Buck Showalter gets chance to see what the Mets will look like
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Nearly six weeks into a six-week spring training, the Mets finally got the gang back together.
Their lineup Saturday night against the Cardinals, their penultimate contest of the Grapefruit League season, featured a starting nine that looked awfully Opening Day-ish. Brandon Nimmo, who missed a week after suffering right knee and ankle sprains, and Jeff McNeil, who had not played since before the World Baseball Classic, returned to their regular spots, completing a unit that slowly had been coming together in recent days.
Injuries and WBC-related absences prevented the Mets from getting a fresh look at their regulars together during the first month of exhibition play. After returning from the WBC, Pete Alonso joined the team on the Gulf Coast, but McNeil went to Port St. Lucie to hit in minor-league games.
“This is where I’d just like to get everybody on the bus right now,” manager Buck Showalter said, “and go.”
In the first chance they got, the Mets went right back to a familiar formula for the batting order, deploying the same nine in the same order that they did in Game 3 of the playoff series they lost to the Padres in October. (The Mets had one hit that night.)
The Mets’ thinking: It worked last year, so may as well roll with it. They were tied for fifth in runs per game in 2022.
“We had a lot of success with it, and we also made it really tough on the opposing team’s bullpen,” Showalter said. “We had a lot of very versatile looks that could combat things that they wanted to do out of the bullpen. They had to pick their poison.”
Added hitting coach Jeremy Barnes: “We have a deep order. You’re going to have to beat one through nine if you’re going to beat us. Those first four guys in particular you can pencil in there every day.”
The top four: Nimmo, Starling Marte, Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso. That is a high-end leadoff man and a versatile/fast/strong No. 2, followed by a pair of 100-RBI guys.
“You could have a 10-pitch at-bat with Nimmo, and all of a sudden he still finds a way on first or second,” Barnes said.
After that, it gets a little trickier and probably less consistent on a day-to-day basis.
On Saturday, McNeil was in the No. 5 spot. He isn’t a prototypical batter for that position, but the Mets could do worse than his .326 average, which led the majors, and .836 OPS. Showalter has referred to McNeil as a “utility hitter” who can reasonably slot in anywhere in the order (except maybe ninth) and make it work.
In the case of the Mets, it helps that McNeil, a lefthanded hitter, is between righties Alonso and Mark Canha, who is sixth.
Comprising the bottom third were Daniel Vogelbach (the DH against righthanded pitchers), third baseman Eduardo Escobar and catcher Tomas Nido.
Nido might not be the starter Opening Day; he is likely to cede to Omar Narvaez when the Mets face righties. Either way, bet on the Mets’ catcher batting last.
“It’s one of the things I talked to players about last year — and this year: If we could sacrifice a little bit of the ego of where you’re hitting in the order, we could really present a real challenge for the other team, especially the bullpen,” Showalter said. “And they did that.”
Then again, maybe none of this is relevant. One modern school of thought in this numbers-heavy baseball world is that the benefits of certain batting order construction is negligible, that a team could put the group of hitters in about any arrangement and it would be fine.
“Everything matters,” Barnes said. “Maybe from an analytical standpoint it doesn’t matter, but maybe a guy is more comfortable in one spot than another spot. That matters . . . You want to protect certain people, guys that can work counts and can do things in certain spots. It all matters. To what extent, I’m not sure. I’ll leave that to [Showalter].”