It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Mets during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
Are we starting to get past the LOLMets era? With an owner that apparently is the terror of all the other owners (see some of the new issues in the CBA) and the landing of one of the best pitchers available before the lockout, it feels like a corner is being turned. To see if that’s the case, let’s chat with some that are up close and personal with the new era.
|Faith and Fear in Flushing
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about New York’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Niko: This was one of the most progressive Mets offseasons to date…. Where to begin? Well, I think you have to start with Buck Showalter. Yes, I know Scherzer is the person most people will think about at first, and I know there is a question on Showalter later, so I won’t go into too much depth here, but I still hold a firm belief that the on-field manager can influence/dictate as many wins (think of it like a managerial Wins Above Replacement – WAR) as a good starter, so that’s what I really liked about the offseason. Now, of course, I’m happy we got Max Scherzer, how can I not be? That’s the move that Sandy Alderson was never comfortable making in the past, but he clearly got some help pulling the trigger. In both of those aforementioned cases (Max & Buck) I’m excited for their off-field direction and camaraderie, just as much as their business-of-baseball modus operandi. There was very little not to be happy about this offseason, but I think not paying a bit more for Aaron Loup might be to the Mets’ detriment. A lefty specialist, even in this era of the three batter minimum, is a cornerstone of a good bullpen, and I’m not yet sure how the Mets bullpen stacks up.
Greg: The prime rib was excellent but they forgot to garnish the plate with a sprig of parsley. Are we really that satisfied? Honestly, they could have used a little more in the left-handed relief department. Then again, bullpens are stews and new ingredients have a way of finding their way in across the length of a season. Oh, and if somebody delivered a side order of outfield depth to our table, I wouldn’t send it back.
Chris: Signing Max Scherzer was one of the best things any Mets fan could have imagined when the offseason started, and the team did well to sign several good position players. As has often been the case with this team in the past, however, the bullpen was largely ignored and could be a problem that needs to be addressed at the trade deadline.
AC: What jumped out at me from the get-go was how aggressive the Mets front office was this offseason. Case in point, after signing Max Scherzer, they didn’t kick up their heels, they went after Oakland’s Chris Bassitt, a solid veteran right hander who at age 33, ‘doesn’t give a s–t about his contract.’ I was a bit disappointed they didn’t bring back Michael Conforto. However, I’m looking forward to seeing what outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha can bring to the table. I would’ve liked to see them pick up a better left-handed option coming out of the pen. Right now, Mets fans will have to live with Chasen Shreve.
C70: While obviously the Mets brought in a sterling replacement, what will it be like to see Noah Syndergaard not wearing Mets blue and orange this year?
Niko: I don’t think it will be as big of a pill to swallow as Mets fans in the 1970s who had to watch Tom Seaver put on a Reds jersey. That being said, Syndergaard definitely got indoctrinated in the full New York lifestyle, and while Los Angeles, er, Anaheim, might not be a step down in some aspects, I think Syndergaard will miss New York to a certain extent. For the fans, the transition will be easier, since Syndergaard did not pitch in 2020, and he only had a couple of cameos towards the end of the season in 2021, meaning if you were a casual fan, and happened to avoid the Team Store, you might’ve already forgotten he was on the team.
Greg: It should feel stranger than it does in the mind’s eye to see Noah Syndergaard as anything but a Met. Maybe the Photoshopped image of him in his Angels uniform after he signed diminished the element of surprise. We certainly had a lengthy transition period of not seeing Noah in a Mets uniform for a very long time, given that injuries and rehabilitation kept him out for all but two cameo appearances over the last two years. I was a big Thor fan, but something about his emotional appeal to receive a qualifying offer; his getting that qualifying offer; and then, in a blink, going west, left me with something less than my usual quotient of post-Met melancholy for a figure of his caliber in recent franchise history. It’s a business, right?
Chris: It will be akin to watching Rich Staff tweet since his wife left him.
AC: Not a big deal. Between Tommy John surgery and a short stint inside COVID protocol, it felt like almost two years before Mets fans witnessed Thor bring his mighty hammer to the mound. And when he did show up, it was just one inning, 3 outs, the last week of the season. Impressive, yes! But can Noah sustain his dominance for the long haul. We shall see, or not really, Anaheim is pretty far from Flushing. (Do the Mets play the AL West? I’ll have to check that out.)
C70: We have often in this series asked about the new Mets manager and this year is no different. What do you think about Buck Showalter and can he have a long tenure with the team?
Niko: There are very few things that unify the Mets fan base, and while I’m sure there will be some fans that will be calling for his exit on Opening Day should we lose that game, Showalter has been received very, very positively. The amusing thing is, had the Mets hired him in 2018, after Terry Collins left the Mets, I expect the tea leaves would read differently, but after two managers who depreciated quickly as a result of their inexperience at the helm as a Major League manager, having a “senior statesman” in the clubhouse is a great feeling. As for his tenure, Tony La Russa is managing the White Sox after he was inducted into the Hall Of Fame, and was thought to have walked into the sunset, so I don’t see the need to examine this, unless the situation changes, for the foreseeable future (of course, in New York, we can’t foresee things for long…).
Greg: I have a real good feeling about Callaway, I mean Beltran, I mean Rojas…yeah, this is a familiar question. Buck Showalter is a pro. He’s been a pro from the second he put on the Mets cap in his Zoom conference. He’s been a pro since he came out of the womb. The sense that he won’t be overwhelmed by anything is the most reassuring facet of his taking the helm. Even a cliché like “taking the helm” sounds right for a manager of his experience and demeanor. Good health willing, I expect he’ll outlast each member of the aforementioned trio individually and possibly collectively.
Chris: Coming into the offseason, I wasn’t the biggest proponent of bringing in Showalter, but past clips and the things he’s said thus far in this role have made him very likable. I assume his tenure will last exactly as long as the contract he signed unless he would want to retire if the team were to win a World Series first.
AC: Bringing in Showalter basically tells your fan base that it’s World Series or bust. Let’s face it, this isn’t the Marlins, Pirates, or even the Reds, a team on the upside of five hundred. Showalter said it himself, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I have a comfortable life.’ But there’s something to be said for this roster. It’s pretty tough to pass up. And why not have Buck stick it to the Yankees one last time, haha, if the Mets actually pan out.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Niko: Great question – It’s now come to the point in my life where all of these prospects are younger than me. I think one person Mets fans can look at to help the team this year is Brett Baty, especially if (cough** when ** cough) an injury or two happens and the Mets need to call up. I had the good fortune of watching him play in Brooklyn for the Mets single-A affiliate, and defensively he reminds me of Daniel Murphy – he can play so many positions!
Greg: You mean the Mets have prospects they haven’t traded? Even someone who doesn’t much follow the minor leagues (as I don’t) can’t help but be intrigued by Francisco Alvarez, who has climbed everybody’s rankings this spring. I’d love a longer-term solution at catcher than we’ve had in what feels like ages, and perhaps Alvarez will be it. He certainly has pop, according to my sources (I just looked at his minor league numbers for this answer).
Chris: It has to be Francisco Alvarez. Watching James McCann play on an everyday basis got old well before his first season with the team concluded, and it’ll be great to see a young catcher who can hit over that role. It’ll probably be in 2023, though.
AC: There’s a lot of buzz around catcher Francisco Alvarez, who the Mets signed out of Venezuela at age 16. Now twenty years old, the organization has given him some room to grow this Spring. And he’s thanked them for it, showing off some of that raw power that scouts have been gushing over. If catcher James McCann plays like he did last year, Alvarez might be given the green light sooner than the front office intended.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Niko: You know, looking back at these entries into Playing Pepper, I’ve never given the Mets a projected first place finish. Well, that changes this year, I expect a 95-100 win season, with the Mets in a deadlock for first with the Atlanta Braves, with the Phillies not too far behind, possibly also making it in with this year’s expanded postseason. I think one thing the Mets have to improve on is a strong intra-division record. There’s no excuse for the Mets to get swept by the Marlins, even if they themselves have improved.
Greg: I don’t know. I never know. But better than last year and better than most NL East comers. That sounds promising.
Chris: The lineup should bounce back coming off last year, and the DH existing in the National League will benefit them. The rotation should be a significant strength despite the back end of it looking thoroughly average on paper. The bullpen will cost the team some games. With the expanded playoff format, I expect the Mets to make the postseason while not necessarily running away with the division.
AC: I’d be very disappointed if the Mets didn’t make the postseason. Of course, health is paramount to their success. Jacob deGrom only pitched half a season last year. Scherzer, still his dominant self, is susceptible to a missed start here and there. However, the rotation isn’t the biggest concern. The Mets have to put together a consistent offense and that starts with Francisco Lindor. If he’s able to rebound from a poor showing last season, stay healthy and perform the way he’s capable of, then all bets are in.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Mets Twitter accounts to follow.
Niko: What a fun question! @MetsPolice is my first choice. I used to write for Mets Police during some summers, but Shannon from Mets Police, who runs the account, is on a parallel mindset with me on many issues, and I think his wisdom exceeds most on Twitter. Following that, I’d suggest @MichaelGBaron. Think of Michael Baron like a beat writer with over a decade of covering the Mets, but yet he is down to earth and will reply to your questions, and you might learn some middle names! Finally, I’d suggest following Howie Rose (@HowieRose), the Mets longtime radio announcer. His Twitter is far from canned food, and he also talks about a wide variety of topics with a refined filter.
Greg: My Faith and Fear blog partner Jason Fry: @jasoncfry (Editor’s note: My #brand requires me to note Jason also writes Star Wars books.) My National League Town podcast partner Jeff Hysen: @jeffhysen. Mets Home Run a Day, which is a literal blast: @MetsHRADay.
Chris: The obvious answer here is @RichardStaff.