What a difference a year makes.
Last year during Spring Training in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the Mets were expected to contend with the cellar. The Nationals were predicted to win the National League East. Then something crazy happened on the way to last place -- they never reached it.
Fast forward six months. We know how the movie ended -- painful and depressing for legions of Amazin' fans. The question going into this season is: will this be the year they finally unbreak our collective hearts and win a championship ring?
During the weeks in Florida, the mood was light and fun, with the team reasonably hopeful. A gelled-together team bolstered by the scars of fighting, and losing to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series has emerged during the spring training sessions. And if we needed any further confirmation of the mood in the clubhouse, Batmobile-owner outfielder Yoenis Cespedes even held his own car show, driving showy vehicles each day to the park garnering tons of fun media coverage in the process.
Indeed, the Mets have many reasons for optimism. The roster has remained largely intact from last season with a few key additions including Neil Walker, a well-regarded 2nd baseman from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The return of a stellar pitching, made up of a stable of young guns, provides as deep a rotation as any in the league. Closer Jeurys Familia, who matched the Mets season high save totals of 43 in 2015, is healthy and ready to go. Even some of the pitching staff (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Familia) recently received the Sports Illustrated cover treatment -- much to the chagrin of those who believe in the "cover" curse.
The fan base has also increased its interest and expectations in the team, leading to season ticket sales increasing by 100 percent in the off-season, the first time in years. Well-known food purveyors such as Danny Myer and David Chang are bringing their signature dishes of pizza and spicy chicken sandwiches to Citi Field. Even Coke is getting in on the action, replacing Pepsi as a long-time sponsor in the ballpark.
As we get ready for the season to kick off April 4th in Kansas City, in a much anticipated rematch, here are five things to watch:
1. Hurricane Yo: When Cespedes joined the last day of July in 2015, the Mets were considered the worst offense in the league. He single-highhandedly provided the spark for the team to become the best offense by the end of the season -- an occurrence no one could have predicted.
Now that he has signed a three-year, $75 million contract to return to the Mets (eschewing rival Washington in the process), all eyes will be on his run production.
2. Infield Questions: Will the addition of Walker at second base, replacing playoff hero (and one time World Series goat) Dan Murphy, upgrade the position with his defense and base running? Can David Wright's back hold up for him to play more than 100 games?
Will letting Ruben Tejada leave make a difference? Fans were surprised by the Mets decision, especially after Chase Utley infamously broke his leg on a slide in the playoffs last year. To make it back to the Series, the infield will need to show a significant upgrade from last year.
3. Outfield Prowess: The Mets have come a long way in the past few years. What was once a joke of an outfield, now boasts some of the best players in the league. Curtis Granderson returns to right field with his trademark hustle and charisma. Cespedes anchors center, and Michael Conforto will likely start in left field after he was promoted from the team's Double-A squad last year. Gold Glover Juan Lagares will be starting when there is a leftie on the mound. The team expects some solid bats from the crew as well as a tighter defense.
4. Coaching: Terry Collins was signed to a new two-year coaching deal after the Mets lost the World Series last year. At 66, he is one of the oldest managers in the league. Does he have the energy to make it through another roller coaster of a season? Will he be able to coalesce his team around the singular goal of winning it all this year, given that the Mets are now the hunted? Fans hope his leadership skills and new championship experience will keep the team grounded.
5. Pitching, Pitching, Pitching: For giddy fans, this feels a little like the beginning of the 1986 season when the Mets boasted a pitching staff of Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda, Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera. The anticipation and expectations are just as great of this squad, if not greater.
After Urine-gate, it will be interesting to see how the Mets brass handle Matt Harvey's starts this season. Starters number three, flamethrower Noah Syndergaard, and number four, homegrown pitcher Steven Matz, now have extensive playoff experiences under their belts. Fan favorite and ageless wonder Bartolo Colon returns to round out the rotation. The only question is whether predicted wunderkind Zach Wheeler can return to form in July after Tommy John surgery.
All in all it promises to be a season worth watching. Mets fans can only hope this year ends better than last!