The 2012 season is merely two days away. So with less than 48 hours till Johan Santana delivers the first pitch to an Atlanta Brave, let's take a look at five Mets to watch during this upcoming season. Keep in mind, these men won't necessarily be the best players on the team in 2012, but they are players who will need to (and can, potentially) make a big impact in the Amazin' effort to stay afloat in the National League.
1. Jon Niese, LHP
At 25 years old, Jon Niese is still on the way up, and as the youngest left-handed starter in the rotation, the Mets will need him to have a breakout year in order to contend. While injury and stamina problems forced him to bow out after just 26 starts in 2011, Jon is healthy and his Beltran-funded new nose should help him to keep energized deep into September.
Sandy Alderson recently gave Niese a long-term deal with options for 2017 and 2018, and ESPN New York's Adam Rubin says the deal is similar to that of Texas southpaw Derek Holland's. Holland, who is the same age as Niese, went 16-5 last year with an ERA under 4.00 and 4 shutouts and is likely to improve this season, so it's a good assumption that Alderson sees the potential for Niese to have those kinds of numbers.
Jon went 11-11 last year with an ERA of 4.40 and 138 Ks in 157.1 innings of work. The ERA is a bit of a concern, but with the Mets' offense being best in the NL East, it wasn't as much of a concern. This year, without Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, an ERA like that will be a handicap, but you'd be fair to assume Niese will get better as he gets older and stronger. When he's on he's got good stuff, and I think it would be fair to expect an above-.500 season with an ERA around 3.75.
I like Jon Niese's potential, and even Michael Baron of MetsBlog.com sees him as the potential leader of a future staff with Harvey, Wheeler, Familia, and Mejia. For the Mets to have a good 2012, the future will have to be now for Jon Niese.
2. Ruben Tejada, SS
The biggest hole that popped up in the offseason was the departure of Jose Reyes to Miami, a loss that provoked many experts to resign the Mets to the cellar of the NL East. But those experts are forgetting about the man who filled in for Reyes at shortstop multiple times in 2011.
Ruben Tejada played in 96 games, more than half a season, and started 41 of those at shortstop. His hits stats, while obviously a step down from Reyes' batting title-worthy numbers, were still major league-worthy: .284 BA, .360 OBP, 15 doubles. He didn't show much power (.335 SLG), but as the presumed 8th man in the order, he doesn't really need to. What Tejada also showed last year is that he can be Mr. Bases Loaded: multiple times he came through in clutch situations, including towards the end of the season when the Mets nearly ruined the Cardinals' playoff chances.
But here's the biggest upside Ruben Tejada has to offer: he did all those things last year as a 21-year-old. The man is just a couple years older than I am, and here he is as a starting shortstop in the big leagues. Remember last year when experts were talking about the travesty of the Mets unloading Reyes, who at age 27/28 was just about to enter his prime? Tejada still have 5-6 years before he gets to that prime. Which means he'll have 5-6 more years of experience as a starting shortstop in the big leagues before he reaches his full potential. He was good at age 21 last year, he could be very good at age 22 this year, and in a few years he could be great. We've got the chance to watch a potential All-Star develop right before our eyes, and that development will continue in 2012.
3. Andres Torres, CF
With Reyes, Beltran, and Angel Pagan gone, newly-acquired centerfielder Andres Torres will become basically New York's only source of speed in 2012. His 162 game average is 23 stolen bases, so you know he has some speed and can provide in the leadoff position.
Torres's problem is durability: he's never played a full season and only suited up for 112 games for San Francisco in 2011, and at age 34, you'd be fair to assume he's breaking down further. His batting average last year was also a very pedestrian .221 (with an OBP of only .312). What Torres does offer is leadership: he became a clubhouse leader when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, and he was a fan favorite by the Bay. Beltran was a leader last year and Reyes provided a spark, but both are gone, and Pagan never really felt comfortable as a leader or in the leadoff position.
Even though Pagan is younger, I applaud Alderson for making this move; sometimes intangibles play more into the equation than stats. If Torres can stay healthy and find a balance between his 2010 and 2011 campaigns (hopefully leaning towards '10), he will be able to help the Mets in 2012.
4. Bobby Parnell, RHP
At age 27, Bobby Parnell is about to enter his prime. He's had a fabulous Spring Training, in part thanks to the mentoring skills of Jason Isringhausen and the great Sandy Koufax. While Terry Collins has come out and said Parnell's role will remain in the bullpen, he has not specified what that role will be.
Parnell has always had good stuff (64 Ks in 59.1 innings in 2011); his biggest issue has been control and nerves (his ERA ballooned last year after he collapsed in the closer's role). Despite those fragile nerves, I still want to believe Parnell has the potential to be a finisher. When he's on, his 100 mph fastball is darn near unhittable. You would assume time with Izzy and Koufax has made him more mature, and if new closer Frank Francisco's pains are any indication, Bobby will probably get another audition sometime early this season. If the Mets are going to raise some eyebrows in 2012, Parnell will have to become the face of an as-of-now faceless bullpen, and I think he will be up to the challenge.
5. Justin Turner, INF
Although not a starter, Justin Turner will likely play an important role this year. He can play every infield position, so if someone goes down, he'll be the next man up. You could also see him as the primary defensive substitute when the team has a big lead (I'm thinking second base would be the primary concern; Daniel Murphy, bless his heart, never seems to look right in the field).
But Turner could help with his bat as well: he had a breakout year at age 26 last year and even won Rookie of the Month in May. His batting averaged dipped in the second half and ended up at a pedestrian .260, but Justin has a knack for coming up with big hits at big moments in the game. His 30 doubles also tied for second on the team, one below Reyes.
He won't get the fanfare that other players will, but Le Grand Orange Jr. will play an important role for the Mets in 2012.
There are other more obvious choices (Santana, Wright, Davis, Duda, etc.), but at this point it's common knowledge that those guys will have to play a big role for the Amazin's this season. These five players are ones that, should they have big years, will help propel the team to relevancy. If these five Mets have career seasons in 2012, there could be some excitement at Citi Field come September.
Check back tomorrow for Midwestern Met's final preseason post: Season Expectations.