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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

Don’t let Rob Manfred pass the buck

Rob Manfred
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Yesterday morning, in Ken Rosenthal’s article, Rob Manfred made it pretty clear what his aim is at the moment: throw blame on the union for the sign stealing scandal getting to the place it is. It was clear in both his words and Rosenthal’s words, actually:

In fairness, Manfred was not alone in failing to see the future clearly. As far back as 2015, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expressed concerns to MLB about the rise of technology in the sport. The union, however, did not directly focus on the threat to the game’s integrity.

Then, in his press conference yesterday, he went farther, saying that the union refused to allow a situation in which punishment might happen, going so far as to claim that the union refused to make Astros players available for interviews without blanket immunity.

The union, both in its official statement last night and in Tony Clark’s words to Yahoo’s Hannah Keyser earlier this afternoon, is basically saying Manfred is full of it:

“We were approached with respect to their intentions to not discipline players. Our legal role and responsibility is inherent in accepting that consideration, which is what we did.”

Which is to say, it was Rob Manfred, and not the union, which started from the presumption that there was immunity for Astros players. Manfred is the one who settled on that at the outset, and he’s now trying to make it look like the union was the side that insisted on it so that people who are mad will get mad at Tony Clark for defending the indefensible as opposed to getting mad at him for creating a situation in which there was no legal way to punish Astros players.

And, as we have noted many times already, he did create that situation.

It’s undisputed that Manfred never attempted to make rules or set forth discipline for players stealing signs. Indeed, he did the opposite of that, saying over two years ago that GMs and managers, not players, would be held responsible. If he wanted to discipline players now, he’d have a big problem because he specifically excluded them from discipline then. I’d argue it was a mistake for him to do that — he should’ve said, three years ago, that everyone’s butt would be on the line if the cheating continued — but he didn’t.

Some people I’ve spoken to are taking the position that the union is still to blame here. I’m sort of at a loss as to how that could be.

It is the union’s job to protect its members from arbitrary punishment by management. It is not the union’s job to say “hey, I know our workers were off the hook here based on the specific thing you said, but maybe we should give them some retroactive punishment anyway?” If someone in charge of a union proposed that, they’d be in dereliction of their duties and could be fired and/or sued. Probably should be, actually. A lot of people might be mad about that, and I know fully well that unions aren’t popular. But then again, neither are criminal defense attorneys, and they don’t go up to prosecutors and say “well, there isn’t a law against what my client did — in fact, the governor issued an order a couple of years ago saying that what he did wasn’t prohibited — but we’re all kind of mad about it, so why don’t we work together to find a way to put him in jail, eh?” It’d be insane.

That doesn’t make anyone feel better now. The players are certainly mad, with new ones every day finding a camera to yell at over all of this. I get it. What has happened is upsetting. It’s a situation in which some members of the union are at odds with other members. It’s not an easy situation to navigate.

They should take that anger, however, and channel it into telling their leader, Tony Clark, that they don’t want this to happen again. That, to the extent Rob Manfred now, belatedly, proposes new rules and new punishments for sign-stealing or other things, he should get on board with that. They should also — after the yelling dies down — maybe think a little bit about how, if the facts were slightly different here, they would never argue that Rob Manfred should have the power to impose retroactive or other non-previously-negotiated punishment on players.

Either way, neither they nor any of the rest of us should take Manfred’s bait and try to claim that what’s happening now is the union’s fault. If, for no other reason, than because he doesn’t have much credibility when it comes to this whole scandal. Remember, he’s the guy who issued a report saying that, except for Alex Cora, it was only players involved despite knowing at the time he said it that the front office had hatched the scheme in the first place. Which, by the way, similarly sought to make the players out to be the only ones to blame while protecting people on management’s side. He’s not someone who can be trusted in any of this, frankly.

At the end of the day, this was a scheme perpetrated by both front office and uniformed personnel of the Houston Astros. To the extent nothing more can be done about that than already has been done, blame it on Rob Manfred’s failure of leadership. Not on the MLB Players Association.