Thursday, April 7, 2022

And So It Begins

Will this be the dawn of a new era where the Mets finally turn the corner as a franchise and leave "LOL Mets" behind?

The New York Mets' 2022 season gets underway tonight in Washington, provided the storm clouds that have taken over the eastern section of the country decide to allow it. The threat of bad weather and some of the recent injury news have combined to dampen the spirits of Mets fans a bit. But optimism always reigns supreme at the start of a new baseball season — and this has the potential to be the year where the Mets finally leave the Wilpon era in the rearview.

For a while this spring, everything seemed to be going the right way for the Mets and their fans. Steve Cohen and the Mets did a great job of reversing the negative coverage of the team last fall with some great free agent signings and strong hirings. Then the somewhat surprising end to the MLB lockout meant a full 162-game schedule would be played after I had all but given up hope that they'd be playing baseball in April. The 2022 era of good feelings culminated on March 27, when Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer took the mound against the Cardinals in the same spring training game. Both pitched effectively, and it looked for a moment that the Mets would start off the year with their 1-2 rotation punch intact.

There's no sugarcoating the bad news of deGrom's injury. In a best-case scenario, the Mets' ace is unlikely to take the mound before some time in June. Moreover, nothing about deGrom's recent health history would suggest that the best case is the most likely way things will turn out. It would be easy to allow ourselves to wallow away in pessimism and worry, but I still like this team's chances of competing for the division all year long.

It's hard to maintain optimism with the deGrom news, the worries about Max Scherzer's hamstring, and Brandon Nimmo not making it into the regular season before his first injury concern. However, I take a lot of comfort in the depth that Billy Eppler built into this roster, but the 2021 season taught me that depth can be overwhelmed by bad luck. Luck is something that cannot be controlled.

What can be controlled is starting the year off with the right people in place. The weirdness with the hitting coaches in 2021 was a significant cause of the offensive struggles. Things look much more settled down with the Eric Chavez hiring. Chavez seems to have the right balance between using analytics and not overwhelming his hitters. The Mets position players will reap the benefits of having a consistent voice in their ears from the start of spring training right through the season.

The additions of Starling MarteEduardo Escobar, and Mark Canha should help the Mets be more productive at the plate this season. I still worry that the lineup may be a bit short, but that worry can be alleviated if Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis both produce this season. Smith looked great this spring.

Even Robinson Cano showed some promising signs late in spring training after looking like a dead bat walking early on. There is no way that Cano will give the Mets $20 million worth of production this season, but he doesn't have to. The last two years of Cano's contract is a sunk cost that will be paid out as long as he's not stupid enough to get caught using PEDs again. Despite the cheating, Cano is well-liked in the clubhouse and has been an effective mentor to younger hitters. If he can provide enough offense to justify a roster spot, I could see Robinson Cano actually being a positive for this team.

The pitching has the potential to be a strength for this team, but, obviously, health is going to play a huge factor in that. I have decided with this latest injury that I'm not going to have any expectations for deGrom. I'll root like hell for him to return and stay on the mound into the postseason, but I just can't live and die with every new injury the man suffers like I did last season.

The Mets are fortunate to have a second #1 starter in Max Scherzer. However, since he turns 38 in July, the Mets will need to be smart with Scherzer. Max has shown a remarkable ability to remain an elite pitcher well past the age that most pitchers aren't any longer, but Father Time always wins the battle in the end. Let's hope that doesn't happen this season.

There are injury questions for Taijuan Walker and Carlos Carrasco. Walker is coming back from knee surgery and was awful in his final spring start against the Nationals. Apparently, the knee was a factor in Walker's rough second half last season. Even if it takes a bit for Taijuan to be at full strength, the Mets are likely to get a better season from him over the long haul. The Mets just need to be careful that he doesn't wind up with an arm injury in the short term while trying to get his mechanics back in tune.

Carrasco has a track record of being a good pitcher, and his velocity looks promising, although his results weren't great this spring. Carrasco is a veteran, so I feel he gets the benefit of the doubt. I'll be worried if he's not pitching effectively by May. Carlos doesn't need to pitch like a top-of-the-rotation pitcher to help the Mets in 2022. He just has to pitch well enough to give them a chance to win ballgames. The Mets lost too many games last season where the starting pitchers took them out of the game early.

Chris Bassit has pitched well in spring games, and he's one real X factor for the Mets this season. If he could pitch as well as he has the last four seasons in Oakland, Bassit can really stabilize this rotation. The Mets really need Chris Bassit to take the mound 30 times and give them a real chance to win most of those starts. The other X factor for the rotation is tonight's emergency starter Tylor Megill. I really like Megill's chances of taking a step forward and being an important part of this rotation. I could see Megill getting playoff starts this fall, provided the Mets get there.

The bullpen is cause for some worry. I did not like the trade of Miguel Castro for Joely Rodríguez. Castro was inconsistent with his command at times, but he was an important contributor to the Mets' bullpen. Rodríguez is a 30-year-old journeyman lefty reliever who has accumulated all of 95 innings in parts of four seasons. Maybe the Mets see the potential of a real breakout for the man. I'll keep an open mind. But I'd rather have Castro back if I actually had that choice to make.

My X factors for the bullpen this season are Drew Smith and the slew of power arms the Mets currently have in their system. If Smith can finally stay healthy this season, he could pick up a lot of the slack for the departed Miguel Castro. The talent and the stuff are there.

But the real boost for this bullpen might be the exciting arms the Mets have in their farm system. If the Mets could emulate what the Rays have done and turn some of these guys into pitchers who can get major league outs, it can make up for the club's decision not to spend much on their bullpen. The Braves went the other way and made significant investments in Kenley Jansen and Collin McHugh. As things currently stand, the Braves seem well ahead of the Mets in their bullpen. What might even things out would be the Mets figuring out how to leverage talented young arms. We'll see how that plays out this season.

The most significant X factor for the 2022 Mets is likely to be the new manager. Buck Showalter will lead the team in a way that Luis Rojas struggled to do in his two seasons running the show. Frankly, Rojas didn't look like he was ready to be a major league manager, much less a manager in New York. It's not often that a seemingly perfect guy is available when your team is looking for a new manager, but that was the case for the Mets this winter. Buck Showalter isn't a miracle worker. He can't snap his fingers and make all his ballplayers healthy and productive. But day in and day out, he can be a consistent and decisive leader, which should translate into a few more wins.

My prediction for the season is that the Mets win around 90 games, compete with the Braves all season, and settle for a Wild Card. I think they have a real chance to win the division if things go right for them, but the deGrom injury was a big blow. In any case, the Mets simply cannot afford a disappointing season in the mold of last year's. It's time to turn things around and step away from the "LOL Mets" era.

Please be well and take care. Thanks so much for stopping by. Let's go Mets!

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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