the highly rated prospect the Mets got from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade. He spent most of the minor league season on the disabled list, but check out these numbers from his 19-game stint in Triple-A: 21 walks, 12 strikeouts. In four games with the Mets, he’s drawn five walks. Have to love that approach, although his injury history is a concern.
Ike Davis continued his torrid stretch, going 2-for-4 with an RBI single and eighth-inning home run, and I know, it’s Ike Davis and this happened last year as well. He was hitting .161 on June 6 when sent to the minors, but since his return to the Mets on July 5, he’s hit .282 with a .450 on-base percentage -- only Joey Votto, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt have drawn more walks in that time frame. Is he going to be the star we once thought? No, but maybe if this new ability to get on base is legit, he's going to be a very useful piece in the lineup.
Then there’s Juan Lagares, the speedy rookie center fielder who has played outstanding defense in center field. Entering Tuesday, Baseball Info Solutions had credited Lagares with 21 defensive runs saved, tied for fifth most of any player in the majors, at any position. But Lagares has done that in about two-thirds the innings that Carlos Gomez, the highest-rated outfielder, has played. Defensive stats aren’t perfect and single-season numbers can certainly be questioned, but it appears that from both the metrics and the anecdotal reports, Lagares could be an elite defender. Now, his bat may not play -- 66 strikeouts versus nine walks is an issue -- but there’s hope here.
Behind Harvey and Wheeler in the rotation there is solid Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese and promising Jenrry Mejia, who was just shut down after five impressive starts. He’ll have surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero started the Futures Games and are two top pitching prospects who have reached Double-A. The Mets can dream of a 2015 rotation of Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, Montero and Mejia.
The Yankees, meanwhile, have players just trying to stay awake in the late innings.
Maybe the Yankees hang in this wild-card race -- although at 5.5 games behind the A’s and with the Rays and the Orioles and Indians still a game ahead of them it will take exceptional baseball from the Yankees and bad baseball from at least one of the A’s or Rays for a playoff berth to happen. More likely, the Yankees fall short and they’ll have to figure out how to reload for 2014.
Maybe they can figure out a way. Maybe they make peace with Alex Rodriguez, he gets his suspension reduced and hits 20 home runs in the second half. Maybe Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira all return healthy and perform. Maybe they replace Mariano Rivera without a hitch. Maybe.
Just don’t be surprised if it’s the Mets who start getting the back page covers in the New York tabloids next year. They need a shortstop -- how about a trade for Starlin Castro? -- and they should go hard after free-agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. The bullpen needs some work but that can be fixed. But Mets fans can see a foundation building instead of crumbling.