The Flushing boys of summer are back at Citi+ Field and things are looking a lot better than they did last year at this time. While Covid-19 hasn’t been eradicated, and the threat of new strains hangs over our heads, the vaccine rollout (and the Mets’ home has served as a Queens vaccine hub) has gone well and there is real hope life is getting back to normal.
Last year Major League Baseball didn’t start the season until late July and it went 60 games instead of the traditional 162. The Mets never seemed to get started, as their longest winning streak was a mere three games and they finished 26-34.
This year spring training started on time and a normal 162-game season is the plan. More importantly, fans are being welcomed back to ballparks, albeit in limited numbers. Capacity should be allowed to increase as more of us get vaccinated and, we hope, the numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths decreases markedly. Facial coverings will probably be required throughout the season. Expect face masks with the Mets insignia to be popular items at Citi Field concession stands.
Along with an improving national health situation, most Mets fans are ecstatic their favorite baseball team has a new and deep-pocketed owner, hedge fund financier Steve Cohen, who grew up a Mets fan just across the Queens-Nassau County border in Great Neck. Cohen officially purchased the team early last November from the Wilpon family for a rumored sales price of $2.475 billion.
A familiar face to Mets fans, Sandy Alderson has returned after a two-year hiatus. Alderson left the Mets in 2019 ostensibly to battle cancer but there was speculation he was fed up working as general manager under Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon. Now the team president, Alderson appears to have beaten cancer and is eager to work with an owner who has financial resources, something that has been rare for him.
Unfortunately, Alderson’s first hire for the executive suite, former Arizona Diamondbacks assistant general manager Jared Porter, turned out to be a fiasco as a story leaked in January concerning Porter’s inappropriate behavior with a female reporter in Chicago five years earlier. Porter was fired with cause as Mets general manager and replaced by an earlier candidate for that job, Zack Scott.
Luis Rojas, who was a young veteran of managing Mets minor league teams, was named the Mets manager in early 2020 after Carlos Beltran had to resign from that post less than three months after being named to it. Beltran lost the job as a result of his involvement with the 2017 Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal.
Rojas got the job because he was a familiar face in the Mets organization. Since he was hired during the Wilpon regime it is also safe to say he was an inexpensive option.
There was understandable speculation Rojas would be canned by Cohen since they didn’t know each other, as well as the fact Rojas had little leverage following a season when the Mets went 26-34 and failed to make the playoffs which were expanded to allow eight teams to participate in the shortened season.
Luckily for Rojas, Cohen’s hire of Alderson may have given him a reprieve since they worked together during the latter’s tenure as Mets general manager. Alderson has made it no secret he thinks highly of Rojas. If he is to continue being the Mets skipper into 2022 and beyond the Mets had better win at the very minimum 85 games this year.
Every baseball team’s fortunes depend on the quality of its starting pitching but no team in recent baseball history has lived and died with its starters on the mound as the Mets have. The team has always managed to win games in spite of not being able to hit their way out of a paper bag in seasons past.
Jacob deGrom won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019 and placed third in voting in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He is the greatest Mets pitcher aside from the late Tom Seaver. Enough said.
Noah Syndergaard, who has been the Mets’ No. 2 starter ever since deGrom’s emergence, will be out of action until June at the earliest recovering from the Tommy John surgery he had last spring. Syndergaard seemed to be tossing without pain at the Mets’ spring training base in Port St. Lucie, Fla., so the June timetable should be accurate barring anything unforeseen.
Marcus Stroman, who was an ace with the Toronto Blue Jays not so long ago, was acquired by deposed Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, at the July 31, 2019 trade deadline for a pair of pitching prospects, Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson. Van Wagenen was hoping Stroman would lead the Mets into the postseason as they were falling out of the race when the deal was made. Unfortunately for Van Wagenen and Mets fans, Stroman was no great shakes as he started only 11 games and failed to dominate even when he got the win.
He opted not to play in 2020 because of Covid-19 concerns and was slated to become a free agent. Realizing the market for his services would be far from robust, Stroman quickly accepted the Mets’ qualifying offer in excess of $18 million to pitch for them in 2021. That was also the last move Van Wagenen made as Mets GM. Cohen fired him within 90 minutes of signing the papers to become the new Mets owner.
Stroman has always talked a good game about how he is ready to dominate on the mound but it really is put-up or shut-up time for him as he will be a free agent after this season.
While shortstop Francisco Lindor was the centerpiece of the Mets big trade with Cleveland in December, pitcher Carlos Carrasco was more than just a throw-in. The deal would not have been made had Cleveland not included him.
Carrasco missed the 2019 season battling leukemia (which appears to be in total remission, thankfully) and pitched well in the 2020 season, being named the American League Comeback Player of the Year.
This past spring training was a bust for Carrasco as he was hampered by a sore elbow and did not face opposing teams’ hitters during spring training. Even with the sore elbow he claimed he would be ready to go once April arrived. On March 18 he felt pain in his hamstring and an MRI revealed a tear there. The consensus is he will be out of action until June the earliest.
Lefty David Peterson won the battle for the fifth starter’s spot. He was the Mets’ top pick in the 2017 amateur draft and rewarded their faith in him by turning in a 6-2 record with a very respectable 3.44 earned run average in nine starts last summer.
Joining Peterson in the back end of the rotation will be former Toronto Blue Jay Taijuan Walker, who is known for throwing heat.
Former Miami Marlins pitcher Jordan Yamamoto will start the year with the AAA Syracuse Mets. Former San Diego Padres hurler Joey Lucchesi will fill the open starter’s spot until Carrasco or Syndergaard is ready. Either should be a less expensive upgrade over 2020’s Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha.
It wasn’t that long ago when the term “firemen” was a nickname for relief pitchers. “Arsonists” would be a more fitting description for the Mets bullpen in recent years.
Seth Lugo has been the Mets most reliable relief pitcher over the last two years. Last month he underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow. He is expected to return sometime in May. Lugo knows how to get big outs in the late innings but he would rather be getting them from the onset of a game and is frustrated the Mets have only let him start games on rare occasions. He has been a victim of his own success in the Mets subpar bullpen.
A key reason why Lugo was kept in the bullpen was because neither former manager Mickey Callaway nor his replacement, Rojas, had any confidence in anyone else. Closer Edwin Diaz was a FEMA disaster area giving up gut-wrenching ninth-inning home runs more often it seemed than not during most of the two years he has been the closer. In fairness, Diaz did improve during the second half of last year’s shortened season but he is still, fairly or not, an object of derision for Mets fans. Aside from blowing games, they’ll always remember him as the player Van Wagenen was willing to trade top prospect Jarred Kelenic to the Seattle Mariners for. They rightfully worry this talent exchange will be their modern-day Nolan Ryan-Jim Fregosi trade.
It wasn’t that long ago hard-throwing Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances were big favorites in this town of Mets and Yankees fans, respectively. The last two seasons have been forgettable for both men. Familia seemed to fall behind the pitch count to nearly every batter he faced — always a recipe for getting pelted by opposing hitters. Betances was signed as a free agent by Van Wagenen after his Yankees counterpart, Brian Cashman, refused to make him an offer because of a torn Achilles and other injuries. How awful was Betances in 2020? His ERA was an egregious 7.71.
Betances, however, was Mariano Rivera last year when compared to another colleague in the Flushing bullpen, Robert Gsellman, who posted a ghastly 9.65 ERA. Gsellman was just as awful this past spring training.
One of Van Wagenen’s last acquisitions was getting reliever Miguel Castro from the Baltimore Orioles during the tail-end of the 2020 season. Castro pitched well in Port St. Lucie last month and should expect to be called upon frequently by Rojas.
Alderson realized the Mets badly needed reinforcements to back up his starters and he signed hard-throwing Trevor May, journeyman Jacob Barnes (who was very impressive during spring training) and lefty finesse thrower Aaron Loup. He also inked an intriguing pair of relievers who did not get much press at the time, former Atlanta Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino (who is very effective but is also frequently injured as is the case going into Opening Day 2021) and a young veteran minor league flamethrower, Sam McWilliams. He can throw 100 mph but no one knows where the pitch is going to wind up.
When the 2020 season ended it was clear the Mets’ most pressing need was to find a new starting catcher. Wilson Ramos, who had been with them for the past two years, was always a liability for the pitching staff because of his inability to catch balls in the dirt, throw out runners attempting to steal and call a game. By the time 2020 ended he was also a liability in the batter’s box.
Mets fans were hoping Cohen’s first flashy move would be signing All-Star catcher JT Realmuto, whom they knew and respected from his years playing for two NL East division rivals, the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies. Realmuto did not seem amenable to the notion of moving 100 miles northeast from Citizens Bank Park (he did re-up with the Phillies) to Citi Field.
Alderson quickly shifted his focus to James McCann, who, after a so-so career start with the Detroit Tigers, blossomed with the Chicago White Sox. He became the first major Mets acquisition under Cohen’s new stewardship.
Tomas Nido, who came up through the Mets farm system and is a favorite of both Rojas and Alderson, should get significant action behind the plate assuming he can handle the bat better. He has shown flashes of power.
The shortstop is the anchor of the infield, and when the 2020 season ended this was one area where the Mets seemed to have few concerns. The incumbent, Amed Rosario, was a highly touted prospect who hit with power and was finally learning to lay off bad pitches. His defense was also solid.
If Rosario faltered the Mets had his replacement, Andres Gimenez, waiting in the wings. Gimenez looked very impressive at both the plate and in the field last season. Many observers thought Gimenez had a higher upside than not just Rosario but most shortstops in other teams’ farm systems.
It was therefore a surprise that the first marquee trade under the Cohen-Alderson administration was the dealing of both Rosario and Gimenez to Cleveland for Lindor and Carrasco. While Rosario has been a perennial All-Star, and one of the most exciting players in the game, he appeared to be a luxury the Mets didn’t need in light of their weaknesses elsewhere. He was also entering the last year of his contract and the question of whether the Mets would re-sign him became a major, and frankly annoying, spring training storyline.
“Who’s playing third?” has been a parlor game regarding the Mets for most of their history. Just about the only time it wasn’t asked was when David Wright was healthy. It’s back to business as usual now as there’s still no clear answer there.
JD Davis, who was arguably Van Wagenen’s best acquisition, is a fine hitter and is versatile as he can play the corner outfield positions and third base. He will, however, never be considered for a Gold Glove anywhere, especially at third.
But Davis is Brooks Robinson compared to teammate Jeff McNeil, who was absolutely brutal when he played the hot corner during spring training. Rojas admitted McNeil will stay where he is most comfortable — at second base. McNeil is a terrific contact hitter who has superior discipline at the plate when he is not trying to hit home runs.
The best defensive players in the Mets infield are also their most versatile, homegrown Met Luis Guillorme and much-traveled veteran Jonathan Villar. Both can play practically every position and they hit pretty well, though simply not good enough to be everyday players.
First baseman Pete Alonso, who won the 2019 Rookie of the Year Award and set a rookie record by belting 53 homers, got off to a slow start last summer. He undoubtedly felt the pressure to duplicate that magic and it hampered him. He relaxed a bit in August and September and resembled his old self. Alonso looked solid this spring and wasn’t chasing bad pitches the way we saw in 2020. He should have a good season if he doesn’t obsess over 2019, when he became the toast of the town.
The Mets were clear beneficiaries of the National League utilizing the designated hitter in 2020. They were able to start both Alonso and Dominic Smith in the same game as one would play first and the other would serve as the designated hitter. The Mets won’t have that luxury this year as pitchers once again will have to hit in the Senior Circuit, and that means Dominic Smith will be shifted to left field.
Smith struggled at the plate when he first came up to the Mets, and as he got more experience he also became more confident as a slugger. Mets fans will need to be patient with Smith in the outfield and should expect some flubs, but he is a dedicated, hardworking athlete, and I would be surprised if he doesn’t become a quality outfielder.
Holding down the fort in right field once again will be Michael Conforto, who is entering the last year of his contract. Conforto may be the Mets best pure hitter, as he hits to all fields with power. He was drafted by the Mets in the first round of the 2014 amateur draft and it would be somewhat disappointing, though not franchise-altering, if he and the Mets do not strike a long-term deal.
Centerfielder Brandon Nimmo was selected by the Mets right out of his Cheyenne, Wyo., high school in the first round of the 2011 draft. He has become a fan favorite because of his infectious smile and enthusiasm on the field, such as how he runs to first base after working out a walk. Nimmo is a good contact hitter who gets into trouble when he thinks about home runs even though he does possess some power. He is better suited for a corner outfield spot but is adequate enough in the field to hold down center.
The Mets have decent outfield bench options. Veteran Kevin Pillar signed as a free agent during the off-season. He was once known as a “good glove, no-hit” kind of outfielder. In recent years, his fielding has slipped but his bat has more than made up for any glove weakness. Former Cubs centerfielder Albert Almora, Jr. was also signed as a free agent. He really has been the quintessential “no-hit, great glove” outfielder. He did have some offensive success with the Cubs when Chili Davis was their hitting coach. Davis now has that role with the Mets, and the hope is he can instill that magic once again into Almora.
Expect Nimmo to shift to left field to replace Dom Smith as either Pillar or Almora will come in to play centerfield in the late innings when the Mets have a slim lead or are tied.
Mets owner Steve Cohen said at his November introductory press conference he expects the Mets to win a World Series within three to five years. OK, but he shouldn’t get his hopes too high that it will happen in 2021.
The Mets need to be able to field their positions and find ways to score without waiting for someone to hit the ball out of the park. Not having two starting pitchers, Carrasco and Syndergaard, until June at the earliest hurts, as does not having Lugo until May. The Mets relief corps has to step up. Betances and Familia in particular have to prove they aren’t dead wood and can be counted on in late innings.
In short, the Mets seem to be in the middle of the pack in the NL East. If Rojas can equal the 86 wins the Mets achieved under Callaway in 2019, then both Mets management and fans should consider it to be a successful season.