NEW YORK -- Rarely do the Mets follow their supposed script from season to season, always finding new ways to surprise throughout the summer. The 2012 season was no different, with the team exceeding expectations early only to struggle with them late.
Though no one in the front office ever said it, 2012 always seemed like a transitional year for the franchise. And 2013 may be as well, now that the Mets have traded R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays. But the club's spirited play over the first half of last season at least hinted that the culture in Flushing is beginning to change.
Since Sandy Alderson took over as general manager after the 2010 season, the Mets have attempted to compete in the short-term while always keeping an eye on 2013 and beyond. That future is now upon them, but questions still remain -- particularly these 10, which should form the outline of another intriguing season:
10. How will the starting rotation fare without Dickey?
One of the top rotations in the game absorbed a significant blow in December, when the Mets traded away the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner in a seven-player deal. Though the deal stocked the organization with talent for the future, it left the Mets without an obvious ace.
The hope is that Matt Harvey, who thrived down the stretch last season, continues developing into a top-of-the-rotation arm. But as good as Harvey was in 2012, even he is sure to absorb a few growing pains during his first full season in the big leagues. Jon Niese is an established innings-eater coming off his best year as a professional, and the rotation's only sure thing. Behind him are two question marks in Johan Santana and Dillon Gee, both of whom dealt with health issues in 2012. Further down the depth chart is top prospect Zack Wheeler, who will almost certainly start the season in Triple-A.
9. Is this a bullpen New York can trust?
The Mets spent most of their available cash two winters ago purportedly upgrading their bullpen, but it didn't work. Frank Francisco battled injuries and struggled when healthy, Jon Rauch proved inconsistent and Ramon Ramirez was not as reliable as the Mets had hoped.
As a result, the Mets are looking to revamp their relief corps yet again, with Francisco and Bobby Parnell the only relievers written in ink. Josh Edgin or Robert Carson could become the new lefty specialist, while the Mets look for some mix of their other young arms -- Collin McHugh, Jeurys Familia, et al -- to assume middle-innings roles. The Mets should also add at least one veteran arm between now and Spring Training. It may be a thin bunch on paper, but the Mets have to hope it will be enough.
8. Which Santana is for real?
It is impossible to say whether the 134 pitches Santana threw during his June 1 no-hitter played a role in his struggles thereafter. The only certainty is that Santana ranked among the best pitchers in baseball prior to his no-hitter (2.38 ERA), and one of the worst afterward (8.27 ERA). Now the Mets need to figure out if Santana can still be a top-of-the-rotation arm or simply back-of-the-rotation filler.
Encouraging the club is that by Opening Day, Santana will be more than 2 1/2 years removed from left shoulder surgery, theoretically making him stronger than ever. It may seem unlikely that Santana can return to his previous Cy Young form, but the Mets don't need him to; they just need Santana to be a healthy contributor and let his changeup to do the rest.
7. And which Ike Davis?
There seems to be more certainty surrounding Davis, who is completely healthy after a full year of health issues. The left ankle injury that sidelined Davis for most of 2011 is healed, and the Valley Fever scare that affected him last spring is no issue. Now, Davis can simply concentrate on playing.
He may not wind up ranking among the elite power hitters in baseball, as he did from mid-June through the end of last season. But Davis is a strong bet to resemble that version of himself more than the sub-.200 hitter he was throughout the first half. The Mets certainly need him to -- Davis is about to get more expensive through arbitration, so there is more urgency for him to succeed.
6. Is Lucas Duda an everyday player?
The Mets thought he had a real chance after the second half of 2011, which saw Duda bash 10 home runs in place of Carlos Beltran. Then they continued to drool over his potential this spring, when Duda regularly put on batting practice shows in Florida. But somewhere along the line, all that power stopped translating into big league success. Duda fell off so sharply by midsummer that the Mets did what they did not do with Davis, demoting him to the Minors.
Given Duda's struggles against left-handed pitchers in particular, it is difficult to envision him prospering as an everyday player in 2013 -- though the skills he showed at the end of 2011 are not easy to forget. Duda perhaps profiles best as a platoon bat, and could wind up assuming that role. But given a lack of other outfield options, the Mets may try Duda again as an everyday player to see if he will sink or swim.
5. Will the Mets really start adding payroll?
Alderson said in November that the team plans to have more financial wiggle room in years past, though he clarified a month later that they might not use all of it -- at least not right away. That David Wright and Jason Bay both agreed to defer guaranteed money can only help the Mets, who have shown a reluctance to delve into the free agent market in recent years. But until the Mets start spending, fans will remain skeptical.
The assumption is that when Santana and his sizable contract come off the books after this season, the Mets will finally begin spending. But Alderson also said last summer that the Mets were looking to add payroll prior to the non-tender Trade Deadline, before their rapid fall from contention changed plans. It will be interesting to see where they go from here -- not only this winter but also at the deadline. Claiming financial flexibility is one thing. Exercising it is quite another.
4. Can Zack Wheeler be even better than Matt Harvey?
Until Harvey began dazzling the Mets at the Major League level last season, Wheeler was almost universally considered the superior prospect. And he still might be. Though Wheeler was not always dominant in his first full season in the Mets organization, he was still plenty impressive.
The return on the Beltran trade of 2011, Wheeler will enter next season on the Harvey Plan, meaning he should break camp at Triple-A before graduating to the Majors during the summer. But the Mets won't simply give him that assignment based on pedigree; Wheeler will need to show improvement before joining Harvey in the rotation. When the Mets call him up, they want it to be for good.
Which leads to our next question ...
3. Does Harvey have a chance to be an ace?
Most scouts pegged Harvey as more of a No. 2 starter heading into last season, particularly when compared to the super-prospect Wheeler. But consider how Harvey produced during his 10-start run in the Majors: a 2.73 ERA, 70 strikeouts and 26 walks over 59 1/3 innings.
The Mets believe there is still room to grow, while understanding that speed bumps await in his sophomore season. More importantly, manager Terry Collins and his staff found themselves dazzled by Harvey's makeup, professionalism and work ethic. If anyone can elevate his ceiling, the Mets believe it's him.
2. Will David Wright's play justify his new contract?
Alderson is the first to admit that in general, long-term contracts for players in their primes tend to be bad deals. But Wright presented a unique situation, negotiating his eight-year, $138-million pact as the face of the franchise. He wanted to be a Met for life, and the Mets wanted to make him one.
It's a warm, fuzzy story, which hides the fact that the Mets desperately need Wright to produce on the field. He may never hit 30 home runs again, now that he has reached his 30th birthday and settled in as more of a mid-20s homer threat. But Wright displayed markedly improved defense last season and was no slouch with the bat. The real question will come later, when he reaches the latter years of his contract and his production begins to slow.
1. "What outfield?"
Alderson posed this tongue-in-cheek question himself back in November, wondering who might populate his outfield come spring. Despite moving in the fences at Citi Field, the Mets received virtually no thump from their outfielders in 2012, and will continue to struggle on offense without significant improvement in that area.
Even with new pawns in place, this figures to be a problem area for the Mets, who are relatively strong in their rotation and infield. Without rapid improvement in right, center and left, it will be difficult for the Mets to reach their goals in 2013.