by Paul West
With Opening Day upon us at last, the New York Mets are, once again, at a crossroads. Having followed consecutive playoff appearances–including a National League Pennant–with a long, frustrating, injury-riddled campaign, the Mets are aiming to prove their doubters wrong. Here are five reasons the Mets can look forward to a bounceback year in 2018.
One key to the Mets’ 2018 success is the evolution of Noah Syndergaard–not in pitching prowess, but perspective. Last year, the man known as Thor announced that he’d like to, of all things, add muscle and throw harder; some observers, myself included, questioned the wisdom and necessity of this aim. First, he was already one the most consistently hard throwers of all time; then, of course, there was the matter of what accomplishing this goal might to to his body. This isn’t to echo the old mistaken refrain that pitchers don’t benefit from strength training–but, rather, to note that a young man with enormous strength and historic velocity might have been better served to fine-tune his craft in other ways. Of course, as feared by many, Thor blew out his lat and missed the end of the season, and he seems to have learned his lesson. If so, this might be the year he wins the Cy Young Award.
Relatedly, when speaking of his return from the shoulder injury which ended his 2017 season, Michael Conforto said, “I miss a week, 10 games, it’s not the end of the world. I’d rather miss 10 at the beginning than 50 in the second half.” This is exactly the sort of perspective which the Mets have lacked in recent seasons, and it’s exactly the sort of perspective which will keep them healthy enough to contend.
Last but not least, Yoenis Cespedes has opted for an offseason training routine which incorporates more running. The aim, he says, is to improve his legs’ endurance, allowing them to better withstand the wear and tear of playing at his level of athleticism and with his frame over a long season. If he does it in a properly measured fashion, rather than making the same mistake Syndergaard made last year and over-training to the point of risking injury, a healthy Cespedes would have the same effect he’s always had: sparking a lineup whose potency remains underrated, despite crushing the ball down the stretch in their pennant-winning 2015 season.
Roster moves and depth
Another key to the Mets’ 2018 success will be the depth, and proper usage, of their talented roster, and the case of Wilmer Flores shows their perspective has evolved in this regard, as well. At long last, the Mets have decided that Flores deserves a shot at more regular at-bats, rather than being relegated to only hitting against lefties. To this end, they’ve begun checking him out in left field, along with giving him reps around the infield, as they had previously done. This is important, because three things have stood out about Flores for a while now. First, he really loves being a Met; second, he’s got a knack for big moments; third, and perhaps most importantly, he’s still improving as a hitter, especially against righties. If Wilmer can continue smoking lefties while hitting righties serviceably, it will more than make up for his middling defense (no, it’s not as bad as some would have you think, especially now that shortstop is mostly out of the picture).
Elsewhere around the diamond, the Mets are finally putting their supporting cast in positions to succeed. Brandon Nimmo is a speedster with natural power, and he killed the ball this preseason; if he’s the one who’s put in a platoon situation with Juan Lagares–another speedster with natural power who hits from the other side of the plate and is more elite defensively and more of an unknown factor on offense–it will make for one of the best lefty-righty platoons you could ask for (remember the days when HoJo and Ray Knight were a solid platoon at third base?). This also gives them bench versatility, will allow Conforto to feel less rushed to come back before he’s healthy, will allow Cespedes and Jay Bruce some rest days without compromising the offense too much, and give them one of the most talent-laden outfields in the majors.
Speaking of Jay Bruce: he’s been an unexpected revelation, and performed better within Citi Field’s confines than many of us–myself included, I must admit–expected. With Bruce, Cespedes, the returning Conforto, and a possible Lagares-Nimmo tandem, the Mets have a loaded outfield. Meanwhile, the addition of Adrian Gonzalez–acquired at a surprisingly low cost–will add depth, an experienced lefty bat, and playoff experience to an infield which now has a mix of youth, experience, power, and speed. It will also give Dominic Smith time to evolve with less pressure.
The Mets open the season against the St. Louis Cardinals, who just put ace Adam Wainwright and closer Luke Gregerson on the disabled list; they then play a Philadelphia Phillies team which is still under construction, and their primary NL East competitors the Washington Nationals while Daniel Murphy is also on the DL. They then get three games against the Miami Marlins, who’ve just had yet another fire sale, then host the Nats again and face an inexperienced Atlanta Braves team. They also open with a week-long homestand, in front of a Queens crowd that’ll be pumped to see Thor and Jacob deGrom kick things off. The Mets are opening the season more healthy, whole, and experienced than began it last year, against (mainly divisional) opponents who are diminished in at least one of these three factors; this could set them up for a strong, confidence-building start, and put pressure on the division to keep up.
The Mets are putting things together in such a way that they might indeed ‘shock a lot of people,’ as Matt Harvey–looking healthier and more confident than he has in years–recently opined. Opening at home, with a healthier, wiser, and deeper version of the same team that won the pennant just two years ago, the Mets are poised to make another deep playoff run.