It doesn’t take a spreadsheet programmed by a bunch of sabermetricians to tell us the New York Mets have a wide range of potential outcomes, based largely on the health of its starting rotation, but also on a lineup that features five regulars older than 30.
After the Mets reached the World Series in 2015 and earned a wild card in 2016, in 2017 we saw what happens when things go bad. They churned through 12 starting pitchers, nine of whom posted an ERA on the wrong side of 5.00. The offense slugged the most home runs in the National League even though just two of their players played 130 games. Manager Terry Collins stepped down, replaced by Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. The much maligned training staff was overhauled, with Brian Chicklo promoted to head trainer and former U.S. Army supervisor Jim Cavallini hired as director of performance and sports science.
So far, all positives. No injuries in the rotation. No hamstring issues for Yoenis Cespedes. Matt Harvey has shown up on time. Of course, it’s only six games, but the Mets are 5-1 after ruining the Nationals’ home opener Thursday with an 8-2 victory over Stephen Strasburg. The best piece of news, however, was the return of Michael Conforto -- much sooner than was originally anticipated after last September’s shoulder surgery to fix a torn posterior capsule. All he did was go 1-for-4 with a walk -- the hit was a two-run homer off a 1-2, 97 mph fastball from Strasburg that he poked out to left field (the original call was a double, but it was overruled on replay).
Until his shoulder injury, Conforto was one of the few bright spots in last year’s dismal 70-92 season, hitting .279/.384/.555 and recording the seventh-best wRC+ among NL hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. He’s young, he’s smart, he rakes and we can only hope the shoulder is sound. The two-run blast in the fifth broke a 2-2 tie -- and he can apparently thank Cespedes:
Yoenis Cespedes, via a translator, on Michael Conforto: "His first homer is in fact mine because I called the homer before he hit it."— Tim Healey (@timbhealey) April 5, 2018
Right before he hit it?
Cespedes, in English: "Yeah. I say, 'You're going to hit a homer to left field.'"
"Because I know Michael."
Conforto said he wanted Strasburg for his first game back:
Callaway now has a good kind of dilemma to figure out: sorting out the playing time for his outfielders. With Cespedes in left and Jay Bruce in right, Conforto is the center fielder more by default than defensive merit. In 39 games there last season, he was at minus-4 defensive runs saved, so he projects as a possible liability if he’s out there every day. Juan Lagares is the team’s best center fielder but has never been much with the bat. Then there’s Brandon Nimmo, who had a .379 OBP in 215 PAs last year but isn’t a natural center fielder, either.
Lagares bats right-handed, while Conforto, Bruce and Nimmo all hit lefty, so the one possible platoon arrangement could be Lagares starting against lefties and maybe Conforto sliding over to right, since Bruce does most of his damage against right-handers.
Given the Mets’ injury history in recent seasons, you want that depth. Adrian Gonzalez isn’t a sure bet at first, so it’s possible Bruce ends up getting some playing time there, as well. Oh, and there’s even more outfield depth waiting in the minors: Tim Tebow homered in his first at-bat in Double-A. (OK, not really, but there’s no reason to hate on the guy.)
The Mets might also have discovered a bullpen weapon in Robert Gsellman. He struggled as a starter last season, but in his first four innings, he has eight strikeouts, no walks and just two hits. Anthony Swarzak is on the DL with a strained oblique, but this could be a deep pen with Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, Gsellman, Swarzak and lefty specialist Jerry Blevins.
The overall point: 2017 is now in the trash bin. The 2018 Mets feature two of the best starters in the league in Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, the lineup has some depth and the bullpen could be a plus. They just need to keep all these guys on the field.
Welcome back, Kapler: The Phillies went 1-4 on their season-opening road trip, and new skipper Gabe Kapler was greeted with a chorus of boos in the pregame introductions for the home opener. (A Super Bowl title has not softened Philly fans.) After some misadventures with the bullpen in those initial games, plus an outfield alignment that backfired when the Mets’ Amed Rosario tripled over the head of a very shallow Nick Williams, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports quoted an anonymous Phillies player saying, “We’ll be OK. ... We just need the manager to get out of the way.”
Ouch. It’s not a good sign when players are giving scathing anonymous quotes to the media after five games. Kapler himself admitted he probably needs to tone it down with all the pitching changes -- he made 26 in the team’s first five games. Anyway, the best cure for all of this is to win, or maybe to play the Marlins. The Phillies blanked the Marlins 5-0 as Nick Pivetta fanned nine in 5⅔ innings. And Kapler used just three relievers.
Adrian Beltre makes history: With his 3,054th career hit, Beltre passed Rod Carew for the most by a Latin American-born player:
I think Beltre has only 10 or 11 good seasons left in him.
Baserunning play of the day: This play was a combination of peak Javier Baez and bleak Brewers defense:
I just felt like running. pic.twitter.com/43Ald1P7oZ— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) April 6, 2018
Corey Knebel headed to DL: The Brewers' closer was pitching mop-up duty in the ninth inning of an 8-0 loss to the Cubs when he suffered a hamstring injury and had to be helped off the field. He’ll get an MRI on Friday to assess the severity of the injury. Knebel was a huge part of the Brewers’ success last year, striking out 126 batters in 76 innings with a 1.78 ERA and saving 39 games even though he didn’t get his first save until May 14. If Knebel is out for a lengthy period, the bullpen depth will obviously be tested. Second-year lefty Josh Hader looks poised to have a breakout season and could take over as closer, but he’s also valuable in a multi-inning role or to get out of jams with runners on base. I’d keep him in that role and consider veteran Matt Albers for ninth-inning duty.