Saturday, April 2, 2016

2016 Mets season begins with high expectations

Last Fall the New York Mets gave us a run that nobody ever expected. First they won the NL East, then they outlasted the Dodgers in the NLDS, and stunned the national darling Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, dominating them in a four game sweep. Suddenly a franchise that couldn't do anything right was in its first World Series in 15 years.

While the Mets came up short in the Series to the Kansas City Royals, a series plagued by hideous mistakes, it was still a pleasant surprise to even see the Mets reach the pinnacle of the sport.

Now the expectations are much, much higher. Many think the Mets have what it takes to win the World Series this year. Others think it's World Series title or bust.

No doubt as we head into the 2016 season, the Mets come in with one of the best, young rotations in all of baseball. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz are not only all under the age of 28; they all can light up a radar gun in the mid to upper 90s, and have already had a full taste of postseason experience. Some believe this quartet has a chance to be the best ever, and might be the only time we see four potential aces all in the same rotation.

That is a lot of hype and promise for a young rotation, but these guys have earned it to an extend.

Harvey proved his "ace" status with his performance in Game 5 of the World Series. Even though Kansas City came from behind and tied that game and won it in extras, Harvey shut them down for much of the night, and had he finished that game with a 2-0 shutout it would have been one of the best World Series game outings in history. With that said, Harvey is always a guy that stirs controversy, some of it his own volition.

Before the Spring started he and his agent Scott Boros floated out stories about his pending free agency and desire to remain a Met long term. Then at the end of camp amid a rather frightening story regarding a bladder issue that nearly cost Harvey his Opening night start, he refused to talk to the media. Yes, Harvey is a controversial guy, but he is the bulldog of the staff.

As for deGrom, expect another outstanding year from him. deGrom won 17 games between the regular season and playoffs combined last year, and would surprise nobody if he won 20 games this year. While Harvey might be the bulldog of the Mets staff, deGrom is probably the Mets most reliable starter, pitching to an ERA around 2.61 and a WHIP of 1.04 his first two years in the League.

Syndeergaard will be a guy to watch this year. This being his first full year in the Majors, syndergaard is a big, strong kid with a tremendous fastball. He has electric stuff, and is not afraid to challenge hitters inside as we saw in the playoffs last year. This should be a 10+ win year for him this year.

While the Mets rotation doesn't have many questions, except for maybe the pending return of Zach Wheeler later this summer, the biggest questions regarding the Mets entering Opening Day is its lineup and bullpen.

Regarding the bullpen, the Mets must find out who is their bridge to Jeurys Familia. Addison Reed did a pretty good job in the roll when he was acquired at the deadline, but really struggled in the playoffs. Reed's track record does not say "set-up man" either, so one has to wonder if either veteran Antonio Bastardo or Hansel Robles end up taking that 8th inning role as the year progresses. We have to wait and see.

As for the Mets lineup, here are some key story lines:

1) Yoenis Cespedes: Cespedes signed a three-year deal with the Mets in the off-season, a contract that is really a one-year deal, since he can opt out after the 2016 season. This will be the Mets first chance to see Cespedes over the course of 162. While nobody should expect the kind of torrid stretch we saw from him last August and September, expect Cespedes to be the Mets biggest and most powerful weapon in the lineup. He hit 35 homers and drove in 105 last year, and at age 30 is still in his prime. This guy made a pitchers park like Citi Field look hitter friendly last year. That being said there are worts in his game, namely his defense. While he is a gifted left-fielder, Cepsedes had a lot of trouble in center last year for the Mets. The Mets will trade defense for offense  here, but he needs a better year defensively in center this season.  Of course the biggest story with Cespedes will be whether he opts out after the season.

2) David Wright: Wright's health is once again a story line. He dealt with spinal stenosis for almost the entire season, and yet came back in late August and still ended up hitting .289 for the season. Wright deserves a lot of credit for finding a way back onto the field last year, but the question is at what cost? How much Wright will we see this year? Wright already missed a chunk of time in Spring Training, and we should expect him to get plenty of time off early in the year as Terry Collins plays it safe. The Mets would love 130 out of Wright this year, but, that is a proposition that might be asking a lot. If Wright doesn't play much it means we could see more of Wilmer Flores or Eric Campbell at third.

3) Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera. Walker's addition is going to draw a lot of scrutiny since he is replacing Daniel Murphy, the guy who set the world on fire with his home-run happy postseason run through the National League. While Mets fans will miss Murphy's grit, they are getting a player in Walker who is a slight upgrade. Walker is a better fielder (.989 fielding percentage in 2015) and one who hits for a lot of power, averaging 16 or more homers in each of the last three years. Murphy was a good player, but not always the most consistent. While, Walker has to adjust to life in the Big Apple, he is going to likely hit around .270 and produce 15 homers and 70-80 RBI when the season is over.

Cabrera, however is a bigger gamble. The Mets basically signed an older version of Wilmer Flores. Outside of one really good year in 2011 with the Cleveland Indians, Cabrera has really struggled over the years. Not to mention he is a terrible field short stop. Cabrera's addition to short might come under heavy scrutiny, especially with fans clamoring for more Flores.

 4) Michael Conforto: Conforto has a chance to become of the baseball's best young hitters. Breaking out with nine homers and 26 RBI in 56 games last year, many expect Conforto to become a bigger line-up presence this year. And with good reason. Just look at him, he's a big strong left-handed hitter. he has 30-100 written all over him. The good thing for Conforto is that he can hide in this lineup. The Mets have Cespedes and Lucas Duda to take some pressure off of the young man in the power department. And with veterans David Wright and Curtis Granderson around, Conforto doesn't have to carry the load so quickly. Come 2017 and 2018, Conforto will be the face of the franchise along with deGrom and Syndergaard.

2016 Prediction: 93 - 69, 2nd place behind Washington. With tremendous expectations comes great pressure. We have been here before with the Mets. In 2001 the Mets were coming off a World Series appearance and ended up winning only 82 games. In 2007 and 2008, the Mets had teams capable of getting to the World Series, only to choke in the month of September. So there is no guarantee that the Mets are destined to succeed in 2016. The Mets are a good team, they could be great if everything breaks right.

The National League is very deep however. The Cubs are probably the best team on paper. The San Francisco Giants have gamers and can pitch with the best of them. The Arizona Diamondbacks have a young, aspiring team. The Pittsburgh Pirates still have a lethal lineup, and the Washington Nationals are not going to choke this year like they did in 2015. Expect the Mets to be in a dog fight for the NL East right down to the wire with the Nationals in 2016, with the loser getting a wild card.

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