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Only the beginning: Under Cohen, 2021 should be the start of big things for Mets 

Mets owner Steve Cohen attends a news conference

Mets owner Steve Cohen attends a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site at Citi Field on Feb. 10. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Hoopla surrounds the 2021 Mets, and for plenty of reasons. Jacob deGrom, the ace, probably is the best pitcher in the world. Francisco Lindor, the star shortstop and signature offseason addition, might’ve been the top player added by any team in the offseason. And they boast a lineup so deep that every starting position player feasibly could hit double-digit home runs.

For an organization that has missed the playoffs the past four seasons, compiling a losing record in that span, they have grand October expectations — and they seem more legitimate than the ones of the recent past.

"This team is deeper, probably, than the team in ‘15 or ‘16," team president Sandy Alderson said, referring to the Mets clubs that lost in the World Series and the NL wild-card game under his direction as general manager. "It doesn’t mean it will accomplish as much. Hopefully more. But as a starting point, I think the roster is as or more talented and deep than any recent Mets team."

Dominic Smith added: "We’ve been having this exciting young talent for three years, and we feel like we can put it together this year."

And Pete Alonso: "The goal for us is to be that last team at the end of the year. . . . I hope all five boroughs turn into a massive block party when we do it."

Anything short of absolute greatness, however, is at risk of turning into a footnote in the larger context of the franchise’s history — specifically, the looming history. That’s because nobody with the Mets expects this season to be the peak of anything. It merely marks the start of what is supposed to be a glorious new era, initiated by Great Neck native Steve Cohen, a longtime Mets fan who used some of his hedge-fund billions to buy his favorite team.

Whatever the 2021 Mets accomplish, it is just the start for Cohen’s Mets. This year is about more than this year. Just ask the Dodgers, who emerged as a powerhouse shortly after their laughingstock of an owner sold to a financial behemoth, Guggenheim Baseball Management.

"If you’re looking to emulate another organization in baseball, one in a big market," Alderson said, "it would be hard to argue with the Dodgers."

Cohen agrees. During his introductory news conference in November, he cited Los Angeles as a sterling franchise, and the numbers bear that out.

Since 2013, Guggenheim’s first full season owning the team, the Dodgers have won eight consecutive division championships. They have been to three World Series, finally winning a title last year, and are perennially among the highest-spending teams (including having by far the biggest payroll this season). They consistently churn out homegrown stars and sometimes turn other teams’ scraps into studs.

"They’ve built out an incredible infrastructure, they make good decisions, they have financial capacity," Alderson said. "They’re in a similar place to the New York Mets. I think not that we’re trying to be the Dodgers of the East, but at this point I would call them a model big-market franchise."

And so the Mets endeavored to begin a Dodgers-like transformation during the offseason. They turned over about half of the 40-man roster, for example. They doubled, in Alderson’s estimation, the number of employees in their analytics department, including appointing Ben Zauzmer, formerly of the Dodgers, their director of analytics. They bolstered their farm-system staffing by creating a "player development initiatives" corner of the front office, in addition to the traditional player-development hierarchy.

"Steve wants a commitment to being good and competitive and successful over a long period of time," Alderson said. "Largely that has to do with infrastructure, putting in place the personnel in the front office, putting in place technology and an analytics department, ensuring player development is commensurate with what we’re trying to accomplish in other areas. So we’re building all of that out."

None of this is meant to discount the potential of the 2021 Mets. After all, those first-year Guggenheim Dodgers made it to the NLCS. Nor should anyone suggest this season doesn’t matter. Quite the opposite.

The "exciting young talent," as Smith put it, is older every day. Lindor, Michael Conforto, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman are scheduled to become free agents after this season. Brandon Nimmo, Seth Lugo and Edwin Diaz will have their turn after 2022, when deGrom will have the opportunity to opt out of his contract.

"I wouldn’t say it’s a sense of urgency," Alderson said. "But it’s an opportunity."

BEATMAN’S PREDICTION

Record: 88-74, 2nd in NL East

Playoffs: The Mets should be in the wild-card discussion.

Analysis: For all of the changes the Mets made, they seem to be in the same spot they were in during each of the past few Opening Days: Probably not the best team in the division, but good enough to be in the wild-card race. That is not to say they cannot win the NL East title — it’s possible with some fortunate breaks — but the division again looks loaded, especially with Atlanta, winner of three consecutive NL East crowns, showing no signs of relenting. The Phillies and Nationals, like the Mets, look improved, and the Marlins might have one of the best rotations in baseball. The Mets have question marks in the bullpen and on defense, though they should be able to slug their way to a winning record and all-important meaningful September baseball.

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

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