PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
As if spring training wasn’t perfect enough for the Mets, we’ve yet to see a single raindrop at Tradition Field, the future looking so bright for the defending National League champs, well, they gotta wear shades (hat tip to the ’80s band Timbuk3).
But life rarely is this easy, and with six weeks to go before Opening Day, just the thought of enduring a month’s worth of exhibition games before the real thing begins is enough to make people anxious.
The Mets don’t plan on using any of their young starters during the first week of the Grapefruit League, and given David Wright’s chronic back condition, the captain will play sparingly to preserve himself for the games that count.
The Mets did just about everything they could this winter to reboot for another World Series run, even pushing the payroll up to $140 million, thanks to the Yoenis Cespedes signing. That, combined with a healthy, young rotation — not to mention the anticipated return of Zack Wheeler in July — makes the Mets confident they can duplicate the unexpected October run of a year ago.
At this point, however, it’s merely a rosy projection. As manager Terry Collins mentioned, it’s nice to see the names on the back of the uniforms again, but there’s a long way to go between showing up in Port St. Lucie and ending the season in the World Series. Just too many games, too many moving parts and too much room for error.
“On paper, we look great,” Wright said Friday. “But that means nothing once day one starts.”
And that’s why general manager Sandy Alderson also shied away from any bold predictions during the past week. As “upbeat” as he feels about this year’s roster, the next seven months are fraught with danger and unforeseen obstacles. When reporters joked with him about potential win totals, tossing out 95, Alderson laughed and said, “That’s a freeway.”
So amid all these rainbows and unicorns down here at Tradition Field, we decided to take a look at some of the weaker points in the Mets’ armor. A few areas could trip them up on the road back to the Fall Classic, as even the best-laid plans often go awry.
1. BAD TURN FOR THE ROTATION
The Mets, through draft picks and two well-executed trades, have created a built-in redundancy for their starting rotation, stacking together so many young, elite arms that they seem too deep to fail. It would appear as if a colossal meltdown would be needed to sabotage this staff. Still, if you include the still-rehabbing Wheeler, four of the Mets’ top five starters have had Tommy John surgery and the fifth — Noah Syndergaard, a 23-year-old who throws 100 mph — certainly fits the profile of a pitcher who might need it someday.
Of course, that could be years from now, and not a concern for the 2016 season. But after the Mets were so careful with innings limits last season, they again plan to be somewhat protective of the rotation, inserting spot starts to give extra days of rest occasionally before Wheeler’s return.
“We’re going to be mindful of their health,” Alderson said. “Not necessarily innings limits, but at the same time, make sure they’re strong, healthy and as capable as possible. Whether a pitcher’s had Tommy John or not, this day and age, as far as many guys throwing as hard as our guys throw, I think we’ve got to be very careful about it.”
2. WRONG DIRECTION FOR WRIGHT
Not even Wright can provide a rough estimate of how many games he’ll be able to play this season because of his spinal stenosis, and if the chronic back condition forces him to miss large blocks of time, the Mets’ lineup will lose a valuable righthanded hitter and their bench depth will be lessened. It’s probably unreasonable to think Wright, 33, a seven-time All-Star, can regain the power of his most productive seasons. The Mets covered for him last season by making the trades for Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, but we’ve yet to see how much Wilmer Flores can contribute in a utility role. If Wright struggles or again goes on the shelf for an extended period, can the Mets still cobble together enough offense?
“There’s going to be issues,” Wright said, “and I know I have to cope with those issues.”
3. A LOSS OF YO-MENTUM
Trading for Yoenis Cespedes last season was a case of right guy, right time for the Mets, who probably wouldn’t have made it to the playoffs without the much-needed deadline boost. With the Mets desperate for offense, Cespedes had 17 homers, 44 RBIs and a .942 OPS in 57 games and even played adequate defense in centerfield, a position with which he wasn’t all that familiar. Alderson described the situation as putting a square peg in a round hole. Now the Mets will look to have Cespedes handle the centerfield duties for a whole season — a calculated risk — and hope he’s over his playoff skid (.222, 17 strikeouts in 54 at-bats). The Mets gave him $27.5 million for this season, the second-highest average annual value for a position player, as well as an opt-out, so they’re banking on his being very motivated as well as extremely wealthy. But Cespedes also will face tremendous pressure as a result, and that could be difficult to deal with despite his past flair for the big stage. His stats indicate that he has never hit the way he did during the final two months last season, but that’s what people will expect after seeing it.
4. AN UN-FAMILIA FEELING
If not for Jenrry Mejia’s first PED suspension and Bobby Parnell’s balky rehab from Tommy John surgery, maybe Jeurys Familia never would have gotten the chance to be the Mets’ closer last season. But once he did get the opportunity, he was outstanding in that role, with 43 saves, a 1.85 ERA and a 9.9 K/9 ratio. The hard part, however, will be duplicating that success after the rest of the league already has faced him for a whole season. On top of that, Familia has to show he can overcome his three blown saves in the World Series — mental baggage that can’t truly be tossed away until he gets on the mound again for real. Familia seems equipped to handle it, with a good attitude and a killer out pitch in that splitter. But if he should falter or get injured, can the Mets rely on Addison Reed or Antonio Bastardo to take over the job? And how much weaker would the Mets’ bullpen be as a result?
5. AGONY OF REPEAT
For all the adversity of a year ago, the Mets still put together an 11-game winning streak to jump-start their season and were helped by the Nationals getting hit with a rash of injuries to key players. The front office also came through when the roster needed upgrading, pulling off critical trades for Uribe, Johnson, Cespedes and Tyler Clippard. Ownership approved adding the cash to do so and also spent this winter getting the payroll ($140 million) higher than it had been since the 2011 season. If the Mets run into trouble this year, with a few costly injuries themselves, will they again lay out more cash for deadline deals or are they tapped out for the time being? It’s tough to go wire-to-wire without some major adjustments on the fly. Can the Mets be as successful this time around as they attempt to fend off a Nationals team that will be gunning for them?
“It’s unfair to say it’s going to be a World Series championship or bust,” Collins said, “because that’s not true. There’s too many things that happen over the course of the year that can change that.”