By Arnie Leshin
Major League Baseball is officially back. Schedule is being assembled. Players asked to report to their home ballparks on July 1.
Hip, hip hooray. The shortened slate has been reduced to 60 games with the regular season to begin on either July 23 or 24, with the postseason playoffs of 10 teams (out of 30) scheduled to start in late September, which leaves little margin to make up September rain outs.
Players are being given staggering reporting times over several days for intake screening, plus the time will be used for coronavirus testing ahead of the resumption of workouts, which were stopped March 12 due to the pandemic. Because of an uptick of infection in Florida and Arizona’s summer heat, 28 teams are currently leaning toward training in their regular-season ballparks.
But the New York Mets will report to Citi Field, which until now has been rather quite with only team officials, a staggering of players, and other employees, and interrupted only by the sounds of the nearby elevated train. But the team has had bad news, for after not resigning right handed starter Zack Wheeler and letting him sign with the rival Philadelphia team as a free agent, it learned that veteran right hander Noah Syndergaard will require Tommy John surgery and miss the shortened season.
But the franchise, which still has renewed depth among the starters, did get some welcoming news with new additions to this shortest season since 1878, one is the designated hitter (DH) that will apply to each team, with could answer the question of what to do with the returning Yoenis Cespedes. Various injuries have been his downfall since year one in New York, and this time he was sidelined the entire after a damaging fractured ankle mishap what occurred on his ranch in Florida.
So now that he still isn’t at full speed and the Mets have capable outfield starters, so Cespedes could be the team’s DH, and if he can still belt the ball, he could also be the No. 4 cleanup batter. He first came to the Mets to start in center field after he told them that’s probably his best position, but early in the season he looked like he lost a few steps despite still showing a strong throwing arm. But they moved him to left field and inserted Michael Conforto in center.
But the way it looks now, and if Cespedes could fit in as a DH, the Mets would most likely start Conforto in right, Brandon Nimmo in center and J.D. Davis in left.
Cespedes, though, has been working extra time to get back in full gear. He has been working out with his teammates in Florida and has received nothing but praise. He has been running, fielding, throwing and swinging the bat, although he hasn’t played a live game since 2018. But he did get in some batting practice in March before the virus threat abounded in full force.
“I’m fine,” said the Cuban-born Cespedes, now 34. “No more horsing around, I’ve get to back in game condition, and it’s all baseball for me.”
No more purchasing expensive classic racing cars that he would race around his neighborhood in and even invite the media to photo it. He had been spending money in large sums, and having fun. But all this had to end after he took a $8 million salary cut, which was equally half of his salary due this season, so this is another reason that he’s trying to get back to game speed and to a bigger paycheck.
So the outfield still looks ready to go. As for the infield, there’s All-Star game home run hitting winner Pete Alonso, plus he was the National League Rookie of the Year, and who plays a much better first base then was expected, so lefty swinger Dominic Smith remains the backup there, has a good bat, but is not a good fix in left field. At second base will be Robinson Cano, Armed Rosario will be at shortstop and Jeff McNeil will take over at third after popular New Jersey infielder Todd Frazier signed elsewhere as a free agent.
Cano, deserves a pat on the back. The 37-year-old suffered a fractured ankle back in August, and instead of recovering elsewhere, remained with the club, worked out with the trainers before each game and on off days, hung out in the dugout for each and every game, and rooted for his teammates. But he came back sooner than expected, and in his first time back, he hammered a first-pitch home run into the right-center field seats, waved to the fans as he circled the bases before the team sprung out of the dugout to congratulate him.
If needed, McNeil is very qualified to fill in for Cano. He can also play the outfield. Davis can also play third base, and Rosario just keeps getting better, especially with his bat. Otherwise, he has the speed, the quickness and range and throwing arm to excel at short. And he’s only 24.
Back behind the plate is Wilson Ramos. Defensively, he falls short with passing balls and throws on base stealing, but he can sure hit the ball, especially the long ball, and provides leadership and experience as only a 32-year-old can do. Backing him up again is Tomas Nido, good with his glove and occasionally hitting the long ball. With the rosters initially increased from 26 to 32, the Mets can afford to include veteran catcher Rene Rivera for now.
The starting pitching will not be as limited as expected, for even with Wheeler gone and Syndergaard sidelined, the team can boast of back-to-back Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, who was once the starting shortstop at Stetson University in Florida.
There’s also the lone southpaw starter in Long Island’s Steven Matz, who has been up and down but a valuable addition because of throwing from the left side. Another Long Islander is righty Marcus Stroman who came to the Mets in mid season last year, had pitching control problems at times, but also had some impressive strikeout starts and is bent on having a much finer time due to experience acquired last season.
Then there was the addition of right handed free agent Rick Porcello from the Boston Red Sox, and who had been one of their top starters in recent seasons. There was also righty free agent Michael Wacha coming over from the St. Louis Cardinals. He figures to land in the bullpen and Porcello to be a starter.
The bullpen looks better. The main man there is Seth Lugo, and he can also start games. He has good control, good heat, and confidence. The team also is hoping to get a much better campaign from right hander Ed Diaz after last season’s downfall was nothing like his years out of the pen for Toronto. He had trouble with pitch counts that included trouble with 3-2 count pitches, was wild at times, but does have the ability to bounce back.
These two are joined with right hander JeurysFamilia who has had good and bad times with the Mets. If he’s on, he can fire the ball. If he’s off, he can be inconsistent and find himself blowing a relief effort. The Mets also picked up another quality bull penner in former New York Yankee right hander Delen Betances, and might also bank on Daniel Zamora, Tyler Bachlor and Walker Lockett, who is more thought of as a starter.
If the season was to start now, the Mets’ starting lineup would be Alonso at first, Cano at second, Rosario at short, McNeil at third, Davis in left, Nimmo in center, Conforto in right, Ramos behind the plate, and of course deGrom on the mound. Of course it all depends on how fast Conforto recovers from his injury.
With no minor leagues, teams would be required to retain 60 players each, including a taxi squad. Up to three players from the taxi squad can travel with a team to a game, and one of the three must be a catch, which gives the Mets Rivera.
The Mets will be playing in two of four divisions, 40 games against the National League East and 20 versus the American League East. The good thing is that they will not travel more than 250 miles each game. They will also avoid more games against the World Series champion Washington Nationals and the NL East champion Atlanta Braves, and even the improved Philadelphia Phillies. But they will also have to face the Yankees, Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.
But Cespedes could make a big difference. As a DH and batting behind Alonso says a lot, brings more power to the lineup. Except for Syndergaard, everyone is healthy, although Conforto still is recovering from an oblique injury. Alonso not only belted the ball last season as a rookie, he was a huge surprise at first base. He handled short throws, long throws, and looked like he’d been playing there for quite some time.