Not so far down the list of great American pastimes, beyond baseball and barbecues and lottery scratchers, is an old-fashioned summer fireworks show. Fireworks are a funny thing — most the fun is in the anticipation, the expectation. You light the fuse, run for cover and delight in the pop. Then it’s over and you’ve lost 95 games, good for fourth in the East.
As the Mets head to spring training, we still have time for anticipation.
New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen amassed an assortment of fireworks throughout the offseason since he was hired in October. The 44-year-old former co-head of CAA’s baseball division brought new faces to Flushing, including Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie and Justin Wilson, while reacquiring Jeurys Familia. Observing how the new Mets staff works together will be the watch party of the season. But the key to turning around the Mets’ eight losing seasons over the past 10 years will be answering some questions, both new and old, that perplex the Mets in 2019.
HOW WILL BRODIE’S FIRST FARE?
Van Wagenen is unapologetically setting a new standard that the squad in Flushing is the one to beat in the NL East, which is inspiring direction ... for now. The season holds huge expectations with the most aggressive vision Mets fans are witnessing in years. Since stating the Mets are the “favorites in the division,” Van Wagenen has become only more tenacious in his effort to rally a club in desperate need of a flip of fortune.
Mets fans have reason to be wary of a fiction that elevates Noah Syndergaard from an Avengers caricature to LeBron James, But For Baseball. Van Wagenen filled necessary holes on the team without signing a big-market player — and yes, as of publication, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper remain unsigned. He has never run or worked for an MLB team. He sold players like Diaz, Cano, Ramos and Lowrie on the invented promise of an authentic spirit. That’s not to say the team he put together will have a hard time swelling the win column.
In 2018, Diaz was both an All-Star closer for the Mariners and the AL Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year – joining Craig Kimbrel, Zack Britton, Andrew Miller, Greg Holland among others. The 24-year-old Diaz led the league in saves (57) and games finished (65), exemplifying his capacity to be the Mets’ workhorse in a field of notorious tumbleweeds.
Is it the slew of new players added to a team that has, in the past, shown flashes of success that’s making Van Wagenen so confident? What is he seeing that we don’t yet?
WILL THE WILPONS LET BRODIE BE?
Fred and Jeff Wilpon are known, grudgingly to Mets fans, to approve every personnel move on a case-by-case basis. Their checkbook is closed and their small-market oversight is a stick in the mud. This is not news to anyone that follows baseball in this area, but the Wilpons’ recent relationship with Van Wagenen may come as a surprise.
Thus far, the Wilpons have let Van Wagenen handle the reigns by first attracting, then signing athletes slightly above the category of cheap free agents.The Mets enter 2019 with impact players who have a shot at contending with the revamped Phillies, Nationals and Braves. Bad owners can sometimes do good things, and Van Wagenen is the man that has spent time negotiating with them.
His former Mets clients with CAA include Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, Todd Frazier, Robert Gsellman, Tim Tebow and Justin Dunn. It’s possible the Wilpons are backing off from a hands-on approach due to the trust they already have in Van Wagenen. Though, at the end of the day, the Wilpons were extremely on-brand in hiring Van Wagenen as their newest GM due to his previous alliances with the family. Several months will tell if Van Wagenen is the prescription for the Wilpons’ short-sightedness.
WILL NUMBERS FINALLY DO THE TALKING?
The Mets are the dinosaur squinting into the spreadsheet. They are one of the league’s last teams to beef up their analytics department with a handful of offseason hires – including Adam Guttridge to the newly created position of “assistant general manager of systematic development.”
Guttridge worked for the Brewers as the manager of baseball research and development and began his MLB career by consulting for the Rockies. Guttridge co-founded Normalized Empirical Individual Forecasting Index (NEIFI), a player evaluation firm that offers advanced talent assessments to all levels of professional baseball. He has spoken at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and has taught at New York’s University.
At the end of January, the Mets hired longtime Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton and NEIFI member and xStats creator Andrew Perpetua. Carleton authored “The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking,” released in 2018, in addition to acting as a major analytical source for the league. Perpetua joined Guttridge’s NEIFI last April and used Statcast data to project player performance.
Already, this is a considerable upgrade to former GM Sandy Alderson’s infamous three-man band in the Mets analytics department, proving even the Wilpons are not above adapting to baseball’s number-heavy transformation. This could be the change that overtakes the ownership’s scrutiny of players based off bias and preference alone. Numbers don’t lie, and if they produce fruitful results, maybe the Mets will finally stick to a successful formula.
WHO’S ON FIRST?
It’s the corner of the Mets’ infield taking resumes and evaluating performance, but who will step up for the job? On paper, Todd Frazier is more likely to be the Mets’ Opening Day first baseman for his axiomatic skillset in the position. He’s played 96 games at first, second-most after patrolling third base for the majority of his career. What’s unclear is Frazier’s desire for the spot.
Peter Alonso is the most intriguing player to watch in the spring. The 6-foot-2, 245 pound 24-year-old will receive the opportunity to battle with Frazier for first base. Alonso was New York’s 2016 second-round draft pick and is ranked as the club’s No. 2 prospect behind shortstop Andres Gimenez. Alonso’s production at the plate makes him one of baseball’s top offensive prospects in baseball. The Florida native broke out for 36 home runs across two minor-league levels last season, then added 27 more in the Arizona Fall League. If his defense has improved, there’s a good chance the Mets will take a chance on Alonso this year.
WHO WILL EMERGE AS THE METS’ OFFENSIVE FORCE?
The team is lacking a real power-hitter. When one contemplates the strength of the Mets, the pitching staff indisputably stands out. And even if MLB’s rumored plan to bring a designated hitter to the NL goes astray, pitchers solemn produce runs. When thinking of the Mets, which player has the potential to consistently smack baseballs over the fence?
My money is on Conforto – who’s already proving he’s ready to lead this team.
Aside from Jeff McNeil, who lured fans back into their seats at Citi Field for the final two months of last season, Conforto had one of the best second-halves on the team. He produced an .895 OPS with 17 homers after the All-Star Game. The 25-year-old already has fans pulling for him after hitting two home runs in Game 4 of the 2015 World Series; another against Zack Greinke in the NLDS that same year. If Conforto is fully recovered from the peculiar tear in his shoulder that sidelined him two years ago, he might be the Mets missing puzzle piece that has been ambling in Flushing all along.
Despite all the adjustments this offseason, the Mets will attempt to answer these questions and more when they congregate in Port St. Lucie this week. Van Wagenen has lit the firecracker in the middle of the cul de sac. Now, it’s on the players to determine the spark.