Welcome to the 2015 season -- a faint glimmer of hope arrives on warmer winds for long-suffering Mets fans.
After a long, frozen offseason, the New York Mets are set to open against the Washington Nationals this Sunday on ESPN.
Last year was the sixth straight non-winning season for the Mets. The 2014 payroll of $84 million produced 79 wins and 83 losses.
And yet, there was a sense of genuine hope from fans going into Spring Training. The buzz from the pitching staff, free agents and returning faces all pointed towards a brighter season. Fans have even voted with their wallets: ticket sales are up nearly 20 percent over last year.
Then -- in perhaps typical Mets luck -- starting pitcher Zach Wheeler tore a tendon in his pitching arm, needs Tommy John surgery and will be out for 14 months. Relief pitcher Josh Edgin also has to undergo Tommy John surgery, and will miss all of 2105. The team announced they were placing all their bets on 41-year-old Bartolo Colon as their opening day pitcher -- all leaving fans wondering if their precarious confidence was short-lived, and if the curse of the Mets would take its toll on yet another season. Would the saying "There's always next season" happen again this year?
But do Amazin' enthusiasts still have a reason to believe? Despite the early setbacks in Spring Training, could this still be the year the team makes the postseason for the first time since 2007?
Here are five things to watch in 2015:
1. The Starting Rotation
Rather than a triple threat of young hot Mets pitchers Matt Harvey (25 years old), 2014 MLB Rookie of the Year Jacob DeGrom (26) and Wheeler (24) forming a nucleus of an impressive rotation, the team has been forced to reconsider keeping pitcher Dillon Gee, who has been on the trading block.
Gee, age 28, has been something of an inconsistent player for the team. Last year he was 7-8 but overall in his career he has won 40 games and lost 34. If he makes the rotation this year, fans hope he will return to 2013 form when he struck out 142 batters in 199 innings.
The other big question mark, and the cause for most excitement is Harvey, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and last threw a Major League pitch in Aug. 2013. But Mets fans have good reason to be enthusiastic. He has looked solid in Spring Training, clocking a 99-mph fastball in his first outing.
The rotation also has deGrom returning. Not only did he capture the team's first Rookie of the year since Dwight Gooden in 1984, he has quickly become a fan favorite. In fact, the Mets crack promotional staff has decreed May 2nd as Jacob deGrom Garden Gnome day.
2. The Outfield: Nowhere to Go But Up
The past few seasons for the outfield have been an unmitigated disaster. From drawing the ire of fans for gaffes that saw them ranked next to last in defense in the league, to a lack of offensive production, the Mets outfield has inspired more jokes than confidence.
However, the team made their outfield and their offense a priority this offseason. In a surprise move, the Mets signed Michael Cuddyer from the Rockies, who brings a solid bat, and defense to left field. Center fielder Juan Lagares, fast becoming a fixture on the highlight reel for circus catches, won a Gold Glove in 2014. Right fielder Curtis Granderson has been a bright spot, if a bit inconsistent, since coming over from the crosstown Yankees.
3. Cautious Optimism Combined with a New Attitude
Winning teams have winning attitudes. The Mets have tried, and failed, to create a winning culture for the past few years. They just didn't have the talent to do it. With losses, swagger disappears.
This year feels a bit different. Not only is Harvey coming back but there seems to be a new mix of positive chemistry in the clubhouse with some of the new players and old guard.
Exhibit A: In Spring Training, bullpen reliever Bobby Parnell and third baseman David Wright called out rookie pitcher Noah Snydergaard for eating in the clubhouse instead of sitting on the bench during a game. Players being held accountable for their actions? That's not always been the case with the Mets, who have had their share of clubhouse antics (see Vince Coleman).
Here's hoping that attitude translates to camaraderie and a winning record during the season.
4. Post Ponzi Payroll
The 2015 payroll is close to $97 million dollars -- a 15 percent increase over last year. The biggest reason? The Cuddyer singing. For the first time in years, the team went after a genuine big league bat for the outfielder, set to earn $21 million in the deal.
Is it a signal the purse strings have finally loosened in a post-Bernie-Maddoff Ponzi scheme world? Will the Mets compete again for free agents that have recognizable names?
Mets fans can only hope free agents see CitiField as an enticing place to land.
5. New CitiField Dimensions
Speaking of CitiField, the fences have been moved in five to 11 feet in right center field, which should help Mets sluggers like Granderson, Lucas Duda and David Wright. Right-center field will be 380 feet from the plate, down from 390 feet. This is the second time the team has moved in the fences -- all in a bid to propel the big red home run apple to pop up more frequently.
Time will tell if that change affects the ERA of the hometown pitchers.
In 2015, fans are hoping the increased firepower at the plate, combined with the new faces on the mound make for a winning season -- and a long-awaited appearance in the postseason.
It may be only the beginning of April, but hey, the Mets are tied for first. Optimism is in the air and in the hearts of fans.
More fun facts about the Mets:
- The Mets are the 7th most valuable franchise in Major League Baseball with263 million in revenue last year; their payroll ranked 23rd out of 30 Major League teams in 2014
- Cuddyer is a childhood friend of Mets captain David Wright. Both grew up in Norfolk, Virginia
- Steve Gelbs from the MSG Network is the new Mets sideline reporter for SNY, replacing Kevin Burkhardt who jumps to Fox Sports after eight years with the team
- Speaking of announcers, fan favorite Bobby Ojeda will not return to SportsNet New York's Mets pre- and postgame studio after a contract dispute
- On Aug. 29th Mets will give away '86 champion bobble head dolls during a Red Sox game
- At age 41, Bartolo Colon is the second oldest pitcher still playing in the league. He finished 2014 with a 15-13 record and a 4.09 ERA in 31 starts