Playing Pepper 2019: New York Mets

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

New York Mets
77-85, fourth in NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

Has the tide finally turned?  For so long, it feels like the Mets have been sort of the punch line for a lot of MLB fans.  And while there are still things that some might poke fun at, it feels like new management has breathed a bit of life into this organization.  Is it enough to let them play with the heavyweights?  We’ve got a lot of Mets bloggers here to answer just that.  Well, not JUST that.

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Niko: As of this writing, I think the Mets offseason was a success. It was the first look into the vision of our new GM, Brodie Van Wagenen. The big splash this offseason was the trade to bring in one of the most exciting young arms in Baseball, Edwin Diaz, and a household name in Robinson Cano. Complemented with other solid additions, like catcher Wilson Ramos, infielder Jed Lowrie and lefty reliever Justin Wilson, this was a very refreshing offseason for a team, that, at least in recent years, is rather timid in the offseason. Hopefully this aggressive nature translates onto the playing field for the 2019 season. 

Mack: There is a lot of good, no bad. and, under their budget restrictions, nothing more they could have done. Our new General Manager probably made the most major and minor league transactions (still going… inked IF Danny Espinosa yesterday) in the league. The best deal was the first one… an all-star closer (Edwin Diaz) and HOF infielder (Robinson Cano) for two dead contract and two undeveloped prospects. There wasn’t a big deal like Bryce Harper, but an off-season of plugging many holes to build a 2019 playoff team.

Michael: Well, the team is drastically different from this point last year, and that all starts with the outside-the-box hiring of agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen. Since he took the helm, the Mets acquired Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, brought back Jeurys Familia, signed Justin Wilson, and solidified their lineup with Jed Lowrie and Wilson Ramos. They technically addressed all of their needs, but I am not certain that their position in the standings will change, considering the Phillies had possibly the best offseason of any MLB team, the Braves’ young guns will continue to get better, and the Nationals added Patrick Corbin

Greg: The Mets appear to be an improved and deeper team than the one that disintegrated early last year. The depth part is critical given how
injuries have undermined them the past two years. Edwin Diaz as closer is a stunning step up. Jeurys Familia returning as not the closer should benefit all concerned. They have leaned a little on veteran savvy, which is a kind way of saying they got some older guys for the lineup. Cano, Ramos and Lowrie are all capable players who were probably better bets a couple of years ago. Win now, I suppose (though Lowrie isn’t playing now and might not for a spell).

Making a bigger splash in the free agent market would have been bold. The idea that Jeff McNeil‘s transition from infield to outfield precluded a run at Bryce Harper is laughable. I guess they worked with what they had.

Paul: The Mets were active this off-season, which automatically puts them ahead of about a third of the teams in MLB that don’t seem interested in winning in 2019. But I’m not sold on their plan of investing big in guys in their 30s who seem likely to spend as much time on the IL as they do on the field. With Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie, the Mets have more talent than they did in 2018. I’m just not sure it’s enough. They have shockingly little outfield depth, and there’s really no one to turn to if they need to replace a starter, unless they want to weaken the bullpen by taking Seth Lugo. And I think we were all hoping they’d lock Jacob deGrom up with a long-term contract by now.

AC: At first, I was skeptical about the Mets trading for Robinson Cano, he’s older, still owed a lot of money, and is coming off a year where he was suspended for PEDs. But when you look at his career numbers, you can’t help but expect positive results, no pun intended. Adding Edwin Diaz, an All-Star closer, in that deal for Cano addressed a glaring weakness from last season, an ineffective bullpen. And bringing in an offensive-minded catcher in Wilson Ramos, was a great move. I’m also looking forward to see how Chili Davis‘ make-contact approach to hitting will play out for their offense. As for a negative, maybe a veteran fifth starter but it’s not a big concern for me.

Chris: The Mets should have been in on at least one of Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, but they continue to completely avoid acquiring the best players in baseball when they hit the open market. These generational talents should not have been ignored, and the team should have added one of them and made all of the other moves that it did. In isolation, each move they made was good. There’s certainly a revamped roster in place here, but seeing them not go all in on contending is frustrating.

Matthew: Oh boy. Um, well, they certainly could have tried harder to obtain the entire 2018 AL All-Star team. They got three of them, leaving some intriguing names on the table. I mean, sure, I’m joking here, but the list includes Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel, and Corey Kluber, so it’s partly serious.

Collections aside, they got enough players to field a real major league team, so that’s, good? In all, the new front office picked up more than three dozen players for the majors, minors, and indeterminate points between, so there’s a lot to process here. Honestly, I lost track somewhere around Justin Wilson. They stocked the bullpen, beefed up the infield, got a legitimate starting catcher, and seem to be counting on Yoenis Cespedes returning sooner rather than later. Yeah, that last part’s kind of a problem. When you start hyping a player’s expected midseason return as being like a big trade deadline deal in January, that’s certainly less than ideal. Until then, enjoy the Jeff McNeil Left Field Experiment.

Jon: The Mets began their offseason by naming Brodie Van Wagenen, an agent with no front office experience, as their general manager. A month later, Van Wagenen traded the Mets’ two top prospects for Robinson Cano, 36 years old with five years left on his massive contract, who was suspended last year for using a banned substance, and star reliever Edwin Diaz. Then there were news reports that the Mets were shopping Noah Syndergaard, which would contradict the apparent strategy of trying to win now with a team built around starting pitching.

But Syndergaard did not get traded, and Van Wagenen started making moves that improved the team without sacrificing the remaining top prospects. He brought back Jeurys Familia, realizing that Diaz alone would not fix the bullpen. He signed Wilson Ramos, realizing that Travis d’Arnaud cannot stay healthy. He signed Jed Lowrie to give the Mets a versatile player who can start at multiple positions. Van Wagenen also acquired players such as Keon Broxton and J.D. Davis.

Now the Mets have a better lineup, more depth, and an improved bullpen. But many of the acquisitions are over 30. With Todd Frazier, 33, hurt, Lowrie could take over third base, except that the soon-to-be-35 Lowrie is hurt as well. Van Wagenen may have made the Mets better for 2019, but he has not made them younger.

C70: Who is the player most likely to pick up the mantle of “face of the franchise” that David Wright laid down?

Niko: This is a great question, one that might not be defined this year, or anytime soon. David Wright was a phenomenal player on the field, but his camaraderie with his teammates and excellent off the field philanthropic work set him apart from the rest of the pack. When David Wright established this title of “face of the franchise” it was immediately following the departure of Mike Piazza, which created a natural segue of sorts. In the future, I’d love to see Jacob deGrom, Michael Conforto, or even Brandon Nimmo reach that level, but only time will tell. 

Mack: Some feel that pitcher Jacob deGrom has already done that but Jake’s quiet approach off-field might not make him the right choice. My guess it will be outfielder Michael Conforto. He’s young, talented, already has been an all-star, and (like David) is a heart throb. 

Michael: There is no question that this is Jacob DeGrom’s team. Although he’s not quite the “Ra! Ra!” type of personality that Noah Syndergaard is, he leads by example, and he has a Cy Young award to provide that. Now, the Mets need to reward his performance with an extension. 

Greg: There won’t be another David Wright for a while, if ever. There wasn’t a David Wright before David Wright, not in the all-around homegrown
player who never left and put himself out there from all angles to represent the team. But I’d be surprised if Michael Conforto doesn’t emerge as the everyday go-to guy, while Noah Syndergaard continues to make himself interesting between starts. Jacob deGrom is clearly the Met who begins every conversation in general.

See? It’s gonna take at least three players to fill the vacuum David left behind.

Paul: Right now, it’s Jacob deGrom….but it’s even money whether he will even be a Met in 2020. Noah Syndergaard maybe? He’s got the larger than life persona to fill the role.

AC: That’s tough to tell. Maybe it will be more of a collective effort from their young players, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Amed Rosario. However, if the front office locks up Jacob deGrom to an extension, he would be a good bet to carry that mantle.

Chris: Folks don’t often assign that sort of thing to pitchers, but Jacob deGrom seems to be the most logical choice for that at the moment. More so if the Mets are willing to pay him—one of the best players in baseball, so that’s not a guarantee—what he deserves to sign a long-term deal.

Matthew: Well, the literal interpretation is obvious. If Brandon Nimmo isn’t the Face of the Franchise, it’s not a franchise I want to be a part of. And if you’ve ever met the guy, you could absolutely see him taking over David Wright’s role in the clubhouse. He had a breakout season last year, so hopefully that keeps him in the lineup this season. But this team’s track record with young position players doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

Jon: Tom Seaver’s family just announced that the greatest and most important player in Mets history has to retire from public life due to dementia . This sad news comes as the Mets prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary 1969 World Champions, so thoughts and memories of Seaver will once again be front and center in the minds of Mets fans.

C70: Is pitching still the core of this team and the best indicator of how the season will go?

Niko: As we’ve seen from the countless injuries in years past, the analogy “you can never have too much pitching” could not be any more true. With that being said, however, most teams in the National League would only dream of having a rotation with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz and company, so, yes, pitching is still a strength of this team and should continue to be one for may years to come. If anything, the Mets should be focusing on locking some of these players down long term…. **cough** deGrom **cough** 

Mack: Yes. Definitely. And the talent past the top four is thin. This whole team will crumble if injuries set in here.

Michael: Absolutely. Since the offense improved, the pitching will decide how this team does in 2019. Health is paramount, obviously, and what are you going to get out of Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz? Is Wheeler the unpredictable guy we saw prior to the second half last year or has he finally emerged as a top-of-the-rotation guy? As for Matz, can he stay healthy and can he be more consistent? Only time will tell. And then there’s Jason Vargas…ugh. 

Greg: Pitching is the strength of this team, what differentiates it from better offensively equipped NL East rivals. If deGrom, Syndergaard, Wheeler and Matz aren’t the best thing about this team, either we’re many games out of first place or we’re experiencing an offensive renaissance unlike any that could be reasonably projected.

Paul: The Mets will rely on their starting five in 2019. Not many teams can boast a better top three than deGrom, Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler. But there’s a pretty big drop off between Wheeler and Steven Matz and Jason Vargas. The rotation’s success will be a key factor in the team’s success, but I think the best indicator of how they are doing will be the IL. If the Mets can keep their regulars in the lineup, I like their chances. If not, well, I don’t like their depth very much.

AC: Yes and no. The starting pitching gives them the best chance to overcome the ultra-competitive NL East. Yet, for them to stay consistent, the offense needs to hold up their end of the bargain and help the starters out.

Chris: Yes. If injuries or performance hamper the starting rotation, or if the bullpen isn’t as deep as it looks on paper, the season will not go well.

Matthew: Yes, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The rotation is the only thing left unchanged from last season (well, that and ownership…), so it’s as close to a known quantity as there is with the Mets. That leaves very little margin for error as the rest of the team finds its footing over the course of the season. Add to that the lack of starting pitching depth and any problem with the rotation could doom the team’s chances. Sure, Chris “Not Good Enough for a Rookie Card from Topps” Flexen is in the best shape of anyone’s life and looks like he can literally carry the team, but it’s mostly question marks and lottery tickets behind the top four starters.

The more subtle indicator to watch for is player utilization. This team is more a collection of odds and ends than a traditional team, so it’s going to take some skill (or a lot of freak injuries) to make the most of the available talent. There should be plenty of opportunities for everyone, but the tendency to play underperforming veterans over up-and-coming young players could keep this team from reaching its full potential. And if Pete Alonso is healthy and in the minors three weeks into the season, something has gone horribly wrong.

Jon: The starters were fairly healthy last year for a change, their 3.54 ERA was fourth best in the league, but the Mets still won just 77 games. That’s what happens when your bullpen is next to last in the NL with a 4.96 ERA. The starting pitching remains the core of the team, but the Mets aren’t going anywhere without a significantly improved bullpen.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Niko: I see the Phillies and Braves as superior teams compared to us in Queens, so I don’t see the Mets making the postseason this year, unless if the Central and West are weak, in which case we might be able to squeak into a Wild Card spot. The team is an improvement over years’ past, but the division is simply too competitive, so I foresee a third place finish with 84 to 86 wins.

Mack: Tough to say today. Right now, I have four teams around even here. For me, the pennant winner is the team that snags Harper. Past that, I’d say wild card.

Michael: This is the year for the Mets to take a big step forward, and that starts with competitive baseball in September. If you held a gun to my head, which I prefer you didn’t, I’d say the Mets compete for a Wild Card spot and ultimately fall short in the final weeks of the season. The Phillies will win the Division and the Braves will snag one of the Wild Card spots. I would love to be wrong.

Greg: If the Mets didn’t actually have to play anybody, I’d be convinced they could go far. Because they are going up against three very formidable opponents, I’m in “who the hell knows?” territory. Given the debacles of the past two seasons, a team that competes and possibly contends would represent a welcome chance.

I’m reminded of the preseasons of my youth, in the early and mid-’70s, when I believed the Mets could win, but also understood they could be pretty good (which was generally their ceiling then) and still not win. It’s a tough division.

Paul: If everything breaks perfectly, the Mets could win their division. A little good luck lets them hang around in the wild card race. But my actual prediction is a third place finish with around 85 wins.

AC: I like their chances to stay in the hunt throughout the season. I’d feel more confident in those chances if Bryce Harper signed with a team outside of their division, haha. I’m gonna aim low and say 3rd place.

Chris: I’m as down on this team as I have been at any point over the past several years. They could win the division, but it’s just as easy to see them finishing fourth. I’m sure they will not finish fifth, and I’ll go with an optimistic second-place finish as my prediction here.

Matthew: Ahead of the Marlins. Beyond that, there’s just too much variance to say anything with any certainty. Let’s say 84 wins +/-6 and 3rd place +/-1. The NL East is a division filled with unknowns this year, which should make things interesting. Expect one team to break out in a big way, one to utterly collapse, two to be competitive but come up short, and one to be the Marlins.

Jon: While I remain skeptical about the long-term outlook for the Cano trade, Van Wagenen has built a potential contender for 2019. But the Mets are in a very tough division, so I’ll say 85 wins and third place.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Niko: I answer this question the same way each and every year: Injuries. At the end of the day, luck will dictate how this season goes. While there is some promise, the team still lacks depth in many respects, and if we have to dig deep into the minor leagues to replace people, things are going to fall apart like they did the last two years. Luckily, there are some really exciting young prospects, like Peter Alonso, ready to take the reins from Todd Frazier in the not-to-distant future, and I’m excited to see the continued growth of our younger players, like Jeff McNeil and Amed Rosario.  

Mack: Our thinnest position is outfield, but that all goes away if converted infielder Jeff McNeil works out there. He was the league leader in batting average last season as a late arriving second baseman. Also, has a 20+ home run history. He would fill the last hole until some guy named Cespedes returns (if ever).

Michael: Who’s the player who needs to break out and take this team to the next level? For me, it’s Michael Conforto. I think he has the talent and skills to be a legitimate candidate for National League MVP. Now I am probably going to be knocked for that, but it’s fine. I don’t believe all of the pressure should be on rookie Pete Alonso. I think Conforto’s not a baby anymore, and it’s time for him to step up and build off of his strong September.

Greg: How will first base shake out? Pete Alonso has impressed in Spring Training, and he’ll probably be given every chance to grab the position, either after service time considerations are accounted for or, heaven forbid, when the season starts. Dominic Smith, former first round draft choice, is on his third iteration of turning the corner, and has inserted himself into the conversation. They both have bats you’d love to see get a real shot.

The lineup in general, sans Cespedes and even without knowing the health status of Lowrie and Frazier, feels like something is missing. A first baseman who is a regular threat to drive in runs would go along way toward cohesiveness.

Paul: Can Yoenis Cespedes come back and play often enough and well enough to impact the pennant race? I’m going to say no….Yo has a very indefinite timeframe for a return, and he’s had so much trouble staying on the field that it’s a big reach to count on him. And the Mets need so many other things to go right to be in a late season pennant race in the first place.

AC: Watching Spring Training so far, their lineup tends to lean to the left. And with the injuries to Todd Frazier and switch-hitting Jed Lowrie, a lot will be asked of right-handed-hitting Wilson Ramos, Amed Rosario, and Pete Alonso, assuming he makes the ballclub Opening Day, to balance things out.

Chris: What do Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, and Pete Alonso have in store? Even assuming good pitching health, just how good these young guys are this year could make a major difference in how many games the team wins and where it finishes in the division—and whether or not it’ll make the playoffs.

Matthew: At the moment, “Will Jacob deGrom be the next ‘Tom Seaver: Franchise Ace’ or the next ‘Tom Seaver: Midnight Massacre?’” is the big question. I don’t see how the Mets could let deGrom go, but they let Seaver go. Twice. How this plays out will be very telling.

Jon: What, if anything, will the Mets get from Yoenis Cespedes? He underwent surgery on both heels and is out indefinitely. Two months of peak Cespedes in 2015 propelled the Mets to a division title and they went on to the World Series. But with no timetable for his return and the Mets’ poor record of managing injuries, the answer is to plan on being without Cespedes this season.  

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Niko: Watching baseball is always a joy, win or lose, so just going out to the ballpark will be a fun experience, as always. That being said, going out to see Jacob deGrom starts will feel extra special this year, almost with the same allure as Mets’ fans had going to Dwight Gooden starts in the 1980s. 

Mack: Well, for me, it’s always been the pitching. Seaver. Gooden. And now deGrom and Syndergaard. Make sure you catch a Noah Syndergaard game. It is so much fun watching him hurl it, especially in his first three innings. 

Michael: The development of Amed Rosario should be a big point of emphasis this year. Talk is cheap, and I’ve seen that Gary DisCarcina already compared him to Xander Bogaerts. Of course, we Mets’ fans would love that, but I think Amed needs to stay within himself and he’ll be fine. Sometimes I think he’s a little too much in his own head, and he should just focus on spraying the ball to all fields and playing a consistent defense at short.

Greg: Gary Cohen on TV and Howie Rose on the radio make every season golden. On the field, seeing a youthful core coalesce among Conforto, Nimmo, Rosario and one of the aforementioned first basemen would make it platinum.

Oh, and deGrom. Even a season a little less spectacular than 2018’s would be outstanding.

Paul: Jacob deGrom’s excellence. Amed Rosario’s development. Finding out what Peter Alonso can do.

AC: Watching the projected rotation, one through four, of deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz. Of course, they all have to stay healthy.

Chris: Jacob deGrom is the easy answer again. Noah Syndergaard should be really fun to watch this year, too, and Edwin Diaz seems like he’ll be a lot of fun because of his mix of personality and sheer dominance. If Rosario breaks out, he’ll be a lot of fun, too, and Brandon Nimmo should keep everyone smiling with his perpetual large grin.

Matthew: Did you say joy? Again, that would be Brandon Nimmo. Really though, it’s great seeing young players come up through the minors and have an impact at the major league level. I see more minor league games than major league games (mainly due to being out of market and too cheap to buy a streaming service plan), so I’ve gotten to see Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Amed Rosario, Jeff Mcneil, Pete Alonso, and many others at earlier points in their careers. Most never make it to the majors and many more make it but don’t stick. It’s truly special to see a player live up to unreasonable prospect hype or overcome obstacles in the minors to find success with the big league club.

OK, I lied. I will almost certainly get the most joy from seeing my greatest creation pop up everywhere I expect and then some. From the moment I captured this clip, I knew it had the makings of something special that conveyed the Mets experience better than anything else. But I never could have imagined that it would resonate with #MetsTwitter quite this much. It’s almost a given that I will see some random person using it 162 times a season. Even if the team goes 162-0 and all of their postseason opponents forfeit in fear, every day will find some reason to bring shame upon the club. And so we hang our heads with Mr. Met (sometimes because of Mr. Met…) and come back the next day full of hope for what will probably be another lost season or a postseason run that just falls painfully short. Because even when everything comes crashing down, there’s a GIF for that. And somehow, that makes it all seem a little bit better.

Jon: Seeing the starting pitchers continue the Mets legacy of excellence established by Seaver. Last year, Jacob deGrom won the Cy Young Award with a 1.70 ERA. Noah Syndergaard went 13-4 in an injury-shortened year. In the second half, Zack Wheeler was 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA. Could the Mets have multiple aces?

My thanks to all of these folks for taking some time and talking about the Mets.  (Also, as always, Matthew has his answers illustrated with baseball cards if you are interested in that.) They’ve got a tough task ahead of them in that division but pitching, as we know, goes a long way!

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