The first half of the 2012 Major League Baseball season has concluded. Homefield advantage in the World Series has been decided. The hot stove will begin to heat up. Before the season kicks into another, let's hit the rewind button on the first half for the New York Mets and discuss what could be expected in the second half.
First-Half Review -- Even with an addition Wild Card spot added, many had the Mets on the outside looking in this preseason. In fact, the experts pegged the Amazins to be among one of the weaker teams in baseball, finishing last in the National League East. Fast forward to July 12, 2012, and the Mets are exceeding expectations with a 46-40 record, 4 1/2 games out of the division lead and a half-game out of a Wild Card spot. Through 86 games, they've put themselves in an excellent position to contend. Nothing about their first half strikes fear into their opponents, but the Mets are a scrappy team, which has proven to have a plus pitching staff and just enough offense, led by David Wright. Their 394 runs rank eighth in the league, .259 average is 14th and their slugging percentage is only .398. However, hitting coach Dave Hugens has prescribed a patient, work-the-count approach and the Mets are ninth in the league with a .328 on-base percentage. Pitching-wise, the Mets are middle of the pack on the heels of a third-ranked staff ERA and dreadful bullpen. Their 3.96 ERA is 15th and 1.28 WHIP is 11th.
Strength -- The team's MVP may not be found here, but the Mets are relevant because their starting rotation has been brilliant. Their 3.55 staff ERA is third in the league and 56 quality starts are tops. One through five, their starters have exceeded expectations. While he may not be his Cy Young self, Johan Santana has returned and dominated at times after a year off from shoulder surgery with a 3.24 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. At 37, R.A. Dickey has emerged as a staff ace with an unihittable knuckleball. He's got a 2.40 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 123 strikeouts in 120 innings. The first-time All-Star also is tied for the league lead with 12 wins. Jonathan Niese has been uneven at times, but the 25-year-old sports a 3.73 ERA and 1.23 WHIP and a 7-4 record, and he continues to grow in his third full season. The unsung hero of the staff is fourth-starter Dillon Gee. The 26-year-old whose season will be cut short for surgery on an artery in his shoulder after he had a blood clot has improved across the board in his second full season -- increasing his strikeouts, lessening his walks and increasing his groundballs. Gee had a 4.10 ERA and 1.25, but was one of those guys who pitched better than his surface stats indicated. It took some time for him to rehab, but finally the Mets found a fifth starter after Mike Pelfrey went down in Chris Young. The soft-tossing giant has started six games and has a 3.41 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. The best of all for the New York rotation: four of its five starters has thrown over 100 innings. (Granted, that will now take a hit with the loss of Gee.)
Weakness -- 1) Whereas the rotation has excelled, the bullpen has been a disaster. General manager Sandy Alderson's offseason additions -- Frank Francisco (struggled, now hurt), Ramon Ramirez (struggled, now hurt), Jon Rauch (struggled, pitching better now) -- have been huge disappointments. There is one reliever, Bobby Parnell, with an ERA below 3, two, Tim Byrdak and Ramon Ramirez (1.45 WHIP) below 4. The result is a 4.94 ERA, the worst bullpen mark in the league, and numerous missed opportunities late in games because of this group.
2) Defense is also an issue, which only makes the pitchers' lives more difficult and perpetuates the back-end problems.
3) Lefty struggles: The Mets' aggregate .259/.328/.398 line is nothing too special, but it's made much worse by their abysmal .246/.312/.372 mark against left-handed pitchers. Wright, Scott Hairston and Ruben Tejada have proven to be the only above-average hitters versus southpaws.
First-Half MVP -- David Wright: Dickey may be the story of the first half and the pitching may be keeping the Mets in games, but they're nowhere without Wright, who's in the discussion for the NL MVP at this juncture. His 4.9 Wins Above Replacement is second-best in the league. No other Met has one over 1.3. The third baseman has 11 home runs, 56 runs, 59 RBI and nine steals, but his .351/.441/.563 line better illustrates his first half. What makes it even more impressive is that Ike Davis couldn't hit little league pitching in the beginning months. Lucas Duda has 12 home runs and 44 RBI is solid, but Wright has really been a one-man wrecking crew without any consistent offensive pop surrounding him. This team is substantially worse without Wright in the lineup.
First-Half Bust -- Frank Francisco: Sure, Davis may have batted .170 and had a .222 OBP with five home runs and 21 RBI through the first two months (and now has a .201 average with 12 HR and 49 RBI), but Francisco has been the biggest bust. He may have only blown three of his 21 save chances, but he also has a 4.97 ERA and 1.59 WHIP. The bullpen as a collection has been terrible, but it all starts with a man in the ninth who can pitch without giving teammates and fans heart attacks. Francisco is the ring leader, he sets the tone and needs to be a stabilizer for the relief corp.
Keys To Second Half -- 1) Health: It sounds cliche, but the Mets are awfully thin all over their lineup. Injuries immediately expose their biggest worry. For example, Gee's injury opens up a rotation spot, but there's no clear alternative because none are that great or are inexperienced. Miguel Batista will make a spot start and he's been adequate all year in relief, but he's not the long-term starting option. Minor-league depth doesn't offer any promising choices, leaving the Mets to weigh whether to thrust Matt Harvey into the big leagues. It appears the 2010 first-round pick could get a look as the long-term guy, but it's definitely the organization's last-ditch option. Hitting-wise, the Mets are toast without Wright. They're not going to add a big bat -- and there are no hitters ready in the minors -- so what you see is the best of what you'll get on offense.
2) David Wright: He's shown he can carry the offense in the first half and that he can do enough of it to keep the team in the race. Some regression can be expected, and while other parts of the lineup aren't "feared," they chip in enough around the centerpiece. That being said, if the 29-year-old continues to author an MVP-caliber season, that alone means the Mets are a factor.
3) Jonathon Niese: It's easy to peg Dickey and Santana as the keys to the second half, but Niese will have a big effect on the Mets' fortunes. Regardless of whether Dickey and Santana perform up to their first-half level sin the second half, the Mets can ill-afford an all-too-familiar replay of the post-All-Star dip from Niese. The 25-year-old has worn down over his career in the second half, with a 4.90 ERA then compared to 3.87 pre-All-Star break. He threw 46 innings last season after the break before getting injured to the tune of an ugly 5.67 ERA. With the health of Santana and Young still a question mark -- plus the uncertainty around the No. 5 spot, Niese is critical to the Mets' success.
Second-Half Outlook -- Because the Mets are players, the front office has become trade-deadline buyers. The most pressing need is adding bullpen help. The second area to address used to be adding a righty bat, but it may turn to adding a cheap starter to at least add depth, even if Harvey (or whoever gets the nod) thrives. There are a lot of ifs and questions surrounding this team ... but the same ones existed before the year began. The fact that there appears to be only one strong team in the NL (the Nationals) and a bunch of mediocre ones means the door is wide open for the Mets to make the playoffs. Their pitching from top to bottom will determine their fate.