PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The first week of spring training is a better time to pose questions than to fake answers.
There remains so much unknown about the shape of the upcoming Mets season. This time last year, no one could have envisioned a 75-87 record, a trade-deadline sell-off and a managerial firing. You can’t predict baseball, or something like that.
Over the next two days, we’ll pose one key question for each player on the Mets’ 40-man roster — a question that may very well determine the landscape of his season and, in turn, that of the Mets’ season.
Francisco Alvarez: How much can he improve, again?
After the end of a terrific if uneven rookie season, Francisco Alvarez was blunt in his self-assessment. What could he improve on? He listed just about every aspect of baseball.
Alvarez has already shown a remarkable aptitude for swift improvement. At 21, he could carry the offense during his hottest streaks and he ranked in the top three in the sport in framing behind the plate. His inconsistent offensive production could be attributed to the largest workload of his professional career. This season, the Mets hope Alvarez is acclimated to the big-league burden and can lengthen those hot streaks while raising the depth of his cold ones to be a middle-of-the-order presence.
Omar Narváez: Was 2023 an aberration or a trend?
Omar Narváez’s early-season injury opened the door for Alvarez to take over as the regular catcher. Narváez’s production never rebounded as a backup in the second half; he posted a .580 OPS.
It’d be easier to write that off as a lost season if Narváez hadn’t had a .597 OPS in 2022 while with Milwaukee. Prior to those two subpar years, the veteran had owned a career .750 OPS.
Pete Alonso: Can the noise be blocked out?
Mets president of baseball operations David Stearns said on Monday that talks with Pete Alonso about a long-term contract would most likely wait until after the season. A few weeks ago, Stearns said he wasn’t worried about Alonso’s performance during a potential walk year because Alonso has proven to be adept at handling pressure situations. But this experience will be a new form of pressure for Alonso — historically, some players have fared well ahead of free agency while others have allowed the situation to get the best of them.
Since his rookie year in 2019, Alonso has consistently posted gaudy power numbers, and at 29 years old, there are no signs of that trend drastically changing in 2024. Throughout his career, he has been someone who has expressed how much he cares about performing for the team and improving as a player. Alonso experienced a slump last summer at the height of the Mets’ disappointing season, and he said at the time that he felt bad for not helping the team as much as he wanted to. Still, he finished the season with 46 home runs and a 122 OPS+.
Mark Vientos: If he gets consistent time, will he be able to make the most of it?
Unless the Mets make a late addition, Mark Vientos figures to be a significant part of the picture at designated hitter. Stearns said on Monday that Vientos, a right-handed batter, could be an option at third base, where left-handed batters Brett Baty and Joey Wendle profile as fits, too (of the three, Vientos probably ranks as the worst defender).
In the minors, Vientos showed strong power and exit velocity numbers. He has little left to prove at that level; evaluators were encouraged by the improvements Vientos made last year in Triple A, where he adjusted his swing path. The result was an improved contact rate and quality of contact. Vientos is 24 with just 274 plate appearances in the major leagues — the figure is not enough, evaluators say, to make any ruling on who he is or what he might become. Still, Vientos will have to cut down on his strikeout rate and lift the ball more like he did in the minors to have a better chance at sticking around for a while.
Jeff McNeil: Will better health yield results similar to last year’s second half?
Jeff McNeil’s season ended a bit early in late September when the Mets announced he had a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. He is not expected to miss time during spring training. At the time of that injury, McNeil revealed that he dealt with a series of chronic injuries in the first half; he hit just .196 in June, and the new rules banning extreme shifts may have played a part, too.
After the All-Star break, however, McNeil started to resemble the hitter he was in 2022, when he was the National League batting champion. Over his final 56 games, he hit .300 with seven home runs. He is slated to see most of his action at second base.
Francisco Lindor: Can he reach yet another level after playing through an injury?
Francisco Lindor played through an injury for the entirety of the 2023 season, making his durability and overall production with a 30-30 campaign all the more impressive. After the season, the Mets announced that Lindor had surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow. He is expected to be fine for spring training. The issue first popped up last spring, a league source confirmed to The Athletic. Lindor finished the 2023 season with 31 home runs and 31 stolen bases. Might he rack up more of each, given better health? Did the injury have anything to do with his slump early last season?
Luisangel Acuña: How soon can he reach the majors?
Among the Mets’ top prospects who have yet to debut in the majors yet are inching closer to doing so, Luisangel Acuña is the only one already on the 40-man roster. He will likely open the season in Triple A; he has already logged 738 plate appearances in Double A with a solid yet unspectacular .742 OPS for that level. Acuña is an exciting prospect because of his speed. He can play second base, shortstop and center field, but has yet to see any action in the outfield with the Mets’ organization.
Brett Baty: How different can his sophomore season be?
Brett Baty’s rookie season went poorly. By late April, the Mets gave Baty the job at third base after he continued to produce at an elite level in Triple A. But Baty failed to run with the opportunity. After struggling at the plate and on the field, the Mets demoted him to Triple A in August. He returned to the Mets in September, but better results did not follow. Baty would be far from the first rookie to struggle for a full year before rebounding. But he has a lot of proving to do, starting with showing he’s worthy of the third-base job during spring training.
Joey Wendle: Is there much offense left?
In two years with the Miami Marlins and 689 plate appearances, JoeyWendle posted just a 68 OPS+ with five home runs. The Mets picked him up in late November before Ronny Mauricio went down with an injury. Wendle bats from the left side. He offers good speed and defense, and those who have played with him at previous stops say he brings a good clubhouse presence, too. For the Mets, he essentially replaces Luis Guillorme on the bench.
Zack Short: How much playing time will he actually see?
The Mets picked up Zack Short off waivers on Nov. 6, and he’s stuck around on the 40-man roster ever since albeit probably on the bubble. He’s out of minor-league options. Short, a right-handed batter, can capably play third base, second base, shortstop and even the outfield in a pinch. Along with his versatility, he offers plus speed. On Monday Stearns listed him among the options at third base.
Ronny Mauricio: Is a return to action possible by the end of the season?
Ronny Mauricio will open the season on the injured list after needing surgery to repair a torn ACL. The injury happened in December during winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He had the surgery in January. Mauricio will most likely miss the entire 2024 season. In January, the Mets offered a general timeline of 8-12 months for a return. Stearns said he is still in the early stages of his rehab, adding, “This is going to be a long haul for him. We knew that when we got the diagnosis of the injury. Everything’s going fine so far, but we’re still at the early stages.”
Harrison Bader: Are injuries alone holding him back?
In his Zoom introduction with reporters, Harrison Bader pointed to the various ailments that have curtailed his production over the last two seasons: “It’s really difficult at this level if you’re not physically there to perform. You’ve got to be physically capable to do what you’re trying to do. I take extreme ownership of being physically prepared.”
Bader has missed significant time in three consecutive seasons because of injuries. In 2021 and late in 2022, Bader was quite productive when he did play. That wasn’t the case last season.
Starling Marte: Can he rebound at age 35?
The first step for Starling Marte is getting healthy, and Stearns said publicly this week that Marte sure looked healthy playing in the Dominican Winter League. That was a sample of just 11 games, though, and Marte’s stats (an OPS just under .700) were not earth-shattering.
The second step is showing that last year’s struggles were primarily a result of his health issues. Marte’s diminished performance, especially against high velocity, could obviously stem from his physical issues, including a groin injury. At the same time, he was spry enough to steal more bases in substantially less playing time than the year before.
The good news is Marte has been reasonably healthy throughout his career; the bad news is, at 35, now it becomes tougher to rebound physically as an everyday performer.
Brandon Nimmo: How many of last season’s changes will be maintained?
Brandon Nimmo had two different seasons in 2023 — the one that resembled his long track record of offensive performance and the one that came after some changes to his offensive approach in early June.
The biggest difference in Nimmo’s approach came in his home-run rate. Through June 7, he homered once every 68 plate appearances; after, it was once every 21.
Late in the season, Nimmo was confident he could take those changes even further this season: “Those are how I’ve built on things in the past: Try to focus on something, get better at it, and then use that offseason to cement it.”
Alex Ramirez: Can he reward the Mets’ faith in him?
A consensus top-100 prospect heading into last season, Alex Ramirez had a brutal year for High-A Brooklyn. His numbers across the board were worse than they’d been in a 50-game cameo at the level in 2022, and he finished with a .627 OPS. Despite that, the Mets placed Ramirez on the 40-man roster rather than leave him unprotected ahead of the Rule 5 draft.
Ramirez won’t be a consideration for the active major-league roster this year. But he will have to show some improvement in the minor leagues to stick on a 40-man roster that Stearns excels at maximizing.
DJ Stewart: Can he produce regularly?
During the morose final months of the Mets’ 2023 season, DJ Stewart was a bright spot — maybe the bright spot. A .243/.329/.507 slash line after the trade deadline kept Stewart in the organization throughout the offseason and, at the moment, gives him an inside track on an Opening Day roster spot. The Mets still haven’t made a bigger move at DH, leaving the door open for Stewart and Vientos.
Late 2023 was not the first time Stewart enjoyed a stretch of major-league success. He wasn’t able to run with it the last time he had significant everyday playing time with the Orioles. Will this time be different at age 30?
Tyrone Taylor: What else is in there?
The other piece of the Adrian Houser trade, Tyrone Taylor was one of New York’s quieter offseason additions. Still, he has a chance to play a large role for the Mets as a fourth outfielder, given his capability at all three outfield spots and league-average bat. Taylor was a two-win player for the Brewers in 2022, when he received over 400 plate appearances. If he can bring that starter-level performance, the Mets will have an excellent option behind Marte and Bader.
(Top photo: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)