Playing Pepper 2018: New York Mets

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

New York Mets
70-92, fourth in NL East
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

It always seems to be something with the Mets, doesn’t it?  While they’ve had success in their history, for some reason when you think of the blue and orange you come up with bumbling thoughts and LOLMets.  That’s not necessarily fair to the Metropolitans and we’ve got a great group of writers today to explain what is good and right about this squad as they tackle the NL East this season.  (A side note: many of you know but Matthew puts up his answers, illustrated with some great baseball cards, on his site.  You’ll find that here.)  This may take a while, but it’s worth it!

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Mack: Not really. We re-signed IF Astrubel Cabrera for one more year, signed the aging 1B Adrian Gonzalez for a year and brought back RF Jay Bruce. Past that, our only other significant sign was RP Anthony Swarzak. Factor this is the loss of 1B Lucas Duda, 2B Neil Walker, SS Jose Reyes, and Curtis Granderson and I consider the whole process a wash.

AC: By bringing in Adrian Gonzalez on the cheap, Todd Frazier on a reasonable contract along with Jay Bruce, and veteran pitcher Jason Vargas, the Mets did a good job this offseason filling some holes. I like that they went with some vets who’ve been around the block and should be able to take advantage of a weak NL East.  

Paul: The Mets read the market well this winter. They may not have gotten a flashy star like their crosstown neighbors, but the Mets addressed all of their glaring needs and should have their strongest bench in years. Jay Bruce was one of the Mets’ best hitters last year, and I’m happy to see him return. Todd Frazier is a better hitter and a much better defender than anyone the Mets played at third base in 2017. Jason Vargas gives the Mets another starter they can legitimately expect to pitch 150+ innings and improves their pitching depth. New manager Mickey Callaway brings new energy to the team as well.

Greg: The Mets had to have improved over the winter because, as Bruce Springsteen wrote in “Light of Day,” things gotta better ’cause they can’t get worse (though I wouldn’t count on that as a stone cold truism). The best thing that happened for the Mets between October 1 and March 29 is several of their key players either healed or continue to heal from the injuries that sidelined them for the bulk of 2017. As for the moves they made — bringing back Bruce, bringing in Frazier, Gonzalez, Vargas, Swarzak — I think it makes the outfit more professional if nothing else.

Matthew: I guess. It’s been a strange offseason, so having a full team by the start of spring training is an accomplishment in itself. They signed a third baseman for the first time in forever, so there’s that. And they finally got the insurance starting pitcher then needed last year, so better late than never? I don’t really know what’s going on with first base or the outfield and I’m not going to pay any attention to it until after the inevitable injuries sort things out. Losing some bullpen depth in 40-man roster moves stings a bit, but the bullpen is a crap shoot anyway. It would have been nice to see them make a run at someone big, but that’s not the way this team operates (and the added value of those big names is debatable). Bigger names are on the horizon anyway, so we can hope that they’re saving up now to bring in a superstar later. Self delusion springs eternal.

Michael: If you’re asking me if the Mets are better than at this point last year, I think the answer has to be yes, and that’s because of the bullpen. I expect big things out of it, and with a healthy Jeurys Familia, the Mets’ young starters should only need six good innings to turn it over to the pen. Also, we have to explore the addition of Todd Frazier. Not only does he provide legitimate pop and steady defense, but he’s a born leader. Sadly, David Wright will likely never play again, and third base was a revolving door last year. Having a stabilizing presence there, as well as a leader to replace the departed Curtis Granderson in the clubhouse, is important. I am cautiously optimistic going into the season, but of course, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Jon: The Mets made quite a haul in free agency, signing the NL batting champion and the player who finished second in the AL. Oh, wait, I’m looking at 2011, when Jose Reyes hit .337 for the Mets and Adrian Gonzalez hit .338 for the Red Sox. These days, Reyes and Gonzalez share the distinction of their former teams eating tens of millions of dollars in their eagerness to get rid of them. At least Reyes made some contributions last year and is not expected to start. But it is hard to be optimistic about the fading Gonzalez making it through the season.

The Mets did make a good move in signing Jay Bruce, but that was not improving the team since he was on the 2017 Mets until August. Another good move was signing Todd Frazier, who solidifies third base and showed he could play in New York last year with the Yankees. But whether or not the offense improves in 2018 will depend on the health of Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto.

As for pitching, the Mets signed Anthony Swarzak after losing Addison Reed. They added pitching depth with Jason Vargas. But as with the offense, improvement in pitching will depend on the health of last year’s walking wounded, particularly Noah Syndergaard, but also Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo.

Niko: If you had asked me this question in January, I’d say that this was a very poor offseason, considering the Mets needs. With that being said, a few late acquisitions at reasonable prices (Gonzalez, Frazier, Vargas, etc) made this a fairly good offseason. Sure, the bullpen is not perfect, but every team has some flaws, right?

Chris: The Mets certainly improved over the offseason, comparing where their roster was after the World Series ended to where it stands now. Whether or not they’ve improved since a year ago today is a different question with a different answer. But they made a series of reasonable signings, the best of which seem to be the Todd Frazier and Jason Vargas deals, at least in isolation. They spent a decent amount but still left Mets fans feeling like they hadn’t spent enough. Swap out Vargas for Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb and sign another reliever other than Anthony Swarzak, who should be just fine on his contract, and I’d probably rave about the offseason. But here we are.

C70: Will we ever see David Wright playing regularly in New York again?

Mack: No, I believe we have seen the best of Wright. I suffer from the same neck problems that he has and, trust me, you can’t play major league baseball with that injury. He’s going to give it another shot in spring training (hasn’t even thrown a ball yet all off season), but I expect him to take the insurance payout and join the Mets in some unofficial off the field capacity for 2018.

AC: Of course anything’s possible, however, we’ve been down this road countless times before and if you had to put a gun to my head, no, I don’t see David Wright coming back and playing regularly. He’s had a great career with the Mets and I was glad to see him contribute during that 2015 World Series run.

Paul: David Wright is one of the greatest players I ever saw play for the Mets, and I hope to see his number retired one day to celebrate what he meant to this team. But as much as I’d love to see Wright return, I don’t think his body will allow him to play Major League Baseball as an everyday player again. I hope that I’m wrong.

Greg: Sadly, I do not see David playing regularly in the majors again. I’d love for him to make it back to the point where he and Jose Reyes could jog out to the left side of the infield together one more time. Let him stand at third for one pitch and then sit down if that’s all he can do. Of course David wouldn’t go for that kind of a ceremonial bow out. He’s still rehabbing, still trying, still the Captain, totally deserving the time it will take to figure out if he has any baseball left in him, but after two years and his admitted lack of progress, it’s hard to envision anything resembling a return to active duty.

Matthew: This is the question that no Mets fan wants to go anywhere near. We all want to see him playing third base every day in Queens, but that looks less likely with every day he misses. It’s hard to watch, but you have to root for the guy. Likewise, you have to acknowledge that it may never happen. My best guess? Sometime in September, David Wright is activated off the DL, starts at third, hits a home run, and walks off into the sunset. But whatever happens, it will be on his terms, as it should be.

Michael: As I just said, it’s sad, but I think he’s played his last game as a Met. The franchise’s all time leader in a plethora of categories talked about the constant pain he still endures constantly recently, and that doesn’t lend itself to me being optimistic about his outlook. I admire his passion for the game, and his will to keep trying new things, but ultimately, I think he will have to think about quality of life, and likely that means giving up the game altogether to spend time with his family. Who knows? Maybe he can coach one day. 

Jon: The only way David Wright will play regularly in New York again is if George Steinbrenner comes back to life and puts Wright in pinstripes as he did with Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden.

Niko: As someone who became a fan of the Mets in 2005, I don’t remember a time rooting for the Mets before David Wright. He’s always been in the equation, even when off the field. That being said, you can’t help but feel like the spinal stenosis and his age are catching up to him. He’s only played a handful of games since 2015, and hasn’t seen a major league at bat since May of 2016. One thing is for sure, though, he has earned the right to determine when he wants to go, and until then, we’ll all be rooting for him.

Chris: I’ve held out as long as anyone when it comes to Wright making a comeback, but even I’d say the answer is no at this point. With his dedication and talent, anything is possible until he officially calls it a career, but it’s getting harder and harder to see the comeback working.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Mack: They continue to write off this team because of the injury history, especially to the pitchers… however, the potential of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey, and Zack Wheeler still, on paper, give them one of the best rotations in baseball.

AC: Overlooked, positively, the Mets power, GM Sandy Alderson continued to show his love for the long ball by bringing back Jay Bruce (36 HR/101 RBI between the Mets and Indians last year) and signing Todd Frazier (27 HR/76 RBI between the White Sox and the Yanks). Overall, last season, the Mets led the NL in homers with 224. I expect more of the same with Jose Reyes, Travis d’Arnaud, Wilmer Flores, Yoenis Cespedes, and Michael Conforto all with double-digit homers last year.

Paul: I’m not quite sure how to answer this one. I know that locally, we tend to get wrapped up in how many injuries seem to befall Mets players some years. And honestly, there have been some truly lost seasons due to the number of star players who spent more time on the disabled list than in the lineup. But we overlook that every team has injuries and loses star players… it’s how the other players respond that determines what happens next. Sometimes we fall into the “woe is me” trap before we should. The 2016 Mets made their playoff run thanks to contributions by unheralded rookies Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo. The 2006 Mets came close to going to the World Series despite needing to rely on John Maine and Oliver Perez to start playoff games in place of Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez

Greg: I think Jeurys Familia and AJ Ramos are flying under radar. They are two closers with a track record and they’re both together, presumably healthy, to start the season. We shall see what Mickey Callaway winds up doing in the late innings. I’m not convinced we’ve moved beyond the notion of closers for courses.

Matthew: Something overlooked in the New York media market? Is that even possible? With the Mets, about all that gets overlooked is anything positive, so let’s go with Brandon Nimmo. Brandon Nimmo is a genuinely great guy. He’s known for always smiling, but that smile goes all the way down to the core. He’s a smile in human form.

Michael: I think the medical situation has always been way too blown out of proportion. Sure, I agreed with their moves at the end of the year to remove Ray Ramirez, because perception is everything. It’s almost like the Mets earned this mantra of being a cursed franchise when it came to health. I think it’s ultimately up to the players to keep themselves in shape. That doesn’t mean who can lift the most weights. It means who can be smart and consistent with their regimen. Again, see Curtis Granderson for an example.

Jon: The Mets have an old lineup. Cespedes, Bruce, Frazier,Gonzalez, and Asdrubal Cabrera are all 30 or older, while Travis d’Arnaud is now 29. Last year, the Mets promoted their top two prospects, Amed Rosario and Dom Smith, but there are already doubts about Smith. No other top prospects are close to being ready.

Niko: I feel as if many folks overlook the pitching staff that we have. As we all know, the “depth” of last year came apart by the fourth week of the season, when we had Adam Wilk start a game. I’d still put our rotation against any other team, though, and with Callaway (manager) and Eiland (pitching coach) guiding these players, I have a good feeling that we won’t have to dip too far down into the talent pool if and when injuries arise. 

Chris: When you’re involved in Mets stuff on a day-to-day basis, it feels like nothing is overlooked. But maybe people are starting to take Yoenis Cespedes for granted a bit, or at least they’re not fully appreciating the kind of player he’s been for this team. If he stays healthy, that could change quickly.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Mets to do well?

Mack: OF Yoenis Cespedes. He has to have a 40/120 season for this team to stand a chance at the playoffs.

AC: Noah Syndergaard is the one key player that needs to have a great year. He’s an exceptional talent, intimidating on the mound, and the team can jump on his back when his turn comes up in the rotation. 

Paul: Yoenis Cespedes is the key to the 2018 Mets’ season. If he stays on the field and has a good season, they will do well. If he’s on and off the disabled list and playing at less than his best when he is in the lineup like he did for much of last year, the Mets will struggle. No one on this team can carry them for an extended period quite like Cespedes when he is going well.

Greg: If they can give the ball to Noah Syndergaard every five days as planned, that goes a long way toward cutting down losing streaks. His first handful of pitches in Spring Training competition were dazzling. Big deal, it was February, but after he was out almost all of last year, it was a relief.

Matthew: Assuming that the medical staff doesn’t count, I have to go with Noah Syndergaard. This is a team with too many gaps and question marks for any one player to make the difference between success and failure. But, to succeed against all odds, that’s when you need your best guy to step up even more. When you’re playing well, a different guy plays hero every day. But when you’re in a bad skid, it’s up to the stopper to turn things around and keep hope alive. I see the latter being more likely for the 2018 Mets, so Syndergaard it is.

Michael: Although it’s easy to say one of the pitchers, I am going to say Travis D’Arnaud, as I truly think this is a make-or-break year for him. It’s so darned frustrating, because when he’s on, Travis can hit, but he goes through these stretches where he looks like a deer in the headlights, and he’s an automatic out. Hopefully, this is the year he breaks out and proves what he can do, or this ultimately may be his last year as a Met. He needs to step up his game defensively too, and that means being more consistent with his throws. At points last year, I don’t think even he knew where his throws would end up.

Jon: After carrying the Mets to the World Series in 2015 and helping to lead them to the playoffs in 2016, Cespedes only played 81 games last year. With Conforto already out for the first part of the year, a healthy and productive Cespedes is even more imperative.

Niko: Anyone will tell you that the backbone of the Mets is their pitching staff. Without a reliable season from them, the Mets will go nowhere. Last year, the Mets were #28 in club ERA, at 5.01, and that obviously cannot happen again. I think deGrom will perform well as he always has, and any improvement from Matz, Wheeler, Harvey, Gsellman is more than welcome, but a bounce back season is crucial for Syndergaard, who was sidelined the entire year. If he can lead this staff, then we can get past the Nationals.

Chris: The team won’t go anywhere if the starting rotation is as awful as it was last year, but if I’m picking one guy, it’s Michael Conforto. At his best, he is the best hitter on the team, and the Mets really need him to be a huge part of their offense, especially if the pitching is just okay.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Mack: I’d like to think there will be less injuries and better pitching. Miami and Atlanta have thrown in the towel. Philadelphia has greatly improved, but I think the Mets will still come in second place behind the Nats, with around 85 wins.

AC: Although I respect the optimism of new manager Mickey Callaway, I still feel that a wait-and-see approach is the way to go with this team. That being said, five hundred is a good goal to strive for, 82 wins.

Paul: I think the Mets will win around 85 games, which probably will not be good enough to challenge the Washington Nationals for the division title. It may keep them on the periphery of the wild card race, but I will be surprised if either spot is won by a National League East team. Still, that would be a huge improvement from last year’s 70 win team… and if they’re close in September who knows what could happen?

Greg: The Mets strike me as one of those “if everything goes right” propositions, and how often does everything go right? I think they can compete and demi-contend. I imagine we’re looking at a .500-ish team that fends off the underdeveloped countries of the NL East but, without everything going right, can’t catch the Nationals.

Matthew: Pain. Injuries, tough losses, and a winnable division slipping away. Maybe the staffing changes will turn things around. Maybe everyone will stay healthy and play up to their potential. Maybe the bullpen’s island of misfit toys will come together into a dominant force. Maybe the front office will make deals throughout the season to keep the team in contention regardless of what challenges come up. Maybe I’ll win the lottery without even buying a ticket. But, more likely, pain. 82-80, third place behind the wild card Washington Nationals and the surprise division champion Philadelphia Phillies. Pain.

Michael: I think the Washington Nationals are going to win the division, because I don’t think they’re done adding to their current group. This may be their last shot at winning in the Bryce Harper era, so I think they ultimately add another pitcher and trade for J.T. Realmuto. As for the Mets, they have more pitching depth this year, so I expect them to contend for a Wild Card spot. If you held a gun to my head (I’d much rather you didn’t), I say they get one of them. But, if they run into Madison Bumgarner again, they could be in for a one-and-done once more.

Jon: 81-81 – second place.

Niko: Standings wise, I’d expect something similar to 2016. Probably a Wild Card spot and nothing else. For the first time in a while, the Phillies might be a good competitor, so the NL East won’t be asleep like it was last year, but this is still the Nationals division.  

Chris: I’m always optimistic around this time of year, so let me dream a little bit and say the pitching stays mostly healthy and the offense does its thing, bringing the Mets to a 90-72 season and postseason berth—Wild Card or division, depending on what the Nationals do. But I understand why most folks would predict a worse record than that.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Mack: Is there an impact rookie on the 2018 Mets?  SS Amed Rosario and 1B Dominic Smith exceeded the minimum at-bats needed to still qualify as a rookie. If there is one, it will come out of pen and my guess would be Drew Smith.

AC: That’s a tough one, who will be the Mets closer? Callaway has said that he’s going with a closer-by-committee. Should be interesting as to how he’ll handle his bullpen. 

Greg: “Will Amed Rosario be baseball’s next great all-around shortstop?” I sure hope so. What’s the point of having prospects if the best we’ve had in a decade doesn’t scale the heights? Amed was a little shy of fully ready upon his August callup, but he seems like a player who, at 22, will improve and edge toward expectations before he’s 23. I don’t know where he’ll rank within the game as a whole by the time he’s, oh, 26, but I’d like to believe we know who our shortstop and offensive catalyst is going to be for the next few years.

Matthew: Why do you keep supporting this team? The Mets started as a sad joke, won it all by the end of their first decade, and have been alternating between the two extremes ever since. The offseason consistently evokes memories of shopping for “new” toys at the thrift store while all of your friends are up on the latest fads. And even the lowest of expectations will still leave you unprepared for how the games will go. So why keep coming back year after year?

Fandom is irrational. Unpaid online fandom doubly so. There is no reason to it, it’s like spending lots of money on little pieces of cardboard (what kind of an idiot would do that?). But every once in a while, the investment pays back a big lump sum that is still considerably less than the total amount you put in, though it feels a lot more significant. Dig a little deeper though and you find a wealth of stories and people and experiences that you can’t truly appreciate from the outside. And so, you pay the price of admission with the understanding that you won’t be getting it back. It just turns into something different that you can’t get any other way.

Michael: Which Mets pitcher from the starting rotation could ultimately work best for the bullpen? Zack Wheeler. I honestly think he has the potential to be as good as Wade Davis. Time will tell.

Jon: The Mets fired their trainer and hired a Director of Performance and Sports Science. Will the team be healthier? The Mets have a well-deserved reputation for mishandling injuries. But management must take responsibility for downplaying injuries, often resulting in players playing through them and making them worse. (It also affects the roster, with an injured player sometimes taking up a spot for a week instead of being put on the DL.) Management also allowed players such as Syndergaard to use their own training regimens that may have made them more susceptible to injuries. Changing the medical staff won’t matter if management’s overall approach to injuries does not improve.

Niko: I guess the one thing we haven’t touched on is my impression of the new manager Mickey Callaway and his camaraderie with the team. Obviously, the managerial position is becoming younger, and it’s essentially an extension of the front office. I prefer an old-school manager, like Bochy or LaRussa, but it’s no secret that people only have good things to say about Callaway, and if he helps the team, what’s not to like?

Chris: Which Mets pitcher has the best 2018 season? And I’d say Noah Syndergaard. Betting against Jacob deGrom holding that title has been foolish for the past few years, but here I am doing it again. deGrom has been great and remained the healthiest of the Mets’ most famous five starters, but Syndergaard’s capable of being a completely dominant pitcher and contending for the Cy Young. deGrom is, too, but if we’re going by bWAR, I’d put my money on Syndergaard this year.

Given that the Cardinals hardly see the Mets anymore (and 2006 happened), the rivalry between the teams isn’t what it used to be.  It will be interesting to see how successful New York is this season and I appreciate everyone for their thoughts on the squad!

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