Despite historic cold fronts blanketing the country, spring training has arrived, and with it a rare beacon of hope for Mets fans.
Armed with a new owner in Steve Cohen and a shiny new toy in Francisco Lindor, the Mets are no longer the little guy hoping for a miracle. Instead, the club finds itself in a rare position, as overwhelming favorites to win the NL East, according to FanGraphs.
But Opening Day is still over a month away, and there’s plenty of questions that still need answering before Jacob deGrom takes the hill in Washington D.C. on April 1.
Several big name Mets enter 2021 in a walk year, and the hope is that spring training can provide the right environment for negotiations. At the top of the list is Lindor, who the Mets acquired via trade from the Cleveland Indians during the offseason. Lindor has repeatedly stated his openness to sign a long-term deal, and echoed the sentiment as recently as Monday. General Manager Zack Scott also hinted as his desire to get a deal done before the season begins.
Outside of the superstar shortstop, outfielder Michael Conforto is also due for his first big payday. The former 2014 first round pick of the Mets seemingly took his jump into stardom in 2020, hitting .322 with nine home runs and a .927 OPS in the shortened season. Top franchises don’t let elite, homegrown talent walk out the door, and locking in the right fielder before the season starts would be a sign for Mets fans that a new era has truly begun.
Pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman are also in line for extensions, but it could be understood if the Mets aren’t in as much of a rush. Syndergaard is on the last year of his rookie deal, but missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The big righty reported with pitchers and catchers last week, and is on track to return in June.
Stroman also missed 2020, choosing to utilize the COVID-19 opt out, and accepted the Mets qualifying offer for 2021. The veteran right-hander is probably least likely of the four to reach an extension before the season begins, but has also expressed his excitement with the direction of the franchise under Cohen.
Pete’s Bounce Back
It was always unlikely that Pete Alonso would be able to follow his historic rookie campaign — one where he hit a rookie-record 53 homers and drove in 120 runs — without any hiccups. Still, the first baseman seemed frustrated for much of 2021, chasing pitches outside the zone, struggling with runners in scoring position and finishing with .231 average and .817 OPS, down from .260 and .941 in 2019.
Alonso did still bash 16 homers, and prorated for an entire season was on pace for 43 home runs and 95 RBIs. So maybe his sophomore decline wasn’t quite as steep as it seemed. The Mets lineup is deep enough that it won’t have to rely solely on Alonso for production, but his approach in his spring at bats will certainly be worth monitoring as he strives for more consistency in his third year.
Fighting for a Job
When the Mets inked veteran righty Taijuan Walker to a two year deal last week, it solidified the top four spots in the rotation behind deGrom, Stroman and Carlos Carrasco. With Syndergaard aiming for a June return, that leaves David Peterson, Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto competing for the fifth spot.
As a rookie with the Mets last year, the lefty Peterson impressed with a 3.44 ERA over nine starts as was the team’s most reliable starter outside of deGrom. Lucchesi, another lefty, and Yamamoto were both added via trade late in the offseason.
Lucchesi only threw five innings in 2020, but was the Pirates best starting pitcher in 2019, starting 30 games and finishing with a 4.18 ERA and 158 strikeouts.
Yamamoto is probably the biggest long shot for the spot, as he gave up 23 earned runs in 11.1 innings last year, but the Hawaii native impressed as a rookie for the Marlins in 2019, finishing with a 4.46 ERA over 15 starts.
While only one of the trio will likely make the opening day roster, all three provide MLB-quality depth in a season likely marred with innings limits, injuries and other unforeseen trials.
Follies in the Field
Having a deep, talented rotation is great, but less so if the fielders behind them can’t make the plays. With no designated hitter in the National League for 2021, the Mets will once again have plenty of questions to answer defensively before Opening Day.
The greatest impact of no DH is in left field, where Dom Smith figures to see a majority of the playing time. Smith is an elite defender at first, but an out of place one in the outfield. The problem is that both his and Alonso’s bats have to be in the lineup everyday, so it’s one the Mets have to live with. This next month should give a decent indication of whether or not Smith has developed an increased comfortability in the outfield.
Despite countless reports to the contrary, the Mets seem content in entering 2021 with JD Davis as their everyday third baseman. At the plate, Davis has proven himself as a guy who can hit for average and power, and excels in the big moment. In the field however, he’s a classic guy without a position. Third seems to be where he’s most comfortable, and for much of 2020 he looked improved at the position. Davis is never going to be Nolan Arenado, he just needs to make the routine plays and contribute with his bat enough to hide his deficiencies with the glove.
It’s not all bad defensively for the Mets. Lindor is a Gold Glover at short, Jeff McNeil is a capable fielder that should benefit from playing his natural second base every day, Alonso isn’t Keith Hernandez at first, but he makes the plays he has to make. James McCann is an upgrade at the catcher spot, Conforto is an above average right fielder and the newly-acquired Kevin Pillar has a Gold Glove pedigree in center.
Plus, guys like Brandon Nimmo, Albert Almora Jr. and Luis Guillorme give manager Luis Rojas flexibility for late-game defensive substitutions, something he showed an affinity for last season.
Know Your Role
Already a question mark, Seth Lugo’s surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow figures to sideline the righty for at least the first month of the season. Aside from Edwin Diaz, who pitched to a 1.75 ERA with 17.5 K/9 last season, and free agent acquisition Trevor May, virtually every role is up for grabs heading into 2021.
Volatile pitchers with a track record of success like Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances should have an inside track to a job, while Aaron Loup is probably locked in as the lefty specialist. The rest of the field is anyone’s guess, but plenty of guys will have a shot to make their case.
The Mets open up their spring slate March 1 against the Marlins.
Let the games begin.