From the moment a team is eliminated from postseason contention, whether mathematically or logically, fans start to think about the following February and March when they can watch their team return to action with renewed spirit, potential, and possibly some previously missing pieces now found. As the date for pitchers and catchers to report draws closer, fans start to count down the days, some on personal calendars, some on very public social media. The excitement and anticipation is like nothing else in the entire season. And then things actually start, and it’s kind of hard to know what to make of it.
It’s strange to watch baseball games whose final scores mean so little. Actually, it’s not that strange, as that is what Mets fans did for much of 2017. However, after a roller coaster of an offseason (albeit more of a kiddie-size roller coaster, really), it’s somewhat anticlimactic to not care about the games’ results. Really though, when the games final innings are comprised of players who are a few years away from the majors, if at all, it’s hard to take them seriously. So, what really starts to matter about these weeks in Florida and Arizona are the news stories. How is that injured player healing? How is the new manager working with his team? How is that acquisition acclimating to his new clubhouse?
The evolution of the “24-hour news cycle” has really had an effect on how we view spring training. Every shoulder twinge, hamstring tweak, and knee irritation becomes a story. Every bad inning or two (I’m looking at you, Steven Matz) becomes a headline instead of simply being part of the a recap. Similarly, every strong outing is seen as a potential indication of many more to come.
It is with this in mind, and with the necessary boulder of salt, that I’m offering my take on some of the early stories coming out of Port St. Lucie in 2018.
Steven Matz – The 26 year-old lefty has had a pro career full of injuries. Last year he missed significant time at the beginning of the season with an elbow injury, started 13 games, and then missed the rest of the season, undergoing ulnar nerve transposition surgery in August. Early spring training news suggested that he was working with new Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland on improving his pitching mechanics to yield better results and avoid further injury. His results so far have only proven the latter to be true. Of course, two innings in spring training games, no matter how great or how awful, should say much more than “wow, those were two awful games”. If Matz continues to pitch like this, then the Mets should probably consider their options in how to include Matz as part of the rotation, or even part of the team that travels north to Queens in three weeks. Of course, if his results change, which they certainly good, then the Mets can go back to being excited about this young(ish) southpaw with so much potential.
Matt Harvey – Once touted as the Mets Ace of Aces, Harvey is now trying to prove that he can still be a dependable contributor. He has pitched well so far in 2018, even impressing former Braves manager Bobby Cox. The team and their fans could really not have asked for much more from him to this point in the spring. That said, he is still one bad outing, or even worse, one trip to the trainer’s room, away from inviting the detractors to unleash the all-too-familiar doubt upon Harvey and his future. It would be quite refreshing for the team, its fans, and most of all Harvey himself, to head into opening day with optimism.
Dominic Smith – Last week I wrote of his potentially squandered opportunity to challenge Adrian Gonzalez for a spot in the opening day lineup. Since then, Smith has not played in a game, and has only taken batting practice and participated in some on-field drills. It appears that the competition for starting first baseman is over, despite never really starting in the first place. At this point, slowing down Smith’s spring and having him focus getting healthy and starting the season with Triple-A Las Vegas seems like a good way to go.
Mickey Callaway – When rumors first started to circulate that he was being considered for the open Mets manager role, the praise seemed to come from all over. Those who played with him, managed with him as a pitching coach, pitched for him, or played against him, seemed to think he was the right man for the job. Obviously, the Mets front office agreed. So far this preseason, Callaway has had to talk daily about the pitching rotation, the seemingly common injuries to a few of his potentially key players, and a team outing that was infiltrated by an uninvited and oft-disliked offspring of an even more controversial US President. The good news, he’s handled this all with aplomb and charm. The less exciting news, this doesn’t indicate all that much in the long run. At this point, everyone in the Mets family just hopes that his approach translates to victories.
At this point in the spring, all we have is the beginning of stories, and possibly even the beginning of non-stories. The game results may not matter much, but the stories within and around the games still do. Except for the ones that don’t. The next few weeks should go a long way in providing real news to help the team and its fans to prepare for the season.