John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Unfortunately, It feels like it could be a long time before we'll have actual baseball to talk about again.
So with that in mind, though the potential coronavirus ramifications have more real-world importance, I'm going to offer one last look at the optimism I felt oozing from Mets' camp before the interruption.
Even the Michael Conforto oblique injury didn't dampen spirits noticeably, perhaps because the 2020 Mets are nothing if not deep, to the point where one of the club's evaluators said to me, "We could have the best bench in the division."
Certainly there's a case to be made that no team would have better bats coming off the bench than J.D. Davis and Dom Smith, if indeed Yoenis Cespedes winds up starting. The same could be said for Jake Marisnick's late-inning defense in center field, and while a healthy Jed Lowrie would be nice to have, it seems more realistic that Luis Guillorme's defensive excellence and infield versatility adds to that mix.
Of course, depth is most valuable if it's just that, while the front-line players stay healthy and produce. And, lest anyone forget, the bullpen exorcises its 2019 demons.
We'll see. It seems likely we'll be wondering about such possibilities for weeks. Meantime, in that spirit, here are my five top takeaways from a week spent in Port St. Lucie, based on my own observations and some informed opinions from Mets' people that I trust.
1) This Luis Rojas Thing Just Might Work
I was pretty vocal in making the case the Mets should have hired a proven guy like Joe Girardi or Buck Showalter for a win-now team, but I have to say Rojas has made a solid impression so far.
"He's smart, he knows the game inside-out and he's steady as a rock," said Rich Donnelly, the Mets' Class A manager who has been in the game forever, coaching for years under Jim Leyland. "I've worked with him and I believe in him. He grew up around the game, he learned how to manage in the minors, and he's got a good way with players."
Another Mets' person put it this way: "He's less of a risk than (Carlos) Beltran would have been because of his experience. And he's not going to screw up like Mickey (Callaway)."
We won't really know until the games count, but my own sense from being around Rojas is that he gives off a vibe of quiet confidence. Even though he's clearly been instructed not to say much in terms of playing time or roles, he's comfortable talking baseball and answering specific questions about players and situations because it comes naturally to him.
He also seems to be as even-keeled, as so many have said. I thought it was fascinating, for example, that as postgame fireworks were exploding nearby as he spoke to reporters after a night game in West Palm Beach, causing quite a loud distraction, Rojas never gave the slightest indication he even noticed while answering questions.
When I mentioned that to the same Mets' person I quoted above, he wasn't surprised: "Nothing fazes him."
2) Syndergaard Has Found A Slider
Spring training results don't always mean much, but Noah Syndergaard's strong showing seemed meaningful largely because of the new, slower-velocity slider he was throwing to great effect.
At 86-87 mph, it is significantly slower than his once-fearsome 93-mph slider, the one he spent last season lamenting that he couldn't find, so the new one has an off-speed deceptiveness, and more of a downward break that got a lot of swings and misses during Grapefruit League games.
Mets' people think it's significant that new pitching coach Jeremy Hefner seemingly has had an influence on Syndergaard, convincing him that the off-speed slider will make his 98-99 mph fastball more effective as well.
"The key thing is Noah has bought in on it," one Mets' person said. "Hitters were looking at everything hard from him, including his slider, and he needs something off-speed to slow their bats down and keep them from cheating on his fastball. Jeremy has presented all of this, with more analytical information, and Noah is receptive to it."
3) Mets Are Shortstop Central
While I was in Port St. Lucie, I wrote about what an impression top prospect Ronny Mauricio was making in camp, even at age 18, but 21-year old Andres Gimenez was also turning heads with his play, prompting praise from Rojas and others about how much stronger he looked at the plate, driving the ball with some pop.
That's significant because there are no questions about Gimenenz defensively. He's a natural with the glove, and if he hits at Triple-A this season, there will be increased speculation about whether he'll supplant Amed Rosario at short as early as 2021.
"He could force a decision there," was the way one Mets' person put it.
Much depends whether Rosario builds on his second-half improvement last season. If he's a dynamic offensive player on a contender in 2020, the Mets might decide to live with his defense at short for awhile.
Or he could be used as a trade chip. One way or another, with Mauricio expected to move quickly up the minor-league ladder, the Mets will have decisions to make about shortstop.
4) McNeil More Dazzling Than Ever
Jeff McNeil was hitting .462 in spring training, 10-for-26 with three doubles and a home run, already ramping up expectations for what 2020 could look like after his breakout All-Star season in 2019.
The intrigue is whether he'll be the .349 hitter from the first half last season or the guy who hit for more power in the second half, with 16 home runs but only a .276 average.
"He can hit .350 without a doubt if he doesn't try to pull the ball too much," one Mets' person said. "He's that gifted at using the whole field. But the power plays too. You can understand how he got a little pull-happy when he started hitting home runs, and I think he knows it. He wants to lead the league in hitting."
McNeil said he thinks he can hit for average and power, but when pressed he admitted, "I want to hit for a high average."
He was making it look easy again in Florida.
5) Peterson Put Himself On The Radar
Since the Mets made him their first-round draft pick in 2017, lefty David Peterson had been largely dismissed by scouts as a "soft-tosser" whose major-league future was iffy.
However, Peterson opened eyes this spring with added velocity, throwing his fastball in the 94-mph range, to go with his solid off-speed stuff.
"Most pleasant surprise in camp for me," a Mets' person said. "A little more velo makes a difference for him. It makes his off-speed stuff more effective. It should help him get a little more weak contact."
That could matter for a pitcher who gave up 119 hits in 116 innings in Double-A last year, while pitching to a 4.19 ERA.
It could also improve the outlook for an organization that has very little in the way of top pitching prospects at the high levels of the minors.