Rewind to early March, when life still seemed mostly normal and the countdown was underway to the Mets opening the 2020 season.
At the time, the Mets didn’t resemble a team that was an obvious favorite in the NL East, but likewise it was hard to say they shouldn’t compete for first place. The lineup and rotation looked solid, with legitimate questions that needed to be answered about the bullpen.
A three-month shutdown of the sport due to the coronavirus outbreak — with a labor dispute adding to the layoff — has left us with a 60-game sprint to determine playoff teams.
The biggest winner might be a projected basement dweller such as the Marlins, given the fickle nature of the sport. Over 60 games, even the worst teams have an opportunity to play at a respectable level and keep the season interesting.
Likewise, the best teams — with last year’s World Series-winning Nationals, who started at 19-31 as a prime example — can suffer from a shortened road.
The Mets, Nationals, Braves and Phillies all appear close in talent. A case for the Mets winning it would be the dynamic talents of Jacob deGrom and Pete Alonso, in particular. A case against the Mets winning it would a bullpen that buried them before the All-Star break last year, dampening a second-half run that got the team to 86 wins.
Are these the second-half Mets from last year or the team that rolled over for the first three months? The Mets either have the pieces or they don’t, but given the circumstances it should be a season to remember (for however long it lasts).
Most important hitter: Alonso became the heart of this lineup last season, breaking Aaron Judge’s MLB rookie record by smashing 53 homers. Over a 60-game season, the Mets would gladly take 20 homers from Alonso, which is the prorated total from last year. To Alonso’s credit, he never really slumped last season, even after winning the Home Run Derby in Cleveland. Like most sluggers, Alonso is prone to the strikeout (he whiffed 183 times last year), but his .358 on-base percentage was certainly acceptable. Alonso wrecked righties and lefties at the same clip, with exactly a .941 OPS against both. He and Yoenis Cespedes in the same lineup could be a sight to behold.
Most important pitcher: DeGrom slogged early in the season, but got rolling by May and was uncatchable in winning his second straight Cy Young Award. The ace right-hander this year will look to join Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux among pitchers who have won as many as three straight. DeGrom finished last season 11-8 with a 2.43 ERA and .0971 WHIP. He led the NL with 255 strikeouts over 204 innings. It could already be argued that deGrom is the second-best pitcher in franchise history, behind only The Franchise — Tom Seaver. If deGrom can win another Cy Young Award, he will be on a Hall of Fame track provided he can continue to pitch at a high level for another few seasons.
Will have a bigger year than expected: Jeurys Familia flopped last season after returning to the Mets on a three-year contract worth $30 million. The right-hander came into camp out of shape after not throwing all winter and pitched to a 5.70 ERA over 66 appearances, only further polluting a bullpen that received disappointing returns from Edwin Diaz. But Familia rededicated himself in the offseason, reporting to camp 30 pounds lighter and was resembling a different pitcher in spring training this year, before it was suspended for the coronavirus outbreak. Familia may never replicate his All-Star 2015 season, but he’s much better than what he showed last year.
Most likely to disappoint: The Mets acquired Jake Marisnick in a trade with the Astros with the idea he could be a late-inning defensive replacement in center field who starts against some lefty pitching. But will Marisnick be any better than Juan Lagares, who had frustrated fans for most of his career with his anemic bat? The 29-year-old Marisnick posted a .700 OPS last year with the Astros, but the Mets are banking that his offensive upside is greater than what they received from Lagares, with a superior glove. If Marisnick has to start for an extended stretch, his weaknesses figure to be exposed.
Key call-up: The pickings are slim in this category, as the Mets are without a true impact player who would be at Triple-A Syracuse if there were a minor league season. The closest might be Andres Gimenez, but the shortstop struggled offensively last season at Double-A Binghamton, dropping his stock. David Peterson might get the nod as potential rotation depth, but the left-hander hasn’t pitched above the Double-A level. The organization’s top prospect, shortstop Ronny Mauricio, played last year at Low-A, so he likely won’t be a factor for another three years.
Biggest managerial decision: The implementation of the DH will leave rookie manager Luis Rojas with various possibilities on a daily basis. Though it seems likely Cespedes would receive most of the at-bats from that spot, Rojas also has Robinson Cano, J.D. Davis, Dominic Smith and Wilson Ramos who profile as at least part-time DHs. If Cespedes can reach the point where he’s available to play the outfield say half the time, Rojas can use the DH as an oasis for keeping other players fresh without losing that particular bat.
Don’t be surprised if: Rick Porcello has a rebound season and emerges as a force within the Mets’ rotation. The veteran right-hander, who is pitching for a new contract, has alternated between bad and good seasons in recent years. Last year was an absolute clunker, when he went 14-12 with a 5.52 ERA with the Red Sox. If Porcello gives the Mets a solid season, Noah Syndergaard’s absence won’t seem so pronounced.
Sure to make fans grumble: Diaz needs a fast start more than perhaps any other Mets player. If Diaz blows a save or two early in the season, not only will fans grumble, but it’s possible he will get buried in the bullpen behind Familia, Dellin Betances and Seth Lugo. Diaz’s promise was the biggest reason general manager Brodie Van Wagenen orchestrated the trade that sent top prospect Jarred Kelenic to the Mariners before last season.
Will make the playoffs if: Diaz, Betances and Familia all pitch to their career numbers from the bullpen and the Mets receive even average seasons from Steven Matz and Michael Wacha.
Will miss the playoffs if: The bullpen becomes unhinged, Alonso gets mired in a sophomore slump and Cespedes’ legs can’t withstand the grind of even the shortened season.
Injury that would hurt the most: deGrom is the irreplaceable piece on this team. The ace needs to stay healthy following a brief scare with back stiffness last week if the Mets intend to snap a three-year postseason drought.
Playing the field
First base: Alonso arrived to spring training in February with a goal of winning a Gold Glove, which would silence the critics of his defense. Though he is below-average defensively according to most metrics, Alonso was hardly an embarrassment at the position last year. And, honestly, after his 53-homer outburst last season, the Mets aren’t going to focus too much on his defense. The question is what will Alonso do for an encore at the plate? He’s become the heart of the lineup and one of the leaders in a clubhouse filled with homegrown talent. If Alonso needs a day off at first base, Dominic Smith can slot in nicely.
Second base: Robinson Cano was a huge disappointment in the first half of last season, but he rebounded after the All-Star break to at least subdue talk that he might be finished. Cano is 37 years old and remains under contract for another three years after this season, so the Mets will keep giving him opportunities to show he can contribute. But if Cano remains in the No. 3 hole in the lineup, he needs to produce or risk being dropped in the order. Mickey Callaway kept Cano at third in the order last year even when it was obvious a lineup demotion was necessary.
Shortstop: After a sluggish first half, Amed Rosario posted a .319/.351/.453 slash line following the All-Star break last year. The Mets still aren’t quite sure what they have in the 24-year-old Rosario, whose performances have fluctuated through 2 ½ seasons in the big leagues. Rosario also slumped defensively early last season, but through work with infield coach Gary DiSarcina showed improvement. Rosario thrived hitting first last season, but could also hit down in the order, possibly even ninth, to give the Mets a second leadoff hitter of sorts after the first time through the order. Andres Gimenez, who is behind Rosario in the shortstop pecking order, struggled offensively last season at Double-A Binghamton, but brings a polished glove to the equation.
Third base: Jeff McNeil’s energy and penchant for jumping on the first pitch has helped him emerge as one of the Mets’ most popular players. If the Mets didn’t know what they had before last season in McNeil — he was nearly included in the trade to the Mariners for Cano and Edwin Diaz — they now know. McNeil had NL batting title aspirations into August before a stint on the injured list helped subdue him. Even so, he finished with a .318/.384/.531 slash line with 23 homers and 75 RBIs. He spent much of last season in the outfield, but will likely shuffle between third and second base this year. Of McNeil’s 23 homers last season, 14 came on the first pitch of an at-bat.
Left field: J.D. Davis had a breakout season after arriving in what seemed like a trade of little consequence with the Astros the previous winter. Injuries to Jed Lowrie and Todd Frazier helped Davis open the season on the major league roster and he seized the opportunity. Overall, he hit .307/.369/.527 with 22 homers and 57 RBIs, settling in as the left fielder. This spring he resumed working out at third base, giving the Mets another option at that position, in addition to potential DH duties. Davis was “Mr. Citi Field” last season, hitting .354 at home with 16 homers. The biggest questions are about his defense.
Center field: Brandon Nimmo spent most of last season recovering from a bulging disk in his neck. Upon returning to the team in September he brought energy to the lineup and his usual pitch selectivity at the plate. Defensively he is adequate in center, but ideally he would be playing a corner outfield spot. To help address the defense, the Mets acquired Jake Marisnick in a trade with the Astros. The 29-year-old Marisnick is expected to fill Juan Lagares’ role, playing against some lefties and giving the team a late-inning defensive replacement.
Right field: Michael Conforto’s streakiness is hard to ignore, but so is the fact he’s averaged close to 30 homers over the last three seasons. Conforto last year finished with career highs in homers (33) and RBIs (92), giving the Mets their biggest left-handed power presence. If Conforto wants to prove he’s worthy of a contract extension, this would be the season to emerge. As it stands, Conforto is set to hit free agency after the 2021 season. Conforto compensates for a mediocre batting average (a lifetime .253 hitter) by getting on base. In each of the last two seasons he walked 84 times.
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Catcher: Wilson Ramos’ handling of the pitchers came under scrutiny as Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard preferred other options behind the plate at various points in the season. Ramos has recommitted himself to connecting with his pitchers, as team officials consider whether to pick up his 2021 option. Offensively, Ramos began driving the ball in the second half after taking a contact approach earlier. He finished the season with a .288/.351/.416 slash line with 14 homers and 73 RBIs. Tomas Nido and Rene Rivera are backup options. Both are skilled at handling pitchers, but neither has shown an ability to hit major league pitching.
DH: Yoenis Cespedes hasn’t taken an at-bat for the Mets in two years, but the team is now hoping he can bring a presence to the DH role that will exist in the National League for at least this season. The question will be whether Cespedes’ legs will hold up, even with the limited grind. But if he’s healthy, the idea of Cespedes and Alonso in the same lineup is exciting for the Mets. There are no shortage of DH options, as Cano, Davis, Ramos and Smith could all take at-bats in the role.
Starting pitching: Jacob deGrom will be on a mission to win his third straight Cy Young Award, but the challenge will be difficult in a shortened season in which the pack of contenders could be thick. Marcus Stroman can become a free agent and will be pitching for a new contract. Steven Matz, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha will provide an experienced back end to the rotation, but the Mets could be in trouble if there is an injury. As it stands, the rotation depth includes Walker Lockett, Corey Oswalt and untested David Peterson.
Bullpen: Seth Lugo was the team’s best reliever last season and will again be counted upon in high-leverage spots, likely for multiple innings when needed. Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia were huge disappointments, and the overall strength of the bullpen depends on both rebounding, providing manager Luis Rojas with two dynamic right arms. Dellin Betances is the wild card, as he returns from a torn Achilles. If the former All-Star is right, it wouldn’t be difficult to envision him in the closer’s role. Justin Wilson was extremely effective last season and is the team’s best lefty reliever. Robert Gsellman was largely a disappointment last season before sustaining a lat injury.
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Bench: The expanded rosters to begin the season will give the Mets plenty of veteran options off the bench. Melky Cabrera, Matt Adams and Eduardo Nunez are among the players who could contribute, with it unclear where Jed Lowrie might fit if he ever can get healthy. Smith is probably the Mets’ best pinch-hitting option, but his opportunities in that role will be limited given the removal of the pitchers’ spot in the batting order.
In a full season the Mets are probably an 88-89 win team, so this is the prorated version. It should be good enough to keep the Mets in the hunt for the NL East title and at the very least the wild-card race. The lineup could be among the league’s best and the rotation remains solid, but let’s see about the bullpen.