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Around MLB: Mets Open Spring Training…MLB Spring Training Storylines

Spring Training for the 2017 MLB season is underway. Amen.

Pitchers and catchers have reported to camp across MLB over the last week. Full squads will report over the next several days, and next Friday (24 Feb), the Grapefruit (FL) and Cactus (AZ) league schedules will commence.

Coming off a season that saw them claim the National Wild Card with an 87-75 mark (2nd in the NL East), the New York Mets are one of baseball’s most interesting teams heading into spring training.

The Mets return a host of players returning from injuries; injuries that tested the organization’s depth and, especially with regard to the pitching staff, claimed valuable developmental time – and time under team control. The vaunted 5-man pitching staff (Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob DeGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler) has not yet come together for even one turn in the rotation during an MLB season; all 5 are either coming off surgery (Harvey, DeGrom, Wheeler, Matz) or have had arm problems (Syndergaard’s elbow flare-ups). Without the veteran presence of Bartolo Colon (FA to the Atlanta Braves), the depth of the rotation is diminished, but New York will count on Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, who drove the Mets down the stretch and into the playoff in August-September last year. Already raising flags this week, Wheeler experienced elbow discomfort and inflammation; inflammation that the Mets characterized as a break-up of scar tissue. Stay tuned.

In the bullpen, the picture is slowly clearing itself up. GM Sandy Alderson patiently waited until the end of January, and rebuilt some depth for the Mets, re-signing LHP Jerry Blevins for two years, and RHP Fernando Salas for one year. In the bullpen, the primary question is: will Closer Jeurys Familia be suspended (allegations, but charges dropped of October 2016 domestic assault w/wife) prior to the regular season -- for up to 30 days? That would be a punishment similar to the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman as the '16 season began. Who closes for Manager Terry Collins if Familia is not available in April? Addison Reed would seems the most likely candidate.

On the infield, there are also key injury concerns, particularly on the corners. 1B Lucas Duda, plagued by a chronic bad back, is back for one more year, tendered a contract for one year at $7.25M. The Mets need his back to hold up, and his power to return. The Captain, 3B David Wright, is a different story all together. Wright has only played in 75 games over the last two seasons. With four years and $67M remaining on his deal through the 2020 season, Mets fans are hopeful that Wright’s degenerative back condition can be moderated, enabling him to take the post for somewhere near 100-110 games; Wright has voiced optimism that he’ll play about 130 games. The bigger question will be – can he still play 3B at an acceptable level? Wright’s arm strength has diminished, and to compensate for his injuries, he throws the ball more ‘down under’ than before and with less velocity. Up the middle, the Mets will have Neil Walker (who accepted the 1-year franchise tag) at 2B, Asdrubal Cabrera at SS, while Wilmer Flores (SS/2B/3B/1B), and Jose Reyes (3B/SS/2B) will provide flexibility and options for Manager Terry Collins.

In the outfield, there are a lot of names and skill sets -- but the Mets are still without a true everyday CF. Yoenis Cespedes (FA signed to 4 years/$110M) should be in left, while it appears that Jay Bruce will man the other corner in right. Bruce, 30, with one year and $13M remaining on his contract, was the subject of much trade speculation in the offseason. Curtis Granderson, entering the last year of his deal at age 36, returns. Juan Lagares, a NL Gold Glover winner in 2014, also returns. Young Michael Conforto further crowds a clumsily constructed outfield. Questions abound: will Conforto start the year at AAA Las Vegas, or will the Mets opt for the defense of Juan Lagares in CF? Or a rotation of OFs to keep everyone fresh and lessen the risk of injury? Can Reyes, 33, become a super-sub and play CF to keep his bat in the lineup? Or is there still a trade out there for the Mets?

Pre-Spring Training Outlook: This is still a very good, and possibly excellent team. The health of the pitching will tell the story. If the Big 5 can take the ball somewhere between 125-140 games (an average of 25-28 starts), the Mets should be in a good shape. But, from a wide view, are the Mets failing to take advantage of the brief, yet great opportunity and window that this young staff could provide?

Mets notes: The Mets will open their Grapefruit schedule on Friday, 24 February against the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, FL…Manager Terry Collins announced that RHP Noah Syndergaard will be the Mets’ Opening Day starter at Citi Field on Monday, 3 April, against the Atlanta Braves; it will be Syndergaard’s first opening day start…The Mets announced that they will play the Army Black Knights at West Point on Friday, 31 March, closing their exhibition season. This will be the Mets’ ninth visit to West Point, but first since 1984. Mets teams regularly visited the campus of the United States Military Academy, approximately 60 miles from Flushing, in the 1960s and 1970s. Army regularly scheduled exhibition games against MLB teams from 1914-1986, most notably with a long standing series against the New York Yankees.

Other spring training storylines as full squads report:

  • World Champion Chicago Cubs aim to repeat. For the first time since the 1909 season, the Cubs will look to go back-to-back. People have not written words like this in 108 years. The Cubs everyday lineup looks young, strong, and will only be better with a full season of OF/C Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs’ pitching staff will be worth watching. LHP Jon Lester, 33, and RHP John Lackey, 38 will be another year older and RHP Jason Hammel recently signed as a FA with Kansas City. Manager Joe Maddon will rely heavily on RHP Jake Arrieta, 31, who enters the last year of his contract, and RHP Kyle Hendricks.

  • Boston’s high powered pitching staff takes center stage; the Red Sox face life without David Ortiz. Boston made a big splash at the Winter Meetings with the acquisition of LHP Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for several of the organization’s top prospects, including 21-year old OF/IF Yoan Moncada. Sale joins a staff that already has last year’s AL Cy Young winner in RHP Rick Porcello, and 2012 AL Cy Young award winner David Price – who was Boston’s prize Free Agent signing in the 2015-2016 offseason. For the first time since 2002, Boston will start a season without long-time team leader, DH and middle of the lineup anchor, David Ortiz. The Red Sox signed 1B Mitch Moreland from Texas to help backfill some of the production that Ortiz provided, and Boston will hope that a healthier, and leaner, Pablo Sandoval will take important at-bats at 3B and DH to further fill the gap.

  • Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen returns after a rocky offseason. After being shopped in the offseason, McCutchen is still under contract for ’17 at one year at $14M; the Pirates still hold team option for ’18 at $14.75M. In addition, the Pirates announced the McCutchen, the team’s longtime CF, will move to RF, as his range and defensive metrics have diminished over the last several years. Starlin Marte will move to CF, McCutchen will play RF, and the emerging Gregory Polanco will play LF.

  • Sluggers languishing on the market find homes late in the Hot Stove Season. The Orioles re-signed DH/OF Mark Trumbo for three years at $37.5M, the Rangers signed 1B/DH Mike Napoli to a one-year, $6M deal (the team guarantees $8.5M, and holds a $11M option for ’18), and on Thursday, the Yankees signed 1B Chris Carter to a one-year, $3.5M deal. Carter, who hit 41 home runs for Milwaukee and led the National League in ’16, became the first MLB player in history to lead a league in home runs, and then not be tendered a contract for the following season. Carter also hit .222 and struck out an NL-leading 206 times, one year after hitting .199 for the Astros. On Friday, the Yankees announced that 1B/OF Tyler Austin sustained a fractured left foot in pre-spring training workouts. Austin was projected to compete for the 1B job with lefty-swinging Greg Bird; Carter’s signing has already provided GM Brian Cashman and Manager Joe Girardi some much needed depth.

  • MLB rules changes still being discussed – potential changes to the strike zone in an effort to create more contact, and making the intentional walk automatic, all in order to increase the pace of action. No decisions have been made yet, but the pace of action is a focus for MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

In the weeks ahead: we’ll keep you updated on Spring Training, preview the AL and NL comprehensively, and close out the exhibition season with some intrepid predictions.

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