It happened so early in the offseason — and involved a player already so familiar to the Mets and their fans — that it is easy to forget one of their biggest upgrades: bringing Marcus Stroman back to the rotation.
Last year Stroman decided not to pitch, opting out because of coronavirus concerns (after accruing enough service time to be a free agent). When the Mets issued him the one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer, he accepted, rejoining the organization on Nov. 11, its fifth full day under new owner Steve Cohen.
That makes Stroman a critical part of fixing a rotation that struggled immensely last year. The starts made by the likes of Michael Wacha, Rich Porcello and Robert Gsellman instead will get taken by Stroman, Carlos Carrasco, Noah Syndergaard (by June) and others.
"It’s huge," manager Luis Rojas said Thursday of Stroman’s return. "He wants greatness and he wants to get out there and compete at his best and just leave everything out on the field."
Of course, the environment that made Stroman uncomfortable last year is largely still in place — and perhaps worse, if daily cases of COVID-19 count for anything, albeit in a world in which vaccines are becoming available.
Stroman cited MLB’s health-and-safety protocols as the reason he is OK with playing this year, still mid-pandemic, as opposed to last year, when "everything was kind of up in the air." At the time he bailed, coronavirus rules were in place, but the Marlins and Cardinals were dealing with outbreaks and the completion of the season was not a given.
"MLB and the Mets have done an unbelievable job of putting the safety protocols in place and moving forward and getting everything to where it needs to be to provide a safe environment," Stroman said. "I’m looking forward to competing and I won’t be addressing any more comments about the past."
Preparing for 2021 was not difficult, he said, because when he left the team last summer, he continued to work out.
Never short on spirit or morale, Stroman even suggested that not pitching benefited him because he was able to spend more time with his personal trainer, Nikki Huffman.
"I never have to get ready, because I stay ready," said Stroman, a former Patchogue-Medford star. "So I’m ready to rock. I’m ready to go out there and throw 200-plus innings, like I am every single year. My preparation is elite. My trainer is elite. I put my utmost confidence in her, my body and my mind.
"I’m going to go out there and throw 200-plus innings year after year," added Stroman, who has reached that threshold twice, in 2016 and 2017. "My body is elite, so I kind of put a priority on my body, my mind, my arm during that entire process. It wasn’t like I was just hanging out. I was training daily getting ready for whenever I was going to go out there next."
As Rojas said, "He does not lack confidence, for sure. It’s just great energy."
Stroman gets a full season to back up his strong words, and then it’s back to free agency. But for now, he’ll spend more time around teammates.
"I walked in today, every single person in this clubhouse had a smile on their face, excited to see me," Stroman said late Thursday morning. "Everyone’s ready to rock. I’ve been kicking it with [Jacob] deGrom all day, talking about how to get better.
"I’m just excited to get back out there and compete and remind the world the pitcher that I am. I’ve just been building, training, working on mind, body and soul every day, and I’m truly at the best place I’ve ever been in my life as far as my mind-body connection. There’s truly nothing that can stop me."
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