by Paul West
This time last season, the biggest question about the New York Mets was whether they were ready to contend. After a rollercoaster ride of a season, they won the NL East and went on a thrill-a-minute run to the National League Pennant. Their first World Series berth since 2001 didn’t go as planned, but the offseason was a rousing success and the Mets enter the 2016 season with their strongest roster in years. All of a sudden, the Mets are favored by many to win both the division and their second consecutive pennant; there are reasons to believe these expectations are well founded.
POSITION PLAYERS: INFIELD
Despite last year’s historic second-half explosion on offense, the Mets are still mainly a pitching-oriented team. One thing that was widely believed to have hampered them last season was their infield defense, which was generally middling and at times a liability. Lucas Duda is solid enough at first base, with soft hands and occasionally nifty footwork; but he’s not the kind of first baseman who makes his other infielders better by increasing their margin for error. Duda’s value mainly lies in his presence at the plate, where he’s proven himself a bona-fide Major League hitter and at times can get outrageously hot. Like many power hitters, he’s fairly dependent on lineup protection; he can go berzerk for a week or two, but isn’t the guy who’ll carry an offense for a month at a time. But he’s got a good eye and uses the entire field, and is consistently among the league leaders in hard-hit balls. With Yoenis Cespedes in the lineup with him for an entire season, Duda might have a career year. Daniel Murphy, despite occasional highlight-reel flashes of athleticism, is neither fluid nor reliable at second base–but he’s also with the Washington Nationals now. Neil Walker has taken Murphy’s place, and while he isn’t necessarily stellar from a metrics standpoint, he’s a notable upgrade in terms of defensive reliability. He’s also a switch-hitter with gap power, who’s batted second or third for long stretches for the Pittsburgh Pirates. At shortstop, Wilmer Flores was in many ways the embodiment of the Mets’ rise: he went from highly touted to widely lamented, until the day his trade was infamously and erroneously announced during a July game. His subsequent show of emotion endeared him to Mets fans, and then when he spent the rest of the season out-hitting most of his counterparts, his status rose to that of Citi Field folk hero. His range and footwork are improving at shortstop, and he’s always had a strong throwing arm; he’ll contend for the starting job with the newly acquired Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera came into the American League as a highlight-reel defender for the Cleveland Indians, who combined his defensive wizardry with a solid bat. He fell off for a bit, but showed signs of resurgence last year with the Tampa Rays. At third base, captain David Wright will be closely watched for signs that his troublesome back is bothering him. Wright has been plagued by his ailing back for a couple of seasons, and when he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis last year, many wondered if his career would soon be over. He was able to return in time for the stretch run, inspired by his first true playoff race in a decade. He ended the year with solid numbers on offense given his number of games played, and performed well enough in the postseason to provide a renewed sense of hope. He’ll be rested frequently this year, with Flores and Walker rotating into the hot corner when the captain needs a break. Behind the plate, Travis d’Arnaud has continued to show big-league power on offense but there are questions about both his defense and his ability to stay healthy. He’s a good signal-caller and manages the Mets’ pitching staff very well. But he often seems like one of the easiest catchers in the National League to run on, and he’s missed a lot of time to an assortment of injuries. At 27, he’s just entering his peak years; if he can stay healthy and improve even a bit on defense, he’ll be one of the most valuable catchers in all of baseball.
POSITION PLAYERS: OUTFIELD
In an offseason full of major and minor successes, the Mets’ biggest move was keeping Yoenis Cespedes on board. Cespedes helped fuel last year’s second-half explosion, and his post-deadline numbers were among the best in history. He’s expected to start in center field, where he’s not as good as hoped but his athleticism and great throwing arm will be serviceable while his bat should make him a net positive. Juan Lagares will be his defensive replacement and spot-starter against lefties; Lagares seems to be getting over his arm troubles, which means he should go back to being the Gold Glove caliber centerfielder that produced highlight-reel plays regularly in 2014. Right field will be primarily patrolled by Curtis Granderson, a veteran whose addition gave the Mets clubhouse a boost while he provided extra-base power at leadoff. He had a resurgent year at the plate last season, and if he continues along those lines he’ll be a solid presence at the top of the order. One problem, however, is that like Cespedes he’s generally only serviceable in the outfield; again, on a pitching-oriented team, this could be an issue. Cespedes is much better as a corner outfielder than a centerfielder, which might necessitate Cespedes rotating into right field occasionally with Lagares in center. Left field, on the other hand, holds what looks like an everyday centerpiece in Michael Conforto. Conforto, was once, somewhat amazingly, scouted as being lacking in the fielding department; but last season, he showed both good closing range and an in impressive throwing arm in left field. He’s also one of the most promising young hitters the Mets have had in years, with power to all fields and a good eye for the strike zone. He’s reportedly putting on shows in batting practice this spring, and looks like legitimate middle-order material for years to come.
The Mets’ bullpen is anchored by Jeurys Familia, who stepped up in Jenrry Mejia‘s absence last year to become one of the National League’s best closers. Mejia, it turns out, isn’t coming back–but Familia, if healthy, should have another strong year shutting down the ninth inning. The rest of the bullpen had an up and down year, but one of the Mets’ many strong moves this offseason was to sign Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo is a veteran lefty setup man who had a 3.98 ERA last season; he and veteran righty Addison Reed will make a good complementary pair of setup men. Hansel Robles, Jerry Blevins and Sean Gilmartin round out a bullpen that should be better than it was last season. It might not get a ton of work, though, as the Mets’ biggest strength is in the staggering array of talent who will take the mound for them day after day.
For all of their other virtues, and all of the ways the Mets have improved over the past year, one thing remains their defining characteristic: their starting pitching. With Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, the Mets’ Big Four has the chance to become one of the greatest rotations of all time. Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard can all be legitimately called aces–and which of the three has the highest upside is still up for debate. All three have elite fastballs that range well into the 90 mph range; all three have superb secondary pitches; perhaps most importantly, all three continue to work on their craft. That Matz–a lefty with composure beyond his years and a blazing fastball of his own–is clearly outside the top three in his own rotation is, to say the least, remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that Zack Wheeler, once arguably the most highly touted of the bunch, is returning from Tommy John surgery and looks on pace to regain his current form. He’ll be lining up against the tail end of other teams’ rotations. Then there’s Bartolo Colon, who baffles hitters half his age with multiple versions of the fastball he throws about three quarters of the time. Colon is a reliable starter who often goes deep into games, and has expressed willingness to transition to long relief if needed. If their starters come even somewhat close to last year’s jaw-dropping numbers, the Mets will have a favorable pitching matchup on far more days than not.
Rather than a projection–though I believe the actual Opening Day lineup will be somewhat close to this one–what follows is my suggested everyday starting lineup.
Curtis Granderson, RF
David Wright, 3B
Michael Conforto, LF
Yoenis Cespedes, CF
Lucas Duda, 1B
Travis d’Arnaud, C
Neil Walker, 2B
Wilmer Flores, SS
It’s entirely possible that Cabrera could get the starting nod at shortstop; while this would not be an egregious error, per se, I would argue that Flores has earned the right to commandeer the position. I would say the same about Lagares, except that it could be even more strongly argued that Granderson has earned his right to begin the season in right field. As for left, I’ve already stated that Conforto is a future centerpiece, and he should be in the lineup virtually every day.
The Mets have all the parts in place to remain a National League powerhouse until further notice. Manager Terry Collins, while at times puzzling with regard to in-game strategy, seems to have the pulse of his team and has kept them motivated, resilient and mentally fresh through many ups and downs. The biggest questionmarks will be the health of key players like Wright, Granderson, Lagares and d’Arnaud–as well as the defense. The National League East remains in flux, at least for now; it looks like the Mets have a good chance of reclaiming the division title in 2016. Of course, they have their eyes on a much bigger goal.
Regular season prediction: 94-68, 1st in NL East