Mets’ 2020 season will swing on these 10 ‘if’ players
PORT ST. LUCIE — If at full health — and considering the organization maybe that term should come with a laugh track — the Mets’ 26-man roster has little mystery.
The full squad takes the field for the first time Monday and based on performance, lack of minor league options and salaries, there are 26 obvious players for 26 spots. Now that includes Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie, and you wouldn’t exactly go to Vegas and bet on that duo being active at Citi Field March 26 vs. the Nationals.
Tomas Nido is out of options, but unless the new swing he is working on translates into an uptick in offense, the Mets could go with Rene Rivera or reach out for a free agent such as Russell Martin to be Wilson Ramos’ backup. Also, Luis Guillorme is not currently one of the 26, but if injury opens a roster spot he would make it unless the Mets seek better shortstop backup to Amed Rosario.
For the most part, though, what you see now will open the season on a roster that Brodie Van Wagenen describes as “having more answers than a year ago.” Agreed. The Mets still are worrisome if they have to rely too much beyond their 26, but the major league roster is made sturdier by the emergence of Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis plus Seth Lugo as a pen force, Jacob deGrom’s brilliance and the baseline of high-end performance from Michael Conforto.
The difference between 82 and 92 wins, therefore, revolves around the identity of a group of players with recent success who didn’t have it last year. Consider that Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Rick Porcello, Noah Syndergaard and Michael Wacha had their ERAs climb anywhere from a run-plus more per game to the three-plus of Diaz. Robinson Cano’s OPS fell 109 points and Brandon Nimmo’s 103 between 2018 and injury-curtailed 2019s. Dellin Betances went from a 2.70 ERA in 2018 to facing two batters in 2019. Lowrie went from an All-Star to eight plate appearances.
Van Wagenen has called getting rid of the “ifs” on the roster central to his job. But there are different kinds of “ifs.” There is hoping on players who have never done it or did it long ago. The Mets’ season, however, will swing on how 10 players with recent high-end success but problematic 2019s perform. My list in order of importance:
1. Diaz — He went from one of the best to worst relievers in his transition from Seattle to New York. The stuff and strikeouts were mainly there, but the homers betrayed mental and mechanical malfunctions. The Mets feel they will solve this. If Diaz handles the ninth, the rest of the bullpen lines up so much better.
2. Syndergaard — In Sunday’s Post, I compared Syndergaard’s career to date to Gerrit Cole in the Pittsburgh years — talent and tease. Here is another one: Stephen Strasburg. The 2019 Nationals made the playoffs rather than the Mets and went on to win their first title. One huge reason was that Strasburg A) stayed healthy and B) came to peace with a repertoire in which he did not have to overpower with every pitch. Syndergaard needs that combination.
3. Rosario — He is a year younger than Alonso, who won the Rookie of the Year last season. He will play at 24 in 2020. If the Mets get the guy who hit .322 over his final 87 games of 2019 and was more consistent on defense, then he is in the conversation with Washington’s Trea Turner for best NL East shortstop.
4. Betances — Are there worse injuries for any pitcher — much less a tall, power pitcher who has had difficulty fielding his position in the past — than to the shoulder and Achilles? Betances insists he is fully healthy and will be himself on Opening Day. So let’s remember what that is: From 2014-18 only Aroldis Chapman accumulated more relief WAR than Betances, who had a 2.22 ERA, struck out 40.3 percent of those he faced and held hitters to a .167 average.
5. Porcello — He has made at least 27 starts in all 11 seasons. So even a five-plus ERA with the ability to consistently log innings will have value over the Mets having to turn to Walker Lockett or Corey Oswalt types. But if he can get to the 4.28 ERA of 2018, then the handoff to the pen becomes so much more effective.
6. Nimmo — He was in a lot of the bigger Mets trade discussions and they would not bite on moving him to land Starling Marte from Pittsburgh because they weren’t sure Marte was enough of an upgrade when considering the cost differential. If he is healthy and the .886 OPS guy of 2018, the Mets have a legitimate leadoff hitter. Plus, even with Jake Marisnick around he will need to handle a lot of center field ably.
7. Cano — Remember that Van Wagenen did not see Cano and his contract as the price that had to be paid to land Diaz even while surrendering Jarred Kelenic. The Mets GM thought Cano was a baseball savant with plenty still left. But his health, offense and defense all faltered in 2019. If Cano does not revive then working him out of regular play becomes a delicate act for a rookie manager in Luis Rojas, who is just 14 months older than Cano.
8. Familia — The Mets will hope less is more with the considerably lighter Familia. If the Mets have Diaz, Betances, Lugo and Justin Wilson performing well, then Familia is a luxury. But the type of luxury that pitches to the raw quality of his stuff would lift the Mets to among the majors’ best pens.
9. Cespedes — Laugh if you want, but would you absolutely bet a large amount against Cespedes — needing to play to recoup money this year and be a viable free agent in the offseason? The Mets have enough outfielders to win without Cespedes. But even with all that has happened, it is hard to say any of their current outfielders are more talented than Cespedes.
10. Lowrie — He gets compared to Jacoby Ellsbury — they were both first-round picks of the Red Sox in 2005 — for being hard to get on a field at less than 100 percent. But he played in 310 of a possible 324 games in 2017-18 and was 28th in the majors in WAR. If he can even provide 300 plate appearances at that skill level, think what that does for the Mets’ versatility and depth.
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