Mets relish test of NL East's big spenders

March 20th, 2022

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Late Sunday morning, as they prepared for their Grapefruit League home opener against the Cardinals, the Mets locked into the sports world. Francisco Lindor asked a clubhouse attendant to tune one television to a Formula 1 race. Jeff McNeil requested golf.

These sorts of things, of course, are merely diversions; above all, the Mets pay attention to baseball. So it did not go unnoticed when each of New York’s NL East rivals made a notable improvement (or several) over the past week, combining to guarantee nearly half a billion dollars to a group of stars including Matt Olson, Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler.

“I feel like other teams are chasing us,” McNeil said, referring to all the moves his own club made early this offseason.

Throughout Clover Park, McNeil and others remain deferential to the defending World Series champion Braves, who are the division’s team to beat until proven otherwise. But there is also a quiet confidence within these walls, if not a downright strut. Before Major League Baseball’s lockout, the Mets were the game’s most aggressive team, supplementing an already strong core with three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and a host of offensive pieces -- from Starling Marte to Eduardo Escobar to Mark Canha. Once the lockout ended, the Mets were among the first teams to strike, trading for starter Chris Bassitt and signing reliever Adam Ottavino.

Given all that, the Mets feel strongly that they can chase their first NL East title since 2015. They’ve positioned themselves well. So it wasn’t surprising to them when the Braves traded for Olson and subsequently signed him to a $168 million extension, or when the Phillies added Schwarber for $79 million and Castellanos for $100 million, or even when the Marlins and Nationals upgraded with the acquisitions of Soler and Nelson Cruz, respectively. In the Mets’ eyes, it was a response.

“It makes the division better,” Lindor said. “The division is going to be very competitive.”

Around this time last year, baseball pundits anticipated similar strength from the NL East, but the results proved underwhelming. None of the five teams won more than 88 games, as injuries and other factors weakened various rosters -- most notably that of the Mets. Then again, as Lindor pointed out, the Braves went on to win the World Series anyway. An NL East team has won two of the last three Fall Classics.

“In early August, late September, people were saying how terrible our division was,” Lindor said. “But a team from our division still ended up winning it. I mean, yeah, we didn’t play as good as we wanted to, but it shows that our division is very challenging. It makes me happy, because I know it’s going to be very good matchups the whole entire year, from Day 1 until the last day of the season. … If you want to win, you’ve got to beat the division first.”

To a man, the Mets know it, even while understanding that they can focus only on themselves. Worrying about Olson or Schwarber won’t help New York nearly as much as ensuring the health of Scherzer or Jacob deGrom. When it comes time to play regular-season games, the Mets will open with seven in a row against division opponents, then another 14 in a row from late April through mid-May.

At that point, they’ll concern themselves with hitting Kenley Jansen’s cutters in Atlanta or keeping Castellanos in the park in Philadelphia.

Until then?

“What are you going to do, gather the players together and say, ‘Look how much better the other teams have gotten?’” manager Buck Showalter said. “It falls under the ‘Captain Obvious’ thing. It’s about us. We’ve got to do our thing. We’ve got to do what we have to do.”