Playing Pepper 2016: New York Mets

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

New York Mets
90-72, first in the NL East, lost in the World Series
Last year’s Pepper

The Mets. When you hear that name, lots of things go through your mind and most of them, at least of recent vintage, are not positive.  A franchise that set the mark for ineptitude when it came into the league seemed to be challenging it the last few years.  However, now when you hear New York Mets, something else should come to mind.

National League Champions.

Every year, the New York Pepper posts have some of the greatest participation, and this year is no different.  Instead of listing them all out, let’s go table format to let you know who will be answering the questions today. The important stuff is all below, including the number of years they’ve done better total and consecutively (T/C). Notes: Paul’s totals don’t include his Postseason Pepper last year, I’ve often been on AC’s podcast, including recently, and Greg has written a book about last year’s season.  Also, Matthew’s answers are illustrated with some 2016 Topps over at his site.

Blogger Blog Twitter # Years (T/C)
Niko Goutakolis Mets Plus @NikoMetsPlus 1/1
Michael Ganci The Daily Stache @dailystache 2/2
Greg Prince Faith and Fear in Flushing @greg_prince 3/3
Paul Hadsall Paul's Random Baseball Stuff @Paul_Hadsall 6/6
AC Wayne Mets Public Record @publicrecord 6/6
Steve Keane The Eddie Kranepool Society @kranepool 5/1
Jon Lewin Subway Squawkers @subwaysquawkers 4/3
Matthew Lug Collect The Mets @CollectTheMets 4/4
Chris McShane Amazin' Avenue @chrismcshane 1/1

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

MP: Offseasons are always very unpredictable, especially for teams that don’t have huge paychecks. The Mets offseason was getting mixed reactions prior to Yoenis Cespedes. Early in the offseason, the Mets had lost Murphy, and signed Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker, both of whom while good, weren’t the “Ben Zobrist” names the fanbase was expecting. However, when the Mets signed Cespedes, the poor start to the offseason was seemingly forgiven.

DS: Overall, re-signing Yoenis Cespedes was a total shock to me, but Sandy Alderson and company played his market perfectly. Despite what he added to the lineup down the stretch, I didn’t go into this off-season thinking he was the main priority. The Mets’ Achilles heel last season was their bullpen, and I think the addition of Antonio Bastardo is huge. Now that Jenrry Mejia has been banned from baseball for life, they should go get another arm to add to their bullpen depth. If Tommy Hunter is cheap, he’s a guy I like.

FF: When the Mets re-signed Yoenis Cespedes, they made the offseason a success. Bringing in Neil Walker and Asdrubel Cabrera likely solidifies the middle of the infield. Keeping Bartolo Colon and Jerry Blevins solidifies the pitching. Antonio Bastardo looms as fortification for the bridge to Jeurys Familia. It was a good offseason.

PRBS: The Mets surprised me this off-season. I expected them to get a cheaper option to replace Yoenis Cespedes, add a reliever or two and call it a day. Instead, they went out and upgraded the middle infield, kept Addison Reed and added Antonio Bastardo to the bullpen, and found a way to re-sign Cespedes. I don’t remember the last time the Mets went into spring training with a projected roster that I was this happy with… it was probably back when Davey Johnson managed the team.

Critics will point out the Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera will never be considered good fielders, but they seem like they should be a more reliable double play combination than Daniel Murphy and Wilmer Flores were without any drop-off in offense. And Flores is now freed to be a utility player, a role that he may be more suited to.

Cespedes is not going to be mistaken for a Gold Glove center fielder, either. Terry Collins is going to face a tough challenge in how to juggle playing time among his five outfielders this year to maximize offensive and defensive value and keep everyone sharp. But the Mets’ lineup needed Cespedes’ bat, streaky as it may be.

MPR: It’s obvious that the Mets front office has allowed Sandy Alderson to spend some money, finally. As much as Daniel Murphy became a folk hero with his powerful performance throughout the postseason last year, trading Jonathon Niese for Neil Walker was a good trade. As I wasn’t very keen on the Mets bringing in Asdrubel Cabrera, I did like the signing of lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo.

EKS: It started out as a pretty ho-hum off season. Even with his post season heroics, the majority of Mets knew that Daniel Murphy wasn’t going to be resigned by the club. I have no problem with this move at all in fact, the team upgraded the second base position in my opinion with the trade of Neil Walker (also ridding us of the uninspiring Jon Niese) The addition of Asdrubal Cabrera was solid as well as it helps for this season and next then hopefully one of the many young and talent shortstops in the farm system will be ready to take over the position. The big signing that many Mets fans thought wouldn’t happen but did was bringing back Yoenis Cespedes.

Hopefully the signing of Antonio Bastardo and re-upping Addison Reed will help form a successful bridge to Jureys Famila in a save situation. The club brought back Jerry Blevins and that’s a plus and another year for Hansel Robles is also a positive. When Zack Wheeler comes back in July from Tommy John surgery rehab, Bartolo Colon could be shifted to long man/spot starter role in the bull pen. Keep an eye on RHP Jim Henderson he could be the signing of the off season.

SS: The Mets went into the offseason with their #3 and #4 hitters, Daniel Murphy and Yoenis Cespedes, heading for free agency. Losing both players without adequate replacements would have gutted the lineup. Fortunately, the Mets were able to re-sign Cespedes and replace Murphy at second with Neil Walker, who could be an upgrade.

The Mets also signed Asdrubal Cabrera to play short while retaining Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada, giving them enough infield depth to protect themselves if/when David Wright is injured. (And that depth is already needed now that Cabrera has hurt his knee and appears likely to start the season on the DL.) They brought back Bartolo Colon, giving them five good starters in the first half of the season and pitching depth once Zack Wheeler returns in midseason. They also brought back Addison Reed and signed Antonio Bastardo to bolster the bullpen behind closer Jeurys Familia.

Not coincidentally, the Mets’ successful offseason was accompanied by a long-overdue rise in payroll toward $140 million.

CM: The Mets have an active roster filled with actual Major League Baseball players. That’s a step up over last year, at least until late July. A few more bullpen options couldn’t hurt, but all the main pieces are there. On top of that, they placated fans by bringing payroll up to a more respectable level. Payroll isn’t everything, but it shouldn’t keep you from bringing in necessary talent, especially considering where the Mets were starting from (in terms of dollars), where they ended last season (in terms of games), and where they play. Alejandro De Aza may be a perfectly competent 5th outfielder, but you’re going to have a hard time selling season tickets to long-suffering fans if he’s your starting center fielder. I only regret that I was never able to get a $5 Cespedes shirsey…

AA: The Mets had a fantastic offseason, thanks in large part to the fact that they brought Yoenis Cespedes back on a three-year deal with a high average annual value and an opt-out clause after the first season. That move punctuated and elevated what had already been a pretty good offseason. In terms of the major league loves, I particularly liked their trade of Jon Niese for Neil Walker, which gave them more of a sure thing at second base this year than the young Dilson Herrera and a slight upgrade from the overall production they got from Daniel Murphy at the position.

From there, they signed shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to a reasonable two-year deal, brought back lefty reliever Jerry Blevins and the incredible Bartolo Colon on one-year deals, signed outfielder Alejandro De Aza, and signed left-handed reliever Antonio Bastardo to a two-year deal. All of that was pretty good, but when they brought Cespedes back, it really put things over the top.

In total, the Mets’ roster isn’t flawless—no roster really is—but looks very, very complete. Between the players who remain under team control this season and the additions, the Mets have an outstanding rotation, a lineup that should feature at least league-average hitters at every position, and a good bullpen, particularly at the back end. They certainly did what they needed to do.

C70: What are the expectations among the fans this year?  Will there be significant disappointment if there’s not another World Series?

MP: I think the expectations are a little too high for this team in 2016. While a blogger is supposed to be un-biased, I make a case at MetsPlus to be opinionated towards the Mets, so I really want them to succeed this year, but I don’t think everyone will have success this year. I believe the Zack Wheeler will not return to be an “A+” caliber pitcher, and I fear  that Jacob deGrom might have a poor season, only because he’s been around the league twice now, and he was pressed harder in 2015. As far as position players, I don’t think we are going to get amazing seasons out of Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes like we got last year. My main point is that the fanbase assumes that every hitter will run on all cylinders, but I highly doubt that will happen.

DS: World Series or bust. No pressure. When you get a small taste of greatness, you want the whole enchilada. Just ask the Royals. They suffered the same fate as the Mets just two years ago, only to rebound and win the World Series the next season. Hopefully, the same fate is in the cards for the Mets.

FF: Cespedes’s return upped the expectations ante. “World Series or bust” is unfair to any team, but it’s reasonable to consider this a playoff team. Not making it back to October would be tough, though as we saw in the NL East last year — and throughout baseball in past years — it’s all easier said than done.

PRBS: I don’t want to speak for all fans, but I will tell you that I expect the Mets to return to the playoffs this year. And yes, I’m going to be disappointed to some degree if they don’t go to the World Series and win. But it’s still going to be possible for me to enjoy the 2016 season if they don’t accomplish that lofty goal.

MPR: Personally, I don’t feel that it’s World Series win or bust for the Mets. I do feel that they need to win the NL East.

EKS: There is a minority of Mets fans who are out of their mind (#MetsTwitter is where they reside). If the Mets were to win the World Series in 7 games they’d complain it wasn’t a sweep. I think for the more rational and long time Mets fan this looks like the start of the greatest era of Mets baseball. The starting pitching is second to none in baseball. The team has some swagger for the first time in years and ownership showed they will spend money when need be. Would not winning the pennant or the World Series be a disappointment ? Sure but every fan base in baseball can say that as well. The fact that the Mets are looked at as one of the best teams in baseball gives me a lot of pride but yes I would love to go to a ticker tape parade down Broadway.

SS: Even after an unexpected trip to the World Series, there was a lot of anger among Met fans over the team’s apparent unwillingness to re-sign Cespedes. Then the front office came through, and fans could finally feel that the unexpected success of 2015 would not vanish along with Cespedes and Murphy.

It’s so great to have a contending team for the first time in years that I can’t say I’ve reached the World Series-or-bust stage. Last season ended badly, but was still a big success. But in a National League in which half the teams are not competitive, missing the playoffs would be a huge disappointment.

CM: There will be disappointment in any case; these are Mets fans we’re talking about. And some will be recovering Yankees fans, so not winning the World Series will be seen as a bit of a let down to them. Forget the outcome though, we still get to see Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Bartolo Colon, or (eventually) Zack Wheeler pitch on any given day (barring the inevitable injury). If you can’t be happy with that, you’re following the wrong sport.

AA: Given the way things went last season, the offseason the team had, and the ridiculously good starting rotation, Mets fans might be a little disappointed with anything less than a World Series title this year. Those are lofty expectations, and another deep run into the postseason shouldn’t be considered a failure in isolation. But it’s been thirty years since the Mets won a World Series, and the desire among fans to see the team win one seems reasonable.

C70: So who, if anyone, makes room for Zack Wheeler in this stacked rotation and how is that room created?

MP: When Wheeler returns in May, I expect Colon to slide into a role similar to his role in the Postseason in 2015, a “durable” middle man. Off course, this is all barring injuries, I would love to know the last year the Mets rotation made it to May without one of their hurlers going to the DL…..

DS: Well, I don’t know if Steven Matz can last a full season. Once he proves that to us, Bartolo Colon becomes the odd man out. Colon remains very valuable though, as we saw in the playoffs, as he can be a weapon out of the bullpen. He’s a strike-throwing machine, and despite his age, he’s still got it.

FF: It’s understood Colon is filling Wheeler’s slot until Wheeler is ready. That’s on paper. In reality, Colon is a hard man to move (I did not really go there, did I?). Matz is penciled in as the fourth starter, and with good reason, but health has always been a concern for him, so we’ll see. Let’s see Zack make it back first before asking anybody to grab a seat in the bullpen.

PRBS: I believe the plan is for Bartolo Colon to shift to the bullpen when the Mets are ready to bring Zack Wheeler into the rotation. But we know how things work when plans meet real life – especially in regard to Major League Baseball pitchers. The Mets are going to need more than five starters this season… and probably more than six (or seven.) Wheeler will get his chance as long as his recovery proves successful.

MPR: If all four of the Mets young starters are healthy when Wheeler is ready to return, the odds-on favorite to work out of the bullpen is Bartolo Colon.

EKS: You never know who will be healthy or not by the time Wheeler comes back which should be around July. As I stated before if all the starting pitchers are healthy I can see Bartolo Colon going to the pen.

SS: Bartolo Colon showed in the playoffs that he could move to the bullpen and still contribute, so he will make way when Wheeler returns. Colon could also serve as a spot starter if the Mets want to conserve innings for Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz.

CM: Six man rotation, injury, or Bartolo Colon to the pen. Not much to figure out here, you can never have too much starting pitching and Bartolo Colon can do anything.

AA: It’s tough to assume that any five pitchers in baseball will be healthy at the same time, even if one of them is just dealing with something minor—an oblique, a lat, a non-arm injury of some sort. But in the event that the Mets’ starting five are healthy when Wheeler is ready to return, Bartolo Colon will be the one to head to the bullpen. The Mets will probably also use a six-man rotation, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them skip starts once in a while with Steven Matz, using Wheeler and Colon to give him some rest during the season.

C70: What player do you expect the make the greatest strides this year?

MP: I expect Noah Syndergaard to make the biggest strides this year. Noah learned a lot in his first year in the big leagues, and has more control then any of the other Mets aces. The only flaw that Syndergaard has is an effective put away pitch. Often, Noah will use his curve (which is very good and generates a lot of swings and misses) and it will miss the plate, and, once he got around the league once, people started to take a lot his off speed pitches, thus resulting in longer innings, and a higher pitch count. Syndergaard got pulled early in a lot of games because his pitch count is simply too high. If he can correct this very minor issue, I think he can be one of the best pitchers in Baseball.

DS: For me, this is a huge year for Travis d’Arnaud. The once highly-touted prospect was in a deal in which the Mets stole he and Noah Syndergaard, along with Wuilmer Becerra and John Buck for R.A. Dickey and other spare parts. If he stays healthy, his bat can be a big weapon. His throwing arm leaves much to be desired, but I expect a big year from him. It’s time to put up or shut up.

FF: If he doesn’t get hurt, Travis d’Arnaud will back up Buster Posey at the All-Star Game. But he needs to not get hurt.

PRBS: Last year, people outside of New York started paying attention to Jacob deGrom thanks to his All-Star Game performance. I think that might happen for Noah Syndergaard this year. On the position player side, I hope this is the year that Travis d’Arnaud finally manages to avoid all the unlucky injuries so he can play a full season.

MPR: Coming off of an impressive rookie campaign, Michael Conforto is in-line to make a definite impact for the Mets, esp. with his bat. Prior to signing Yoenis Cespedes, Conforto was being considered as one of the major threats in their lineup.

EKS: Travis d’Arnaud. I think he will break out at the plate hitting at least 25 HR’s and will start the All Star Game.

SS: Syndergaard – After strong rookie debuts following midseason callups, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom each made the All-Star team and finished in the top seven in Cy Young voting in their first full season. Syndergaard had a 3.24 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.0 K/9 in 24 starts, then added wins in both the NLCS and World Series, so there’s plenty of reason to expect more from Thor this year.

CM: Bartolo Colon at the plate – he’s due for a home run! Seriously though, most of these guys just went to the World Series. We’ve seen what they can do, it’s just a matter of doing it consistently, staying healthy, and making necessary adjustments along the way. Great strides will be the domain of the minors. Can Dom Smith handle high-level pitching? Were Gavin Cecchini’s perceived defensive issues real? Is Brandon Nimmo destined for more than a backup role in the majors? Will a top pitching prospect emerge? Amid all of that, it could be Amed Rosario who is poised to make the greatest strides and take over as the organization’s top prospect by the end of the year. He has already taken Twitter by storm, Binghamton is next.

AA: Noah Syndergaard is awfully impressive, and everyone knows it after the way he looked in the postseason. But I think there’s plenty of room for growth there, particularly with results like his ERA. Not that it was bad last year by any means, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he joined the Matt Harvey/Jacob deGrom tier of pitcher this year, and that is a special kind of pitcher.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

MP: Everyone has their own guess, but I would say 85-87 wins, and a wild card berth. The Nationals have more strength than us in a lot of fields, and I fear they aren’t going to struggle early like they have in previous years.

DS: Because of the pitching, I think the Mets will win the division with 92 wins.

FF: Coming off a pennant is no time to tamp down enthusiasm. Let’s say a second consecutive divisional crown (which the Mets have never accomplished before) and a record of 94-68.

PRBS: I’m expecting the Mets to win around 90 games and narrowly edge out Washington to earn the NL East pennant.

MPR: With all the success that the Mets had last season, a winning season should be expected. I’ll project a record of 92-70. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mets win 95 games.

EKS: I’m looking at 90-95 wins and another NL East championship.

SS: 93 wins and first place.

CM: That’s a tough one. For the last three years, the Mets have outperformed my division ranking prediction by one spot each year. I would like to pick them to win the division, but if the pattern holds, where would that put them? I guess I’ll have to play the pessimist and pick them to finish second so they’ll finish first. 89-73 should do it, just behind the improbable 90-win Marlins.

AA: I’ll go with 94 wins, first place.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

MP: Obviously I enjoy beating the Nationals the most, because they are prime division rivals and there are playoff implications during every game. However, if the postseason didn’t matter, I would say the Yankees. The Subway Series is always special, and while it is losing a little energy, it’s always one of the first games to sell out, and it’s the talk of the town when it happens. I wish I was older during the 2000 World Series, I would have loved to see the energy of New York City when that happened.

DS: Well, I hate the Braves and Phillies, but the Nationals are the biggest threat. They lost Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmerman, so I am not sure what to expect out of them. Bryce Harper can’t do it all himself, but I think they’ll be in the conversation for the majority of the year. If the Mets falter, they’ll be waiting in the wings.

FF: Gotta be the Nationals. They are the most talented team in the division besides the Mets and they’ll never be forgiven for declaring themselves champs ahead of the 2015 season (not that we “pond scum” have long memories where our rivals are concerned). Hopefully we’ll win more than we lose against them and do a better job against the rebuilding clubs in the East than they do.

PRBS: Miami, because of the way they relished eliminating the Mets on the last day of the season in 2007 and 2008. I don’t think I’ll ever completely forget that, even though no one from those teams is still around. I expect to Mets to win at least 2/3 of the games they play against the Marlins in 2016.

MPR: Can I pick all four of them? I despise all of the other teams in the NL East for various reasons. Recently, I thoroughly enjoy sticking it to the Nats.

EKS: Has to be the Washington Nationals. They had the Mets’ number for awhile but the tide has turned. The Nats are the main competition in the division and must be stopped.

SS: I enjoyed seeing the Mets beat the Nationals last year and look forward to seeing them do it again. But Murphy deserves a standing ovation on his first trip back to Citi Field.

CM: There’s not much better than sweeping the division favorites. Unfortunately, with the Mets now the favorites… Let’s just say the Phillies. Who doesn’t enjoy beating the Phillies? It will probably happen a whole lot, but it never gets old. Case in point…


AA: I’d be lying if I didn’t say that beating up on the Braves and Phillies is really the most enjoyable. I don’t even care that they’re making a conscious effort to rebuild. Those two teams were just sources of misery for Mets fans for a long time. Right now, watching the Mets beat the Nationals is the most enjoyable thing, especially since one of the very best players in baseball—if not the best after the season he had last year—is on that team.

Thanks to all my Mets friends for giving us the scoop on the team from Gotham.  It should be another year of great things, pushing the “Mets are a joke” meme that much farther into the past.

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