By Dan Schlossberg
Just before the lockout began, the New York Mets hogged the headlines with multiple free-agent signings, led by three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
But the wallet of Steve Cohen, the desire of Billy Eppler to make a fast good impression, and the anxiety of the players to find homes before the onset of nuclear winter may not have made the team that much better.
Scherzer signed on, for a whopping $43 million per season, mind you, but the team also lost younger starters Marcus Stroman (now with Cubs) and Noah Syndergaard (now with Angels), not to mention top left-handed reliever Aaron Loup (also Angels).
Eduardo Escobar, who signed on, can’t match the defense of fellow infielder Javy Baez, who jumped ship to join the up-and-coming Detroit Tigers. Baez is more versatile than Escobar, brings more speed to the game, and has equivalent power.
Speed merchant Starling Marte plugs a huge hole in center field but takes the roster spot of Michael Conforto, a younger outfielder with more power and a much-needed left-handed bat. Conforto hasn’t yet signed elsewhere but he will.
Mark Canha, like Marte, last wore Oakland green but will now be collecting Mets green. His presence likely signals the end of Dom Smith’s reign in Flushing but many scouts think that’s a wash too. Both men are outfielders who can also play first base but Smith is more polished defensively in the infield. He’s younger too — and that seems to be a badge of dishonor on a team obviously following the San Francisco playbook of pursuing a pennant with the most experienced players.
The Giants had the oldest team in the game last year but the Mets seem certain to top them not only in payroll but also in average age.
Consider the fact that New York’s starting second baseman will be 39 — older than any regular middle infielder in baseball. After his one-year suspension, Robinson Cano also figures to be as rusty as the Titanic’s anchor — at least in the field. And don’t bet on his once-feared power coming back to full strength either.
That being said, shortstop Francisco Lindor will be the team’s top position player, seeking a comeback in his second CitiField summer. But first baseman Pete Alonso, who also needs a rebound with the bat, will be the only other infielder on the sunny side of 30.
Marte will top the lineup, followed by Brandon Nimmo, Lindor, Alonso, and Cano.
Look for Escobar to bat sixth, Canha seventh, and catcher James McCann eighth, with a designated hitter to be named later (maybe Cano if Jeff McNeil wins back his old job at second base) fitting in somewhere, assuming the DH spreads to the National League. The Mets need it, since McCann and McNeil are both in search of the comeback trail.
At least there’s good pitching at the top of the rotation.
Potential starting pitchers behind Scherzer are the equally-intimidating Jacob deGrom, Taijuan Walker, and two pitchers to be named as replacements for Stroman and Syndergaard.
Edwin Diaz, who recaptured his former form last year, returns to head a bullpen that will miss free agent deserters Loup, Jeurys Familia, and Robert Gsellman.
Does that sound like a team that’s better than the sub-.500, third-place squad that wound up 11 1/2 games behind the front-running Atlanta Braves last summer?
Maybe more signings or deals are in the works but that lockout better end soon.
The World Champion Braves have already become stronger with the projected return of injured slugger Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Marcell Ozuna, neither of whom played after July 10. If Freddie Freeman re-signs, as expected, Atlanta will be prohibitive favorites for a fifth straight division title.
Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ covers baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Ball Nine, Here’s The Pitch, and others. E.mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.