New York Mets fans are, for understandable reasons, conditioned to pessimism. The team last won a World Series in 1986, and their six playoff appearances since then have only brought heartbreak. At different points, the Mets assembled groups of young, talented players who seemed primed to lead them deep into October, but none of those lineups were enough to win another World Series. Off the field, the team’s former owner became embroiled in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme scandal, costing the Mets significantly. The Mets’ most famous transaction every year is the $1.19 million they pay each July 1 to Bobby Bonilla, a man who has not suited up for the ballclub since 1999. (The payments are slated to continue until 2035.)
Despite all that, there’s reason for Mets fans to feel optimistic. The Mets are one of the best positioned teams in baseball to make the postseason, and they might even have the pieces in place to make some noise once they get there, despite a few recent hiccups. Here’s a closer look at what the Mets have going for them.
The Mets lead the National League East, and the rest of the division has fallen apart.
The Atlanta Braves, the division winners the last three years, are in a drastically reduced state. Their best player, outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., just had surgery to repair a torn right ACL. He’s out for the season. The Braves are trying to replace Acuña’s production and just traded with the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Joc Pederson, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Acuña-less Braves have enough juice to make a run.
The Philadelphia Phillies have a lengthy list of both injured players and underachievers who haven’t played up to expectations. They also continue to be hamstrung by their players’ dumb decisions to not get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Washington Nationals are traditionally dangerous to rule out. After all, they won the World Series in 2019 after opening the season 19–31. But they’ve consistently sat below .500 this summer, and if a similar turnaround were coming in 2021, it would’ve had to start a long time ago. Another miracle is unlikely, and the Nationals should probably consider trading ace starter Max Scherzer, who’s on an expiring contract.
The Miami Marlins are––well, you get it. They will not bother the Mets.
New York has held a consistent division lead of around four games, and FanGraphs’ playoff projection for the Mets has held steady at around 70 percent (or better). There have been ugly moments, to be sure. Blowing a 6–0 lead to the miserable Pittsburgh Pirates right after the All-Star break was one. But overall, the Mets are in good shape.
The Mets have built a division lead despite their best hitters not doing a lot.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor, an offseason trade acquisition from Cleveland, is a perennial MVP candidate. But he’s been lousy (by his standards) with the Mets, hitting a hair below the league average even as he leads the club in wins above replacement (a measure of a player’s value compared to what a standard minor league call-up would provide).
First baseman Pete Alonso, now the two-time defending Home Run Derby champion, has been productive, but he’s been a good deal worse overall than he was as a rookie in 2019. His slugging percentage as a rookie was .583, while this year it has hovered around .520.
Second baseman Jeff McNeil, one of the team’s best players over the previous three years, has been having his worst season in the majors.
Lindor, Alonso, and McNeil are three of the Mets’ most critical players. None of them has been especially good in 2021. It doesn’t seem likely they’d play worse than they have so far, but there’s a fine chance they’ll be better down the stretch than they’ve been over the season’s first four months. That undelivered upside should have the Mets excited.
Most importantly, baseball’s ultimate trump card will probably return to the Mets shortly.
Jacob deGrom, the team’s two-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, has been the best pitcher in baseball this year by a mile. His 1.08 earned run average is miles ahead of the next-best hurler. If he can finish 2021 with numbers anywhere close to his current marks, he’ll be in line for one of the great pitching seasons of all time.
The last outing for deGrom was July 7, when he went seven strong innings (with 10 strikeouts and no walks) against the Milwaukee Brewers. He felt right forearm tightness after that outing and went on the 10-day injured list, where he has remained ever since. But cameras caught deGrom playing catch last week, and the Mets have sent signals that they expect their best player back sooner rather than later. That said, predicting exact return times from pitching injuries is a fool’s errand.
Whenever deGrom does return, the Mets won’t just have the best pitcher in baseball. They’ll have an ideal chess piece to move around in a potential Division Series. Manager Luis Rojas could start deGrom in both a Game 1 and a decisive Game 5, giving the Mets their ace for 40 percent of a series. Or deGrom could make extended bullpen appearances like the San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner did in 2014. There are few wrong answers with an arm of deGrom’s caliber.
The only reason to doubt the Mets’ 2021 potential is that they are… still the Mets.
If you can get past that, there’s a lot to like about this fall in Flushing.
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