By Jason Keidel
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Here’s a question you didn’t expect to ask and were afraid to answer two months ago: Have the Mets done enough to make you slightly excited about this coming season?
No, the Mets didn’t bag any big hot stove logs, but by signing third baseman Todd Frazier to a two-year, $17 million deal, they haven’t been the painfully parsimonious club we expected this winter. Not only did they get Jay Bruce (three years, $39 million) to bring some pop to their lineup, they got Frazier at a discounted rate from what many of the pundits thought he’d collect this offseason.
Add first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a longtime All-Star slugger whom New York will pay a meager $545,000 (the league minimum) while the Braves pay the rest of his $21.5 million salary in 2018, and the Mets have been atypically aggressive. They’re finally giving their fans a reason to think this season will look nothing like their last gruesome season, which was over long before they notched their 92nd loss.
All of this has to be confusing yet refreshingly surprising to Mets fans, since they’ve not only belied their stone-fisted, penny-pinching history, but have done so in an odd offseason climate that has seen team movements so glacial that pundits and player agents alike are wondering if there’s an implicit collusion among owners to squeeze free agents into monetary submission.
There should also be automatic rotation upgrades with a healthy ace in Noah Syndergaard (who missed most of 2017 with a torn lat muscle) and backup ace in Jacob deGrom. Not to mention the Mets should expect exponentially more from Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler. Harvey struggled through injuries and suffered one of the worst months by a starter in years (11.28 ERA and .422 BAA in 22 innings in September), Matz posted a 6.08 ERA in 13 starts, and Wheeler was an eyesore last season (5.21 ERA in 17 starts). Figure that some reasonably good pitching fortune equals 10 extra wins.
And unlike Terry Collins, who’s hardly known for being a pitching whisperer, the Mets now have a manager, Mickey Callaway, known exactly as that. Callaway, a former pitching coach in Cleveland, went a long way to building the Indians into a pitching power, one of the dugout gurus who helped them reach the World Series in 2016, have the best record in the AL in 2017 and win an AL-record 22 straight games.
Just by health and osmosis the Mets should pitch more like 2015 than 2017. They didn’t add a front-end starter, but they didn’t have to. They’ve become exponentially better in the batter’s box, not only by adding Bruce and Frazier, but also by having a healthy Yoenis Cespedes in the lineup from the jump.
Their defense should be solid up the middle with Asdrubal Cabrera and Amed Rosario turning double plays, Frazier a plus defender on the hot corner and even Jose Reyes still stealing bases and providing some pop.
Their only open wound is in the bullpen. Can Jeurys Familia, who was part of the Mets’ walking triage in 2017, close games in 2018? The Mets aren’t waiting to find out, and got him some help by singing Anthony Swarzak to a two-year, $14 million deal, giving heft to Callaway’s assertion that there will be a competition for the closer’s role.
The Mets aren’t the Yankees, won’t stretch their payroll way beyond midmarket standards, won’t watch their wallet float and then burst in the high orbit of the luxury tax threshold. But in a bizarre offseason when free agents are dangling like baseball ornaments from a tree, Frazier is a low-price, high-reward cherry on a surprising, sneaky-decent hot stove.
According to USA Today, the Mets’ 2018 payroll is about $139 million, which ranks No. 9 in MLB, and a shocking $7 million behind the Bronx Bombers, and $60 million behind the MLB-leading San Francisco Giants. The Mets won’t ever be crazy spenders, but have suddenly become sensible spenders. And maybe, just maybe, a pennant contender this summer.
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