NY Sports Day
Matt Mankiewich

Karpin: Baseball in NY, 2018: “Evil Empire” is Back, Amazin’ Again?

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What a difference a year makes.

A year ago at this time, the Yankees were going into a “rebuilding” year with low expectations while the Mets were being picked by the pundits as a playoff team.

A year later and the Yankees are back to being the “Evil Empire” as they carry huge expectations into the upcoming season while many are not viewing the Mets to make the post season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t.

There’s no need to repeat what is already known about each team. The Yankees have a powerhouse lineup, a potentially great bullpen and high expectations. The Mets are banking on their pitching to stay healthy because that potential puts them in the playoff race, while they need Yoenis Cespedes to have a big year with the bat with Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier providing secondary power production.

Health aside, what does the 2018 season hold for the Yankees and Mets.

The “sky high” expectations for this Yankee team is an underlying factor that will play a role in determining how far they go this season. It’s something that can’t be measured, but, for the most part, this current Yankee squad has a number of young players who went through a season where virtually no one expected them to get within a game of the World Series. To their credit, they showed they can be resilient which will serve them well in 2018.

Last season, the Yankees were able to play without the burden of being expected to win. Teams will come at them differently this time around. It may not be visible right away but the spectre of having a chance to knock off the “Evil Empire” will be a “carrot” for all of their opponents, not just their key competitors.

As good as this Yankee offense looks on paper, theoretically, they could be a “one dimensional” offense. That may work in the regular season but it doesn’t work in the post season where the games are usually low scoring and better pitching is on display. I know the offensive philosophy in today’s baseball is based around the long ball, but in order to win the World Series, an offense has to have some balance. (i.e. last year’s Astros)

Then there is the transition to playing in New York which is what Giancarlo Stanton is facing. No longer will he be playing in front of mostly empty seats, nor a media corps of maybe three or four reporters. You’ve seen big name players who come here and struggle before they finally get their feet wet.

Greg Bird’s injury should not be a devastating loss but it could become problematic if the replacements are sub par defensively. Neil Walker has only played 17 major league games at first base while Tyler Austin is regarded more for his bat than his glove. General Manager Brian Cashman indicated there were no plans to bring in another first-baseman. Cashman said he is satisfied with Walker and Austin to “hold the fort” until Bird returns but what if the Yankees run into another “Chris Carter situation” like last season when first base became a huge hole in the first half of the season.

Don’t be surprised if the Yankees look into a cheap free agent signing like John Jaso or Brandon Moss. Both play first, both are left handed hitters and both are available.

First base is also a sore spot for the Mets.

Let’s start there. Adrian Gonzalez opens the season as the Mets’ first baseman but do they really expect him to regain his past form and play the entire season.

I expect the Mets to go outside the organization and bring in another first-baseman. Dominic Smith may not be ready in the event Gonzalez flames out early. Free agent Mark Reynolds would come cheap and would be a nice fit. Reynolds has always hit well at CitiField. Jose Bautista is not out of the realm of possibility, although he hasn’t played a whole lot of first base.

Despite what some think, Bruce would not be an option at first base. If asked, Bruce, who is a team player, would switch positions but if you read “between the lines” of his comments about making a move, I don’t get the feeling that he’s comfortable playing there. Mechanically, his footwork is not up to par and we don’t know how good he is with the glove or on the throw to second. Bruce didn’t have to make many of these throws during his short stint as a first baseman last season before he was traded to Cleveland.

If Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom stay healthy and make their allotted starts, the Mets will be in the divisional race, much less the Wild Card chase. The bullpen is expected to be improved but Zack Wheeler could actually turn into an important cog in relief. The right hander will try and work his way back to the big club and may be better suited to work out of the pen.

Cespedes’ “year of grace” in 2017 is history. He needs to put up MVP type numbers in 2018 and lead the Mets’ offense to a playoff berth. Bruce simply has to be his normal self with his usual output of home runs and runs batted in and I expect him to do that. Micheal Conforto’s expected return will give the Mets a huge boost while Frazier may not overwhelm the mostly negative Mets’ fan base right away but he grows on you. I can see the complaints coming if he gets off to a poor start but he will get some big hits and will provide a much needed leadership role in the clubhouse.

The Mets are not exactly young in the infield so Jose Reyes could be valuable in his utility role. Frazier’s range at third should help Amed Rosario at shortstop, in turn, helping Asdrubal Cabrera at second, although the shifts are put in to help alleviate a lack of range.

Both teams have underlying categories where their numbers need to improve if they hope to be playing in October.

For the Yankees, it’s their record in 1-run games. Last year, that was 18-26, which was surprising because the Yankees had a good bullpen last season. If they turn one or two of those losses into wins, they may have won the AL East.

For the Mets, it’s their record against their own division. Last season, the divisional record was 37-39, including a combined 13-25 against Miami (7-12) and Washington (6-13). The Mets need to do a lot better against their divisional opponents, especially with the way the schedule pans out in April when they play 16 games vs. the NL East.

A team can’t win the division in April but they can certainly lose it off of a bad start.

Both teams carry intriguing story lines into the 2018 season and both have high hopes but one thing is certain, it will be worth watching.

Is it possible that we could see our first Subway Series in 18 years. It’s not impossible.


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