Mets playing better, but at a crossroads

Duda, Mejia, deGrom stand out for club, which looks to improve record

Mets playing better, but at a crossroads

NEW YORK -- Gauging the Mets' first half is no straightforward task.

While plenty of things have gone New York's way since Opening Day -- the rotation's success, the bullpen's rebirth and the lineup's recent emergence, to name three on a general scale -- the Mets still sit in the shadows of playoff contention. They have played their best ball of the season in recent days, but remain a team very much at a crossroads.

"A lot will depend on what happens over the next couple of weeks," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "I think there's no question our win-loss record needs to improve pretty significantly. When I talk about being close, I talk about [not just] the second half of this season, but going forward. So I think we have to be cognizant of that as well."

Perhaps the second half will indeed help snap the rest of the puzzle into place. Until then, here are five key first-half developments and five storylines to watch the rest of this summer:

Five key developments so far

1. Lucas Duda, the Mets' uncontested first baseman
When the Mets traded Ike Davis to the Pirates in April, they put an end to months of hemming and hawing over their first-base position. Duda took a bit longer than they hoped to reemerge as a legitimate middle-of-the-lineup bat, but he has since held down the job with aplomb. It's his to lose going forward.

2. Jenrry Mejia and the bullpen boys
A major weakness became a legitimate strength around mid-May, when the Mets named Mejia their closer and reinforced their bullpen with youth. Mejia remains the ninth-inning man for now, but Jeurys Familia or Vic Black could still enter the conversation -- with Bobby Parnell preparing to vie for his old job next spring.

First-half awards
MVP: Daniel Murphy
Unlike Curtis Granderson, who has been tremendous since recovering from a massive April slump, first-time All-Star Murphy was consistent throughout the first half.
Top starter: Jon Niese
A fringe All-Star himself, Niese's only issue has been health, with two disabled-list stints already this season.
Top rookie: Jacob deGrom
Once lost amidst the hype surrounding top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, deGrom has emerged as a solid rotation piece himself.
Top reliever: Jeurys Familia
Though the Mets handed the closer's job to Jenrry Mejia, it's Familia who has been the team's most reliable late-inning arm.

3. David Wright's pedestrian summer
Wright wasn't an All-Star, and he didn't deserve to be. But he's still just 31, presumably with another few seasons left of elite-level production. The Mets need him to stay healthy -- easier said than done for a player with a spotty recent medical history -- and rediscover his inner slugger.

4. Jacob deGrom's emergence
Heading into this summer, deGrom ranked at least ninth on the Mets' starting pitching depth chart, behind Mejia, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Rafael Montero, Noah Syndergaard and the whole Opening Day rotation. He has since become a key part of the Mets' future plans, either in New York or as trade bait.

5. Curtis Granderson and the Mets' sigh of relief
When Granderson stumbled out to one of the worst starts of any position player in baseball, it seemed like Jason Bay-ja vu for a Mets team that committed four years and $60 million to him last winter. But Granderson has since delivered All-Star-caliber production, easing the minds of many in Flushing.

Five storylines to watch in the second half

1. How will the Mets behave at the non-waiver Trade Deadline?
In past years, Alderson has clung to the idea that it is better to win as many games as possible -- even if a playoff berth seems unrealistic -- than to sacrifice everything in trades for prospects. He has already hinted at a similar strategy this summer, though the Mets also boast their most desirable crop of obvious trade candidates in years: second baseman Daniel Murphy and starting pitcher Bartolo Colon.

2. Who will cement themselves in the Mets' future plans?
After rough starts, catcher Travis d'Arnaud, shortstop Ruben Tejada and Duda have all proved their worth to varying degrees. A strong second half for any of those three would cement their status in the 2015 Opening Day lineup; a poor showing could open the door for the Mets to pursue replacements.

Players to watch in second half
Travis d'Arnaud
Back from his sabbatical to the Minor Leagues, it's essential that d'Arnaud proves consistently dangerous with the bat.
Jacob deGrom
deGrom has given the Mets a solid two months, but he is nearly two-thirds of the way to his limit of roughly 185 innings.
Ruben Tejada
Somehow, Tejada has fended off all competition to hold down the Mets' shortstop position. Can he continue to do so?

3. Will Syndergaard contribute in a meaningful way?
Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler spoiled the Mets in recent seasons, breezing through the upper levels of the Minors to prove almost immediately that they belonged in the big leagues. It's been a tougher road for Syndergaard, who has battled injuries and inconsistency over three-plus months at Triple-A Las Vegas. But there's still time for the Mets' top overall prospect to make a big league impact in 2014.

4. Can Wheeler establish himself as a legitimate ace?
Wheeler's transition to the big leagues was not quite as flawless as that of Harvey, whose learning curve was Gooden-esque. But Wheeler has nonetheless taken significant steps forward over the past two months; with innings totals no longer a question, he has a chance to creep into the Opening Day 2015 starter conversation, setting him and Harvey up to create one of the top one-two punches in baseball.

5. Will Terry Collins last? Will Alderson?
Over the past 3 1/2 seasons, Alderson has taken every opportunity to praise his manager, who has done all that he can with limited roster talent. But patience is dwindling, and a poor second half could mount public pressure against Collins. Alderson, meanwhile, is coming to the end of the guaranteed portion of his contract. While he is likely to return, stranger things have happened within this front office.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.