Mets open 2014 feeling on verge of something big
Young pitching, offensive upgrades have club optimistic as opener approaches
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Even the most optimistic Mets fan, player or coach knows not everything around Willets Point is going to plan. If the Mets had their way, Matt Harvey would be gearing up for his first career Opening Day start, with Ike Davis coming off a second straight 30-homer season, Ruben Tejada entrenched as a star-level shortstop and healthy bodies populating every other segment of the roster.
The actual scenario in Flushing is not quite so rosy as the Mets prepare to send Dillon Gee to the mound in Monday's 1:10 p.m. ET season opener against the Nats. But that does not mean pessimism abounds. To the contrary, the Mets enjoyed enough success in February and March to feel confident about their chances in a stacked National League East.
For years, the Mets have privately pointed to 2014 as the year they hoped to morph into perennial contenders. They still believe they can seize that chance.
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Even without Harvey, the Mets' quest for relevance begins with pitching. In Gee, Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese and Zack Wheeler, the Mets believe they have a formidable rotation capable of competing at a high level -- or a high enough level, at least, until top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero join that group. The hope is that even if Wheeler and Syndergaard experience growing pains this summer, they and Harvey will grow into one of baseball's most formidable pitching trios by 2015.
"Going into spring, all eyes were on the pitching side of this team, whether it was the young up-and-coming arms or the guys who have already established themselves," third baseman David Wright said. "They knew that all eyes were focused on them, and they have been pitching fantastic. So that's been as good as advertised. It's been nice to see in person what all the hype's about, and that the players match the hype."
Injuries remain a question, particularly with Niese enduring recent arm woes -- he will start the year on the disabled list, but return on April 6 -- and Colon entering his age-41 season. The Mets do have depth at the upper levels of their Minors, but are not so infallible that they could easily recover from a major loss.
Then again, all clubs have injury questions, and the Mets feel they have insulated themselves better than most. The bigger issues come on offense, where many of the questions the Mets set out to answer in Spring Training remain largely unresolved.
"The offensive side's tough, because we haven't really all been in the lineup at the same time, whether it's injuries or position battles or whatever's going on," Wright said. "We're going to need guys to go out there and do what they're capable of doing. We're not going to be able to go achieve our goals with guys having par or sub-par years. We're not that good, offensively. We have the opportunity to really lean on our pitching and be a good offensive team -- good enough to win -- but we're not built to necessarily outslug teams."
First base remains a major concern for the Mets, who attempted to trade Davis this winter with no luck. Plan B was to pit Davis against Lucas Duda in a winner-take-all Grapefruit League battle, which never really materialized due to lingering injuries for both players. All that's clear now is that whoever wins the starting gig -- it's looking like Davis -- will not have much job security.
Equally uncertain for the Mets is the shortstop position, where Tejada will play every day despite a spring that included severe offensive and defensive struggles, as well as near-constant speculation that the Mets might sign free agent Stephen Drew or trade for Seattle's Nick Franklin. Instead, the club will give Tejada what appears to be one last chance to thrive as the starter.
At second and third base, the club is set with Daniel Murphy and Wright, though the injury histories of those two will always make them risks. At catcher, the Mets are banking on a breakout season from Travis d'Arnaud, who struggled mightily as a rookie last season but looked to be turning things around toward the end of Spring Training.
If the Mets are to improve their offense to any great extent, it could happen in the outfield, where high-priced acquisitions Curtis Granderson and Chris Young will join Juan Lagares and Eric Young Jr. in a four-man mix. A good season from Granderson should replace what the Mets lost when Marlon Byrd was traded during last season to Pittsburgh, making Chris Young perhaps the outfield's key figure. If he returns to the form he once showed as a young player in Arizona, the Mets will have that much more reason for optimism.
Yet even if all those things click, the Mets face a formidable challenge in a tough division. Maybe 2015, with the promise of full seasons from Harvey, Wheeler and Syndergaard, is more realistic.
The team just refuses to think that way at the dawn of another season.
"It's not a lie when I tell you the night before Opening Day, you don't sleep," Wright said. "Leading up to it, you get these butterflies. You try your best to try to calm your emotions and not get caught up in it, but it's impossible. Once you get out there, the adrenaline starts pumping, your heart starts beating, and it's pretty special."