I'm home from Port St. Lucie. This past week was my 11th time covering and attending workout week during Spring Training. I want to say camp was laid back and more quiet than usual, but I can't say with confidence that this statement is true. Instead, it could just be a byproduct of how Tim Tebow and Brodie Van Wagenen (as well as Mike Francesa, Alex Rodriguez and a snake) pulled the attention of fans and media.
In hindsight, this is probably a good thing, because it allowed for the players, coaches and specifically Mickey Callaway to focus more on baseball than autographs and answering questions from fans on fences. In fact, last year I saw Callaway on the field multiple times every day, this year I might have saw him once or twice and, in some cases, not at all.
As I said earlier this week, the star of camp was not a player, not even Tebow, it was Van Wagenen. The Mets GM must have signed more autographs and took more pictures with fans in five days than Sandy Alderson did during his entire eight years at the helm.
This is not a judgement on Alderson. It simply underscores the difference between Alderson (who is a methodical, wise, reserved, older man) and Van Wagenen (who is a polished, engaged, active, younger man). The two leaders simply created a different dynamic in camp.
The Alderson Era was often quiet, baseball-centric and serene. I found this past week filled with off-field frenzy, flash-popping energy and, my favorite addition, music, which blared from the front office tower at the center of the back practice fields. Beneath it, fans mill around, rest, grab shade and refreshments and run field to field. However, this year they did it surrounded by the sounds of Bruno Mars, Keith Urban, Aerosmith, Kanye West and a range of other music capturing the vibe of players, Van Wagenen and staff.
By the way, it was also unique to see so many people that cross generations and front offices all in one place at the same time. For instance, while it is to be expected that Van Wagenen would be in camp, he was often surrounded by Omar Minaya, Terry Collins, Guy Conti and people that preceeded even his predecessors. Marlon Anderson is even in camp, having been moved from the Brooklyn Cyclones to being a minor-league instructor and new eyes and ears for Minaya and Collins.
I also need to compliment Mets fans in camp that displayed a wide-range of jerseys, spanning eras (lots of Seaver and Koosman, lots of Keith and Carter) and spanning talent (be it Ike Davis, Turk Wendell and Endy Chavez). Great work, everyone...
As a result of all the above, it was difficult to hone in on new and old players and the overall tenor of camp, which is the question most people want answered when I return from Florida.
"How are they looking," and, "What's the vibe," is repeatedly asked of me. And, to be honest, I'm not sure how to answer right now.
I mean, for the most part, everyone looked healthy, so that's good. (Aside from Jed Lowrie, who has a capsule sprain in his left knee and someone I actually never saw once during my five days.) Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard walked tall and strong and were popping mitts like you'd expect from them. Again, all good. Jeff McNeil's swing is a joy to watch, Robinson Cano is Robinson Cano, Michael Conforto is free and easy, Todd Frazier was moving with confidence and Wilson Ramos looks like he's been with the Mets for his entire career. To repeat, all good...
Like most people, I wanted to fill my mind with a firm opinion on top-prospect 1B Pete Alonso, but I just couldn't lock it in. He can hit, no question, but, while he's improved in the field, he still looks like he's thinking too much and sometimes too slow to react to impromptu situations. Overall, I think he'll be fine, but, like most of everyone else, I'm not sold on where to set expectations.
Basically, it was business as usual, with everyone just doing their thing, no fuss, no muss...
That said, I don't see a heavyweight. The camp, lineup and roster is missing one big focal point that will pull the attention of opposing fans, energize fans and tip this team from feeling like a mid-80 win club to one that will go wire-to-wire for a playoff spot. It was once Mike Piazza. It was once Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado. Most recently, it was Yoenis Cespedes. Right now, it's no one. It's noticeable when looking online at the 40-man roster, and it feels noticeable when observing the team in Port St. Lucie.
Cano, Frazier, Ramos and Lowrie are leaders. Brandon Nimmo, Conforto and Amed Rosario look poised to turn a corner in their careers. But, with all due respect, none of the above is striking fear inside a pitcher's heart. Bryce Harper would create that fear and add a block of concrete to the middle of the lineup that would help make everyone better around him.
If I'm an opposing pitcher, there's a major difference between game-planning for Nimmo, McNeil or Lowrie, Conforto, Cano and Ramos, as opposed to Nimmo, McNeil or Lowrie, Conforto, Harper, Cano and Ramos. Frankly, with Harper batting behind him, and Nimmo on base 40 percent of the time, I could see Conforto becoming a 6.0 WAR player with close to 80 extra base hits and 100 RBI.
It kills me that Harper isn't on the Mets, especially if (as I believe) Mike Trout joins the Yankees in two years. I can see the poster clear as day, Trout and the clean-cut Yankees on one side with Harper and feisty Mets on the other, face to face, Rocky vs. Drago, making all New York center stage for baseball. Ugh.
The thing is, regardless of the marketing, buzz and revenue potential of Harper joining the Mets, which should be enough to sign him, his physical presence, youth and talent instantly improves the team. It bumps up expectations in a way that matches the team's desperation to win a ring and fits in with Van Wagenen's glitz, polish and different brand of leadership. I'm holding out hope. It just makes sense.
Minus Harper, I leave Port St. Lucie feeling about this team very much the same way I felt when I arrived this past weekend. They look good, not great. For all of the talk about eliminating 'ifs,' I see a lot of slippery spots on the roster. To win the NL East, not only will the top of this team's roster need to remain healthy, but Van Wagenen is going to need to acquire a hitter at some point during the summer and his competition will need to hit a hurdle or two along the way. It's not going to be smooth sailing, but that's OK. The grind can often be fun. But, make no mistake, it's going to be a grind. I'm ready for April.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!