Friday, April 29, 2022

The Mets' Fast Start Seems Legit

A mediocre team can fool you for a while, but this New York Mets club is for real.

Despite Wednesday afternoon's clunker in St. Louis, the New York Mets are flying pretty high these days. Their total of 14 wins is tops in all of Major League Baseball. More notably, this year, they pass the eye and smell tests as a genuine contender. That's important, because we've seen the Mets tease their fans in previous seasons with fast starts before dropping like tech stocks at the end of the last century.

There's an awful lot for a Mets fan to like about the team this season. Sure, the Mets are running the second-largest payroll in MLB, which definitely matters. This past winter, GM Billy Eppler was allowed to shop in the luxury aisle by Steve Cohen, which previous GMs in the Wilpon era could only dream about. But Mets fans who have been around for a while understand only too well that your team could spend a bundle and still really suck.

But the new Mets front office went a different route. They made the big-ticket purchase when they unexpectedly signed starting pitcher Max Scherzer, but the other additions were more of the meat and potatoes variety rather than gourmet dining. Eduardo Escobar, Mark Canha, and Starling Marte were all solid major league ballplayers, but they weren't the sexiest names out there.

When the Mets traded for starting pitcher Chris Bassitt, I looked him up to see exactly what sort of pitcher he was. I'm sure I never spent a minute of my life contemplating Bassitt before he became a Met, but he's become one of my favorite guys on the team. Bassitt doesn't light up radar guns, but he's an excellent pitcher and a great competitor. Chris is the right guy at the right time for the Mets' pitching staff, even if his paycheck is only about a fifth of Scherzer's.

There was a lot of noise in both the media and Mets Twitter for the team to deal away second baseman Jeff McNeil in the offseason. Instead, the club seemed to bank on McNeil's .319/.383/.501 combined batting line from 2018-2020 as more indicative of the type of hitter Jeff could be. At least through the club's first 20 games, McNeil is making that decision look like a smart one. Jeff is slashing .328/.388/.492, playing both 2B and LF. He's scored 11 runs and driven in 7. McNeil seems to have given up trying to be a home run hitter, which is the right decision, but he's still accumulated 7 extra-base hits — 5 2B, 1 3B, and 1 HR. When the talk of trading McNeil was constant, I figured we Mets fans would be looking at the next Justin Turner or Travis d'Arnaud — players whose careers flourished after leaving the Mets. Instead, we can hope that McNeil's renaissance season continues here in New York.

There have been plenty of other great stories for the Mets in the early going. Tylor Megill is pitching great in the rotation, while Drew Smith has been a revelation in the bullpen. Seth Lugo and Joely Rodríguez have shaken off slow starts and looked much better as of late. Francisco Lindor is enjoying a hot start and seems more relaxed and happy this season. Escobar, Marte, and Canha have all contributed in the early going. The lineup, in general, seems better balanced and more challenging for opposing pitchers to navigate.

Of course, the Mets' fast start isn't devoid of things to worry about. The bullpen still seems quite thin. Trevor May has really struggled. I don't think the Mets can get by without May getting back to being a dependable late-inning man. Adam Ottavino has pitched decently so far but hasn't earned my trust at all. I think hitters will stop swinging at sliders outside of the zone, and his stuff just doesn't look that great to my eyes.

After enjoying three excellent starts to begin the year, Carlos Carrasco had one in St. Louis that looked a little too much like most of his 2021 campaign. Carrasco doesn't have to be a dominant starter, but the Mets need him to be competent.

The Mets have decisions to make on May 1 when rosters are cut down to 26. As bill metsiac pointed out in my bullpen post, Sean Reid-Foley is out of options. The Mets will have to put him on waivers to send him down. Reid-Foley isn't a great pitcher, but he seems unlikely to me to pass through waivers without being claimed by someone.

More significant questions surround some of the position players:

  • The Mets are probably unlikely to cut Robinson Cano loose yet, but they'll sure have to consider it. He's slashing .184/.225/.263 over 40 PA. His bat looks slow.
  • Dominic Smith has not produced in his current part-time role. His .182/.300/.212 line, also over 40 PA, isn't much better than Cano's.
  • Travis Jankowski has no options left. The Mets like what he's given them so far, but is he worth a roster spot? Even with a hot start, Jankowski has no XBH in 25 PA. When those singles stop finding holes, does Travis revert back to his lifetime line of .241/.323/.318? Jankowski becomes a key left-handed bench bat if the Mets cut Cano or send down Dom Smith. I think eventually, he gets exposed as a modern-day Don Hahn.

If J.D. Davis' foot injury costs him a trip to the IL, this decision gets delayed for a while. Eventually, however, the Mets need to decide whether Jankowski gives them enough to justify a spot. More importantly, I believe the Mets need to choose between Cano and Smith and give those ABs to one of them. Neither is thriving in limited roles. If it was me, I'd ask Dom to take a demotion for some full-time hitting opportunities and give Cano another couple of weeks to prove that he's still capable of producing against major league pitching. If not, trying to keep Robinson Cano around seems like a losing proposition. Cut him loose and bring Dom back up.

When a club is playing really well, as the Mets are right now, it reminds me of an experience from my single days. You're in a bar, having a great time, and you meet a girl with whom you really hit it off. The conversation is witty and comes easily. You both really like each other, and everything seems like magic. If you make it past that first night, things get more complicated. You both figure out that the other person isn't perfect. If you stick it out, you'll find out together what you really have.

Even though I'm really optimistic about this year's Mets, I believe we're about to enter that next phase of our relationship with them. They won't keep winning at a .700 pace. The stars in our eyes will fall away. There will be rough stretches for we fans to endure. Luck, particularly luck with health, will be a necessary ingredient for things to turn out well in the end.

With 20 games down and 142 still left to navigate, our relationship with the 2022 New York Mets still has a long way to run. We've barely started. It won't always be perfect, but I like this club's chances an awful lot. I really think Eppler and the front office got a lot of things very right, spending Steve Cohen's money very wisely.

Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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