As camps open, the Mets understand their assignment
By Tyler Kepner
Nothing matches baseball for reassuring signs of renewal. The first smashing of shoulder pads on a steamy summer day? The first squeaking of sneakers on hardwood in a gym? Nope. There’s baseball, and there’s everything else.
And there they were Tuesday morning, a prospect and a coach behind the batting cages and bullpen mounds, on a diamond with no outfield at the New York Mets’ training complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The half field, as it is called, is like a luxury home with a soaring entryway but no rooms — capable of facilitating just infield practice, nothing else.
Joey Cora, 57, a former major league infielder now skilled in the fine points of the fungo bat, smacked rollers to Ronny Mauricio, 21, a rangy Dominican shortstop with power and speed. Mauricio wore shorts, a backward cap and a Mets T-shirt, sweat pouring through it as he darted left and right for grounders until Cora lined one over the little fence, just behind the infield dirt. Oops.
“Old habits, baby!” someone cried, and Cora smiled. It took him some 1,000 trips to the plate to actually hit a home run in the majors.
Pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training Wednesday, but most had arrived a day early. They played catch on another oddly configured space (two full diamonds with a shared outfield), arms and legs unfolding in familiar styles, carefully shaping curves and sliders below speeds permissible on highways.
Only Justin Verlander throws like that, an observer might think — and hey, over there, that’s unmistakably Max Scherzer. They are the two highest-paid players in baseball, and the only pitchers in the Grapefruit League with three Cy Young Awards. (Clayton Kershaw, out in the Cactus League in Arizona with the Los Angeles Dodgers, also has three.)
Steven Cohen, the Mets’ owner, first fan and unapologetic big spender, lavished $43.3 million per year on Scherzer before last season — and did it again in December for Verlander, who turns 40 in a week. In 2022, Verlander had the majors’ best ERA, won the American League Cy Young Award and helped the Houston Astros win the World Series.
“He understands the expectations and the mantle of what he carries,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said, trying to downplay the obvious demands on his ace right-handers. “Both those guys have climbed that mountain, so I don’t think it could be more heightened, because it was already there.”
Showalter led the Mets to 101 victories last regular season, tied with Atlanta for the most in the National League East, a division the Atlanta Braves won via a tiebreaker. Both teams lost their first playoff round, and the Philadelphia Phillies — a distant third in the division race — reached the World Series.
At 66, with Manager of the Year Awards in four decades, Showalter still hasn’t been to a Fall Classic. He has taken one team to a league championship series: the 2014 Baltimore Orioles, who swept the Detroit Tigers to get there. The Tigers’ aces that fall were Scherzer and Verlander.
Examples like that are why Showalter never speaks as boldly as players like closer Edwin Díaz, a 2022 All-Star, who matter-of-factly described the Mets’ mandate on Tuesday.
“Our expectation is to win the championship,” said Díaz, who had his hair dyed blond to match his teammates for Puerto Rico in next month’s World Baseball Classic. “So we’re looking forward to start winning games and try to be in the World Series.”
Showalter did not mention the words “World Series” on Tuesday, at least not in the first of the hundreds of news conferences he will give this season. He did mention the rare gift of opening the season with seven games in seven days, all at ballparks with retractable roofs, in Miami and Milwaukee. What a treat for a planner.
“When we get home we will have played seven days in a row, unless there’s a leak in the roofs,” Showalter said. “Rooves. Rufus.”
The chummy media gathering — news conference is too formal a term — had its usual amusing sidebars. Showalter is setting up a talent show for the players, although none will likely top a former Baltimore prospect, Ryan Flaherty, who once brought two monkeys to camp — one pitched to the other — and won a roster spot.
Showalter is thrilled to have only 52 games against divisional opponents, down from 76 last season (“That didn’t make any sense at all,” he said). He is happy that the Mets finally removed the bullpen mounds from foul territory of their spring training stadium, an obvious safety hazard. And he noted that the team had redesigned its sliding pits at the training facility to help familiarize players with the new bases this season — 18 inches square, up from 15, designed to promote stolen bases.
“You get used to ’em looking a certain way,” Showalter said. “I know the first day I walked out down here last week and saw the bags, right away they were different. But I don’t know how much they’re actually going to affect the game.”
Showalter has been talking a lot with the minor league managers, who oversaw changes at the lower levels last season: the pitch clock, restrictions on infield positioning, limits on pickoff throws. The Mets’ staff met with league officials Tuesday afternoon to review it all.
“I don’t worry about the pitch clock because I like to pitch quick,” Díaz said. “I don’t like to let the hitter think what pitch is coming.”
There are only two choices with Díaz, who has no plans to add anything new after fanning 118 of his 235 opposing hitters, with a 1.31 ERA, in the 2022 regular season.
“No,” he said, “I will keep throwing my two pitches, my fastball and my slider, and keep striking out everybody.”
Díaz’s season earned him the richest contract ever for a closer — five years, $102 million — and center fielder Brandon Nimmo also returned, for eight years and $162 million. The Mets got Verlander after losing ace right-hander Jacob deGrom to Texas (Showalter, a former Rangers manager, said he helped him find a house in Dallas) and shuffled elsewhere in the pitching staff: Kodai Senga, José Quintana, David Robertson and Brooks Raley are in; Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, Seth Lugo and Joely Rodríguez are out.
For Cohen, it adds up to $450 million or so, including tax penalties, by far the most an owner has ever spent on a roster. The pressure is implicit, but the weight of it all is a burden for another day. This was a beginning to savor.
“In order to have something to finish, you’ve got to figure out a way to start it,” Showalter said. “I’m a little more interested in that part right now.”