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Five spring training storylines to watch this year

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New faces, intriguing positional battles and deGrom contract take center stage for the Mets.

Houston Astros v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Mets enter spring training looking to put a second consecutive fourth place finish behind them and return to the playoffs for the first time since their 2016 Wild Card berth. There are no shortage of intriguing storylines (and no, not that “Player X is in the best shape of his life”) to keep an eye on as camp kicks off.

The Brodie Bunch

Brodie Van Wagenen talked the talk this offseason, telling the world that he plans to “develop a winning culture and a winning mindset” and “deliver this city and fan base a team they can be proud of” before challenging their NL East rivals to “come get us.” For the most part, the first-year general manager has walked the walk, doing his best to infuse the roster with an influx of new talent, although he fell far short of making a big splash and signing a bona fide game-changer like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or Dallas Keuchel [all of whom, it bears repeating, are still available].

Fans will get their first look at the fruits of Van Wagenen’s offseason labors this spring, with Robinson Cano — the centerpiece of his first (and splashiest) move as general manager — front and center. Cano enjoyed a solid 2018 (.303/.374/.471, 136 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR) but was limited to just 80 games while serving a PED suspension. Still, Cano automatically becomes one of the most potent bats in the lineup and, at 36 years old, seems to have plenty left in the tank, as he played in at least 150 games in each of the previous 12 seasons prior to 2018.

Fans will also be introduced to dynamic new closer Edwin Diaz, who arrived from Seattle with less fanfare than Cano but is the best acquisition Van Wagenen made this winter. The soon-to-be 25 year old Diaz is coming off an All-Star season in which he posted a sparkling 1.96 ERA and 1.61 FIP while setting a Mariners franchise-record with 57 saves. With a fastball that touches 100 miles-per-hour and a devastatingly filthy slider, Mets fans will want to tune in every time Diaz takes the field.

In addition to Cano and Diaz, Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie, Justin Wilson, Keon Broxton, J.D. Davis, Luis Avilan, and Hector Santiago will all don a Mets uniform for the first time, with the latter four looking to play their way onto the team. Jeurys Familia will also reacquaint himself to the club that dealt him to Oakland prior to last year’s non-waiver trade deadline.

Give Us McNeil!

Sometimes, it’s the moves you don’t make that could be the best ones. Early on, rumors swirled that infielder Jeff McNeil – fresh off a stellar rookie campaign in which he posted a 2.7 fWAR in just 63 games and finished with a 137 wRC+ and an .852 OPS – might be on the move as part of the Cano trade. Van Wagenen held on to him and, as the offseason went on, it became clear the Mets would find a spot for McNeil.

That role will rely largely on his ability to play the outfield, as the Lowrie signing along with the club holding on to Todd Frazier has resulted in a log jam in the infield (never a bad problem to have). As a result, sophomore skipper Mickey Callaway – who last year referred to McNeil as strictly a second baseman – confirmed that McNeil will receive significant playing time in the outfield this upcoming season. He has only seen nine games in the outfielder over the course of his minor league career, so while it is not an entirely new challenge for McNeil, there will likely be some growing pains.

It will be interesting to observe his development into an outfielder over the course of the spring. Ideally, Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo will remain in the corner spots, which leaves McNeil spending the lion’s share of his efforts in center field. However, he could also slide to the corners, with Conforto or Nimmo taking over center field duties as well. Given the strides he made at the plate last season, the Mets will want to have McNeil’s bat in the lineup as much as possible, making his move to the outfield the biggest experiment happening at Mets camp this spring.

Who’s On First?

Peter Alonso, who is one of the team’s top prospects, could emerge as the Opening Day first baseman if he outperforms the field — including Davis, Dominic Smith, and Todd Frazier — this spring. Amazin’ Avenue ranked Alonso as the team’s number 1 prospect, with Baseball Prospectus placing him 40th overall among all prospects in baseball.

Last year, the first baseman hit .285/.395/.579 with 36 home runs in 132 games split between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Las Vegas. Alonso also performed well in the Arizona Fall League over the winter, posting an .849 OPS and connecting on six home runs in 27 games. While his bat appears close to major-league ready, the biggest question mark surrounding him is his defense, which could be a factor whether the team decides to bring him along to Washington D.C. to start the year.

Even with a stellar spring, Alonso could still start the year in Triple-A Syracuse. If the team were to call him up two or three weeks into the season, they could get an extra year of team control, which could be an enticing prospect for the club. Still, a lot of hype has surrounded Alonso, even prompting Van Wagenen to visit him in Arizona and proclaiming that the 24-year-old “has a chance to be an impact player.” Van Wagenen has made it clear that Alonso has every shot to earn the starting first baseman’s job right off the bat, so it’s now up to Alonso to reward that confidence and win the job.

Extreme Makeover: Mets’ Bullpen Edition

There is no sugarcoating how bad the Mets’ bullpen was last year. The team finished with the third-worst bullpen ERA (4.96) and fWAR (-0.6), and the second-worst bullpen FIP (4.61) in baseball. They posted the third-worst HR/9 (1.35) while ranking in the bottom third in K/9 and in opponents’ batting average.

Van Wagenen made the pen a priority, adding Diaz and bringing back former Mets closer Familia to set-up for him. On top of that, he signed veteran lefty Wilson to the mix. Along with Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, the club has five spots set, leaving two (or three) empty spots to fill with no shortage of names being thrown into the mix.

Leading the pack are Avilan, whom the Mets signed to a minor league deal over the winter, and Kyle Dowdy, whom the Mets selected in the Rule 5 draft. There’s also Santiago — who also received a spring training invite — and the cavalcade of familiar names from the past couple of seasons. This means fans will see more of Tyler Bashlor, Drew Gagnon, Eric Hanhold, Corey Oswalt, Tim Peterson, Jacob Rhame, Paul Sewald, Drew Smith, and Daniel Zamora, each of whom pitched at some point in 2018 to varying results. It’s anybody’s guess as to who will win a spot this spring, but expect plenty of these names to be weeded out early once games begin. There are also still some strong relievers still available on the free agent market, including Tony Sipp and Adam Warren, both of whom would make a lot of sense for the Mets as they look to build a strong bullpen.

Pay That Man His Money

While eyes are fixed on the diamond, Jacob deGrom contract extension talks will also continue into spring training. Coming off an historic year in which he won the National League Cy Young award, deGrom earned himself a nice raise and will make $17 million in 2019. After this season, deGrom has one more season of arbitration ahead of him before becoming a free agent and, presumably, earning a lucrative long-term contract. If he hits the open market in 2020, he would almost definitely be priced out of the Mets’ range, so it would absolutely behoove the club to figure out a long-term solution.

As of now, talks appear to have stalled or, at the very least, no progress has been made public. According to the latest report from Mike Puma, deGrom has informed the Mets that they will not negotiate past Opening Day, which means that this situation will either resolve itself during spring training or will last into next offseason. Last July, Van Wagenen — deGrom’s agent at the time — suggested that the club should trade their ace if they don’t plan to extend him. Now it’s time for the Mets to back that up and commit long-term dollars to deGrom.

While there is likely no shot of any sort of any detrimental drama, the last thing the team wants is a disgruntled ace on their hands going into the season. Once Opening Day hits, all talks will be tabled until next offseason, which adds a cloud of uncertainty around both deGrom and the Mets. At this point, it might be too risky a proposition for the team. The club could secure one of the building blocks of their team long-term while winning some brownie points with their fans in the process.