by Paul West
As 2018 dawns, baseball fans are gleefully counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training. New York Mets fans are waiting with a mixture of hope and worry, as their team hasn’t been nearly as active during the MLB’s free agency frenzy as many had hoped. But this might not be such bad news; it bears remembering that the Mets are still talent-laden, and only two years removed from a National League pennant, with much of their youthful core intact. Here’s a rundown of what the Mets should bear in mind as winter gives way to spring.
A weak NL East
Aside from the Washington Nationals, the National League East remains one of the weaker divisions in baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are still in flux, and the Miami Marlins just had yet another of their infamous salary-dump yard sales, in which they jettisoned Giancarlo Stanton. Until further notice, the NL East race seems likely to come down to the Mets and the Nationals; if the Mets even come close to returning to the previous two years’ form, then a weak divisional schedule should improve their odds of returning to the the postseason, if only as a Wild Card.
Their strong pitching staff
The flurry of injuries that befell the mets pitching staff last year was almost certainly due to an organizational problem with managing player health; but it was also, to some degree, flat-out fluky. The Mets have since replaced key parts of their staff, including jettisoning pitching coach Dan Warthen–whose famous slider has been a controversial topic–and trainer Ray Ramirez. And while fans and observers lament the possibility that Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey might never overcome the arm trouble which has dogged each of them for years, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard appear poised to begin the season in good shape. DeGrom, with his lanky form, languid velocity, and ability to dominate on days when he hasn’t got his best stuff, has emerged as a true ace in both talent and intangibles; Syndergaard, known to the baseball world as Thor, seems to have moved past his brief and ill-fated fixation on power and bulk, meaning he’ll likely return to his former durability as he continues to evolve as a pitcher. If they remain healthy, which most signs point to being likely, deGrom and Thor give the Mets arguably the best one-two punch of any rotation in the game. Seth Lugo is a major wild card, as is the elbow of intermittently dazzling lefty Steven Matz; meanwhile, the bullpen has been bolstered by the addition of AJ Ramos and the healthy returns of Jeurys Familia and Hansel Robles. Unless the Mets have another freakishly injury-riddled season, their rotation should return to being the envy of most of the National League–even if it isn’t the historically dominant staff many projected it to be a few years ago.
Their lineup versatility
It’s easy to forget it, because there were so many injury-driven doldrums, but when healthy, the Mets have more depth and lineup versatility than some think. Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes are a dangerous lefty-righty combination which, if they can avoid missing big chunks of time, can animate the lineup; and Conforto’s freakish shoulder injury and Cespedes’ wandering lower-body ailments both seemed to be symptoms of the health management problem the team is finally trying to address. With the emergence of Brandon Nimmo as a speed-power threat from the left side of the plate, the Mets now have a potentially dangerous center field platoon with him and Juan Lagares. Lagares is a one-in-a-million defensive center fielder who already has a Gold Glove to his credit and is learning to use the entire field and construct better at bats; here’s still reason to believe he has the potential to be an everyday center fielder, but if not, he and Nimmo as a platoon might be better than much of what’s out there in free agency–and they wouldn’t be as pricey as Lorenzo Cain.
The infield has a number of question marks, but shortstop Amed Rosario and first baseman Dominic Smith are both high-ceiling rookies who’ve only gotten their feet wet. Rosario’s speed, athleticism, and raw power only require a bit of cultivation to make him a legitimate presence in either the 1-2 or 6-8 spots in the lineup; and Smith’s heady disposition and promising statcast numbers suggest serious threat potential in his first full season. Catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki have have been disappointingly erratic at the plate, but both have streaky power and will be solid bottom-third options in a lineup with Conforto and Cespedes in the middle and the aforementioned athleticism at the top. Asdrubal Cabrera and Jose Reyes are capable of playing solidly at third, second, and short, and have value as lineup presences if not asked to be focal points.
Last but not least, there’s Wilmer Flores, whom the Mets seem determined to keep on a short leash, no matter what he does for the team either tangibly or intangibly. Flores is a big, strong kid who’s just entering his prime; he pummels left-handed pitching, continues to show improvement against right-handed pitching, has a knack for producing in big moments, and is serviceable but unspectacular at both second and third base. Sound familiar? Justin Turner could once have been described similarly. Ask the Los Angeles Dodgers how happy they are with their once-underrated third baseman.
No need to panic
Last season’s fall from grace was demoralizing, but rumors of the Mets’ decline have been greatly exaggerated. There are questions to be answered, and holes to be filled; but the best thing they can do is ignore the voices of the panicky fringe. Over-spending for flawed headline-grabbers would be a mistake, as would hastily rebuilding a young, talented team only two years after making the World Series. The Mets, on their roster, have multiple aces, along with power, speed, and highly ranked prospects just beginning their first full year in the majors. There’s still much cause for hope in 2018.