A year ago, there wasn’t a Mets fan extant who couldn’t wait for this week. There had been a brief mourning period in the days and weeks after Josh Hader had coaxed a weak ground ball off the bat of Starling Marte, tidying up a 6-0 win for the Padres in Game 3 of the wild-card round of the 2022 playoffs.
There’d been some appropriate hand-wringing at a 101-win season dying with the Mets sending only two hitters over the minimum to the plate against San Diego, scraping out only a hit and a walk, falling and failing quietly.
But as time faded, there wasn’t a fan base anywhere who counted down the days until pitchers and catchers as loudly and as exuberantly as Mets fans did. Steve Cohen had thrown a few more buckets of cash at another Hall-of-Famer-to-be, Justin Verlander. He’d made a big play for Carlos Correa before Correa’s medicals started clanking bells.
It was the Mets’ time. That much was clear.
And now … well …
It’s difficult to know exactly what to feel, or to think. A year later, a veteran manager with over 30 years of experience, Buck Showalter, has been replaced by a first-time skipper, Carlos Mendoza, who cut his teeth the last few years as Aaron Boone’s bench coach. There’s a new front-office boss — David Stearns in and Billy Eppler out. Cohen’s kept a lock on his vault so far.
More importantly, it’s not like the Braves have gotten any worse.
Or the Phillies.
Or the Marlins.
Or even the Nationals, for that matter, who only finished four games in back of the Mets last season.
And as for the Mets?
Well, the bookend Hall of Famers, Verlander and Max Scherzer, are long gone. The roster does look different, but in a cost-effective way. There are still a lot of good players here — Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo. Edwin Diaz is back after having not pitched an inning in 2023, and Marte is back after taking only eight at-bats since July 16. Luis Severino used to be good. Harrison Bader has had his moments.
The kids? Francisco Alvarez looks like he could be a star someday. Brett Baty and Mark Vientos are intriguing. The Mets themselves insist that they are not mailing in this season. Despite their mass sell-off at the deadline last year, despite staying mostly quiet in the lead-up to spring training this year.
“One of the really fascinating parts of my first weeks on the job was talking to a bunch of our players, and they were trying to convince me how good they are,” Stearns said on the streaming show “Foul Territory” last week. “And I was like, ‘No guys, I get it.’ This is a talented group we have here, and we’re going to add to it, and we’re going to be a good team next year.”
Of course, it isn’t just the players who need convincing. But it starts there. Look, there are no guarantees in baseball, and the Mets have spent the past two years reinforcing that ancient truth. The ’22 group was supposed to enjoy an innocent climb under Showalter, and instead exceeded expectations by 10-12 games, spending most of the year in first place.
Things started to go sour last year even before the first pitch of the first game when Diaz tore up his knee in the World Baseball Classic. Losing a closer alone isn’t enough to guarantee the misery that came after, but as omens go it sure was a doozy. And then the games began, and there was never quite enough hitting, never quite enough pitching, never quite enough bullpen, never quite enough health.
The Mets were like a car whose engine was never quite able to fire, and the result was 75-87, and some conflicting reports from the owner and the former general manager that hinted the Mets may punt on 2024 before they walked that back.
The Mets aren’t punting on ’24, though they aren’t printing up bold postseason slogans just yet, either. And baseball is a funny game, as we saw last season, unless you were one of about 17 people who saw a Rangers-Diamondbacks World Series coming last March. There is a lot of wait-and-see surrounding this team as it reports to Port St. Lucie, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Mets always seem more comfortable as underdogs than overlords, after all.
Part of that is they’ve had a lot of practice at it. And so it is again as we prepare to jump feet first into the 2024 fray. Every year, without fail, there is a team that surprises us. The Mets took to that role gleefully in 2022. They could use an encore.