PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The parking lot at First Data Field was familiar. So, too, was the blue-and-orange workout gear, the clubhouse, the bullpen mounds. Everywhere Jeurys Familia looked Monday reminded him of being home again.
Familia said he turned down other clubs’ offers to make him the closer because he wanted this — that being a setup man, essentially a demotion, was fine as long as he was back with the Mets.
Clearly, a three-year, $30-million deal nudged him in that direction. Let’s not ignore the obvious. But in listening to Familia explain his Mets reunion, it sounds as if he has a belief in what went down this winter in Flushing, along with the architect, agent-turned-general manager Brodie Van Wagenen.
While he’s still new at this gig, give Van Wagenen credit for leaning on what he knows — namely forging relationships with players in the hope that this behind-the-scenes support can translate to better performance on the field.
Van Wagenen visited Familia when the Mets’ contingent traveled to the Dominican Republic last month. During that chat, Familia got an impression of Van Wagenen’s push for culture change. “That’s really good to have a GM with that kind of mind,” Familia said. “It’s really impressed me.”
The rest of us have been hearing it since Van Wagenen was named GM in November — the loud talk of being the team to beat in the NL East, starting with the bold trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz and continuing through a string of free-agent signings that included Familia, Wilson Ramos, Justin Wilson and Jed Lowrie.
It’s easy to predict playoff berths in February, before a single pitch has been thrown in a spring training game, but these Mets don’t mind leading with their chins at this point. Familia, for one, seems convinced.
“Right now, I tell you what, the team looks really good,” he said after Monday’s workout. “I think this is our year.”
As the Mets arrive in Port St. Lucie this week, with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report Tuesday, the players start to become more than just names on a sheet of paper. Most of the pitching staff was working out by Monday afternoon, with a handful of younger position types — such as Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith and Jeff McNeil — among them.
The limited roster didn’t stop most of the front-office crew from watching the events on Field 2, with Van Wagenen joined by two of his assistant GMs, Allard Baird and Adam Guttridge, along with special adviser Omar Minaya, the GM who first signed Familia in 2007. (Of course, Minaya was part of the triumvirate that traded Familia to the A’s last July.)
Despite being relegated to setup duties for Blake Treinen, Familia speaks fondly of his time in Oakland, and he credits that experience with helping him in this second tour with the Mets, who should benefit from having a closer-quality arm in that role. Remember, during a two-year stretch in Flushing, a period that included two playoff trips and a World Series run, Familia averaged 47 saves with a 2.20 ERA and a 9.8 K/9 ratio.
There is value in that comfort. One thing Sandy Alderson learned during his Mets tenure was the difficulty of bringing relievers from outside to New York, the volatility of neophytes being exposed to the big-market experience. That won’t be a concern with Familia, who’s had his difficult episodes but still has the thick skin and short memory needed to succeed here.
Ultimately, it was the money that made this reunion possible. But you don’t often hear of players genuinely wanting to return to the Mets, and that’s something extra that should work in his favor along with his bowling-ball sinker. He doesn’t fear the spotlight; he’s endured the best and worst of it and come back smiling, asking for more.
Said Familia, “This is my house.”