NEW YORK -- More than perhaps any National League team, the Mets are uniquely suited to thrive over a 60-game season.
One of their best players, Yoenis Céspedes, used the three-month shutdown to prime his body following two years on the sideline, and now is not only ready to play, but to give the Mets a unique advantage at designated hitter. One of their prime offseason acquisitions, Dellin Betances, ramped up his velocity after spending the offseason rehabbing an Achilles tear. And one of their most significant areas of concern, starting-pitching depth, isn’t as much of one without 162 games on the calendar.
Still, plenty of challenges await a Mets team that isn’t even widely favored to win its own division. Here’s a look at where the club stands heading into Opening Day:
What needs to go right?
Two things in particular must happen if the Mets are to compete in a stacked NL East. Their bullpen, much improved on paper, must actually be better. The presence of Betances and Jeurys Familia -- the latter of whom has looked exceptional, with devilish break on his split-fingered fastball -- should help. But the Mets are counting on this unit to be elite, after it finished 25th in the Majors in ERA last season.
Secondly, the rotation -- and particularly Jacob deGrom -- must stay healthy. A group made thin by Noah Syndergaard's Tommy John surgery became thinner still when Marcus Stroman hit the injured list with a left calf tear. Given all that, the Mets can ill afford an extended absence from anyone else in the rotation.
As much as all eyes have been on Céspedes throughout Summer Camp, the Mets won’t know for sure what he can bring until he produces in regular-season games. Most likely, Céspedes will be limited to DH duties, potentially giving the Mets a potent bat in the middle of their lineup. Still, at 34 years old and without any experience facing Major League pitching the past two years, Céspedes’ return to stardom is far from a given.
Prospect to watch
Tenth-ranked prospect David Peterson, the organization’s first-round Draft pick in 2017, isn’t likely to break camp with the team, but he could become its savior should someone from the rotation sustain an injury. Now that another depth option, Walker Lockett, is battling lower back tightness, Peterson could be the Mets’ first choice if something goes wrong. The team is committed to keeping him stretched out as a starter, rather than using him as a reliever.
On the schedule
The Mets will bookend their season with walks through fire. Their first 13 games are scheduled against the Braves, Red Sox and Nationals, in a stretch that will set the tone for the NL East race. Their final 13 come against the Phillies, Braves, Rays and Nationals, in a two-week run that could decide the division.
Team MVP will be ...
Michael Conforto. With respect to Pete Alonso, who was the MVP last year, and deGrom, who is the best player on the team, the Mets have been waiting for Conforto to develop into an upper-echelon hitter for years. He has looked strong in Summer Camp, and over 60 games, Conforto has the capability to do significant damage … provided the Mets let him. It’s imperative that the team use him high in the batting order and let him play regularly against both righties and lefties, thereby fully unleashing his potential.
Team Cy Young will be ...
deGrom, or else the Mets are in trouble. He’s the two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, and easily the best pitcher on the staff. The Mets don’t figure to mess with deGrom’s routine too much in a shortened season, keeping him on a schedule to pitch every five games, which will give him at least 12 starts and possibly more if they take advantage of team off-days late in the year. If deGrom isn’t spectacular, the Mets may find it difficult to keep pace with the Braves, Nationals and Phillies. This year in particular, merely mortal won’t suffice.
The Mets have enough top-end talent to compete with any team in the league. Their rotation depth is suspect, and their bullpen and catching depth are currently being tested. But in a short season, it won’t matter. Given the benefit of a DH every night, the Mets will do enough to secure an NL Wild Card spot, making the playoffs for the first time since 2016.