Sandwiched around a trip across the state to Tampa, I spent two weeks at Mets camp and couldn’t help noticing one major difference from their last two spring trainings: they no longer feel compelled to tell the world they’re for real.
Two years ago the Mets seemed to be trying to convince themselves it was their time, and then after going to the World Series in 2015, they told anyone who would listen they believed they could channel the Royals and take the final step.
This spring I didn’t hear so much talk but sensed a confident vibe that seems to be an indication of how they’ve matured as a team, especially in gutting out a wild-card berth last season in spite of a zillion injuries.
In other words: they know they’re good.
“Oh, you can feel it,” Terry Collins told me one day in early March. “A lot of these guys have grown up together the last couple of years. And I’ll tell you, they were about dead and buried last year and they willed themselves to that wild-card spot.
“That took tremendous character and that goes a long way, especially coming back with the same team like we have. I felt it the first day everybody was here. They know who they are.”
That confidence has continued to grow as the all-important starting pitchers have come back so far without complications from their various surgeries last year. In addition, Seth Lugo, who threw a gem Friday night for Puerto Rico against Venezuela’s powerhouse lineup in the WBC, and Robert Gsellman, are further convincing the Mets that their late-season heroics in 2016 were no fluke.
And then there’s the Yoenis Cespedes factor. Players and team brass alike have noticed that the Cuban star seems determined to prove something now that he has his $110 mega-deal, which so many baseball people thought would affect his day-to-day effort level.
Even before Cespedes started crushing everything in sight during his Grapefruit League at-bats — he already has four home runs — Mets people were overjoyed at the way he was going about his business.
“You could see from Day One he was in better shape than last year,” one Mets’ person said. “Other players knew he was here in January (working out at Michael Barwis’ conditioning facility) and people say he was working his tail off. That set a tone for everybody because when he’s into it, we’re a different team.”
The only downer, meanwhile, has been David Wright’s comeback from neck surgery, which is on hold until he can throw again.
But while everyone around the Mets genuinely admires their captain, his setback with his shoulder didn’t sound any alarms in the front office or clubhouse because there were so few expectations for him in 2017.
All in all, then, halfway through this elongated spring training, even with several significant players playing for various teams in the WBC, there are a lot of reasons to believe this Mets’ team will live up to expectations this season.
AROUND PORT ST. LUCIE
Some other impressions from Port St. Lucie:
l While Noah Syndergaard came out throwing 99 mphn his first start and seems determined to be the best pitcher in baseball, I think Jacob deGrom is poised to reclaim his ace status. He’s got some of his old velocity back and he’s already commanding his off-speed stuff with precision.
“I don’t think he was ever really right last year, coming off his (2015) workload, and he still dominated in a lot of starts,” says an NL scout. “He’s making it look easy so far.”
l Amed Rosario has been as advertised, a potential star at shortstop, impressing Mets’ people with his offense as well as his defense so far. And while the plan is for him to spend the season in Triple-A, he is so polished with the glove that GM Sandy Alderson said he won’t hesitate to bring Rosario up this season if injuries create a need.
“His defense gives us a comfort level that he could handle it,” Alderson said.
l Gavin Cecchini, a less heralded prospect, might just be forcing his way into the Mets’ plans at second base. Though Cecchini was their first-round draft choice in 2012 as a shortstop out of high school, his erratic defense in the minors has pretty much convinced the Mets that his future is at second, and they love his bat.
“He really, really squares the ball up and backspins it so it gets that extra carry,” Collins said.
Cecchini’s future may be dictated by whether the front office finishes off that contract extension with Neil Walker that was put on hold early in camp. The Mets want Walker but at their price on a three-year deal, in part because they’re comfortable with second-base options like Cecchini and T.J. Rivera in 2018 and beyond.
l The consensus opinion around the Mets seems to be that Jay Bruce is a lot more comfortable with the idea of playing in New York now that he’s not a newcomer anymore, which should translate to solid production with the bat.
“Night and day,” was the way one person close to the situation put it, describing Bruce’s comfort level to last year. “He was tight as a drum from the day he showed up last year. It’s only spring training, but he’s not carrying that 100-pound weight on his shoulders like he was. You’ll see a big difference.”
Not everybody is ready to say the Mets’ starting rotation is a lock to get back to its pre-injury level.
Marlins’ manager Don Mattingly has the highest respect for their starters after seeing them outduel Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to knock off his Dodgers in the 2015 playoffs. But…
“For me the Mets staff right is now about potential,” the Marlins’ manager said. “That one year it kind of all came together but since then they’ve been beat up a little bit, so you don’t know if it’s going to be there or not be there.
“Who knows? I don’t know, I’m not over there, so I don’t know what’s going on. Potential-wise, if you’re the Mets, I’m sure they’re saying, ‘hey we have a rotation that can stack up with anybody.’ But they need to stay healthy.”
Mattingly did say that while he regards the Nationals’ starting pitching as basically on the same level, but nobody can match the Mets’ quality depth if all goes well.
“They have more potential No. 1s than anybody,” he said.
Mattingly also said that during his time as Dodgers manager he saw Josh Beckett come back from surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and pitch at a high level before age and other injury issues ended his career.
Matt Harvey, of course, is coming back from the same injury. If there’s a difference, Mattingly said Beckett by then had morphed from power pitcher to someone who relied more on command.
“He was older, he knew what he was doing and exactly how he wanted to pitch,” Mattingly said of Beckett. “That’s a little bit different than a Harvey, who’s a power guy. He has good secondary pitches but they work off his power. The slider’s not as effective when you don’t have to cheat to get to 98 (mph).
“So that could be a big adjustment for him if the velocity doesn’t come all the way back.”
STARTER NO. 5
The feeling around the Mets is that Gsellman is the favorite for the No. 5 starter’s spot, with Zack Wheeler likely to start the season in extended spring due to innings limits, but Lugo sure made a statement with his dominance of Venezuela on Friday night.
Pitching for Puerto Rico, he allowed only one hit over 5.1 innings, and second baseman Javier Baez would have thrown out Miguel Cabrera on that play had he handled the ground ball cleanly. It was ruled a hit because Baez was playing several steps into the outfield and had to move to his right, but it was a play the Cubs’ young star probably should have made.
In any case, Lugo’s start, which was limited by WBC rule to 65 pitches, might turn out to be the most impressive of the tournament. Consider the Venezuela lineup: Jose Altuve, Martin Prado, Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Victor Martinez, Sal Perez, Oddubal Herrera, Endor Inciarte.
And Lugo made it look easy: no walks, three strikeouts, and a lot of routine ground balls and pop-ups as he added and subtracted with his fastball from 91-95 mph, and mixed in his famously high-spin curve ball as well.
And though Puerto Rico won, 11-0, in a game shortened to seven innings due to the mercy rule, Lugo never had more than a 2-0 lead while he was in the game.
Published at Sun, 12 Mar 2017 02:11:54 +0000