Around this time one year ago, Seth Lugo was coming off of a stellar performance in the World Baseball Classic, and Robert Gsellman was pitching himself into contention for a roster spot with a strong showing in Grapefruit League play.
John Harper boldly proclaimed:
Spring training has confirmed what the decision-makers believed their eyes told them last September: Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo are the real thing, and combined with a return to health of the more touted starters, no team has more depth and potential dominance than the Mets.
No team has more depth and potential dominance. That depth was tested in a big way, and it failed. The day after that article was written, Steven Matz was scratched from his spring training start and was sidelined until June. Then, just days later, the news broke that Seth Lugo had a partial tear in his UCL and was shut down.
The Mets also opened the 2017 season with Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo on the disabled list, as well as David Wright. The question is: Are the Mets in a better position going into Opening Day than they were one year ago? My answer is an emphatic and confident mostly—probably—yes.
Let’s take a look at how the 2018 and 2017 Opening Day rosters compare, position by position.
I figured I’d start with the bad news. First base is the only position where there is a strong argument that the Mets are weaker this season than they were going into last season. The 2017 Opening Day roster had a very Good first baseman on it. This year, the Mets are banking on 36-year-old Adrian Gonzalez to return to some semblance of his former self. Early returns on that small investment are not looking great. And with Dominic Smith still sidelined with quad discomfort, there isn’t anyone kicking down the door to take Gonzalez’s place.
That said, it’s not like a counterargument does not exist. Mickey Callaway has indicated that he wants Wilmer Flores to get at-bats, and if used properly in a platoon with Gonzalez, there is a chance the Mets could get decent production from the position. And it very well could be that Gonzalez’s leash becomes short upon Michael Conforto’s return from the disabled list, at which time the Mets will have the liberty to play Jay Bruce at first base if they so choose.
This time last year, the Mets were paying Neil Walker $17.2 million to man second base. This offseason, Walker had trouble finding a major league job at any salary, despite being a 2 WAR player last year. Meanwhile, the Mets picked up Asdrubal Cabrera’s option, and after the acquisition of Todd Frazier, Cabrera is now slated to play second base for the Mets in 2018. Walker and Cabrera profile pretty similarly with the bat and while the price difference may cause one to balk, with Cabrera moving to second base, where his defense profiles much more favorably than shortstop, they should see similar production from the position this year. Cabrera primarily playing second also means that Wilmer Flores could see at-bats there as well when Cabrera needs rest. The utilization of Flores primarily on the right side of the infield should help maximize his value.
It is clear that Amed Rosario is still finding his own in the big leagues. However, he very obviously has something the Mets desperately need: good defense and speed. After many seasons of lackluster defense at shortstop, it will be a nice change of pace to have Rosario’s glove in the field for what will hopefully be a full season. Players who started at shortstop at various points throughout the past few years—Jose Reyes, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Wilmer Flores—now all become backup or even emergency options, which is great for my peace of mind when Matt Harvey needs a double play to get out of a jam. Plus seeing him leg out a triple is an absolute joy, reminiscent of the early Reyes years.
There is almost no question that the acquisition of Todd Frazier to play third base represents an improvement over last year, when Jose Reyes was the starter. It seems the Mets have finally accepted that—even though David Wright’s return would be an overwhelmingly happy surprise—simply putting a placeholder in for Wright is not a viable plan. This pushes Reyes into a utility role and a pinch running option, a role for which he is better suited.
Renewed hope for the Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki tandem stemming from their strong finish in 2017 combined with good showings in camp has significantly improved the outlook for the catching position in 2018. While Rene Rivera was a perfectly serviceable backup for the Mets and played the role of personal catcher to Noah Syndergaard well, having two catchers that could theoretically be starters sharing time should hopefully result in better production from the position this season. The Mets also signed Jose Lobaton during the offseason, who represents reasonable depth in the minor leagues along with Tomas Nido, who took a step forward with a good performance in Grapefruit League play.
With Juan Lagares on the DL to start the season last year, the Mets lacked a true center fielder, having to give Curtis Granderson a lot of playing time there. Between the end of last season and a KoST-level performance in spring training this year, Brandon Nimmo has hit himself into the starting center field role to begin the season, while Michael Conforto finishes his rehab. The emergence of Brandon Nimmo as a major leaguer may mean the outfield is even—dare I say—crowded upon Conforto’s return. The Mets may be able to best utilize their talent by allowing Nimmo and Lagares to platoon in center field and moving Jay Bruce to first base, flexibility they did not have last season. An outfield of Yoenis Cespedes, Nimmo/Lagares, and Michael Conforto is a pretty darn good one, if you ask me.
Arguably, last year’s bench had two 25th men on it: Ty Kelly and T.J. Rivera. This year, Ty Kelly (it’s like he never left) does not make the cut and Phillip Evans fills the role of 25th man. However, this arrangement will hopefully be temporary until Michael Conforto comes off the disabled list, at which point the Mets bench will theoretically consist solely of actual major league baseball players. This is no knock against Evans, who absolutely earned his spot and whose positional flexibility will serve the Mets well while he is in New York. But the ghost of Eric Campbell not haunting me would be a step in the right direction.
The starting pitcher on the mound for Opening Day will be the same one as last season. But hopefully that’s where the similarities end for Noah Syndergaard between last season and this one. We’ve all seen Syndergaard bring the heat this spring. Jacob deGrom, too, looks to be in mid-season form already. It remains an incontrovertible truth that an injury to either one of them is devastating for this team. But isn’t that true of almost any MLB roster? More depth is always better, but superstars have achieved that status for a reason; they’re irreplaceable.
As for the rest of the rotation, we all remember the historic awfulness of last season. The Mets’ front office seems to remember, too, which is why they acquired Jason Vargas. Ironically, he is the pitcher that is hurt as the Mets break camp, but unlike last season’s spring rotation setbacks, it seems his injury should not be a lasting one. However, the Mets can be encouraged by what they saw from Steven Matz and Matt Harvey this spring. There is no denying that Matz is effective when he is healthy. Matt Harvey remains more of an open question, but unlike last season, the Mets—for now—have alternatives. Seth Lugo holds Jason Vargas’ place and can remain in the rotation when Vargas returns if another pitcher falters. Gsellman stands ready in the bullpen with a strong spring showing under his belt as well. Zack Wheeler has some things to figure out in Triple A, but is healthy.
Obviously, health and effectiveness on the part of the starting rotation trickles down to the bullpen, which is strengthened by the presence of Robert Gsellman over Rafael Montero. And upon Jason Vargas’ return to action, it should become even deeper, with one of the other members of the rotation—probably Seth Lugo—joining the relief corps. The loss of Addison Reed hurts, but Anthony Swarzak should complement A.J. Ramos nicely in the setup role and it would be hard for either of them to be worse than their 2017 counterparts, Fernando Salas and the newly optioned Hansel Robles.
The 2017 bullpen also lacked Jeurys Familia for almost the entire duration of the season, so the presence of him alone already represents an improvement. Jerry Blevins remains—ever the stalwart. But where the 2017 bullpen had Josh Smoker and Josh Edgin, the 2018 bullpen has Paul Sewald and Jacob Rhame, with Robles and Wheeler at the ready to contribute if needed, along with the gaggle of relief pitchers Sandy Alderson acquired in all of his trade deadline deals last season.
Minor league depth
By the time Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith were promoted to the big leagues last season, they were about the only thing for Mets fans to get excited about. Once healthy, Dominic Smith will be waiting in the wings for his next opportunity to take a step forward at the big league level. Luis Guillorme and Gavin Cecchini, one thought to be marginal depth at best, took big steps forward in their development this spring and can now perhaps be counted as legitimate bench options, should the Mets need them this season. Minor league outfield depth remains pretty thin. However, new acquisition Bryce Brentz may remedy that somewhat if he clears waivers. Chris Flexen had himself a nice spring (in a small sample) and hopefully another year of minor league experience will make his next cup of coffee in the big leagues, should it come, a more pleasant experience. The Mets also signed A.J. Griffin to a minor league deal to fill out the starting pitching depth in Las Vegas.
Have we simply shuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic this offseason or will health prevail? That’s why they play the games, as they say. For now, it’s Opening Day and I will allow optimism to reign. Could the Mets have done more this offseason to hedge against injuries derailing them yet again? Absolutely, yes. They could have invested marginally (in baseball payroll terms) more money at first base and gotten much more of an upgrade. They could have signed a front-end starter instead of a back-end one and made the rotation seem truly rock solid. But, did they do more than I expected they would? Yes. Are they a deeper team heading into Opening Day than they were last year? I believe they are.