How 2 Mets will take Team Puerto Rico to the next level
JUPITER, Fla. -- This was last Sunday at Roger Dean Stadium, and Buck Showalter was saying goodbye to some of the Mets going off to play in the World Baseball Classic. Showalter would say later that he felt a little like a parent sending his kids off to camp.
Jeff McNeil came into the visiting manager’s office, and then Pete Alonso, and when they were gone, then came Francisco Lindor, already laughing as he came through the door, hugging Showalter and asking the manager how much he was going to miss him.
Big room or small or ballfield, you know Lindor is in the room. It will be that way when Team Puerto Rico plays Nicaragua on Saturday in its first game of the Classic.
“Just remember what I told you,” Showalter said.
“Don’t get hurt,” Lindor said.
On this day, Lindor’s hair color was silver. Or pale gray. Some curly combination of the two. Across the season, it will change on multiple occasions, to many of the colors of the rainbow. Lindor brings fun and energy even to his hair. But hair and smiles are not the real reasons you notice the Mets shortstop. What makes you notice him is the fact that he is perhaps the most exciting all-around talent the Mets have ever had, one who is going to be better this season than last season because of the way the game is about to open up, especially because of bigger bases and restrictions on pickoff throws to first.
For Lindor, a streak of light, this will be a license to steal.
“Hey,” Showalter said to Lindor before he left his office, “don’t forget to remind Yadi [Molina, Team Puerto Rico’s manager] that he has to give you and Edwin back.”
Edwin is Edwin Díaz. If Lindor is maybe the most exciting player the Mets have ever had, Díaz is far and away the most exciting relief pitcher they’ve ever had, and the most exciting anybody has right now. There have been other really good ones in the past out of the Mets bullpen, including Tug “You Gotta Believe” McGraw, Billy Wagner, John Franco and the tandem of Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco; even a couple of hard-throwing heartbreakers in Armando Benitez and Jeurys Familia.
But there was never anybody who came close to being the kind of late-inning force that Díaz -- and the game's most energetic warmup music -- was in 2022.
He pitched 62 innings for Showalter’s Mets, had an ERA of 1.31 and gave up just nine runs all season. In those 62 innings, he struck out 118 hitters. There were some other dazzling relievers last season, for sure. Emmanuel Clase of the Guardians comes to mind immediately. But no one was as dominant as Díaz, once the bullpen doors opened and the song “Narco” began to rock Citi Field.
They are among the best players MLB has ever seen from Puerto Rico. Díaz -- who gets to pitch with his brother, Alexis, in the World Baseball Classic -- is still just 28 years old.
Lindor is 29. Neither of them was at their best in 2021, the year before Showalter came back to New York.
Then, Díaz pitched the way he did in ‘22, and Lindor hit 26 home runs, knocked in 107 runs, scored 98 runs and stole 16 bases, and they were back to being stars of their sport.
There are a lot of reasons why the Mets became such a great show last season, on the way to winning 101 games. Max Scherzer had his moments and so did Jacob deGrom. Alonso hit 40 home runs and broke the Mets all-time RBI record with 131 and, in his fourth season, continued to have what could be a Hall of Fame trajectory. McNeil won the batting championship. But the two most watchable Mets, on what has become such a watchable team, were the shortstop and the closer.
Puerto Rico might not be a favorite to win the WBC. The team from the Dominican Republic is loaded and so is Team USA. But look out for Molina’s Team Puerto Rico, with Lindor in the infield along with Javier Báez. And there is the chance that we might get to see Díaz pitch a ninth inning after his brother has pitched the eighth, and wouldn’t that be big fun?
There is an understanding between the Mets and Molina that Díaz, who doesn’t pitch back-to-back days in Spring Training until the end of March, will only work every other day for Team Puerto Rico. You just hope there will be trumpets along the way, before he starts throwing fastballs and truly filthy breaking balls past the world.
He was asked upon his arrival in Port St. Lucie, Fla., what his goals are for 2023.
“Keep striking people out,” he said.
He will light things up his way. So, too, will Lindor. The two of them have brought life and flash to the Mets, after too many seasons when there was so little of that at Citi Field. Now fans of Team Puerto Rico will learn something that Mets fans already know.
The difference is that Mets fans get to keep Lindor and Díaz. Puerto Rico has to give them back.