Playing Pepper 2021: New York Mets

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

New York Mets
26-34, fourth in the NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

Mets fans have lived a tortured life over the last few years, with ownership and players both creating conditions that led to ridicule.  It’s a new era in New York, though, and there is some optimism that things are different now.  How different?  How much optimism?  Read on to find out!

Blogger Site Twitter
Greg Prince Faith and Fear in Flushing greg_prince
AC Wayne Second Class Citizen publicrecord
Chris McShane Amazin' Avenue chrismcshane
Niko Goutakolis Mets Plus NikoGoutakolis

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Greg: Twenty Twenty was the disposable seasonette. There was little I’d wish to save or recycle from it. “Better than nothing” was the phrase I kept coming back to after it all restarted, though I’m not sure it was. The emptiness of the whole endeavor — programming for programming’s sake — disturbed me the most. The rule changes, whatever their health-oriented intentions, detracted from the overall experience even further. I dislike 2020 baseball the more I think about it, and I’d prefer to think about 2021.

AC: Not a fan of 2020. At times, it felt like watching exhibition baseball, seven-inning double-headers? I did warm up to the DH in the NL but despised the idea of placing a runner on second base to leadoff in extra innings. Much to my dismay, the universal DH is up in the air this season but the ridiculous extra inning rule is here to stay. And to make matters worse, MLB wants to keep shortened double-headers. I did, however, approve of cardboard cut-out fans. 

Chris: The 2020 season was pretty surreal, both in the moment and in hindsight. Whether it was adapting to watching games with fake crowd noise and cardboard cutouts instead of fans or just wondering in the back of your mind whether any of it was truly safe or not, there was nothing about it that felt normal. As for rule changes, I wasn’t a fan of any of them, with the sole exception being the increase in roster size. I’m not sure what the perfect number is, but having a few more players available during a game felt like an improvement. Seven-inning doubleheaders and the runner on second in extra innings can get lost, and while I realize the designated hitter is inevitable, I’ve never been a fan of it, either.

Niko: 2020 was a whirlwind with so many trials and tribulations for society. Baseball was a retreat, of sorts, so any complaints I have on the rules/logistics are non-trivial to some of the issues the rest of us are going through. I thought the expanded postseason was the biggest head scratcher, and one I’m very happy to see dead upon arrival in 2021. The Astros were below 500, and they were one game from the World Series? That didn’t add up. The Designated Hitter in the National League is another thing I’m not a fan of. I subscribe to the model of nine men on the field, and the same nine men in the lineup, but I must recognize the opprobrium that belief has gotten over the past few years. It was also very difficult to be away from the ballpark, but I’m writing this from a plane to Fort Lauderdale bound for Spring Training, so I’ll be cured of that withdrawal soon! 

C70: The Mets have needed new ownership for a while and now they have it. What are your impressions of Steve Cohen so far?

Greg: Uncle Steve! What did you bring us? Besides a clean slate and a pile of hope? It’s good to be living in a post-Wilpon world. I find the Cohen iteration promising. The resources are tantalizing and the public-facing attitude of an actual Mets fan and his enthusiastic family is genuinely exciting to consider in advance of a single pitch being thrown. We’ll wait through a few weeks of actual baseball to decide whether we’re gonna be let down.

AC: I was never much of a Wilpon-hater and frankly could care less who owns the ballclub. However, I’m happy that the new owner is a Mets fan and seems to have the fan’s interest in mind.

Chris: It’s still hard to judge the Mets under Steve Cohen just yet—other than to say that the franchise is certainly in a better place than it would have been if the Wilpons still owned the team. The Mets were linked to top free agents all winter but signed none, and you’d have to assume they traded for Francisco Lindor with the intent of extending him. Whether or not they do that might be the most telling thing about how the franchise will look for the foreseeable future.

The Mets clearly have work to do off the field, too, having employed three men whose treatment of women was awful. They fired Jared Porter, the general manager who was brought in under Cohen by Sandy Alderson, publicly and swiftly following ESPN’s report about his treatment of a female reporter. They fired Ryan Ellis shortly after that and much more quietly. And although Mickey Callaway isn’t with the team any longer, his treatment of women before and during his time with the Mets was awful, too, per the excellent reporting on the topic in The Athletic. While that problem almost certainly isn’t exclusive to the Mets, the team needs to do better.

Niko: I like Steve Cohen. There’s a composure and level of transparency that has been missing from this organization for a while. He’s also been great in New York, offering Citi Field as a mass vaccination site. Perhaps equally beneficial is the reunion with former GM turned President Sandy Anderson, who has been very wise with analytics, and has been tasked with restructuring the chain of command of all aspects of the baseball operation. Of course, there’s been some…. hiccups as those layers have been laid during this offseason. 

C70: Francisco Lindor is an exciting addition to the team. How excited are you to watch him? Do you expect him to sign a contract extension in spring training, sometime during the season, or will he hit the free agent market?

Greg: Lindor had been mentioned as a possibility early in the offseason, but I filed that in the “yeah, sure” drawer where I once stuck talk that we’d get Mike Piazza. Sometimes the dreams you don’t dare to dream come true. Due respect to Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez, this is a transcendent upgrade to the middle infield, let alone the lineup. Francisco Lindor is who you hope your shortstop prospects grow up to be.

Cohen and Lindor will both justify our euphoria with an extension this month. I don’t want to believe otherwise.

AC: According to the NY Post, Lindor could command a 10 year/$230 million extension. At 27, it would make sense to lock him up long-term and I’m confident Mets ownership and the front office will find a way to get it done. Lindor has the personality to make it in New York and I’m looking forward to watching him perform on a daily basis this season. 

Chris: Having the opportunity to watch Francisco Lindor play on an everyday basis is pretty damn exciting. We know he’s a great player from his time in Cleveland, but as fans, we’ve only just started to see his personality on display from afar as the Mets conduct spring training. I suspect that the connection between player and fan will only grow stronger. If I had to guess, I would say the Mets will get an extension done with him before Opening Day, which Lindor has mentioned as a deadline for such discussions.

Niko: I’m mildly excited about Lindor. He’s probably the best position player the Mets have had in a long time, but if an extension doesn’t happen, and I see that as a realistic possibility given Lindor’s announcement that he won’t talk about an extension beyond Opening Day, then it could be for nothing, especially given the promise Andres Gimenez (one of the chips traded to the Indians for Lindor) showed last year. 

C70: While Lindor was a big get, the Mets missed out on some other big free agents they were rumored to be in the running for. Is there one of those that you think will come back to bite the club?

Greg: The players you don’t get are the players whose contracts don’t become a burden is the half-full view. Short-term, the worst not going all out for/being turned down by Springer, Realmuto or Bauer means is wistfully watching the grass grow on the other side and enviously noting how much greener it is over there.

Given the composition of the roster as we approach the season, I’m satisfied the present outfield will be productive offensively and adequate defensively; that James McCann is the catcher we needed; and that Trevor Bauer’s act will just as well play out somewhere else. As Gene Hackman said on “Hoosiers,” my team is on the floor.

AC: Not really. I didn’t care much for Trevor Bauer and pleased that they didn’t land him.

Chris: In terms of coming back to bite the Mets, J.T. Realmuto seems like the obvious answer. On top of clearly being better than new Mets catcher James McCann over the past several seasons, Realmuto will continue to face the Mets a bunch over the course of his contract with the Phillies. 

Niko: I wanted the Mets to land Trevor Bauer or George Springer, but who didn’t? I think the Mets are well positioned without them, and, I’m still very pleased with the pickup of James McCann, Walker, among others. I do think that it will be difficult to re-sign Michael Conforto and Noah Syndergaard this off-season (they’re both free agents to-be), so I supported going full-throttle in 2021, but I realize the importance of balance.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Greg: Playing approximately 162 games and maybe more when the schedule lapses is my baseline. After 2020, expectations are fragile things. I think the Mets will be pretty good with a chance to be even better. I’m willing to start there and see.

AC: I expect the Mets to be competitive this year, hovering above five-hundred in the playoff hunt throughout the season. Bringing back Marcus Stroman and replacing Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello with Carlos Corrasco and Taijuan Walker only reinforces those expectations. Last year’s starting rotation, with the exception of deGrom and rookie David Peterson, was a major reason for last year’s disappointing shortened season. Their bullpen wasn’t so great either. However, closer Edwin Diaz may have found his groove and the free-agent signings of Aaron Loup and Trevor May will only help bolster what was a subpar bullpen last year. Their offense should perform the same if not better now that hitting coach Chili Davis looks to be back in the dugout and not just via Zoom. I always felt Mets hitters took a liking to his hitting philosophy of making contact, trying to take the ball the other way and not rely so much on hitting a home run every time up. 

Chris: The Mets should be a fun, competitive team. They’re not quite stacked like the Dodgers or even the Padres, but they have enough major league talent to be in the mix. If they make the playoffs, they could be dangerous, especially if Noah Syndergaard returns to form when he makes it back from Tommy John surgery. But the bullpen looks like the biggest potential problem right now, and that could get frustrating over the course of the season.

Niko: I think the Braves have first place in the bag, despite expert projections to the contrary. Second place is between the Mets and the Phillies, and I think it’ll be dependent on defense and injuries, both of which the Mets struggled with in 2020. Throwing a number at a dart board, I’d say 84 wins, which could be enough for a Wild Card.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Greg: The clever answer is “incomplete.” The more useful one, since you asked in good faith, is B+. It’s a better team than before Cohen arrived and Sandy Alderson returned. These Mets are not a sure thing. There’s room for improvement. That’s fine. That’s what playing a season is for.

AC: Even without Trevor Bauer, A-. Trading for Francisco Lindor, an All-Star caliber shortstop with an infectious smile and positive attitude, addressing the starting rotation and their bullpen, and bringing in the likes of Jonathan Villar, Kevin Pillar, and Albert Almora, Jr will add depth to their bench. I felt that Sandy Alderson did a great job and Mets fans should be excited for the season. LGFM! 

Chris: I’d go with a B. The roster is in significantly better shape than it was when the offseason began, but it still has some flaws. And the team must be better in vetting new hires and taking swift action when people in positions of power within the organization exploit those positions for completely inappropriate behavior—not just when those stories get reported publicly. A winning team will go a long way toward reshaping the organization, and as a fan, you’re rooting for the players who are on the field. This particular group of players is overwhelmingly likable and fun, and if we get to a point that it’s truly safe to attend games in person sometime this year, the idea of watching these players at Citi Field on a warm summer night sure sounds nice.

Niko: I’m very pleased with the state of the Mets, but I would not call this an A team. They might’ve gotten there, but the Jared Porter scandal and other Mets antics keep them in the B range. However, the groundwork has definitely been set for this to be a potent franchise on and off the field, and that is very exciting. 

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