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2017 Preview: New York Mets

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The New York Mets.

Cuban superstar outfielder Yoenis Cespedes played for four teams in the span of two seasons in 2014-15. While he was a productive player in his first three years in the majors, he didn’t truly break out until the ’15 season with the Tigers and, in the second half, with the Mets. There was something about his tenure with the Mets that just felt right, which is why it was no surprise the Mets signed him to a new three-year contract in January 2016. The contract, though, allowed Cespedes to opt out after the season which was potentially risky for the Mets if the slugger had another outstanding season – it’d incentivize him to test free agency to pursue more money.

And that’s exactly what happened. After hitting .280/.354/.530 with 31 home runs and 86 RBI for the Mets last year, Cespedes opted out of his contract on November 2 to become a free agent. It only took the Mets four weeks to make sure he was sticking around, though, as they inked him to a new four-year, $110 million contract. This time, there’s no opt-out clause.

Cespedes’ return represents the Mets’ biggest move of the offseason. The team finished 87-75 in second place in the NL East, then lost the Wild Card play-in game to the Giants. It represented a step back as the Mets lost the World Series in five games to the Royals the previous season. There were reasons why, however. Matt Harvey was mediocre and made only 17 starts. Jacob deGrom only made 24 starts. Steven Matz had injury woes of his own, limiting him to 22 starts. A team with a rotation that arguably had the most potential of any in baseball was hobbled by injuries, relying on Logan Verrett, Rafael Montero, Gabriel Ynoa, and Seth Lugo to fill the gaps.

The injuries weren’t just limited to the rotation. First baseman Lucas Duda battled a back injury that kept him out from May 21 through September 17. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud appeared in just 75 games. Third baseman David Wright’s season ended on May 27. After recalling all of this, it’s amazing that they hung around enough to win 87 games.

Heading into the 2017 season, the Mets are hoping to have most of their key players at or near full health. Wright and Duda remain the biggest question marks, but the Mets have contingency plans in place. In the event Duda can’t play every day, second baseman Neil Walker and outfielder Jay Bruce have been getting work in at first base. The Mets have veteran Jose Reyes, who filled in for Wright in the second half last year, in case Wright needs to take time off.

Meanwhile, the outfield remains jammed. With Cespedes returning to left field, Curtis Granderson to center, and Bruce to right, that leaves Michael Conforto as the odd man out. Conforto has been solid over the first 165 games of his career, hitting .238/.319/.448 with 21 home runs and 68 RBI. But unless the Mets find a trade partner for Bruce – or if Duda needs to start the season on the disabled list – Conforto will either ride the bench or start the season with Triple-A Las Vegas, which is unfortunate for the 24-year-old former top prospect.

Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera return to handle things up the middle for the Mets. Both were solid for the club last year. Walker hit .282/.347/.476 with 23 home runs and 55 RBI in 458 plate appearances before succumbing to a back injury. Cabrera hit .280/.336/.474 with 23 home runs and 62 RBI in 568 PA.

The starting rotation remains the Mets’ biggest strength despite all of the injuries. Noah Syndergaard now leads the rotation. “Thor,” as he’s known, finished eighth in National League Cy Young Award balloting last season after going 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA and a 218/43 K/BB ratio in 183 2/3 innings. While he competes in the same league as Clayton Kershaw and reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, absolutely no one would be shocked if he won the hardware in 2017. The 24-year-old features baseball’s highest average fastball velocity at 98 MPH and has terrific off-speed stuff as well to keep hitters honest.

deGrom underwent surgery last September to reposition his ulnar nerve. His injury woes were a huge blow to the Mets as the right-hander won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2014, followed it up with an even more impressive ’15 campaign, and continued to dominate hitters last season. Across those three years, deGrom owns a 2.74 ERA with 492 strikeouts and 117 walks in 4791 /3 innings. Having a healthy and effective deGrom is crucial for the Mets’ ability to challenge the Nationals in the NL East.

Harvey underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last July, ending his season with a mediocre 4.86 ERA and a 76/25 K/BB ratio in 92 2/3 innings. Once heralded as the ace of the Mets’ rotation, the 27-year-old Harvey still has plenty left in the tank but he’s not as reliable these days as Syndergaard and deGrom. Still, a bounceback effort from Harvey not only improves the rotation, but reduces the amount of stress placed on the bullpen and fill-in starters.

Matz underwent surgery in October to remove a large bone spur from his elbow. Prior to getting shut down in mid-August, Matz posted a solid 3.40 ERA with a 129/31 K/BB ratio in 132 1/3 innings. As a No. 4 starter, the lefty represents the absurd pitching depth the Mets have if everyone can stay healthy.

The No. 5 spot in the rotation is up for grabs. Zack Wheeler didn’t pitch in 2015 or ’16 as he underwent Tommy John surgery, then suffered multiple setbacks. In his brief career spanning 285 1/3 innings, Wheeler has a 3.50 ERA and a 271/125 K/BB ratio. He’ll be competing against Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman. Both performed admirably filling in the rotation as needed last season. Lugo made eight starts from August 19 through the end of the season, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 29/15 K/BB ratio in 47 innings. Gsellman seven starts from August 28 through the end of the season, posting a 2.63 ERA and a 40/12 K/BB ratio in 41 innings.

In the bullpen, the Mets are likely looking at having to be without closer Jeurys Familia for the first 30 games of the regular season. The right-hander was involved in a domestic violence incident during the offseason and Major League Baseball is still sorting out the issue. An announcement is likely to come at some point this month. Veteran Addison Reed is likely to handle closing duties in Familia’s absence. Reed compiled a 1.97 ERA with 91 strikeouts and 13 walks in 77 2/3 innings of relief for the Mets last year. Familia led the majors with 51 saves last season along with a 2.55 ERA and an 84/31 K/BB ratio in 77 2/3 innings, so Reed doesn’t have much of a shot of hanging onto the closer’s role once Familia returns. The Mets have some solid depth behind Familia and Reed with Hansel Robles, Jerry Blevins, and Fernando Salas.

Obviously, the Mets’ ability to succeed in 2017 hinges on the ability of most of their key players’ ability to stay healthy. In a grueling 162-game season, that’s a lot to ask, especially of players who have already been injured. It doesn’t take much to re-aggravate an injury. The Nationals are going to be tough to catch, especially if Bryce Harper returns to MVP form. While I’m confident the Mets will improve their win total, I still think they’ll ultimately fall short of the Nats.

Prediction: 92-70 record, 2nd place in NL East

The Tigers are trying to convert Anthony Gose into a pitcher

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Tigers’ center fielder Anthony Gose wants to try his hand at pitching, according to comments made by manager Brad Ausmus on Sunday. Gose is poised to start the year in Triple-A Toledo after receiving a midseason demotion to Double-A last summer following an altercation with Triple-A manager Lloyd McClendon.

While the experiment won’t detract from Gose’s outfield work in Triple-A, the 26-year-old is expected to take on additional bullpen sessions throughout the year. According to MLB.com’s Jason Beck, the left-handed hitter last took the mound in high school, where his fastball was clocked as fast as 97 m.p.h. Gose ultimately rejected the idea of starting his professional career as a pitcher, despite receiving favorable assessments from scouts.

Ausmus said the idea first surfaced at the end of the 2016 season. It appears to be a fallback option for the outfielder, who has struggled at the plate over his five-year career in the majors. Via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News:

Doolittle in Oakland did it and he was in the big leagues a couple of years later,” Ausmus said. “It’s going to take some time. He’s going to have to be a sponge and catch up on experience fast. But we feel it’s worth investigating.

Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals’ Opening Day starter

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Nationals’ right-hander Stephen Strasburg will take the mound for the club on Opening Day, manager Dusty Baker said on Sunday. The news is hardly surprising given Max Scherzer’s questionable status this spring, though it had yet to be confirmed by the club.

Strasburg is approaching his eighth run with the club in 2017. He went 15-4 in 2016, finishing the year with a 3.60 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 11.2 SO/9 in 147 2/3 innings. This will mark his fourth Opening Day assignment with the Nationals.

Scherzer, the Nationals’ Opening Day starter in both 2015 and 2016, is scheduled to make his season debut sometime during the first week of the season. The right-hander is expected to take things more slowly this spring as he finishes rehabbing a stress fracture in his finger.

The Nationals will open their season against the Marlins on April 3.