Mets Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2017

Mets Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

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    A savior is on its way to Gotham—and we're not talking about Captain America or the Dark Knight.

    Spring Training will soon arrive to save New York sports fans from what has been a frustrating, hair-pulling winter of discontent, filled with underperforming teams and contenders with more holes than the Swiss cheese on a Reuben sandwich from the dearly departed Carnegie Deli.

    Pitchers and catchers are set to descend upon Port St. Lucie, Florida, in just a few weeks as the New York Mets officially get the 2017 season underway.

    The Mets, who lost the National League Wild Card Game in 2016, will be looking to not only get through camp healthy, but ready to hit the ground running as they embark on a journey that hopefully culminates with the team's second NL East crown since 2015.

    While health will be a focal point of camp, the Mets have some questions that must be answered and a position battle or two to be decided before Opening Day rolls around. We'll attempt to fill in the blanks on the pages that follow.

Storyline: The Health of the Rotation's 'Big Four'

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    Only two starters in the Mets' vaunted rotation made at least 30 starts and logged at least 150 innings in 2016: Noah Syndergaard (30 starts, 183.2 innings pitched) and Bartolo Colon (33 starts, 191.2 innings pitched).

    With the exception of Colon, who left as a free agent for Atlanta this offseason, nearly all the team's starters dealt with some medical issue that required season-ending surgery to repair. Only Syndergaard (bone spur in his elbow) avoided missing any significant time.

    Matt Harvey underwent season-ending surgery in mid-July to address thoracic outlet syndrome affecting his shoulder. Jacob deGrom was lost in mid-September to elbow surgery, while Steven Matz went under the knife a few weeks later to address his own elbow issues.

    Add in Robert Gsellman (offseason shoulder surgery) and Zack Wheeler, who hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors since 2014 and is still working his way back from 2015 Tommy John surgery, and you'd have to be under the influence of anesthesia to not be concerned about the group's overall health.

    That wasn't lost on deGrom, who remained optimistic that the entire group can stay on the mound all season long. "We're all rooting for each other, he told Newsday's Steven Marcus on Tuesday. "We're definitely excited. Hopefully, this is the year that happens."

    Hopefully. Because the Mets are going to have a hard time remaining in contention without their full complement of starters at their disposal.

Question That Must Be Answered: Will Jay Bruce Be a Met on Opening Day?

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    Picking up Jay Bruce's $13 million team option this winter was necessary, as it served as insurance against Yoenis Cespedes potentially leaving as a free agent. But it's no secret that with Cespedes back in the fold, Bruce's continued presence has created a logjam in the outfield.

    Specifically, he's blocking Michael Conforto's path to regular playing time. With Cespedes entrenched in left field and Bruce only capable of playing an outfield corner, Curtis Granderson has to play center field.

    That leaves Conforto, who general manager Sandy Alderson said figured "prominently" into the team's 2017 plans at the GM meetings back in November, per ESPN.com's Adam Rubin, with nowhere to play. It's hard to figure prominently into a major league team's plans when you're biding your time in Triple-A. 

    Alderson has shopped Bruce around this winter to no avail. Part of that has to do with the bevy of similar players available as free agents. That he's asking for two prospects in exchange for the slugger, per CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury, probably isn't helping to facilitate a trade, either.

    "We just have to monitor our needs together with what other clubs may need and be able to respond under the circumstances," Alderson told reporters, including The Record's Matt Ehalt, last week. "We have some flexibility and a number of players coming off of injury, so to the extent we carry an extra outfielder or extra infielder into spring training isn't such a bad idea."

    Translation: Just because we have a glut of outfielders now doesn't mean we will on Opening Day.

    Prediction: The Mets trade Bruce to an American League team during the exhibition season. Conforto starts the season as part of a center field platoon with Juan Lagares, while Granderson becomes the team's full-time right fielder.

Storyline: Lucas Duda, David Wright and Their Backs

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    Another reason that re-signing Cespedes was so important: The Mets can look to him to put the team on his back and carry the offense for stretches during the regular season. They can't do the same with Lucas Duda or David Wright, both of whom dealt with serious back issues in 2016.

    Wright, who underwent surgery in June to repair a herniated disk in his neck, was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2015, a condition that will impact him not just for the rest of his playing career, but the rest of his life. Duda, meanwhile, was limited to just 47 games in 2016 due to a stress fracture in his back.

    The days of Wright performing at an elite level are over. He hasn't played in more than 135 games since 2012, and those injuries limited him to 75 games combined since the start of the 2015 season.

    Whatever the Mets can get out of Wright at this point has to be considered a bonus. Duda has never been anywhere close to the player Wright once was, but his game-changing power is much-needed in the middle of the team's lineup.

    According to MLB.com's Anthony DiComothe Mets remain optimistic about both players being able to contribute extensively in 2017. While Wilmer Flores and Jose Reyes are competent reserves, neither one is an everyday player—and the team lacks any significant depth behind them.

Player to Watch: Dominic Smith

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    Dominic Smith's chances of cracking the Opening Day roster are only slightly better than yours and mine, but the 21-year-old will be one of the premier attractions in camp with the Mets this spring.

    The 11th overall pick in the 2013 draft, Smith has moved steadily through the team's farm system. He had no issues in his first taste of upper-level ball last season, hitting .302 with 14 home runs, 91 RBI and a .824 OPS over 130 games for Double-A Binghamton.

    Baseball America's Matt Eddy describes him as a "natural hitter," a label that's hard to dispute, as Smith has hit over .300 in each of the last two seasons as he continues to mature physically and learns how to tap into his raw power.

    "The Mets have always just preached to me: Grind out a hit. Grind out a hit. Grind out a hit," Smith told ESPN.com's Adam Rubin this past August. "They always said power is the last tool to develop. So I think if I can consistently make hard contact and put the ball in play a lot, my power numbers will continue to improve as I get older and stronger."

    With Lucas Duda's back still a concern and the slugger set to become a free agent after the season, it won't be long before Smith has the first base job in Flushing all to himself. How he performs this spring will indicate just how much longer he'll have to wait.

Key Position Battle: No 5. Starter

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    If the core of the team's rotation can make it through spring training healthy, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz will comprise four-fifths of the team's Opening Day rotation.

    That leaves one spot open and a trio of contenders to fill it.

    • Zack Wheeler (RHP): Wheeler's career got off to a terrific start, as he went 18-16 with a 3.50 ERA, 1.34 WHIP and 271 strikeouts over 285.1 innings of work spanning 49 starts. But injuries, as noted earlier, have kept him off the mound for two years.
    • Robert Gsellman (RHP): Gsellman was better than advertised when pressed into big-league action last season, pitching to a 2.42 ERA and 1.28 WHIP, with a 54.2 percent ground-ball rate. With only nine career starts at Triple-A, the Mets may prefer the 23-year-old starts 2017 back there.
    • Seth Lugo (RHP): Lugo proved himself a reliable member of the pitching staff in 2016, as he bounced between the bullpen and rotation, making 17 appearances with eight starts. The 27-year-old lacks elite velocity but knows how to pitch effectively without plus stuff.

    Prediction: Gsellman will win the competition by default, as the Mets will ultimately decide to be overly cautious with Wheeler and start him off as a reliever. Lugo, meanwhile, will return to Triple-A Las Vegas.

       

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.