John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The temptation is to say things should settle down now that spring training is opening this week and actual baseball takes center stage, but over the years I've learned never to bet against calamities arising at any moment around the Mets -- now more than ever it seems.
Still, it would have to be a doozy of a spring in Port St. Lucie to top the chaos of an offseason that saw Carlos Beltran hired and fired as manager before ever putting on the full uniform, Yoenis Cespedes stripped of millions of dollars due to a contract violation involving some type of confrontation with a wild boar, and the team being sold and then un-sold in the space of two months.
We'll see. At least the focus turns toward the field now, with young Luis Rojas overseeing his first spring training as manager of a ballclub that has championship potential -- if all the ifs go their way, starting with the bullpen.
There is bound to be drama of some sort that you wouldn't predict at the moment, but for now here are the Mets' five most intriguing storylines as spring training opens.
1) All Eyes On Rojas
We probably won't get a true read on the 38-year old manager until the season starts and he has to answer for his in-game decisions every day. But Rojas is so new to all of this at the big-league level that his every move will be scrutinized even in Port St. Lucie.
The games may not count, but Rojas will have a chance to show that he has the presence of a major league manager, from the way he handles press conferences to how he interacts with players.
It helps that he's managed many of the Mets' current big leaguers when they were in the minors -- in addition to being around the ballclub last year as quality control coach -- and they've been very public about how much they like Rojas.
But now he'll have to make tough decisions that will surely test some of those relationships. How does he handle playing time for Cespedes? What if Robinson Cano's lack of hustle costs the Mets in an obvious way? How does he divvy up the late-inning bullpen roles among his high-profile relievers?
In some ways, Rojas is much more prepared for the job than Beltran would have been, after years of managing in the minors. Yet the Mets hired Beltran in November at least partly because they couldn't be sure Rojas was ready for the bright lights.
So let the scrutiny begin.
2) How Does Cespedes Look?
Speaking of scrutiny, Cespedes also will be under a microscope as he tries to prove there is life after going one-on-one with a wild boar and breaking an ankle for the trouble, in addition to finally returning from double-heel surgery.
Anticipation has been building since Endy Chavez posted that video of Cespedes taking BP in November, all the more so when Eduardo Perez relayed a conversation from October in which the Cuban star predicted he'd hit 40 home runs in 2020, or maybe even 52 to match his jersey number.
Obviously Cespedes has much to prove, starting with whether he's recovered enough from the injuries to play at least a serviceable left field. When Brodie Van Wagenen recently pronounced him fit to contribute offensively, while offering no mention of his defensive capability, that only added to the suspense.
Expectations should be tempered by Cespedes' long absence, as well as his penchant for quad and hamstring pulls, in addition to the more serious leg injuries. Yet he'll be highly motivated to earn back, via appearance incentives, some of the millions he forfeited, while also playing for a new contract after this season.
Of course, now that his contract has been reduced, there's always the chance the Mets could trade Cespedes to an AL team, where he could DH at least part-time, if they believe strongly in J.D. Davis in left field and can get something of value for him.
3) Who's The Closer?
During his brief time as manager, Beltran had been quick to say his intention was to have Diaz close in 2020, no matter how bad he was in 2019. So it was interesting to hear Rojas say that bullpen roles will be determined along the way, presumably depending on performance.
That would seem to open the door for all kinds of possibilities, considering that Seth Lugo was brilliant in the late innings last year, yet limited by the partial tear in his elbow ligament, which compromised his ability to be the full-time closer. And Dellin Betances could well return from injuries as a Yankee to being one of the best relievers in baseball.
Throw in the possibility that Jeurys Familia's extreme weight loss could get him back on track -- or so the Mets hope -- as well as lefty Justin Wilson delivered dominance in the second half of last season, and this could be a 'pen built for mixing and matching, as dictated by analytics.
But that usually sounds better in theory than it works in reality, as relievers prefer to know their roles and having a closer creates easier decision-making for the manager.
Diaz still figures to get the first crack, in part because Van Wagenen gave up so much to get him, but how Rojas goes about using his relievers will be a huge test for the new manager.
4) Six Starting Pitchers, Five Spots
It would appear to be simple enough: one of the two low-cost free agents the Mets signed, Rick Porcello or Michael Wacha, wins the job as the No. 5 starter and the other becomes the long man in the bullpen.
Except there seems to be at least some thinking in the front office that Steven Matz shouldn't be a lock for the rotation, and instead looms as a possible reliever should both Porcello and Wacha have strong springs.
Maybe some Mets' people believe Matz could be a more effective reliever than the other two, but I'd counter that the lefty also has the highest ceiling as a starter, now that he's stayed healthy the last two seasons, making 30 starts in each, and gotten better at handling frustration that led to blow-up innings in the past.
Bottom line, though, the Mets will be happy if they have to make such a choice, as it would mean all of their starters are healthy come Opening Day.
5) The Polar Bear Effect
It wasn't just Pete Alonso who was responsible for the obvious, team-first camaraderie that developed in 2019, one that became especially evident in the fun the Mets had celebrating several walk-off wins.
By all accounts, Davis and Dom Smith played major roles as well in bringing a certain espris de corps to the clubhouse. But there's no doubt Alonso emerged as the centerpiece, taking on a leadership role even as a rookie, in part with his home run bat but also his genuine nature to which teammates gravitated.
By the time he handed out specially-designed cleats for all the Mets to wear on 9/11, in fact, it seemed only a matter of time before Alonso succeeded David Wright as the next captain.
That time isn't here yet, but how Alonso continues to grow as a leader could be vital for the 2020 Mets. A winning clubhouse culture, after all, could make life a lot easier on a rookie manager.