We all know what Brodie Van Wagenen, then the recently minted general manager of the Mets, said when he got the job: “Come and get us.”
He meant that he thought he had the best team in the National League East. He didn’t. Later he had to admit, “They came and got us.”
Now the Mets have to go get the defending World Series champs (Nationals), the two-time defending division champs (Braves) and maybe even Joe Girardi’s Phillies to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
But it sure is going to be fun watching them try.
The Mets actually didn’t stop trying last season when they were 40-50 on July 7. They went from 10 games under .500 to playing at a pace of 20 games over the rest of the way. It didn’t save Mickey Callaway’s job. But it wasn’t nothing. And something to build on.
Can the Mets contend in what might be the deepest division in baseball this season? I think they can. But they need to answer a starting list of nine questions in the positive, and in no particular order:
1. Can the Mets' lockdown relievers actually lock it down?
They’ve just added Dellin Betances from the Yankees, after what was a lost season in the Bronx because of injuries. And despite all of his various ninth-inning calamities last season, they keep telling themselves that the Edwin Díaz who had 57 saves for the Mariners in 2018 will return, and that last year’s big free-agent signing, Jeurys Familia, will recapture his All-Star form.
I asked Mets COO Jeff Wilpon to give me a question he’d very much like to see answered, positively, for his baseball team, and he said this: “Can Díaz, Familia and Betances return to the elite level they have all performed at in the past?”
It's as important a question as any around the 2020 Mets.
2. What kind of manager will Beltrán be?
Can Carlos Beltrán, a former Mets star, do the kind of job that Aaron Boone did across town when he got the Yankees’ job without any previous managerial experience? We’re about to find out. Beltrán played in New York the way Boone did. He takes over a team that has big ambitions the way Boone did. But the fact is that we now have a rookie manager working with a general manager who was a rookie last year.
3. Can Alonso do it again?
The kid from Tampa doesn’t have to hit 53 home runs again. But Pete Alonso is the most important bat the Mets have. He didn't just win the NL Rookie of the Year Award. I thought Alonso was one of the most valuable players in the league last season, on a team that did win 86 games (seven fewer than the Nats in the regular season). He doesn’t have to hit 50. But if Alonso comes back as a 40-homer guy, if he’s still that dangerous in the middle of the order, the Mets are going to score.
4. How much does Canó have left in the tank?
Robinson Canó got off to a slow start last season, looked to have a bat slower than traffic on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and then got hurt. But he did seem to be coming on when he did get sidelined. Cano ultimately hit .256, with 13 home runs in 107 games. The Mets are going to need a lot more than that this season from a guy who turned 37 in October. If he doesn’t, and Díaz doesn’t come back, the trade with Seattle -- one that included a promising kid named Jarred Kelenic -- looks worse than the Knicks.
5. What -- if anything -- can Céspedes contribute?
Can Yoenis Céspedes actually get back on the field and stay there? Even giving them the offensive production during his brief stint in 2018 -- .821 OPS in 38 games -- that might be enough to make a difference.
6. Can Stroman approach Zack Wheeler’s production?
Well, he better. Marcus Stroman basically needs to be more than a symbol from last summer that the Mets weren’t throwing in the towel.
7. Can Thor finally become a true ace over a full season?
Now would be a good time. Noah Syndergaard is still just 27. But he was just 10-8 last season with a 4.28 ERA ... and gave up too many home runs (24 in 197 innings) ... and baserunners still run on him at will (74-for-80 stolen-base success over last two seasons). There was a time when the Mets thought Syndergaard would be the kind of true ace that Jacob deGrom has become. Still hasn’t happened.
8. Can deGrom maintain his current level?
He has now won two NL Cy Young Awards in succession, and he has been so dominant with a ball in his right hand that voters don’t care that his last 21 wins have come over two seasons. If the Mets are going anywhere, deGrom leads the way -- along with Alonso.
9. Is Conforto ready to be a star?
Michael Conforto doesn’t turn 27 until next spring. He hit 33 home runs last season, nearly got to 100 RBIs, and, most importantly, he stayed healthy all year long. Conforto seems poised to take an even bigger step up this season. He makes Alonso better. Alonso makes him better. They both make the Mets feel better about their offense even if the other C-Listers -- Cespedes, Canó -- aren’t ever going to be what they used to be.
These aren’t the only nine questions for the Mets. Just the biggest ones. But if there are more good answers than bad ones, they absolutely can be in play with the teams ahead of them in the division. If not? The only team they might end up ahead of is the Marlins.