The Mets off season started out by preparing for life without Cespedes. The Mets picked up their 2017 team options on outfielder Jay Bruce and infielder Jose Reyes. They also remained interested in bringing back second baseman Neil Walker, who was coming off a solid offensive season which saw him hit .283 with 23 home runs despite missing the last month and a half of the season due to a back problem. The idea was even floated that the Mets would be interested in bringing in free agent outfielder Jose Bautista (was a Mets player for a couple of hours in 2004) as a possible alternative if Cespedes signed elsewhere. It turned out Cespedes did re-sign with the Mets. But please do not act like this was completely expected to happen. The Mets had not given out a $100 million contract to a player since David Wright signed his 8 year, $138 million contract extension after the 2012 season and had signed just three players in their entire team history to deals over $100 million total.
In addition, New York gave the $17.2 million qualifying offer to second baseman Walker, who accepted it. The Mets then also brought back relievers Jerry Blevins and Fernando Salas, the former a dominant member of the Mets relief core in 2016 and the latter a surprising run during the month of September of last season, a 2.08 earned run average in just over 17 innings pitched. Added to the returns of Cespedes, Walker, Bruce, and Reyes, the Mets have taken on the San Francisco Giants model of "keeping the band together."
Outside of Cespedes being injured, the only thing that could derail this team is a significant injury to their starting rotation, mainly right hander Noah Syndergaard. In fact, a case could be made that the Mets may not be able to recover from a Syndergaard injury in the same way they would one with Cespedes. Syndergaard is coming off a 14-9 season, one in which he finished with a 2.60 ERA, a 1.149 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), a 2.29 fielding independent pitching, a 158 ERA+ and 218 strikeouts in just under 184 innings pitched. Jacob deGrom was limited to 24 starts last season but seems to be back to full strength. Matt Harvey went just 4-10 last season with a 4.86 ERA before having surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Two pitchers who were godsends to the Mets rotation last season are back, Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo.
I intentionally left out a starting pitcher and I did that for a reason. Left hander Steven Matz cannot be counted on to be a consistent part of this team's rotation. As far back as can be possibly remembered, Matz has not made it a month without complaining about some ailment in his left arm. It is not a bold prediction to predict that Matz will never make 28, let alone 30, starts in a big league season. Zack Wheeler seems ready to return to the big leagues after missing the past two recovering from Tommy John surgery. Wheeler has to be in consideration for a rotation spot, especially after the latest Matz injury, but the Mets are planning on curtailing his innings to as low as 100 for this season. It is quite possible that the Mets use him as a long reliever to start this season, possibly being a two inning middle reliever. There was a left handed pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who took to that role pretty well last season, Andrew Miller.
The fact that there is less than a week away from the start of the season and Major League Baseball has not ruled on a suspension for Mets closer Jeurys Familia really has only one logical solution. Maybe baseball is not going to suspend the Mets righty for his domestic violence incident earlier this off season. If they do now, they look very silly since MLB had the entire off season to do something about it. I understand that Familia did pitch for the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic, but that has been over for quite a couple of days now. If (when) a suspension is announced, I would like to hear the reason the announcement was not made immediately after the WBC was concluded. (Update- Familia has been given a suspension of 15 games to start the season, announced on March 29.)
With Familia starting the season on the restricted list, Addison Reed will be the closer. Trying not to look at spring training stats, Reed has not pitched well. But he is coming off a great season in 2016 where he pitched to a 1.97 ERA in 80 games while striking out 91 batters in just less than 78 innings pitched. Salas, Blevins and right hander Hansel Robles will follow Reed with left handed pitcher Josh Smoker earning the role as additional lefty specialist. The last two spots (until Familia returns) can go to Wheeler and right hander Rafael Montero. However, they could also go right hander Paul Sewald, or even to Lugo is Matz is somehow able to start the season in the Mets rotation. (Update- Matz will in fact start the season on the disabled list with Wheeler getting a spot in the rotation, The final spot bullpen spot is likely to come down to Lugo and Montero.)
The Mets will have a little bit of a logjam in the outfield with Cespedes, Bruce, Curtis Granderson, and Michael Conforto all being on the opening day roster. The injury to Juan Lagares makes Conforto a little bit more of a fit, though it would be tough to see the latter getting enough playing time that warrants him remaining in the big leagues. But, Conforto can change that as there is always room in the lineup for a player that hits. Lucas Duda comes back from a back injury and is expected to play first base against right hand pitchers, with Wilmer Flores playing against left handers. Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera are back to help form the Mets middle infield, with Reyes playing third base as long as Wright remains out.
The biggest question remains at catcher where the Mets are putting all their faith in Travid d'Arnaud. This will be a make or break season for the one time Mets prospect, where the Mets chose not to upgrade the position both at the July 31st trade deadline and this past off season. It is likely that backup catcher Rene Rivera will be Syndergaard's primary catcher, which starts opening day. The Mets lineup should look like this: Reyes 3B, Cabrera SS, Cespedes LF, Granderson CF, Walker 2B, Bruce RF, Duda 1B, d'Arnaud C. The Mets bench will consist of Conforto, Flores, TJ Rivera, Ty Kelly, and Rivera.
The Mets possess a couple of top prospects that expect to be regulars for the team as soon as next season. Shortstop Amed Rosario hit .324 last season in High- A and Double- A and should hit for a little bit more power as he adds some more muscle mass. First baseman Dominic Smith hit .302 and drove in 91 runs as a 21 year- old playing in Double- A. Left handed pitcher Thomas Szapucki has Billy Wagner- like stuff and should shoot up the minor league chain in no time. Right hander Justin Dunn should be on his way up in a similar fashion as well. Left hander PJ Conlon does not get a lot of attention because he does not throw hard. He does, however, have very good control and command of his stuff and should down the road be in the discussion when talking about the Mets young future starters. Gsellman and Rivera qualify as rookies and will both be part of the Mets opening day roster.
I think the National League East division will come down to the wire this season, something that has not happened since the years of 2007 and 2008. The Phillies had the division wrapped up early in 2009-2011 and the same can be said about the Nationals in 2012, 2014, and 2016, the Braves in 2013, and the Mets in 2015 though some races stood out a little bit longer than others. Vegas has the Mets over/ under number at 89.5 and I am taking the over, slightly, putting the Mets at 92-70, first place in the National League East division, two games ahead of the Washington Nationals. This race will go down to the last series of the season.