It's an interesting decision -- one that would have been easy had Matt Harvey been healthy -- and I don't envy Terry Collins for having to make it. Consider:
• Bartolo Colon is clearly the most accomplished veteran on the club, and he is coming off the best season of any healthy starter on staff. But he is new to the clubhouse, and given his recent track record, is not a clear No. 1. Might it irk the homegrown candidates to see an outsider come in and steal their thunder? Publicly, of course, they'd say all the right things -- but you never know.
• Though Jon Niese was the obvious choice last year with Harvey not yet fully established, he suffered a scary midseason shoulder injury and took a step back in every major statistical category. Niese clearly has some seniority over Zack Wheeler and Dillon Gee, but not over Colon -- and his numbers don't match up, either. But with a contract running through 2018, Niese is much more entrenched in the organization's long-term plans, which could be enough to make him the political choice.
• From late May through September, no Mets starter was more consistent than Gee. Still, it's hard to imagine the team picking him over Colon or Niese.
• Wheeler unquestionably boasts the best stuff of anyone on staff, and in December he said that he would relish the chance to start on Opening Day. But the Mets set a precedent last year by choosing Niese over Harvey, and changing things up would not make sense from a logistical standpoint -- the Mets are looking to limit Wheeler's innings this summer, not extend them.
Given all that, my gut says Niese will be on the mound Opening Day against the Nationals, though Colon would not surprise me. Anyone else would. I suspect the Mets will put off their announcement until the end of Spring Training, letting all their starters duke it out in a public competition.
As for the Mets' place in the standings? As currently constituted, I consider them the clear third-best team behind the Nationals and Braves (in that order). But a lot can happen between now and Opening Day.
Who will lead off for the Mets?
-- Pete S., New York, N.Y.
It's a question that has come up multiple times already this offseason, and there's no good answer, because the Mets' roster remains in a state of flux. A couple of candidates might be traded or pushed to the bench between now and March 31.
Given this conundrum a year ago, the Mets probably would have defaulted to Daniel Murphy. But general manager Sandy Alderson publicly criticized Murphy earlier this month for his steep drop in on-base percentage, mostly a product of the second baseman's low walk rate. Such a move would also create a new problem in the two-hole, where Murphy's left-handed contact stroke seems to play well. And there's still a chance the Mets could trade Murphy between now and Opening Day.
New York's other obvious candidate, Eric Young Jr., may not even be in the starting lineup on March 31; that depends on how well Juan Lagares hits in Spring Training. If Lagares nails down the starting center-field role, Young would default to the bench -- unless, of course, Murphy is traded, which could open up a spot for Young at second base.
Read that last sentence again and you'll see why it's impossible to predict lineup decisions so early in the winter. There are simply too many scenarios still in play, and no one -- not Collins, Alderson or anyone else -- knows how they will unfold.
Then again, had the Mets simply gone out and signed Jacoby Ellsbury, that would have made things a lot clearer. Speaking of which …
Ellsbury gets seven years at $153 million, which is roughly $22 million a year. We give Curtis Granderson $15 million a year for four years and Chris Young one year at $7.25 million. Wouldn't you rather see Ellsbury than both Granderson and Young?
-- Ray D., Belleview, Fla.
It's not unreasonable to think Ellsbury will outperform Granderson and Young next season, or even over the next few years. But it's kind of a moot point. The Mets never had any intention of making a serious run at Ellsbury, Robinson Cano or Shin-Soo Choo, unless market factors transformed beyond their wildest dreams. Alderson loathes long-term free agent contracts, craves payroll flexibility and likes diversifying his assets. It's by design that Granderson will be completely off the books in 2018, while Ellsbury will still be making more than $21 million per year.
(This, by the way, assumes Ellsbury would have even wanted to come to Queens for $153 million. If the Mets entered the bidding, his final price might have soared even higher.)
Is it a good baseball decision to eschew top-flight free agents in favor of second- and third-tier names? As the Red Sox and Indians proved last season, that sort of depends on luck. Long-term contracts such as Ellsbury's almost always wind up being bad deals in the end, so I don't blame the Mets in that sense, though signing someone such as Ellsbury would have done wonders from a marketing perspective.
If that answer seems like a cop-out, it's because it is. Which strategy works better will rest almost entirely upon which players stay healthy and for how long. I don't know what the future holds any more than the Mets or Yankees do, though I do understand your desire for a superstar-caliber free agent. The Mets haven't signed one since Carlos Beltran nearly a decade ago.
What are the Mets' plans with Andrew Brown? He broke out at the end of last year. Fangraphs.com predicts that he will do very well next year.
-- Boruch K., Queens, N.Y.
Brown is on track to make the team as a backup outfielder and right-handed pinch-hitter, though the Mets' bench (like the rest of the roster -- see above) remains in flux. Josh Satin is a near lock to make the team as a right-handed reserve, while Lagares also hits from the right side. If Eric Young Jr. winds up starting in left field and the Mets find a right-handed hitting backup middle infielder, all those righty bats could wind up pushing Brown back to Triple-A Las Vegas.
Either way, injuries happen, and Brown should spend significant time in Flushing; he just won't receive enough playing time to make good on the projections to which you refer. Expect him to receive somewhere between 100 and 200 plate appearances.
What are the chances of the Mets possibly trading for Dee Gordon of the Dodgers? His path is blocked by Hanley Ramirez.
-- Josh N., Prattville, Ala.
A friend floated the Gordon scenario to me at the Winter Meetings, but I just don't see it. Statistically speaking, Gordon is a mediocre shortstop defender with near-zero power and a low on-base percentage -- exactly the type of player that Alderson abhors. I can't see him giving up anything of value for someone like that.
For that matter, I don't really understand all the Didi Gregorius trade talk this winter, either. While Gregorius is clearly a strong defensive shortstop, he boasts minimal power and has struggled to get on base throughout his professional career. Gregorius may be a nice piece for any team to have, but he's hardly a can't-miss prospect. I have trouble envisioning him as the centerpiece of a trade.