WASHINGTON — So much is different about the Mets since 2016, the last time they made the playoffs. Rosters inevitably change, but the Mets’ overhaul runs much deeper. They have, to name a few important figures, a new manager, a new general manager and a new team owner — the last of that bunch making the biggest difference in the direction of any franchise.
The franchise’s past decade has been defined more by losses and drama than winning and stability. The Mets, whose last World Series title came in 1986, have made the playoffs just twice since 2007. They were in first place for most of the first four months last season, only to collapse and finish 77-85. But after a winter of further revamping, one of the most highly anticipated seasons in recent team history is here, beginning with an easy 5-1 win over the Nationals on Thursday night in Washington, DC
Mets 5, Nationals 1
Box Score | Play-by-Play
Given the unexpected opening day assignment because of ace Jacob deGrom’s shoulder injury, Tylor Megill, who came into the day with 18 career starts, tossed five scoreless innings and allowed just three hits. New outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha each drove in a run. Hoping to bounce back from his rough first season with the Mets, shortstop Francisco Lindor chipped in with a run. Returning from a yearlong suspension for performance enhancing drugs, second baseman Robinson Cano added two hits.
It was merely one game to kick off a six-month journey in which unexpected twists and turns await, but the reasons to be bullish on the Mets are plentiful.
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“We’re not going to win them all, but we’re going to try,” Mets Manager Buck Showalter said after the game.
For so long under the previous owners, the Wilpons, that did not always seem to be the case. The Mets languished in the National League standings and in Major League Baseball’s payroll rankings despite playing in the United States’ largest media market.
But under the second-year owner Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund manager with a reported net worth over $15 billion, the team now has the richest majority owner in MLB and it is behaving accordingly. According to FanGraphs, only the perennially contending Los Angeles Dodgers ($293 million, for luxury tax purposes) have a higher payroll in MLB than the Mets’ franchise record mark of $286 million.
When healthy — a challenge right now — the Mets have two of the best pitchers in baseball in the right-handers Max Scherzer, 37, and deGrom, 33, each of whom have won multiple Cy Young Awards. While deGrom might be out for months with a shoulder injury that dampens the team’s outlook, the Mets received encouraging news regarding Scherzer’s tight hamstring before Thursday’s game and planned to have him make his Mets debut Friday. And thankfully for the Mets, they swung a trade with the Oakland Athletics in March for the right-handed starting pitcher Chris Bassitt, a 2021 All-Star.
To further improve the team heading into this season, the Mets spent a combined $254.5 million on infielding Eduardo Escobar, Marte, Canha and Scherzer. They supplement a roster that includes key players who underperformed last year, such as catcher James McCann, the second baseman and outfielder Jeff McNeil and Lindor.
“We just want to play great baseball,” Scherzer, who won the 2019 World Series with the Nationals, said before Thursday’s game. “There’s a lot of talent in here. A lot of moves were made in the off-season to bolster the talent in here. It’s up to us to come together as a team and as a clubhouse and play well as a team and do the best we can. We need a good start right out of the beginning.”
The Mets’ general manager, Billy Eppler, never built a playoff team in five seasons with the Los Angeles Angels but he has proved capable of attracting some of the best players in baseball. (He lured the two-way star Shohei Ohtani, the 2021 American League Most Valuable Player, to Anaheim, Calif., from Japan.) And Showalter, who has a .506 career winning percentage with four different teams over his previous 20 years, is the most experienced skipper they have employed in some time.
“He’s really, really organized,” said Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who did not start Thursday’s season opener because of a stiff neck. “He’s accurate. He’s going to be prepared. I don’t think we’re going to lose a game because Buck wasn’t prepared.”
Nimmo is cheerful by nature, but heading into this season, he noted that the squad assembled by Cohen and Eppler had him “really optimistic.” Referring to the new players, Nimmo said, “these guys have a long track record of succeeding in the big leagues.”
The playoff field was expanded to 12 teams from 10 in the sport’s new labor agreement, which should make a return to the playoffs slightly easier, but the Mets’ division, the NL East, will be stout. The Nationals are rebuilding, but the Miami Marlins ($89 million) and Philadelphia Phillies ($204 million) committed sizable chunks of money on free-agent upgrades this winter, according to Spotrac. The Phillies didn’t spend much on defense, but they added the powerful bats of outfielders Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber.
The team to beat will be Atlanta, the reigning World Series champion. Despite letting the longtime star first baseman Freddie Freeman depart via free agency, Atlanta has a franchise record $206 million payroll after a flurry of moves, from trading with the Athletics for the star first baseman Matt Olson (and signing him to an eight-year $168 million extension), re-signing outfielder Eddie Rosario and adding the former Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.
“It’s going to be a tough division and there’s a lot of good teams and talent,” Scherzer said. “Everybody has got to be at their best.”
On Thursday, that began with Megill. Because deGrom got injured soon before opening day, Scherzer was dealing with a minor leg injury and Showalter didn’t want to mess with the other starting pitchers’ schedules, the Mets turned to Megill. “For the most part, I felt very relaxed,” he said.
Megill delivered, as did the Mets’ bullpen and lineup, which collected 12 hits. The lone Mets blemish was a solo second-desk blast by Nationals star Juan Soto off Trevor May in the sixth inning.
“You couldn’t ask for much better,” Showalter said of Megill, who reached 99 miles per hour with his fastball in the first inning. Added first baseman Pete Alonso, “Having him set the tone like that on opening night was awesome.”
After the final out, the Mets high fived on the field. Following two pandemic-altered seasons, a labor dispute between MLB owners and players that nearly jeopardized a full 162-game regular season, a rushed spring training and a flurry of activity to overhaul the franchise, the Mets were excited to start a new hopeful season — and with a win.