Home plate umpire Eric Cooper, left, gestures as Mets' Pete Alonso...

Home plate umpire Eric Cooper, left, gestures as Mets' Pete Alonso (20) reacts after striking out in his final at-bat with runners on base in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. Credit: AP/Kathy Willens

It is a minor issue relative to the coronavirus pandemic and baseball’s efforts to salvage the 2020 season, but with details locked in and spring training resuming next week we now can say: The Mets’ path to the playoffs just got harder.

In its two-month season, MLB is using a regionalized and imbalanced schedule so that teams don’t travel as much as they normally do. That does not work in the Mets’ favor. They will play 40 of their 60 games — two-thirds of the season — against the other teams in the NL East, which is perhaps the best division in baseball. The remaining 20 games will be against clubs in the AL East, which also is difficult and includes a World Series favorite in the Yankees.

That makes for a doozy of a schedule for the Mets, who last year finished third in the division at 86-76 and who this year aspire to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

According to an analysis released Wednesday by FanGraphs, a baseball analytics website, the Mets have the eighth-most difficult strength of schedule out of 30 teams. None of the seven teams ahead of them had a winning record in 2019.

The analysis also estimated that the Mets’ chances of making the playoffs to be about 33% — a decrease of 16.7% relative to late February, the fifth-largest drop. Their lower odds are due in part to the schedule change and in part to losing Noah Syndergaard for the year to Tommy John surgery.

Why is this hard for the Mets? Start with the basics. The NL East was tough last year. It looks as if it will be tougher this year. As a result of circumstances beyond their control, they have to play those teams more frequently.

A team plays 47% of its games within its division in a usual season. For 2020, that shoots up to 67%.

The Mets did all right within the division last year, managing a 40-36 record (.526 win percentage). That broke down to 13-6 against the Marlins, 12-7 against the Nationals, 8-11 against the Braves and 7-12 against the Phillies.

Of course, the teams have changed since then. The Nationals won the World Series, lost third baseman Anthony Rendon, added second baseman Starlin Castro and bolstered the bullpen. The Braves — who, don’t forget, have won consecutive NL East titles — signed catcher Travis d’Arnaud and outfielder Marcell Ozuna and also bolstered the bullpen. The Phillies hired the highly regarded Joe Girardi as manager and signed righthander Zack Wheeler away from the Mets. And even the rebuilding Marlins added several legitimate major-leaguers: infielder/centerfielder Jonathan Villar, outfielder Corey Dickerson, catcher Francisco Cervelli and reliever Brandon Kintzler.

The Mets sought improvements, too, most notably signing Dellin Betances, who was a perennial All-Star for the Yankees until suffering a series of injuries last year. And they filled in the back of their rotation with Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, who replace Wheeler and Syndergaard. But relative to 2019, the Mets are mostly counting on internal improvement, especially from the bullpen (and hoping the likes of Jacob deGrom, Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil maintain All-Star-level production).

And interleague play doesn’t grant the Mets any breaks. Whereas potential wild-card competitors in the NL Central and NL West play plenty of lesser teams, the Mets get stuck with the Yankees, who won 103 games last year and added Gerrit Cole; the Rays, who were a 96-win wild-card team in 2019; the Red Sox and Blue Jays, who should have strong lineups but don’t have much pitching; and the rebuilding Orioles.

The Mets have a chance to make these preseason projections, famously fickle, matter little if they play this August and September as they did last August and September. That is why they play the games instead of just doing math. Soon, coronavirus willing, we’ll get to find out.


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