The New York Mets finished in last place in the NL East last year (well, tied for last place) and they missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, but it was a great year for the franchise. Hedge fund titan and lifelong Mets fan Steve Cohen officially purchased the team in November. At long last, the Mets are free from the Wilpons.
"The amount of work that's going to be required here is more than a hobby," Cohen told reporters, including MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, during his introductory conference call. "I consider it something that I'm essentially doing it for the fans. When I really thought about this, I can make millions of people happy. And what an incredible opportunity that is."
Cohen's net worth is reportedly at least twice that of any other MLB owner, and he put his money to work over the winter. He and team president Sandy Alderson overhauled the front office and committed nearly $110 million to free agents, and made arguably the most significant trade of the offseason. The Mets are finally acting like a big-market behemoth.
It was not all smooth sailing this offseason, however.. Mickey Callaway, the Mets' former manager, , creating further questions about the team's hiring policy (Alderson hired Callaway during his previous stint with the club).
"We have terminated Jared Porter this morning," Cohen wrote in January. "In my initial press conference I spoke about the importance of integrity and I meant it. There should be zero tolerance for this type of behavior."
On the field, the Mets are no doubt improved. Improved enough to return to the postseason or win the NL East? That's the hope, at least. Let's preview the 2021 season in Flushing.
Win total projection, odds
- 2021 SportsLine projection: 87-75
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): +1000
- 2020 Record: 26-34 (last in NL East)
- CF Brandon Nimmo
- 2B Jeff McNeil
- SS Francisco Lindor
- RF Michael Conforto
- 1B Pete Alonso
- LF Dominic Smith
- 3B J.D. Davis
- C James McCann
- Pitcher's spot
If there's a knock on this lineup, it's that it leans left-handed. Four of the top six spots figure to be occupied by lefties and that could be an issue in a division that includes Patrick Corbin, Max Fried, Brad Hand, Jon Lester, Matt Moore, Will Smith, Drew Smyly, and other notable southpaws. Lefty masher Jose Martinez was expected to have a bench spot, though he tore his meniscus this past weekend and will be out long-term. The club is reportedly looking at Maikel Franco to replace him.
Being too left-handed is nitpicking, really. There is every reason to believe this lineup will give good pitchers trouble and bludgeon mediocre pitching. Pillar and Villar are viable starting-caliber players and the Mets have them penciled into reserve roles. That's pretty good depth, something the Mets have lacked in recent years.
Projected rotation, bullpen
DeGrom is arguably the best pitcher in the sport and Stroman, Carrasco, and Walker are an excellent 2-3-4 (Joey Lucchesi and righty Jordan Yamamoto are fighting for a rotation spot this spring. Whoever wins the job only figures to keep it warm for Noah Syndergaard, who is expected back from Tommy John surgery at midseason. The bullpen has the potential to really dominate -- Seth Lugo will miss the first few weeks of the season after having elbow surgery -- though Betances has battled injuries the last few years and Diaz and Familia can be prone to spectacular meltdowns. Still, the bullpen is improved with May and a full season of Castro, who came over at the trade deadline last year.). The fifth spot is not Peterson's just yet. He had an impressive rookie season a year ago, though lefty
Are any extensions on the way?
and no team has more big-name extension candidates than the Mets. Lindor is the obvious one and there's no chance -- none whatsoever -- the Mets made the trade without planning to at least make an aggressive push to sign him long-term. It takes two to tango, and by all accounts Lindor is willing to listen to extension offers.
"The great thing about this is I have an amazing agent, David Meter, and he's going to handle all of that," Lindor told reporters, including MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, earlier this week. "That's his job. That's why he gets paid. So let him handle all that, and then he's going to call me and keep me in the loop obviously, and then it's going to be a decision after that. So let him have all the headaches, let him run all the numbers and stuff. He's got to chew it up and then give it to me."
Francisco Lindor, Mets extension talks are expected to begin in earnest this week. Opening Day is at least a soft deadline, so figure about 24 days to get it done.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 8, 2021
The recent Fernando Tatis Jr. mega-extension ( ) is not especially relevant to Lindor because they're at very different points in their careers. Tatis signed his deal four years from free agency. Lindor will be a free agent after this season and has much more leverage. The more relevant deal to him is Manny Machado's 10-year, $300 million contract. That is Lindor's floor. $30 million a year and at least 10 years seeing how he turned only 27 in November.
Beyond Lindor, the Mets also must deal with Conforto's impending free agency. The just-turned 28-year-old homegrown outfielder has been among the best hitters in baseball the last few years, and his agent (Scott Boras) would not be unreasonable to seek a deal in line with the six-year, $150 million contract the Blue Jays gave George Springer this winter. Conforto is three years younger than Springer and he will be the best outfielder on the free agent market by a fairly significant margin.
"To be completely honest, I've been so focused on preparing myself for this season," Conforto told DiComo after reporting to spring training. "I can't lie and say that I haven't thought about it, but I'm trying to keep my focus where it needs to be, and that's on this team. So that's where we're at."
Syndergaard is another impending free agent and thus an extension candidate, though his injury complicates things. The Mets likely want to see him complete his Tommy John surgery rehab and return to the mound effectively before throwing big money at him. At the same time, now might be their best (only?) chance to get a discount. Stroman is another extension candidate, and even with Cohen's deep pockets, it might be one or the other, Syndergaard or Stroman.
One thing to keep in mind as the Mets explore extensions with their core players: Robinson Cano comes back on the books next year. Cano is serving a 162-game suspension this year and he'll forfeit his entire $24 million salary. The Mets still owe him $48 million from 2022-23 though. Even if the Mets release him, they have to pay him. The Mets have roughly $85 million coming off the books after this season, but that includes Conforto, Lindor, Stroman, and Syndergaard. They have to re-sign or replace them and also navigate around Cano's contract. It's a significant expense.
How improved is the team defense?
The Mets have been a sneaky-bad defensive team the last few years. Their .684 Defensive Efficiency was fourth worst in the game last year (that means they turned only 68.4 percent of batted balls into outs), which isn't surprising seeing how many players they played out of position. On any given day they had a first baseman (Smith) or third baseman (Davis) in left field, a second baseman at third base (McNeil), and/or a left fielder in center (Nimmo).
Because there is no universal DH, the Mets have to put Smith in left field again this season. His bat is far too good to leave on the bench (frankly, if it's between Alonso and Smith at first base, Alonso should be on the bench). Cano's suspension allows the Mets to put McNeil at second and Davis at third, their natural positions, and McCann is a massive upgrade over Wilson Ramos defensively behind the plate. It remains to be seen whether McCann's breakout bat is legit. There are few doubts about his defense though.
Lindor is an elite defender at short and a significant upgrade (the Mets ranked 28th among the 30 teams with minus-31 Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop the last three years) though Nimmo will still have to play center. The Mets at least have Pillar available as a defensive replacement (and Almora to replace Smith in left). The Mets are definitely better defensively at catcher and short, and Davis and McNeil at their natural positions should help as well. Smith in left and Nimmo in center though? Eh, not great.
Defense is difficult to measure but it can have a substantial impact. The more plays you make, the fewer pitches your pitcher has to throw in an inning, and that has a trickle down effect on the bullpen and reliever availability in the coming days, so on and so forth. A bad defense creates a lot of problems. In Walker and particularly Stroman, the Mets have two starters who don't pile up strikeouts and instead rely on their defense to make plays. If their defense is shaky again, it'll get exposed quick.
The bad news: the Mets made 10 errors in their first seven spring training games this year, including seven errors in a two-game span this past weekend. The good news: it's only spring training, and there's plenty of time to iron things out. Lindor and McCann are big upgrades. Whether they're enough to turn one of the worst defenses in the league into even an average unit, nevermind an above-average unit, will help decide the NL East race.
"You want to say that it's early in camp and we have room (to improve defensively), but we need to do it right now," manager Luis Rojas told reporters, including Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News, this past weekend. "If we're going to say that we're a good team, we have to go out there on the field and be a good team. We end up hurting ourselves defensively. That's just something that can't happen."
Will the incremental upgrades be enough?
Is it fair to say the Mets had an underwhelming offseason? The Lindor and Carrasco trade was a slam dunk, but much of the winter was spent being the runner-up. The Mets pursed Springer and settled for Pillar. They pursued J.T. Realmuto and settled for McCann. They pursued Trevor Bauer and settled for Walker. The Mets failing to sign a single top-four free agent is definitely not a thing I expected after Cohen took over. I thought the Mets should've been hard after Realmuto, personally.
Missing out on big free agents may make the offseason feel disappointing, but it's doesn't mean it was a bad offseason, and avoiding big money long-term deals could prove to be a blessing in disguise. The Mets are inarguably better at shortstop, at catcher, and in the rotation. I mean, Steven Matz, Rick Porcello, and Michael Wacha combined to make 25 starts -- nearly half the season! -- with a 7.46 ERA last year. It won't take much for Carrasco, Stroman, and Walker to really move the needle.
Also, the Mets improved their depth considerably. They were undone by poor backup plans far too often in recent seasons. They gave too many innings to guys like Drew Gagnon and Paul Sewald and too many at-bats to guys like Keon Broxton and Guillermo Heredia. Now they have legitimate MLB players like Pillar and Villar on the bench, and Lucchesi and Yamamoto stashed as extra starters. The Mets raised their own internal replacement level this winter.
It can be easy to forget the Mets were legitimately bad in 2020. Last place in the division bad. Maybe their true talent level was higher and the short season skewed the results a bit, but at some point you are what your record says you are. According to SportsLine, it's going to take 87 wins to secure the second wild card spot in the National League (FanGraphs says it'll take 88 wins). The Mets played at a 70-win pace last year. Did they get 17-18 wins better this winter?
I think there's a pretty good chance that yes, they did. Carrasco, Lindor, McCann, Stroman (who didn't pitch at all last year), and Walker are multi-win upgrades over the guys they're replacing, and the improved depth is worth a few wins as well. I'm not sure whether the Mets are good enough to win the division, but I do think they're good enough to make a serious run at a postseason spot at the very least. The upside of this roster is significant higher than a second wild card spot as well.