The New York Mets won the National League pennant last year for the first time in fifteen years. They enter the 2016 season, which begins on Sunday night against the same Kansas City Royals that beat team in the World Series, a team with championship expectations thanks to their success last year and a roster that complements their incredibly talented starting rotation. The Mets are right up there with a handful of other teams that are supposed to be good enough to win it all this year, nobody will think you're crazy if you said they are your pick to do so.
To get to this point, the Mets succeeded in building a team around young, dominant starting pitching and the veteran—and team captain—David Wright. Not every move Sandy Alderson has made since he took over as general manager has worked out, but the Mets acquired Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler. Over the past few years, they've graduated those two pitchers plus Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz, and none of them were sent back to the minors for performance-related reasons. Because of the timing of Harvey's comeback from Tommy John surgery, Wheeler will be the first of the five to even pitch in a minor league rehab game when he does so this year on his own comeback from the procedure.
Other significant moves helped lay the groundwork for the Mets' success last year and continued high expectations this year. The team took Michael Conforto in the first round of the amateur draft in 2014, and the college graduate made his major league debut just a year and a few weeks later. By all accounts, his rookie season was a resounding success. He's also part of an outfield that features Curtis Granderson, who was the team's best player from the start of last season to the finish and whose four-year deal, signed before the 2014 season, looks completely reasonable. And it didn't hurt that the Mets also acquired catcher Travis d'Arnaud alongside Syndergaard when they dealt R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays.
There were plenty of other roster decisions and player development successes that helped set things up this way, too, but the moves that were made with the long-term success of the team in mind look as good now as they ever have.
With that foundation in place, coming off the loss to the Royals in the World Series, the Mets' offseason took a bit of a winding path. Their first moves were minor league deals with pitchers Stolmy Pimentel and Jim Henderson. It sounded like the team was going to sign Ben Zobrist for its first big move of the offseason, but he chose to sign with the Chicago Cubs instead.
The Mets didn't hesitate to fill their need at second base—with Daniel Murphy clearly on his way to signing elsewhere and Dilson Herrera still not-quite-a-guarantee at the major league level—by trading the left-handed Jon Niese to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neil Walker. From there, the Mets lost minor league pitcher Michael Bowman to the Cardinals in the Rule 5 draft, though it wouldn't be surprising if he doesn't make the Cardinals' roster or doesn't stay there all season, eventually ending up back with the Mets.
Then Michael Cuddyer, who had signed a two-year deal before the 2015 season that cost the Mets a first-round draft pick, shocked everyone by retiring, forfeiting the grand majority of his 2016 salary in the process. For the Mets, who had been on such a limited budget over the past few years, those savings seemed pretty significant.
The team signed Asdrubal Cabrera, a perfectly cromulent major league shortstop, to a two-year deal. Then it re-signed left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins, who had missed almost all of the 2015 season because of a broken—and then re-broken—forearm. He got a one-year deal, and so did the lovable Bartolo Colon.
At that point, the offseason was pretty good. For a team that wasn't expected to sign any huge contracts, things were going pretty well. And in that context, the Mets' signing of Alejandro De Aza was another reasonable move. It wasn't ideal, but De Aza was an outfielder with a track record of major league success, or at least capability, and better than the backup outfielders the team had at the time.
In January, the team designated Carlos Torres for assignment to make room for Antonio Bastardo, who was signed to a two-year deal. Ditching Torres entirely still seems a bit odd given his results pitching out of the team's bullpen over the past three seasons. But Bastardo was another good move. A few days later, the Mets shocked the baseball world by re-signing Yoenis Cespedes to a three-year deal, which could very well be a one-year deal because of its opt-out clause following this season, at $75 million.
Aside from their release of Ruben Tejada a couple of weeks ago in the middle of spring training, the Cespedes signing was the Mets' last transaction of the offseason involving a major league player. And it brought the excitement level surrounding the 2016 team to its highest point yet.
There's little doubt that the Mets' 2016 rotation is going to be good. There's a decent chance they'll be one of the better rotation in baseball history, too. Harvey is starting on Opening Day, Syndergaard is starting the second game of the season two days later, and deGrom is starting the third game of the season, the Mets' home opener. All three could be Opening Day starters and aces on most of the rest of the major league rosters this year. And the Mets still have Matz behind them, with Colon, who started on Opening Day last year but obviously isn't on the same level as the other four at this point in time, as their fifth starter.
It's a cliché, but it really is an embarrassment of riches. And if Wheeler's return from Tommy John goes smoothly, he will join the team sometime in July. He never quite reached the level of dominance that the other pitchers have before he had his surgery, but the notion of "Zack Wheeler, fifth starter" is pretty ridiculous.
The position players
As much as the rotation warrants the bulk of the attention cast upon the Mets, the lineup is nothing to sneeze at. From top to bottom, the Mets' starting position players are league-average or better. Shuffle them around however you'd like, but a lineup that looks something like this should score runs at a good clip:
Curtis Granderson - RF
David Wright - 3B
Yoenis Cespedes - CF
Lucas Duda - 1B
Travis d'Arnaud - C
Michael Conforto - LF
Neil Walker - 2B
Asdrubal Cabrera - SS
Terry Collins will likely tinker with the order a bit over the course of the season, but that's a starting lineup without any holes in it. Wright will need to at least take some days off to prevent his spinal stenosis from getting too bad, but there are a few players in that lineup who could slot into the second spot in the Mets' batting order.
The Mets' bench would look a little better with Juan Uribe still on it, but they still have a pretty good group of players there. Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza serve as the fourth and fifth outfielders thanks to the re-signing of Cespedes. Kevin Plawecki hasn't officially made the team just yet but should be d'Arnaud's backup. Wilmer Flores figures to play the role of understudy to Wright at third base and utility man in general. And with Tejada gone, either Matt Reynolds, who can back up both middle infield positions, or Eric Campbell, who can back up the corner spots on the field, will stick as the 25th man on the roster once the team's quirky first-week schedule is over and they settle into a normal roster configuration for a National League team.
Jeurys Familia is clearly the key to the Mets' bullpen this year. Beyond him, the Mets won't have Jenrry Mejia, as he was suspended for life for his third violation of the league's PED policy, but they do have Addison Reed and Antonio Bastardo, both of whom are good. There's also Hansel Robles, who was pretty good last year and could take a step forward if he keeps his strikeout rate high and fixes his home run problem from the second half of last season. Blevins plays the role of lefty specialist, and so long as he's used properly, he should be good, too.
There a still couple of open spots at the back of the bullpen, at least as far as we know publicly, but the likely candidates—again, once the Mets' roster returns to normal after their abundance of off days in the first week of the season—look like Sean Gilmartin and Jim Henderson. If either one of Erik Goeddel or Logan Verrett were to make the team over either of those pitchers, it wouldn't be shocking, but whatever the case, the Mets should have two pretty good relievers to round out the pen. It's not the Royals' bullpen, but few are. And right now, it doesn't look like it'll be a liability.
The division and the postseason
The season still has to be played, and the Washington Nationals aren't going to be pushovers. But right now, the Mets seem like the safest pick to win the National League East. The Miami Marlins are strange, but they probably aren't going to be very good. The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies have high hopes of being very bad as they continue their respective rebuilds.
If the Mets do, indeed, win the division, or even if they don't but still end up in the Wild Card game, they should be a dangerous team in the postseason. With their abundance of pitching, they would have as much pitching flexibility as a team can get for either a one-game playoff or a five- or seven-game series.
Plenty of things can go right or wrong between now and the end of October. But if the year ends with a Mets parade in lower Manhattan, nobody would be all that surprised.