Mets first baseman Pete Alonso in a spring training game...

Mets first baseman Pete Alonso in a spring training game on March 26, 2022, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: AP/Sue Ogrocki

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — At the start of another Mets season, the key word is paper.

Multibillionaire team owner Steve Cohen spent that paper, green-lighting a luxury-tax payroll of more than $280 million, by far the highest in franchise history and one of the highest in baseball history. And now the Mets look like a good club — on paper.

“I feel like our group is excellent, but we gotta win games in the season,” Pete Alonso said. “We gotta go and earn it.”

“We look great,” Francisco Lindor echoed. “But we gotta put it together.”

After consecutive losing seasons — and a half-decade without a postseason berth — the Mets have a lot to prove. And they know it. They pretended to contend last year, when they led the NL East for more than 100 days, but they missed their chance to take control and then fell apart over the summer.

So the idea of New York Mets, playoff team, still is very much just a theory. They haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

Apparently over are the days of bravado-infused public declarations about how good they are. Billy Eppler, a former longtime Yankees executive entering his first year as the Mets’ general manager, said that mentality starts with the holdovers — Jacob deGrom and Alonso and Brandon Nimmo and others, key players who have seen enough stuff in recent years to know better now.

And, Eppler continued, the mentality includes new manager Buck Showalter, who is in his fifth stop after managing the Yankees (1992-95), Diamondbacks (1998-2000), Rangers (2003-06) and Orioles (2010-18).

“Buck by his nature is also a show-me person,” Eppler said. “That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to focus and make everything about us. And only focus on us. We focus on us and the execution and the process, the process that we put in place to achieve the goals and the outcomes that we want to achieve. If we just focus on that, then you can eliminate a lot of the other outside distractions. Just focus on us.”

 

Showalter harrumphed upon hearing Eppler’s suggestion that he is a tone-setter in that show-me way. He passed the buck to the fans in the city to which he is returning after decades away.

“Our fans are show-me kind of fans,” he said. “Like I’ve told [players]: In New York, they’re waiting to embrace you. It’s your responsibility to give them something to embrace you about. New York is not a lip-service type of place. Play better. Show me. It should be comforting that you control it.”

The 2022 Mets look significantly improved relative to their predecessors — on paper, at least.

Even with deGrom out for a while, Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt make the rotation an extreme strength, replacing Marcus Stroman and Rich Hill. Instead of Michael Conforto and Jonathan Villar, the Mets have Starling Marte and Eduardo Escobar. The addition of Mark Canha, underrated after breaking out in Oakland, pushes Dominic Smith to the bench/DH timeshare.

Jeff McNeil is healthy. So are J.D. Davis and Smith. Lindor, after a failure of a Mets debut season, has acknowledged feeling more comfortable in his second year.

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter (right) looks on during...

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter (right) looks on during a simulated game at spring training on March 16, 2022 in Port St. Lucie. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

And then there is Showalter, the Mets’ archetypal wise old man. After a series of false starts with first-timers — Luis Rojas, Carlos Beltran, Mickey Callaway, none of whom lasted for various reasons — Cohen and Eppler wanted a veteran. Showalter, with 20 seasons managing in the majors, is the Mets’ most experienced such hire since Casey Stengel, the Hall of Famer who led the original Mets in 1962.

With experience comes a certain reverence. Scherzer, who expressed to team decision-makers his preference for Showalter upon signing in November, said Showalter reminds him of Jim Leyland, his boss in Detroit. Lindor compared him to Cleveland’s Terry Francona.

When roaming spring training, by foot or by golf cart, Showalter always carried a bat, a habit he said he has had for 30 years. His go-to during camp was a gift from a high school friend, a 34-inch, 22-ounce black model that he says is a little small, with his name engraved on it.

“As I’ve gotten older,” said Showalter, 65, “maybe it’s a cane.”

He leaned on the bat while discussing his new team, the expectations that surround it and how New York baseball fans are no dummies.

“What’s the expression?” Showalter said, repeating maybe his most common question. “Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear a word you say. That’s where New York comes from.”

BEAT WRITER PREDICTION

86-76, 2nd in NL East

The Mets cannot be considered the favorites in the NL East. That preseason honor goes to Atlanta, the defending World Series champions who have won four consecutive division titles. But the Mets should be in the postseason discussion, whether that means toppling Atlanta or outlasting the Phillies and others to snag a wild-card spot. With by far the highest payroll in team history, owner Steve Cohen and general manager Billy Eppler have made their expectations clear: Now is the time to win. Missing the expanded, 12-team playoffs would be an utter failure for the 2022 Mets.

This is Tim Healey’s fifth season covering the Mets for Newsday.