The Mets boarded busses outside Nationals Park on Sept. 27 as a battered team that had just completed a last-place, pandemic-shortened season.
Changes were coming, with Steve Cohen’s purchase of the team and Sandy Alderson’s return to oversee the entire organization, including the front office. Nearly half the 40-man roster was overhauled during a winter highlighted by Francisco Lindor’s arrival in a trade with Cleveland.
Now, six months later, the Mets return to Washington ready to display how far they have come since their last game. It starts for real Thursday night with two potential Hall of Famers, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, scheduled to pitch and two of the NL’s best lineups ready to roll.
If not the NL East favorite, the Mets are certainly in that conversation, in a division that might be baseball’s best from top to bottom.
“Thank you to all those people who picked us, that’s awesome, that’s a huge compliment,” Pete Alonso said. “But also we need to go out there and work every day, because with that, it comes with a target, and we need to play like we’re getting everybody’s best effort and just because we are picked to the division doesn’t mean that is necessarily going to happen, because there are four other teams in this division that are extremely talented and can win in a lot of different ways. We just need to be on the attack all the time.”
After four straight seasons missing the playoffs the Mets have at least as much ammunition in the lineup as they have enjoyed perhaps in the franchise’s history. Whether they return to the postseason will likely hinge on the rotation pieces beyond deGrom, the bullpen and the obvious need to stay healthy.
Thursday will mark the Mets debuts for Lindor and James McCann, two additions that strengthened the Mets up the middle, at shortstop and catcher, respectively. Another of the team’s significant offseason additions, Trevor May, will be available to pitch from the bullpen.
Other key new additions include Carlos Carrasco (who is sidelined with a right hamstring tear), Taijuan Walker, Joey Lucchesi, Kevin Pillar, Albert Almora Jr., Jonathan Villar and Aaron Loup.
“We feel like a complete team,” manager Luis Rojas said. “I think we have speed, power, starters that can give you depth, that can give you the length. … We talked about the long-reliever roles in the bullpen and we have multiple guys in our bullpen that can be used as closers in different innings in different parts of the game, so you definitely feel you have a complete team.”
The three-time defending NL East champion Braves certainly have the firepower to repeat, but the Mets, Nationals, Phillies and Marlins (who qualified for the expanded playoffs last season) all have to be considered as contenders.
Much of the love for the Mets comes from the PECOTA projections — as of March 25 — that give them 91.8 victories and first place in the division. The Nationals (83.4), Phillies (83.5), Braves (83.0) and Marlins (70.1) are next.
“We know we have a target on our back,” Brandon Nimmo said. “I am sure Atlanta is pretty pissed off that everyone is talking about us after the good years that they’ve had, and same with the Marlins, with them making the playoffs last year and everybody thinks they are not going to do well.
“So there’s a lot of people that are going to have chips on their shoulders and wanting to prove people wrong and those are dangerous people to play, so we have got to be ready right from the [start] and we have to put a chip on our shoulder as well.”