As spring training is about to start in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the New York Mets have to deal with expectations that are as high as they have been in years. Not just because they are coming off their fifth National League Pennant, but the fact that they are expected to do very well this season. In the franchise's 53 year history, the Mets have made the postseason in consecutive seasons just once (1999-2000) and have never won back to back National League East titles. Many of the "experts" have the Mets doing very well. Of course, that leads to expectations that not every team can back up. A good reminder for the Mets would be the 2015 Washington Nationals, who were supposed to run away with the National League East last season. The failure to match the expectations led to a lot of changes in Washington, including the dismissal of manager Matt Williams.
Similar to the Nationals of last season, the Mets are blessed with the most talent in the division. The return of their top starting pitchers from 2015 gives the team the best starting staff in the National League. The signing of free agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes puts them in a position to duplicate their late season offensive outburst. Prior to the trade for Cespedes on July 31 of last season, the team was the worst offensive team in all of the National League. With Cespedes and the call up of top prospect Michael Conforto, the Mets suddenly transformed into a scoring machine.
The key to the Mets of 2016 is obviously their starting rotation. Matt Harvey won 13 games, lost 8, pitching to a 2.71 earned run average and struck out 188 batters in just over 189 innings pitched. A case could be made that Harvey had the strongest season to date of any pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery. Jacob deGrom (14-8, 2.54, 205 Ks, 191 IP) proved that his breakout rookie of the year season of 2014 was no fluke. 2015 rookies Noah Syndergaard (9-7, 3.24, 166 Ks, 150 IP) and Steven Matz (4-0, 2.27, 34 Ks, just under 36 IP) added almost another 35 innings of postseason experience to their belt. 2015 Tommy John surgery casualty Zack Wheeler (11-11, 3.54, 187 Ks, just over 185 IP in 2014) is expected to join the rotation in July. Until then, the ageless Bartolo Colon (14-13, 4.13, 136 Ks, just under 195 IP) will hold down the number five spot in the rotation. Other options include Logan Verritt (1-2, 3.59, 18 games, 4 starts) and Sean Gilmartin (3-2, 2.67, 50 games, 1 start).
One place that the Mets could have upgraded a little bit better is their bullpen. Jeurys Familia (2-2, 1.85, 43 saves, 86 Ks in 78 IP) became one of the top relief pitchers in the entire National League last season. Addison Reed (3-3, 3.38, 51 Ks, 56 IP) will be with the Mets for the entire season after prospering after a late season trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Mets signed free agent left hand pitcher Antonio Bastardo (4-1, 2.98, 64 Ks in just over 57 IP with the Pittsburgh Pirates) and re-signed left hander Jerry Blevins after his early 2015 season dominance (7 games, 5 hitless innings, 4 strikeouts). Right hander Hansel Robles (4-3, 3.67, 61 Ks, 54 IP) will likely be part of the bullpen, but I strongly feel he needs to step his game up. At times, his fastball has looked too straight and it kind of resembles a 2007-2008 Guillermo Mota. The signing of free agent right hander Jim Henderson to a minor league contract could turn out to be a great move for the Mets. Henderson has returned from surgery that cost him most of the 2014 season and all of 2015. In 2013 for the Milwaukee Brewers, Henderson was 5-5, 2.70 with 28 saves and 75 Ks in 60 IP.
While it was stated earlier that the Mets could have upgraded their bullpen a little bit better, a healthy Henderson and the potential emergence of right handed pitcher Rafael Montero could change the perception of the Mets depth. Montero made the team out of spring training, but pitched just five games before missing the remainder of the season. Montero posses a good fastball and has a slider that can be dominant in a relief role. In the past, starting pitchers like Familia and Jenrry Mejia moved to the bullpen allowing for better results. Montero has the tools to be able to do the same.
It is extremely understated how solid of a season right fielder Curtis Granderson had for the Mets in 2015. The numbers (.259, 26, 70, .821) do not even describe how valuable he was to the Mets as their leadoff hitter. With the addition of Cespedes (.291 batting average, 35 home runs, 105 runs batted in, .870 on base plus slugging), the Mets have a legitimate number three or four hitter. They also added second baseman Neil Walker (.269, 16, 71, .756) in a deal with the Pirates and signed free agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (.265, 15, 58, .744) from the Tampa Bay Rays. Conforto (.270, 9, 26, .841 in 56 games) will be the everyday left fielder with Cespedes in center. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud (.268, 12, 41, .825) played just 67 games last season and hopes are he can stay healthy for a full season.
Of course, the Mets captain David Wright is hoping to return to form after a very difficult 2015 season. While he did perform well in the 38 games he played (.289, 5, 17, .814) and delivered key home runs in his first game back from his injury in Philadelphia, the game in Cincinnati where the Mets clinched the NL East title and the Mets first home game of the 2015 World Series against the Royals, thought was Wright's career could have possibly been over. What started out as a hamstring injury turned into spinal stenosis leading doctors to question how long Wright was going to be out. Some players diagnosed with spinal stenosis have never played again. Wright did return, but it remains to be seen how much of an impact he will have on the 2016 Mets and whether he will ever become the same player he once was. First baseman Lucas Duda (.244, 27, 73, .838) is the streakiest hitter in the game. He hit eight of his home runs in a week of games. When he is struggling, it is tough to watch. Hopefully, Duda can maintain his hot streaks a little bit more than he did last year. The lineup I would start the season with would go like this: Granderson RF, Wright 3B, Walker 2B, Cespedes CF, Conforto LF, d'Arnaud C, Duda 1B, Cabrera SS. The lineup would change based on whether Conforto becomes a top player and whether Duda is on a hot streak.
The Mets bench will play a very strong role in the performance of this team. A case could be made that the Mets started to gel when they acquired third baseman Juan Uribe and utility player Kelly Johnson from the Braves to deepen their bench. They possess a similar deep bench in 2016, with infielders Wilmer Flores (.263, 16, 59, .703) and Ruben Tejada (.261, 3, 28, .688) having the ability to start for a while if needed. Juan Lagares (.259, 6, 41, .647) won a Gold Glove in center field for the National League in 2014, but battled a shoulder injury and digressed both offensively and defensively in 2015. A forth outfielder role may be ideal for Lagares, who is joined by free agent signing Alejandro DeAza (.262, 7, 35, .755). However, the unexpected signing of Cespedes could make DeAza expendable, especially since his playing time will be drastically effected. If DeAza is traded, minor league invitee Roger Bernadina will have a solid chance of making the team. Kevin Plawecki (.219, 3, 21, .576) will be the team's backup catcher.
On the farm, outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Travis Taijeron are both likely to make their major league debuts this season. Obviously, it would take an injury to see either gain a lot of experience this year. Shortstop Gavin Cecchini had a solid season in Double- A and could be in position to join the team in September. First baseman of the future Dominic Smith is expected to continue his rise through the system, potentially putting him in a position to be the Mets starting first baseman in 2017.
The 25 man roster the Mets should break camp with as they head to Kansas City on April 3rd should be as follows: Granderson, Wright, Walker, Cespedes, Conforto, d'Arnaud, Duda, Cabrera, Flores, Tejada, DeAza, Lagares, Plawecki, Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz, Colon, Familia, Reed, Bastardo, Blevins, Robles, Henderson, Montero. Barring injuries, I cannot see any exceptions.