Mets have reason for increased optimism

David Wright smiles after the Mets defeated the

David Wright smiles after the Mets defeated the Padres, 11-2, on Opening Day. (April 1, 2013) (Credit: David L. Pokress)

After an unremarkable 74-88 season in 2013, Paul DePodesta insists that the vibe around the Mets "feels different" as spring training approaches.

"Going into this year, absolutely, there's a lot more, I don't even know what you call it," said DePodesta, the Mets' vice president of player development and scouting. "It's not swagger yet, because we haven't earned that. But there's certainly a lot more optimism."

The Mets took a pile of money that had been squandered in contracts to Johan Santana and Jason Bay and converted it into an $87-million talent infusion. And the depth of the team's pitching prospects has garnered respect around baseball.

Yet when pitchers and catchers report on Saturday, the Mets must face some lingering questions. Will they enjoy a bounce-back season from underachieving slugger Ike Davis? Will catcher Travis d'Arnaud make the transition from prospect to contributor? Will the rotation hold up without Matt Harvey?

Hovering over it all will be just how much the team can spend long-term to build a winner.

It's a long list of questions entering a season that general manager Sandy Alderson has long expected to be the start of a sustained turnaround. Even DePodesta, a key part of Alderson's team, acknowledged that the Mets are "probably still not where we ultimately want to be."

For the Mets, work remains. But they believe the goal is closer.

"Ultimately, our job as an organization is to win at the big-league level," he said. "And that's where these successes need to manifest themselves. But there's a road that you have to take to get there. I think we are passing significant markers in that road. That's exciting."

During the offseason, the Mets reached some of those checkpoints.

In recent years, the team's overall struggles made it difficult to lure free agents to Flushing. But the Mets reversed that trend in the offseason, signing Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon to lucrative multiyear deals.

The splurge brought in two badly needed pieces: a power bat to protect David Wright in the middle of the order and an established top-of-the-rotation pitcher to help ease the sting of losing Harvey to his season-long rehab from Tommy John surgery.

Signs of progress also can be seen in the players the Mets have invited to camp.

In recent years, the Mets were forced to sign players from outside of the organization to provide competition for jobs in spring training. But this year, much of that competition will come mostly from players already within the team's minor-league system. Included in the group is 21-year-old righthander Noah Syndergaard, who has emerged as one of the game's best pitching prospects. He's expected to debut with the Mets near midseason.

Said DePodesta: "That's a significant step forward for us."

Still, for a franchise that has endured five straight losing seasons, the ultimate goal remains a long-awaited improvement in the standings.

"I think we're getting to that point," DePodesta said. "How that's going to play out this summer, who knows? But we're really excited to see how it does, that's for sure. There's a lot more belief now than there has been."

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