TAMPA, Fla. — Remember all that talk about the Mets taking back New York? The capital of Big Apple baseball returning to the shores of Flushing Bay? It wasn’t that long ago. One year to be exact. In this very space.
And we couldn’t have been more wrong.
What transpired instead was the relentless disintegration of the Mets’ World Series dream, piece by piece, player by player, in agonizing fashion. The remaining talent was strip-mined during the season’s second half, sold off by Sandy Alderson as the Mets skidded to a 92-loss season, their worst since 2009, and Terry Collins was removed from the manager’s chair at its merciful end.
So much for the spring-training sunshine emanating from Port St. Lucie. Maybe we should have been paying closer attention to the construction project over at Steinbrenner Field, where Joe Girardi was telling everyone that his Yankees could surprise people.
Turns out, Girardi was right. Getting to within one win of the World Series definitely counts as surprising. Shocking even. But the Nostradamus-caliber prediction wasn’t enough to save Girardi’s job, and now TV analyst-turned-manager Aaron Boone gets to reap the benefit of the Yankees’ recent renovations to the Evil Empire.
The most grandiose, in size and investment, was the trade for Giancarlo Stanton, a 6-6 tower of power to pair with the Bronx’s resident masher, the 6-7 Aaron Judge. Did the Yankees need Stanton, another 50-homer bat, to get to the Fall Classic for the first time since 2009? Probably not. Hal Steinbrenner could have found other ways to spend nearly $300 million. But none would have been as fun as seeing Stanton and Judge taking BP together for the first time in Tampa, tuning up for the Grapefruit League.
Having those two shoulder-to-shoulder is the perfect hybrid of what the Yankees are trying to do in establishing the next dynasty. Not only develop future generations of stars in-house, but seize a few other box-office attractions along the way, as The Boss was so fond of doing.
“Well, I know the city we’re in and I know that our fans love the big marquee players,” said Hal Steinbrenner, echoing his dad’s mission statement. “But we also learned [in 2017] that our fans love every bit as much homegrown players that they can follow over the course of years and finally get up to the varsity and really perform. So I think that’s equally exciting. If it’s a factor in my thinking, it’s probably a small one, but this is New York City. These are the Yankees.”
Get used to the reinforcement of that concept, over and over, in the coming months and years. The quaint idea of the underdog Yankees, hatched in spring training last February, has been erased. Or should we say demolished by the wrecking-ball swings of Judge and Sanchez, now joined by Stanton and a presumably healthy Greg Bird.
All that for under $197 million, the 2018 luxury-tax threshold Steinbrenner has pledged to stay below in an effort to avoid paying the penalty this year — and reset the team’s rate in preparation for the stellar ’19 free-agent class. Steinbrenner has long said he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to spend $200 million to win a championship and now we’ll see if he’s correct.
A big part of that, however, is keeping the premier talent on the field, and the demise of the ’17 Mets was yet another chapter for a franchise that has written the book on cautionary tales. It’s possible that the seeds of that destruction were planted last February in Port St. Lucie, where Yoenis Cespedes appeared to be following the Hulk’s weight-lifting regimen and a bulked-up Noah Syndergaard was coming off his “Bowl of Doom” diet.
For most of the past decade, the Mets have been battered by a freakish number of injuries, an epidemic that has routinely derailed their promising rotation and sabotaged numerous seasons. Alderson has tried to remedy that for the upcoming year by firing head trainer Ray Ramirez and hiring former U.S. Army supervisor Jim Cavallini for the new role of director of performance and sports science.
Will that be a cure-all? Tough to say. But Cavallini certainly can’t make things any worse in Flushing on the injury-front, so we’ll give Alderson the benefit of the doubt on this one. At least he’s trying. And if Cavallini is able to insure the crucial Mets stay upright over the next six weeks into Opening Day, that’s a start.
The Mets dished out roughly $73 million on free agents this winter, making them one of the more active spenders, incredibly enough. The biggest contract (3 yrs, $39M) went to a familiar face in Jay Bruce, followed by the two-year, $17-million deal for Todd Frazier. It’s probably no coincidence that Alderson repeatedly praised both players for their durability, a trait that should be highly valued at Citi.
That said, every spring training forecast involving the Mets always comes with the disclaimer “if healthy,” and that’s the case again this year. While it’s unlikely they’ll steal the city’s spotlight from the resurgent Yankees, the Mets could grab some of the stage, buoyed by a new manager in Mickey Callaway, the former Indians’ pitching coach.
“I think any team, no matter where they’ve been identified as rebuilding or a contender is going to have expectations to win, and we’re not going to be concerned about what direction anybody thinks we’re going in,” Callaway said. “We’re going to do everything we can every day to create a culture that wins, and if we win this year, great. If not, we’re going to be putting methods, routines, processes in place to create this culture where we’re going to sustain winning for a long time, and that’s our ultimate goal.”
That goal begins now in Florida, for both the Mets and Yankees. Come September, we’ll know if another mea culpa is necessary.