New York Mets: Spring training preview MLB 2016 season
Twenty-two players started at least five games for the National League champion New York Mets last season. Here are seven of them: Infielder Eric Campbell, catcher Anthony Recker, catcher Johnny Monell, outfielder John Mayberry Jr, outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, infielder Danny Muno and outfielder Darrell Ceciliani.
No wonder Mets manager Terry Collins offered a hearty chuckle Thursday when asked if managing a team with world championship expectations will be the biggest challenge of his career.
"Does anybody in this room think this is a tougher season than it was last year, sitting in this chair?" Collins said.
It was easy to forget on Nov. 1, when a magical year for the Mets came to an end with a loss to the Kansas City Royals in Game Five of the World Series at Citi field. But Collins spent the first 100 games of the regular season cobbling together a lineup made up of players who could charitably be described as spare parts.
Last July 23, ace Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw carried a perfect game into the seventh inning and twirled a three-hit shutout against a lineup that featured Mayberry batting fourth, Campbell batting fifth and Recker batting eighth. All three players were batting well under .200 at the time.
A 7-2 loss to the Dodgers the next day dropped the Mets to 49-48 and moved general manager Sandy Alderson to begin a dramatic roster reconstruction that yielded infielders Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe and the big prize, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
The Mets went 41-24 after July 31, moved into first place for good on Aug. 3, won the NL East by seven games over the Washington Nationals and dispatched of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs before blowing three late-inning leads in a closer-than-it-looked World Series loss to the Royals.
If the Mets are to take the final step and win the franchise's first championship in 30 years, they'll likely do so on the strength of a once-in-a-generation rotation. Right-handers Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler and left-hander Steven Matz are all 28 or younger and all throw in the mid-90s.
"If there's a staff that can actually have the possibility of five number one guys we've got it," Collins said.
But a potentially historic rotation will be backed up by a lineup far sturdier than the one Collins had to write out over the first four months of the 2015 season.
The first line of defense isn't a series of Quad-A players. Behind a set everyday lineup are starting-caliber backups in catcher Kevin Plawecki, infielders Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada and outfielders Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza. Plawecki, Flores, Tejada and Lagares all served as regulars at some point last season.
There are still plenty of questions facing the Mets, whose lineup looks to be of the feast-or-famine variety. Right fielder Curtis Granderson is strikeout-prone and will turn 35 in March. First baseman Lucas Duda hit 27 homers last season, but nine of the homers were hit in an eight-game span from July 25 through Aug. 2.
Third baseman David Wright missed most of last season due to spinal stenosis, an ailment the 33-year-old will have to manage for the rest of his career. The Mets hope to get 130 games out of Wright, but he looked exhausted during the playoffs and was basically throwing sidearm to first base by the end of the World Series.
"I want to be out there, and if that's 130 games that's great," Wright said. "If it's 140 games, even better. I'd like to play as much as I possibly can, but I have to be smarter about it. I think that's the one thing need to mature and become better at is being honest with how I feel on a daily basis."
Catcher Travis d'Arnaud looked like an MVP candidate at times last season, but he's 27 and has yet to play 110 games in a season. Left fielder Michael Conforto played beyond his years upon being promoted from Double-A in late July, but can he maintain that level now that the league has a book on him?
New second baseman Neil Walker (acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates) has to replace Daniel Murphy, who was the best position player developed by the Mets in the Citi Field era. And shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, signed to a two-year contract as a free agent, offers middling defense and an inconsistent bat.
Even Cespedes, whose stunning return on a three-year deal (with an opt-out option after this season) in late January inspired the World Series-or-bust talk, comes with some lingering question marks after a quiet postseason and concerns with his home/road splits and ability to handle center field for a full season.
But just as it did last season, the rotation will conceal a lot of blemishes. The Mets enter the season expecting at least 120 starts from the quartet of Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz, who combined for a 2.77 ERA and 593 strikeouts over 566 innings. They could be even better this season with Harvey two years removed from Tommy John surgery, deGrom entering his second full season, Syndergaard entering his first full season and Matz fully healthy after battling a lat injury in the second half.
Wheeler's return this summer from Tommy John surgery will further strengthen the rotation. Right-hander cult hero Bartolo Colon, the oldest player in the majors, will hold down a spot until Wheeler gets back.
"We've got four of the best arms in all of baseball and a Cy Young Award winner in our rotation at the moment," Collins said. "That's pretty impressive."
The Mets' bullpen is a pretty formidable one as well. Right-hander Jeurys Familia (43 saves) wasted no time last season ascending into the upper echelon of closers. Right-hander Addison Reed, another trade deadline acquisition, should man the eighth while left-handers Jerry Blevins and Antonio Bastardo have traditionally been successful against both left- and right-handed hitters.
Collins was careful to avoid World Series-or-else talk during his season-opening press conference. But he knows the reality is a long-starved fan base expects big things this season -- and that he has a team that can deliver.
"I love expectations -- I think they're great," Collins said. "I tell my players all the time: We create our own expectations."
POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: It's always good for a team when the most exciting position battle is for the last two spots in the bullpen. RHP Erik Goeddel, who made the NLDS roster last fall, has the inside track on one spot. The Mets could go with a long man such as LHP Sean Gilmartin or RHP Logan Verrett in the final spot. Gilmartin and Verrett could also be stashed as rotation insurance at Triple-A Las Vegas if RHP Jim Henderson, a non-roster invitee, can reclaim the form that allowed him to collect 33 saves for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013.
ROOKIE WATCH: LHP Steven Matz didn't appear to be a candidate for 2016 Rookie of the Year honors when he was recalled from Triple-A last June, but a lat injury suffered in his first big league start and aggravated in his second start ended up costing him nearly two months and preserving his rookie eligibility for another season. The Mets loved what they saw from Matz, who went 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA in six regular season starts before making three postseason starts, and showed what they expect out of him this season by trading LHP Jonathon Niese to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
COMEBACK TRAIL: 3B David Wright doesn't have to play another game to go down as one of the great position players in Mets history. But can the 12-year veteran remain a quality everyday player while battling spinal stenosis, an ailment that shortened the careers of Don Mattingly and Lenny Dykstra? The Mets have a lot of money -- $87 million through 2020 -- riding on the answer.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I really haven't been this upbeat about a team in a long time and I think that's exciting -- exciting for us, exciting for the players, and I think the fans as well."-- Mets general manager Sandy Alderson.