Carroll: Can Mets Take It One Step Further?

(Neil Miller / Sportsday Wire) 

Amazing is an adjective that has always been associated with the Mets. No where is it more apt than recalling how things looked for the team a year ago. The Mets had not enjoyed a winning season in Citi Field which had opened six years earlier. The conventional wisdom was that manager Terry Collins would get the ax before the All-Star break. General manager Sandy Alderson, who told the media that the team could win 90 games in 2014 with that prediction proving laughably wrong, was reviled by most fans an out-of-touch penny-pincher.
Yes, the Mets had a lot of talented young pitchers, but fans were understandably wary. Matt Harvey, who was the highlight of the 2013 season, had missed all of 2014 recovering from Tommy John arm surgery. No one was sure if he would be the same pitcher and all of the talk centered around limiting his innings. Aside from that, longtime Mets fans remembered the “Generation K” hype of twenty years earlier when pitchers Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen were supposed to be the dominant starting trio in the National League. All three fizzled although Isringhausen was able to resurrect his career as a very good relief specialist.
As we all know, the Mets made it to the World Series last year where they lost in five games to the Kansas City Royals. More painfully, they had leads in even the games that they lost.
Going into the 2016 season Mets fans are understandably setting the bar very high. After all the Kansas City Royals lost a tough World Series to the San Francisco Giants in 2014 and then won it all in 2015 albeit at the expense of the Mets. Baseball historians will point to this being the 30th anniversary of the last Mets team to win a World Series. The Kansas City Royals won it the preceding year and that was their last world championship until last fall.
While it’s nice to read tea leaves, the reality is that winning a World Series is not easy and the competition for the Mets will be rather stiff. The Cubs have a very talented young team and they spent more money than any other on free agents during the off-season. The San Francisco Giants have won the World Series in recent even years as evidenced by 2010, 2012, and 2014. The Los Angeles Dodgers still have the highest payroll in the majors and you can never count out the St. Louis Cardinals. In their own division, the National League East, the Washington Nationals still have a very potent lineup and three top-notch starts: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Max Scherzer.
Nonetheless the Mets have to be considered the favorites in the National League and of course that starts with their pitching.
The Mets ace is of course Matt Harvey who showed absolutely no ill effects from his shoulder problems that sidelined him for a year. Harvey’s importance was underscored this past week when Mets fans were apoplectic after Sandy Alderson cryptically announced that he would miss his start because of a non-baseball medical issue. The sigh of relief was palpable throughout the Mets universe when it was announced that Harvey had passed some urological blood clots and would be all right.
Matt is the most exciting Mets hurler since the early days of Dwight Gooden although their personalities couldn’t be more dissimilar. Gooden was upbeat, easily approachable, and self-effacing while Harvey is self-absorbed and aloof with most people. As long as he wins, Mets fans won’t care about his personality quirks.
There is not much of a drop-off after Harvey.
Jacob deGrom came out of nowhere two years ago to become a very dependable starter who can match Harvey in the strikeout department. There has been some concern this spring however as deGrom has experienced both and back and groin discomfort and his velocity is not up to what we’ve seen in his first two seasons.
Noah Syndergaard is arguably the hardest thrower on the Mets staff and while that sometimes leads to walks and wild pitches, he has done a better job with his control. The man who is nicknamed Thor was the only Mets pitcher to get a win in the 2015 World Series as he helped the Mets win Game 3 at Citi Field.
Taking over the lefthander spot in the starting rotation from the mediocre Jon Niese, who was traded over the winter to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Daniel Murphy’s replacement, Neil Walker, is Stony Brook’s Steven Matz who came up towards the end of the 2015 season. Matz showed that he could pitch well in big situations as he beat the Yankees in September and pitched will in the postseason.
It’s easy to overlook Bartolo Colon, who will turn 43 on May 24, because of the young stud Mets starters. In spite of his age and corpulent physique Colon lived up to his hefty two-year contract by winning 29 games over the last two years. He has also proven to be very durable as he has not been on the disabled list during his tenure with the Mets.
Bartolo also proved to be a dependable arm out of the bullpen during the post-season and there is a good chance that he will return to that role when Zack Wheeler returns to the Mets after his year on the sidelines recovering from Tommy John surgery.
A year ago Terry Collins was penciling in Jenrry Mejia as the team’s 9th inning relief specialist with Jeurys Familia handling the 8th inning setup chores. Mejia tested positive for performance enhancing drugs early in the 2015 season and missed 50 games. He pitched well as soon as he returned but then tested positive again and missed the rest of the 2015 season. After testing positive for a third time during the winter, Mejia is now permanently out of Major League Baseball although he has retained Long Island City-based attorney Vincent White to seek reinstatement.
Fortunately for both Collins and Mets fans, Jeurys Familia proved to be one of baseball’s best closers. Unfortunately he was the only truly dependable arm in the Mets bullpen last year as Tyler Clippard and Eric O’Flaherty who were acquired from the Oakland Athletics in separate deals around the July 31st trade deadline were very disappointing. I can’t recall O’Flaherty getting a single batter out. Clippard and O’Flaherty won’t be back and neither will Carlos Torres, as media-friendly a player as you’ll ever find, but put too many opposing hitters on base.
Getting a second chance with the Mets is lefty Jerry Blevins who was lights out early last season before being breaking his arm on a line drive hit back through the pitching mound. If that weren’t bad enough, he fell and reinjured the arm crossing a street just as he was about to return.
Veteran southpaw reliever Antonio Bastardo pitched very well last year for the Pittsburgh Pirates who were one of the two National League wildcard teams in last year’s playoffs. The Mets signed him as a free agent during the winter.
Neither Blevins nor Bastardo has pitched well during spring training but that may not be a harbinger of things to come during the regular season.
Expect Addison Reed, who pitched OK last year after being acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks, to get a lot of setup work.
Handling the Mets staff will be Travis d’Arnaud who is one of baseball’s better offensive catchers and who also calls a good game. Travis’s liabilities is that he has been injury prone and is poor at throwing out base stealers. To help keep him healthy, the Mets may give Kevin Plawecki a lot of starts and have d’Arnaud move to first base to spell very streaky power hitter Lucas Duda.
Newly acquired second baseman Neil Walker is in a somewhat strange position. He is replacing Daniel Murphy, who next to David Wright, was the longest tenured Met. Murph was always a tough out but a below average fielder. He became a larger than life folk hero last fall however hitting home runs in nearly every Mets playoff game. He came back to earth in the World Series and a key late inning miscue on a ground ball turned him into a goat. Mets GM Sandy Alderson made up his mind that he would let him leave as a free agent. Murphy reluctantly signed with the Mets’ key divisional rivals, the Washington Nationals. Walker is no slouch though as he hits with pop and can certainly field better than Murphy. He is in the last year of his existing contract and could be replaced in 2017 by ironically another ex-Pirate, the up and coming Dilson Herrera.
Mets executives were not happy with Wilmer Flores’s shaky defense at shortstop and they clearly were not enamored either with Ruben Tejada’s so-so bat even though he had a pretty good glove. During the winter they signed free agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera who is a better fielder than Flores but certainly will not make anyone forget Ozzie Smith. With Cabrera on board, the Mets released Tejada who then joined the Cardinals.
Wilmer Flores will not be riding the bench as he will be spelling team captain and third base mainstay David Wright who Terry Collins will rest more frequently as a way of managing his spinal stenosis. Wilmer may even see time at first base.
You could have heard the collective exhaling from Mets fans when the baseball free agent  marketplace did not develop as well as centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes had hoped and he re-signed with the team in late January. Cespedes jump-started what appeared to be a moribund Mets team when he belted 17 home runs after coming over from the Detroit Tigers in a trade that was made literally at the trade deadline last summer.
Cespedes can hit but his fielding can be lackadaisical such as when he booted a base hit during the World Series and took his sweet time retrieving the ball. Mets fans had better be prepared to take the bad with the good.
Veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson enjoyed a very good second season with the Mets as he batted .259; swatted 26 home runs; and most importantly cut down on his strikeouts. Credit has to be given to his old Yankees hitting coach, Kevin Long, who joined the Mets before the start of the 2015 season.
Michael Conforto certainly excited Mets fans with bat after his call-up from the minors last summer. He belted 9 home runs during the regular season and added 3 more during the postseason. It’s not wise to drop the term “superstar in the making” on him but nearly Major League Baseball scout agrees that his upside is very high.
Juan Lagares had an off-year with both his bat and glove in 2015. It will be interesting to see how he responds to being a late inning defensive replacement for Cespedes and being a fourth outfielder overall.
Alejandro de Aza, who was signed as a free agent, is another outfielder and a bat off the bench that Terry Collins can use.
One Mets player who won’t be returning on his own volition is Michael Cuddyer who decided to retire at age 36 after having a disappointing season. A lot of Mets fans were giddy because the considerable salary that  Cuddyer decided to forego was a key factor in the team’s ability to retain Yoenis Cespedes. While there is truth to that, it is undeniable that Cuddyer provided valuable leadership in the Mets clubhouse and was always a go-to guy for the media. Given the length of the baseball season, and the invariable ups and downs that every team goes through, that kind of intangible asset cannot be undervalued. It will be interesting to see who can pick up Cuddyer’s mantle.
As they say in those daytime television personal injury attorney commercials, past results do not guarantee future outcomes, but Mets fans have every reason to be extremely optimistic.

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