It’s been a long time since that dreadful Monday morning, November 2nd, when we Mets fans woke up to the realization that the 2015 season was really over. We still may not be over it, but I’m ready to move on.
On April 2nd, we will be getting ready to defend our National League Championship pennant against those pesky Kansas City Royals, where our players will have to stand quietly while the Royals and their fans celebrate the raising of the 2015 World Championship banner in their gold and blue colors. Let’s hope that scene inspires the Mets to imagine what that will look and feel like in April of 2017, when the colors on that flag are orange and blue.
So with the full understanding that the result of these spring training games don’t mean a hill of beans, let’s take a deep breath and get ready for the 2016 season…
THE 2016 NEW YORK METS
The Mets are in a position coming into 2016 they don’t have a lot of experience in, being talked about as a front-runner. When they were World Champions in 1969, it was more of a joke than anything else and they certainly weren’t expected to even make it back to the playoffs. It took 17 years to get another Championship, but the foundation for that dominant 1986 team was laid by the 1984 and 1985 teams.
Based on the domination of 1986, there was talk of a Dynasty in the spring of 1987 with veterans like Keith Hernandez and Gary Cater and young studs like Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, this team was going to dominate until the end of the decade. Of course, that team followed every other successful postseason Mets team before them, failing to make it back the next year.
And although the Mets had much success in the late 90’s with Bobby Valentine and Mike Piazza, making the postseason in consecutive years for the first time ever, they just couldn’t get over the hump and disappeared after losing the 2000 World Series to the Yankees.
Can we not even talk about Carlos Beltran taking that called third strike in 2006?
This spring somehow feels different, doesn’t it? There is a quiet confidence about this team, a low-key air of optimism that we’ve never experienced before. For the first time in franchise history, the Mets don’t need to read their press clippings to find out how good they are. They know. The challenge for the Mets in 2016 though, is that everyone else knows it too.
The 1986 team that reported to Spring Training had a target on their back, but that was because everyone hated them and their arrogance. The target on the back of the 2016 Mets is out of respect.
If there is a better starting rotation in baseball, more power to them. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard are top 10 pitchers in most baseball rankings and all three of them take the hill in Flushing. No team this season is going to “miss” seeing one of them every series. How many other teams can say that?
Although all had wonderful years in 2015, they are all going to be even batter. Harvey now has a full year under his belt following his Tommy John surgery and has got his slider back. He no longer has any doubt in his mind that “his next pitch might be his last” that most pitchers coming back from surgery experience.
DeGrom was dominant in 2015 before running out of gas in October, but he showed something in how he was able to pitch in the postseason without his best stuff. That might be more important than developing a “new” pitch or finding your fastball. DeGrom showed that even at a young age, he can be a pitcher.Syndergaard threw the only pitch that mattered in the World Series, throwing the first pitch of Game 3 at 98 MPH and right over the head of Alcides Escobar. It was the only game that the Mets won in the World Series. After the game, he said:
“My intent on that pitch was to make them uncomfortable, and I feel like I did just that. I think in every postseason game that Escobar has played in, he’s swung at the first-pitch fastball. I didn’t think he would want to swing at that one. I mean, I certainly wasn’t trying to hit the guy, that’s for sure. I just didn’t want him getting too comfortable. If they have a problem with me throwing inside, then they can meet me 60 feet, 6 inches away. I’ve got no problem with that.”
He is not only being taught how to pitch, he is beginning to understand how to pitch. He may have the best pure stuff in baseball.
What about rookie Steven Matz and Bartolo Colon at the back-end of the rotation? Colon, at 43, will continue to put up quality starts and make everyone smile when he puts on a batting helmet. And Matz has as much potential as anyone if he stays healthy. And don’t forget Zack Wheeler is looming in the background, targeting a July return.
Nobody was counting on Jenrry Mejia anyway, so good-bye to bad rubbish. Jeurys Familia owned the ninth inning last year. The problem was getting a lead to him. Gone are the guys who made you roll your eyes, like Tyler Clippard, Eric O’Flaherty and Buddy Carlyle. The Mets signed Antonio Bastardo as a left-handed specialist to share the late innings with Addison Reed. Remember Jerry Blevins? He missed almost all of last year with not one, but two broken left arms – but he didn’t give up a hit in his 7 appearances before getting hurt. Hansel Robles and Logan Verrett may get more work as spot starters than long relief.
Talk all you want about the big three in the Yankees bullpen, this Mets bullpen is going to be solid.
Now all we need is some runs….
Probably the biggest question marks on this team are on the corners. Which Lucas Duda is going to show up for most of the season and how much of the season will David Wright be able to play – and how effectively? Duda will most likely get to his 30 HR mark, but although he hit 27 of them last year, he hit 10 of them during a 7 game stretch last season. He missed some time in August with an injury and played only 135 games, but that means he hit the other 17 over the course of 128 games.
Of course Wright will tough it out and play as much as he can, but what is more concerning is that Sandy Alderson didn’t really do anything to shore up that position if (when) Wright can’t go, or is ineffective. With this type of spinal injury, the body might be willing and able to play, but can the player perform at the level a team with Championship aspiration needs the player to perform? The playing field is littered players who have had their careers derailed by back injuries. Let’s hope that Wright still has a few more productive years left, but we should be prepared (and not surprised) if he doesn’t. Wilmer Flores (hitting .440 this spring) is learning another position this year, after spending last spring learning second base and at this point is the only viable option.
Was there anything more frustrating than watching the Mets NOT be able to turn a double play when they really needed it? Regardless of the quality of your pitching staff, you can’t give teams more than 27 outs and although the Mets didn’t lead the NL in errors (the Pirates did), they certainly led the league in bone head plays and poor decision-making once they caught the ball. Enter Sandy Alderson.
After making the decision to make a $13.5M qualifying offer to arguably our best hitter Daniel Murphy – that he turned down – , and losing out on the Ben Zobrist sweepstakes (he went to the Cubbies), Alderson made two moves less than five hours apart that tightened the Mets up-the-middle defense that was the bane of their existence in 2015.
Remember the search for a shortstop in the spring of 2015? Then remember how awful we all thought Flores was early in the season, when he made 11 errors in the first two months of the season? For the first time in a long time, the Mets are solid up the middle in the infield.
2B-Neil Walker came over from the Pirates for the always dour Jonathan Niese to hold down the fort until Dilson Herrera is ready for the majors. Walker is a much-needed defensive upgrade at 2B over the departed but highly popular Murphy and he’s has some pop with at least 16 HR in each of his last three seasons. Then Alderson signed Asdrubal Cabrera to play SS, which is more of an upgrade in offense than defense over Reuben Tejada.
Both of these guys are switch-hitters and there won’t be this three-headed monster to deal with every game with Tejada/Flores/Murphy depending on who the pitcher is or what inning it is.
No more crying about not signing Yoenis Cespedis, ok? No more worrying about his opt-out contract or the $27M he will be making or the cars he drives or any of the other nonsense that we have been bombarded with since before Christmas. He is here and, barring injury, will be in the middle of the lineup and patrolling Center Field. Where that leaves Juan Lagares, nobody knows. But he isn’t Cespedes – nobody is. If Michael Conforto continues to improve against lefties (like he is showing this Spring), Lagares may not be happy or comfortable in a reserve, 4th outfielder role. Just look at this particular Mets lineup without Cespedes in it somewhere. End of story.
Curtis Granderson is still the leadoff hitter and in the postseason, he got every one of the rallies started. He made me a believer after wondering early in 2015 if Terry Collins had lost his mind. Power and ability to drive the ball as a leadoff hitter turned out to be a great idea in the end.
No one doubts that Travis d’Arnaud is a good major league hitter and that this valuable pitching staff enjoys throwing to him and has confidence that he can call a good game. But over the last two seasons he has only played 175 games. He was on the DL three times last season alone. That type of past requires a solid Plan B to a contending team. The concern about Kevin Plawecki is: What do you do with him when d’Arnaud is healthy? He might be a better defensive catcher than d’Arnaud, but he struggled at the plate, hitting just .219 last year. The scuttlebutt is that the Mets might come north without Plawecki so he can play every day in Las Vegas at the AAA level, and let Johnny Monell ride the bench and spell d’Arnaud early on.
Is this a 100 win team in 2016? Probably not. Not because they aren’t going to be better than last year, but because there are a lot of good teams in the National League. They are going to have to play almost 40 games against the Nationals and the much improved Miami Marlins. Then there are 21 games against the three-headed monster in the National League Central, the “St. Louis Pirate-Cubs”. This Mets team won 90 games last year, but won most of them over the final two months of the season.
The pitching is way too good to fail them this year. This is not the touted, but unproven “Generation K” that fizzled and died a quick death after Opening Day in Chicago way back in 1995. These guys are solid and will just continue to get better. Let’s not talk about how long they will be together or how Free Agency will cause them to take different paths in the future. Just concentrate on 2016.
The difference between this Mets team and most Mets teams we have lived through might be something as simple as this:
In the fifth inning, with the Mets nursing a 1-run lead or trailing by a run, this team is going to step up and get the runs they need to win the game. They are going to make the defensive play they need to prevent a 1-run deficit from becoming a 3-run deficit. They are going to get that strikeout to prevent a run from scoring.
That seemingly innocuous 2-run home run by Cespedes in the third inning to make it 3-0 is going to look like 8-0 when the other team sees Syndergaard stride to the hill for the top of the fourth.
That’s what is going to be different about this Mets team. They are not going to need the dramatics of late inning home runs or walk-off wins. Don’t get me wrong, they are going to have their share of them. But teams that make it through the grueling regular season and the pressure of the playoffs to get to the World Series don’t win the Series because they are lucky. Maybe you get there because you are lucky, but you win because you are the better team.
The Mets realized in late October that the Kansas City Royals were the better team – even though the Mets had a lead in every one of the World Series games. And next Sunday night, when that blue and gold banner is being raised inside Kaufman Stadium and the Royals and their fans are celebrating their 2015 accomplishment, the Mets will be front and center to see it all. And they will lament that the colors on that flag are not blue and orange, and they will lament that they may have wasted a golden opportunity last October. But they better not dwell on it.
Matt Harvey will be on the hill to start the 2016 season for them and 2015 will be just a memory.
Fasten your seatbelts Mets fans and enjoy the ride!