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Improved Mets are clear playoff contenders

Projected improvement of 12 wins is second most in MLB
MLB.com @mike_petriello

The Mets lost 92 games in 2017, and if there's any possible way to take a silver lining out of that, it's this: It wasn't for lack of talent. Unlike other disappointing teams that just couldn't compete or were actively in the middle of rebuilds, the Mets had their share of skilled players, many of whom led the team to the World Series in 2015 and the National League Wild Card Game in '16. It's why so many of us picked the Mets to make the playoffs again in '17.

It didn't work out, obviously, because just about nothing about the 2017 Mets worked out. But that's sort of the point: With even slightly better health and fortune -- and remember that in addition to new manager Mickey Callaway, they revamped their medical staff, too -- this is a roster that was positioned to be better in '18 almost by default. Merely getting more than 81 games out of Yoenis Cespedes and 30 1/3 innings out of Noah Syndergaard would basically demand it.

The Mets lost 92 games in 2017, and if there's any possible way to take a silver lining out of that, it's this: It wasn't for lack of talent. Unlike other disappointing teams that just couldn't compete or were actively in the middle of rebuilds, the Mets had their share of skilled players, many of whom led the team to the World Series in 2015 and the National League Wild Card Game in '16. It's why so many of us picked the Mets to make the playoffs again in '17.

It didn't work out, obviously, because just about nothing about the 2017 Mets worked out. But that's sort of the point: With even slightly better health and fortune -- and remember that in addition to new manager Mickey Callaway, they revamped their medical staff, too -- this is a roster that was positioned to be better in '18 almost by default. Merely getting more than 81 games out of Yoenis Cespedes and 30 1/3 innings out of Noah Syndergaard would basically demand it.

So that's the starting point. Then, the Mets picked up options on Jerry Blevins and Asdrubal Cabrera, and signed Anthony Swarzak, Adrian Gonzalez, Jay Bruce and Jose Reyes, after acquiring reliever AJ Ramos last summer. Now they've reportedly added third baseman Todd Frazier, too, and may yet add another starting pitcher. This is a win-now team that may be ready to win, now.

Video: Swarzak discusses working with Mets manager Callaway

Let's clarify what that means: The Mets are probably not on the same level as the Nationals in the NL East, but in the world of two Wild Cards, they don't need to be. They just need to be in that 80- to 85-win mix and put themselves into position to add at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Video: Frazier switches boroughs, reportedly signs with Mets

The Mets are in that group now, in part because they look to be one of the biggest improvers from last year. We can say that by looking at the latest 2018 Steamer projections, and while projections aren't perfect, they're a lot better than simply just expecting last year to repeat itself, because that never happens. You don't expect a repeat from Syndergaard, do you? (We're estimating +2 wins from Frazier, who has not been included yet.)  

Biggest 2018 projected wins improvement from 2017
+20 Giants
+12 Mets
+9 Phillies
+8 Blue Jays
+7 Angels

There are different ways to get there, of course. The Giants are very similar to the Mets, as they have a win-now roster that far underperformed their true talent level in 2017, in large part because of an injury that sidelined their ace, Madison Bumgarner, for much of the year. They're not "20 wins better" so much as they were "not nearly as bad as they looked last year." The Phillies added Carlos Santana, Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, and they expect to have Rhys Hoskins all year; the Blue Jays (Curtis Granderson, Randal Grichuk) and Angels (Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart) have each added players.

So, too, have the Mets. While there's not much to say about Gonzalez at this point, realize what the other new additions have meant.

Swarzak, quietly, was one of baseball's best relievers last year. Ignore his 4.22 career ERA and 23-30 record, because his years as a struggling swingman for the Twins are long gone. Last year, he whiffed 91 in 77 1/3 for the White Sox and Brewers, and finished as a top 20 reliever in the most advanced Statcast™ quality-of-contact metric, tied with Felipe Rivero.

Reyes was miscast as a starter, but he rebounded to hit .288/.356/.472 in the second half, and he profiles far better as the infield backup he's now slated to be.  

Bruce bought into the air-ball revolution and launched 36 home runs, while playing better defense than he had in years.

Video: Bruce on being excited to reunite with the Mets

Frazier, despite a low average (and remember, batting average simply does not matter), has been an average to above-average hitter each year of his career. Last year, the Mets' third basemen hit just 16 homers with a .311 wOBA; Frazier has never finished below those marks. In addition to his usual power, he had baseball's sixth-best walk rate in 2017. Everyone else in the top 10 is a certified superstar.

Plus, while Amed Rosario didn't hit in his brief cameo, he does set in motion a domino effect that improves last year's worst infield defense. In 2017, the Mets' shortstops had -24 DRS, the worst in baseball, but that was mostly because of Reyes (now a backup) and Cabrera (now at second). They had baseball's second-worst third base DRS at -22, but that was mostly because of Reyes and Wilmer Flores. Last year, Frazier was +10, and he's been variously average to slightly-above in his career.

The Mets' defense will be better. The bullpen, while still probably short one arm, will be better. The offense will have fewer holes. The rotation might have one more Thor, and New York has a manager with a new, progressive approach.

This puts the Mets squarely into that NL Wild Card mix. Last year's defending division champs in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles will very likely head into the season as favorites to repeat. The Cardinals, now featuring Marcell Ozuna, are probably the league's fourth-best team. After that, it's up for grabs.

The Mets don't appear worse than the Rockies, D-backs, Giants or even the suddenly active Brewers. They might even be better. But the entire point here is that they're very much in that conversation, as that entire group (plus the Pirates) are projected to win between 77 and 88 games. This is the "anything can happen" zone.

This is all wishcasting, of course. Syndergaard has to prove he's healthy, first and foremost, as does Cespedes, and Jacob deGrom has to stay healthy. We know that Michael Conforto is not, at least for the first month, and might be affected after that. We don't know if Rosario can hit, or if Juan Lagares will ever hit, or if Dominic Smith is a Major Leaguer, or just how well Callaway and new pitching coach Dave Eiland can handle a jumble of talented-yet-unproven collection of starters like Seth Lugo, Matt Harvey, Rafael Montero, Robert Gsellman, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler.

There's so many questions here. You don't lose 92 games without heading into the next season with questions. But most 92-loss teams don't get to start the next year with a good core in a division that's 60 percent rebuilds, either. The Mets have a shot. They just need to stay healthy enough to take it.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

New York Mets, Todd Frazier