NEW YORK -- By the end of 2020, the Mets had become nearly unrecognizable from the franchise that began the calendar year. Steve Cohen is now the owner. Sandy Alderson is the president. Jared Porter is the general manager. And those are far from the only differences to permeate various corners of the organization.
Change is coming rapidly now and isn’t likely to slow in the opening weeks of the new year. Given that sort of pace, here are five questions the Mets must answer early in 2021:
1. How will the Mets fill out their rotation?
This need became slightly less pressing when Marcus Stroman opened the offseason by accepting an $18.9 million qualifying offer, but it nonetheless remains noteworthy heading into January. Directly behind Jacob deGrom and Stroman on the depth chart sits David Peterson, followed by two pitchers with uncertain roles: Seth Lugo and Steven Matz. No matter how the Mets choose to deploy those two, they’re going to need to add at least one starting pitcher, potentially near the top of their rotation.
Trevor Bauer could be that addition. Or, the Mets could eschew Bauer in favor of a lower-tier starter, which would allow them to spend resources elsewhere on the roster instead. In either event, it is a near-certainty that they will add to their rotation in January.
2. Will the Mets land George Springer?
Unlike the starting five, which would be on shaky ground if the Mets don’t make a move, the outfield doesn’t necessarily need a change. But Springer, who is easily one of the top position players available on the open market, would add a new dimension to the Mets’ roster. Acquiring Springer would allow the Mets to shift Brandon Nimmo to left field on a full-time basis, improving the team’s defense at two positions, while also adding a star-caliber bat to the middle of the lineup. It’s rare to find a free agent as consistent as Springer, who has averaged a career .270/.361/.488 slash line with 31 homers per year over his last four full seasons. And there aren’t many other teams who can match the Mets in both resources and roster fit.
3. Will Alderson and Porter spring a big trade?
Offseason rumors have bubbled up sporadically regarding Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor. Alderson, meanwhile, has only done so much to dissuade them, describing his front office as focused on free agents, but willing to have big conversations in the trade market as well. While the Mets don’t want to give up top prospects regardless of the return, they might not have to in the type of salary dump deal that could entice Colorado. That, combined with an uncertain third-base situation in Flushing, makes a blockbuster trade a (small) possibility.
So far this winter, the Mets have made a series of modest but impactful signings to improve their roster. They have yet to complete a signature, franchise-altering move; a trade for one of the game’s best all-around players would certainly qualify.
4. What’s going to happen at first base?
If the National League proceeds without a designated hitter in 2021, the Mets won’t have an obvious place to deploy Dominic Smith, their most valuable offensive player in ’20. Left field remains an option, though far less of one if the Mets acquire Springer. That leaves first base, where Smith outperformed Pete Alonso on both sides of the ball last season. Will that performance be enough for the Mets to call first base an open competition between Smith and Alonso, who is just two years removed from his breakout, 53-homer NL Rookie of the Year Award campaign? Or will Smith go back to the bench, where he thrived as a slugging, left-handed pinch hitter in 2019? Is a third option, such as a trade of Smith -- a popular clubhouse figure -- in play?
These aren’t easy questions with simple answers, but the reality is it will be difficult for the Mets to find playing time for both.
5. Is Edwin Díaz the closer (and if so, can the Mets trust him)?
So far this offseason, the Mets have danced around the topic of Díaz, lauding him for his improvements in 2020 without guaranteeing him anything heading into ’21. The improvements, at least, are real and obvious: Díaz struck out 17.5 batters per nine innings last season, rebounding from some early scuffles to finish with a 1.75 ERA. But questions remain, considering Díaz struggled in a much larger sample in '19. Many around the team have questioned his ability to pitch well in New York, pointing out that his renaissance came without fans in the stands. But Díaz’s talent -- not to mention his years-long track record as a top-flight reliever -- is undeniable.
How the Mets deploy Díaz could depend in part upon whether Lugo is in the rotation or bullpen. The team does have other arms they can lean on to close games, including free-agent acquisition Trevor May, but none features quite the same upside as Diaz. It will be telling to see whether the Mets commit to Díaz as their closer early in Spring Training, or leave his status uncertain.