by Paul West
When the New York Mets finally returned to contention a few years ago, it was mainly on the strength of their pitching. Matt Harvey–despite the inglorious end to his Mets tenure–helped put the team on the map by giving them a credible ace with bona-fide star power. Before long, the Mets found themselves with multiple potential aces, and a talent-laden starting rotation many thought could become historically great. They stormed up the National League East standings in July of 2015, winning the division and eventually the NL Pennant; the next year, they returned to the playoffs as a wild card, losing in a pitcher’s duel between Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner.
In 2017 and 2018, the Mets were felled by one injury after another–some of which seemed to have been avoidable–and last year, they fell all the way to fourth in a floundering NL East. The rotation provided two silver linings: Jacob deGrom had a season for the ages, capped with his first Cy Young Award; and Zack Wheeler, in his age-28 season, finally seemed to put it all together.
This, along with an offseason in which they upgraded at several positions and finally let Pete Alonso see the light of day, bodes well for a resurgent year for the Mets.
The Mets’ biggest strength remains the top of their rotation. DeGrom (whom the Mets finally got around to signing to an extension, just in time for Opening Day), Syndergaard, and Wheeler are as good a trio as there is in any pitching staff in baseball, and if they all remain healthy, they will give the Mets a puncher’s chance in three-fifths of the team’s starts. The bullpen, taxed beyond its limits early last year and a veritable mess near the end, all of a sudden might be one of the NL’s best. Jeurys Familia, the team’s closer for its consecutive playoff years, is back as the primary setup man after helping the Oakland A’s make the playoffs last year. Edwin Diaz, who put up ridiculous numbers while saving 57 games for the Seattle Mariners last year, is now in charge of the Mets’ ninth innings. Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman were both masterful at times in long relief last year; hopefully, with a bona-fide set of closers behind them and a healthy top of the rotation in front of them, they aren’t burnt out by mid-summer as they were last year. There are also high hopes for lefties Justin Wilson and David Peterson.
Another strength Mets fans have long hoped for: increased positional depth. The Mets picked up Oakland’s Jed Lowrie, adding a line-drive hitter and versatile fielder with pressure-game experience and moderate power. They added the Seattle Mariners’ Robinson Cano, another veteran whose power and glove will be welcome additions at second base (and occasionally first), and Wilson Ramos, who hit .297 for the Rays last year, will insert right into the heart of the lineup. Jeff McNeil, whose spring training seems to suggest that last year’s hitting wasn’t a mirage, can play multiple infield positions and has taken reps in the outfield (though this last part, it could be argued, is not a point in the Mets’ favor); and Amed Rosario also seems as if his late-season turnaround has stuck, giving the Mets a solid defensive shortstop with some base-stealing and gap-hitting potential. Last but not least, first base has a decent-looking platoon in the works: smooth-fielding lefty Dominic Smith, who’s hit the ball well this spring, and Alonso, who continues to crush the ball while working on his defensive chops. DeGrom–who’s played with Cespedes, and opposed some prodigious hitters–recently told reporters, “I think he’s got the most power I’ve ever seen.”
In the outfield, Brandon Nimmo is another young player whose late-2018 breakout seems to be the real deal; if so, he’ll provide speed and power at the top of a newly fortified lineup. Michael Conforto has also picked up where he left off down the stretch, suggesting his early-season woes were indeed related to his 2017 shoulder dislocation. Yoenis Cespedes, whose addition sparked their 2015 explosion, appears on track to return sooner than thought; Juan Lagares appears healthy, and with the lineup fortified, he’ll only need to play his signature defense and hit serviceably; and recent addition Keon Broxton, if nothing else, gives them a solid late-inning defensive and baserunning option in case Lagares falters or is injured again.
Health and consistency have been the Mets’ biggest issues of the past two years. Lagares has won a Gold Glove, and been compared with the greatest defensive center fielders of previous generations; but he’s had trouble staying healthy, and often had trouble producing good at bats. Steven Matz is one of the more talented young lefty starters in baseball, but arm have dogged him for years; if healthy, he’s as good as you can ask for in a fourth starter, but when he’s off, he gets shellacked in a way that can end games soon after they start. Syndergaard’s obsession with velocity–along with a dose of his signature machismo, leading him to refuse examination on an ailing arm which soon blew up by way of a torn lat–have have at times affected his trajectory; but he, like Wheeler, seems to finally be breaking through for good. Cespedes’ migrating lower-body injuries are less of a concern in light of the Mets’ recent additions, but his possible return as a force-multiplier would boost their playoff chances enormously. Lastly and most importantly, this looks like–and, really, has to be–the year we finally see Nimmo, Rosario, Conforto, and Smith remain the more promising versions of themselves. If they do this all at once, look out; if they continue to do so in fits and starts, due to injury or other causes–look out, Mets.
Another concern is the inexperience of rookie manager Brodie Van Wagenen. The former agent will have to navigate a tough division, in an energetic media market, with the Yankees a borough away and a lot of variables to account for.
The National League East is somewhat up for grabs, but it’s clearly a stronger division than it was in 2018. The Atlanta Braves are a young team who took advantage of a floundering division last year, but like many of the Mets’ rising stars, they have to prove their breakthrough wasn’t a mere flash. Bryce Harper went to the Phillies, whose lineup looks like a crooked number waiting to happen but whose pitching staff is still a question mark. The Washington Nationals are still a dangerous team despite losing Harper, and they still have Max Scherzer as their ace; and the Miami Marlins still look like the team the other four will look to fatten up on. This is a division the Mets can win, if only a few things bounce their way. They’ll certainly contend for a postseason spot, and if they get in, they’ve got the ingredients of a postseason threat.