Spring training is over and the Major League Baseball season is finally set to begin. There will still be coronavirus related changes as the world gets back to normal, including the return of the extra-inning rule and seven-inning doubleheaders, but the 2021 campaign marks a return to the traditional 162 game schedule with regular travel, a welcome change from last year’s 60-game sprint to the finish.
The 2021 season is also a big one for the New York Mets, who have big goals and ambitions as they try to return to the postseason for the first time since 2016. New owner Steve Cohen has empowered Sandy Alderson and the front office to make bold moves that have put together a roster capable of challenging for the National League East crown and beyond. With the season set to begin Thursday night in Washington let’s look at the 10 questions that will define the 2021 Mets.
1. How will Francisco Lindor impact the Mets?
Contract negotiations notwithstanding, the biggest story surrounding the Mets is the addition of Lindor, one of the top five players in the sport. Lindor tore the cover off the ball in spring training, hitting .370 with four home runs and 14 RBI’s, and made jaw-dropping plays in the field to boot.
The adjustment period to New York isn’t easy for most athletes but Lindor looks like the kind of player who can thrive under the bright lights of the city that never sleeps. If Lindor can become a dynamic star from the minute the bell rings it will mean a lot for the Mets.
2. Is Pete Alonso back?
Most fans will argue that Alonso experienced a sophomore slump in 2020 but it’s important to remember that he only got to play the equivalent of two months in the midst of a pandemic. Alonso still slugged very well, hitting 16 homers in 2020, but his overall batting approach was a bit off.
Spring training was very encouraging for Alonso, who looked much more confident at the plate than he ever did last season. Seeing a bounceback campaign from Alonso significantly raises the ceiling of the Mets’ offense.
3. How much has the defense improved?
The Mets have undervalued defense for a while now but this team is significantly improved in the field. Lindor’s addition is a massive upgrade over Amed Rosario at shortstop while getting James McCann behind the plate and Jeff McNeil’s return to his natural position of second base should help bolster the Mets up the middle.
There are still significant questions at third base, where J.D. Davis is more of a hit-first player, and the outfield, where Dominic Smith is out in left and Brandon Nimmo is still in center. Expect to see plenty of late-inning defensive substitutions to help the Mets close out games.
4. When will the injured pitchers come back?
The pitching staff is significantly improved for the Mets but they are missing three key players in Carlos Carrasco, Noah Syndergaard and Seth Lugo. All three should be out for at least the first month of the season with a return towards the end of May a best-case scenario for most of them.
Getting Carrasco and Syndergaard in the rotation will help but Lugo’s return might actually be the most important since the bullpen is weaker than the rotation. If the Mets can get everyone back by June they could really take off.
5. Is Edwin Diaz really back?
Things looked bad for Diaz at the start of 2020 when he quickly lost his job as the Mets’ closer. Diaz got the gig back by the end of the year and was strong in September, finishing as our Met of the Month by recording a 0.77 ERA in 11 appearances.
With Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances struggling in the spring, there are few alternatives available if Diaz falters to start the year. Getting a strong season out of Diaz is key to the Mets’ playoff aspirations.
6. Will Luis Rojas improve in his second year?
Rojas had quite the start to his big-league managerial career, taking over in late January after the Mets parted ways with Carlos Beltran and having to run two spring training periods thanks to the pandemic. Alderson opted to retain Rojas for a second year but the pressure will be on his shoulders thanks to Cohen’s mandate that the organization will win a title within 3-5 years.
That goal will require significant improvement from Rojas, who earned the respect of his players but had a few tactical mistakes in his first year at the helm. If Rojas can’t build on what he learned from 2020 then his job could be in jeopardy by the middle of the season.
7. How will the Mets navigate COVID-19?
The landscape in the country is far better than it was at this point a year ago in terms of the coronavirus but Major League Baseball isn’t out of the woods just yet. Vaccines should be widely available in the coming weeks, which could lead to many players getting vaccinated and reducing their chances of contracting the virus, but the first month or two of the season could still throw a COVID-related landmine into a team’s season.
The Mets were relatively lucky that they only had one player, backup catcher Tomas Nido, test positive for the virus during the 2020 season. COVID ended up sidelining Nido for the remainder of the shortened season and a lengthy absence from a key player due to the disease would significantly impact the team’s fortunes.
8. How aggressive will the Mets be at the deadline?
The luxury tax has been a consideration for the Mets this season, who opted not to exceed the threshold by splurging on free agents. That decision should leave the Mets some flexibility to add a significant piece or two at the trade deadline if the front office feels it can put them over the top in 2021.
Kris Bryant would be a logical target for the Mets as a rental who can contribute at both third base and in the outfield. Lorenzo Cain would also be an intriguing fit if the Brewers fall out of contention while another bullpen arm would certainly be a good thing to add.
9. Who is the Mets’ X-Factor this season?
The Mets’ X-factor will be Marcus Stroman, who has been the forgotten man in the rotation for the most part. Stroman accepted the qualifying offer to return this winter and had a strong spring to earn the No. 2 spot behind Jacob deGrom to start the season.
While the eventual returns of Carrasco and Syndergaard should strengthen the Mets’ rotation, they still need to get quality starts from the rest of the group until that point. Stroman is the most capable pitcher on the staff outside of deGrom and needs to deliver a big performance in his walk year to keep the Mets on track for a playoff appearance.
10. Will the Mets make the playoffs?
The Mets haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, a drought that feels extreme since they managed to miss the postseason in a 2020 campaign where over half the league got to play in October. The good news is that the Mets’ roster has been significantly upgraded to compete in baseball’s toughest division.
The Mets are better than the Phillies, Nationals and Marlins right now while the Braves are a bit better at the moment. The bet here is that the Mets hang tight with Atlanta until they get healthy and a key trade is enough to help push New York into the NL East crown with 95 wins.