Steve Cohen effect and a prediction

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It seemed unfathomable the Mets, with a newly minted owner worth $14 billion, would go the entire winter without signing one of the big three free agents on the market.

But team president Sandy Alderson never seriously pursued J.T. Realmuto, backed off on George Springer and got blindsided by the Dodgers, who snagged Trevor Bauer after the Mets thought they had landed him.

And yet, the Mets will head to their Thursday night season opener in Washington as an improved team from the one that departed that same city on Sept. 27 in last place, concluding a forgettable pandemic-shortened 2020.

Francisco Lindor, acquired in a trade with the Indians, gives the Mets the game’s best shortstop. The other new names include James McCann, Trevor May, Taijuan Walker, Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr., with the Mets hopeful the second component in the Lindor deal, Carlos Carrasco, will return sooner rather than later from a torn right hamstring to bolster the rotation.

The Mets are deeper than in recent seasons. But they still are far from a masterpiece defensively and questions persist about the back end of the rotation and bullpen. But Alderson’s modus operandi in past years — he was previously Mets general manager — has been to use the first half of the season to evaluate what holes need filling at the trade deadline.

That’s to say Steve Cohen’s money that wasn’t used on Realmuto, Springer and Bauer still might come into play this summer when fading teams are looking to shed contracts.

The Mets have a new owner with deep pockets and better players than last year. If they keep most of those players on the field, meaningful September games could be just an opening act to October drama.

Mets essentials

Most important hitter: The Mets ranked among MLB’s best teams in getting on base last season, but driving in runs was a problem. Francisco Lindor’s arrival to bolster the top of the batting order should lead to increased run production.

Though Lindor had a down year last season with the Indians, his history suggests he will bring a dynamic bat from both sides of the plate. From 2017-19 he averaged 34 homers for the Indians and 21 stolen bases. Hitting in the No. 2 hole, behind Brandon Nimmo, he should alleviate pressure on Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto.

There were whispers about Lindor’s decreased bat speed last season, when he slashed .258/.335/.415, but who knows how much of it was pandemic related?

Most important pitcher: After two straight years receiving the prize, Jacob deGrom didn’t win the National League Cy Young Award last season (it went to Trevor Bauer). The 32-year-old deGrom just might be a man on a mission, out to reach new heights following his third-place finish. He arrived at spring training throwing 100 mph, also featuring his wipeout slider.

If deGrom needs added incentive, his $137.5 million contract, signed two years ago, contains an opt-out after the 2022 season. Another electric season by the right-hander could prompt the Mets into action this winter, ensuring he never has to consider that opt-out and free agency.

Will have a bigger year than expected: Edwin Diaz was close to unhittable in the second half of last season. Overall, he pitched to a 1.75 ERA and struck out 50 batters in 25 ²/₃ innings.

But some of Diaz’s great numbers are obscured by high-profile situations in which he didn’t finish the job. That included a homer allowed to Marcell Ozuna on the first weekend of the season that led to a Mets loss. He also allowed a homer to Aaron Hicks at Yankee Stadium that helped cost the Mets a game they appeared to have locked up. But the jittery Diaz who got yanked from high-leverage situations in 2019 seems to have vanished. The replacement is a more confident, dominant Diaz who looks ready to reclaim his place as an elite closer.

Most likely to disappoint: David Peterson helped keep the Mets’ rotation from completely crumbling last season, after Noah Syndergaard underwent Tommy John surgery and Marcus Stroman opted out. The left-hander finished 6-2 with a 3.44 ERA and 1.208 WHIP in 10 appearances for the Mets. But Peterson’s 4.52 FIP (fielding independent pitching) suggests he received good fortune and should have allowed more than another run per nine innings.

Manager Luis Rojas wasn’t prepared to hand Peterson a job this spring, but the plan changed after Carlos Carrasco tore his right hamstring. Now Peterson will get another opportunity to show he belongs.

Francisco Lindor, Steve Cohen and Jacob deGrom
Francisco Lindor, Steve Cohen and Jacob deGrom
Getty Images; Corey Sipkin (2)

Key call-up: He’s certainly no rookie, but Noah Syndergaard is expected to complete his rehab within the next two or three months and rejoin the Mets rotation. The dream is to reach the point deGrom, Syndergaard, Carrasco, Stroman and Taijuan Walker are taking the ball in order, giving the Mets a rotation that could rival most in baseball.

Biggest managerial decision: Life would be so much easier for Luis Rojas if the universal DH were implemented, allowing Brandon Nimmo to play left field, with Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. sharing center field. Dominic Smith and Pete Alonso could then rotate between DH and first base.

Instead, the Mets are left to play Smith in left field — hardly an ideal position for him — and Nimmo in center, where his defensive metrics have lagged. If the outfield defense becomes a significant issue could Smith’s playing time become reduced? How early in games will Rojas pull Smith to get his better gloves in the outfield?

Don’t be surprised if: The bullpen roles of Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances are diminished as Rojas looks toward newcomers Trevor May and Aaron Loup, and possibly Miguel Castro, to get important outs in the seventh and eighth innings. Familia’s stuff is still electric, but his control remains an issue. Betances is still searching for his elite heat after two straight seasons decimated by injuries.

Sure to make fans grumble: If J.D. Davis struggles defensively at third base, it will leave observers to question why the team didn’t acquire an upgrade, whether it was Kris Bryant through a trade or Justin Turner in free agency. Lindor’s Gold Glove at shortstop should help the left side of the infield, but there are questions whether Davis can handle the position. Jonathan Villar and Luis Guillorme are backup options, but not everyday players.

Will make the playoffs if: Syndergaard and Carrasco rejoin the rotation in May/June and the starting five can mostly stay healthy from that point.

Will miss the playoffs if: The seventh and eighth innings become an adventure for the bullpen and Lindor plays at his 2020 level offensively.

Injury that would hurt the most: DeGrom is simply irreplaceable. The Mets have been fortunate for the last four seasons that he’s taken the ball on cue.

Playing the field

First base: Pete Alonso started slowly last season and then got on track, but never found the consistency he wanted. Overall, it was hardly a dreadful season for him: he slashed .231/.326/.490 with 16 homers and 35 RBIs in 57 games. But the bar was set high after he established an MLB rookie record in 2019 with 53 homers.

This spring, Alonso — reunited with hitting coach Chili Davis, who worked remotely last season because of health concerns during the pandemic — has appeared more locked in at the plate and avoided chasing pitches. Alonso may have helped his focus by shutting down his social media platforms, which had become a magnet for naysayers.

Second base: Jeff McNeil will get to play his best position because Robinson Cano failed a PED test for the second time in his career and will be suspended for the entire season.

Last year, with Cano at second, McNeil began as the third baseman. Then he shifted to left field because of defensive struggles. At the plate McNeil was solid, posting a .311/.383/.454 slash line with four homers and 23 RBIs. McNeil’s hard-hit ball rate was among the lowest in MLB, but he’s got a knack for finding the right spot and remains difficult to strike out.

Shortstop: In the first big splash of the Cohen era, the Mets traded for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, sending Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario, Isaiah Greene and Josh Wolf to the Indians. The 27-year-old Lindor is probably the Mets’ finest all-around talent since Carlos Beltran, before the All-Star center fielder’s injuries.

Lindor brings power and a slick glove to the position. The Mets traded for him knowing it would likely take at least a $300 million offer to extend his contract. Lindor, who turned down $200 million from the Indians, has said he won’t negotiate beyond Opening Day. If he becomes a free agent, it would be as part of a heralded shortstop class that includes Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa and Javier Baez, among others.

Third base: J.D. Davis began last season as the left fielder and then switched places with McNeil. Ideally, Davis is a DH, but that role wouldn’t be an option for him even if it were implemented again in the NL — the Mets have Dominic Smith and Alonso to share that spot and first base. Davis had a drop-off at the plate last season after a breakout 2019, but still brings plenty of power to the position.

Left field: Dominic Smith emerged as a force in the Mets’ lineup last season, when he slashed .316/.377/.616 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs in 50 games. The Mets, preparing for a season in which he may have to play left field on a nearly full-time basis, have been cautious with him in camp, trying to ensure he will stay healthy.

If Smith’s left-handed bat is for real, the Mets can probably live with his defense in left. Among Smith’s impressive statistics was his 86th percentile ranking, according to Statcast, in barreled balls. The defensive metrics were less impressive: Smith was minus-four Outs Above Average as a first baseman and minus-two in left field.

Center field: The Mets pursued George Springer in the offseason, but weren’t willing to top Toronto’s offer of $150 million over six years for the All-Star outfielder. Jackie Bradley Jr. — the top defensive center fielder on the market — was also considered, but with the DH in limbo, he didn’t fit. It leaves Brandon Nimmo as the primary center fielder, with Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. as capable backup options.

Nimmo remains the ideal leadoff hitter, after last season reaching base in 40.4 percent of his plate appearances. He was minus-five in outs above average last season as a center fielder, which ranked near the bottom in MLB.

Right field: Michael Conforto had his best season, leading to the clamor for the Mets to extend his contract this spring, ensuring he won’t hit free agency. If Conforto has a season that approaches last year’s heights, he could receive a long-term deal on the open market that surpasses $200 million.

Last season Conforto slashed .322/.412/.515 with nine homers and 31 RBIs in 54 games. Conforto’s career year corresponded with vastly improved numbers against off-speed and breaking pitches. He also showed more selectivity in the strike zone and most notably pulled the ball only 27.6 percent of the time. That’s down from two straight seasons in which he pulled the ball at least 40 percent of the time.

Defensively, he regressed significantly from the previous season when he rated among the top right fielders in baseball. Conforto last season was minus-five in outs above average, placing him near the bottom of MLB outfielders.

Catcher: Not wanting to wait for the top free agent on the market, J.T. Realmuto, team president Sandy Alderson moved swiftly in signing James McCann to a four-year contract worth $40.6 million. The veteran McCann improved greatly behind the plate in his two seasons with the White Sox and brings a solid right-handed bat to the lineup.

McCann was a needed upgrade after two seasons in which Wilson Ramos frustrated team officials with his lack of mobility behind the plate and inability to mesh with members of the pitching staff.

Tomas Nido is a respected backup presence behind the plate, but the Mets are still trying to figure out if he can bring anything offensively. Nido missed much of last season after testing positive for COVID-19.

Starting pitching: The rotation has an elite ace in Jacob deGrom, whose velocity continues to increase with age. He will start the year as the favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award, and would anybody be surprised if he had his best season, fueled by the disappointment of finishing third in 2020 and the drive for another contract?

Behind deGrom it gets dicey, especially with Carlos Carrasco likely out until at least May with a torn right hamstring and Noah Syndergaard facing a possible June return from Tommy John surgery rehab. Marcus Stroman has shown he can be a dependable middle of the rotation starter, but he’s returning from a missed season after opting out. Taijuan Walker, in his return from Tommy John surgery, had a solid year with the Mariners and Blue Jays, but the Mets will be watching his innings. David Peterson, Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto are young pitchers with potential, but it’s hard to count on any of them. Still to be determined is whether Seth Lugo will slot into the rotation or bullpen once he returns from surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow.

Bullpen: Trevor May’s arrival on a two-year contract worth $15 million was a significant addition to a bullpen that lacks significant depth. Edwin Diaz’s strong spring has reaffirmed the belief within the organization the Mets are set at closer, but with Lugo on the IL to start the season there are more questions than answers in the setup role. Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances are battle-tested, but there are concerns about both. Aaron Loup brings an experienced lefty arm and Miguel Castro has looked good in spring training, but it’s anybody’s guess whether names such as Jacob Barnes, Robert Gsellman and Arodys Vizcaino can be part of the solution.

Bench: Alderson and acting general manager Zack Scott put an emphasis on improving team depth this offseason. Pillar, Almora and Jonathan Villar should provide dependability, and Luis Guillorme has become a valued infielder and left-handed bat off the bench.

Prediction: 92-70

The NL East might be baseball’s most interesting division, with the Braves, Mets and Nationals all loaded and the Marlins improved. And it would hardly be surprising if the Phillies emerged to compete for the playoffs. Look for the Mets to snap a four-year postseason drought, even if they don’t win the division.

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