With Spring Training games already underway, let’s take a look at the position battles that will shape the Opening Day roster.
The New York Mets did an admirable job this winter to bring in veteran free agents to bolster their roster heading into the 2018 season.
However, the players already on the roster will face the fallout of these additions as they are forced to compete for the remaining sports on the Opening Day 25-man roster.
Although the team’s current construction doesn’t call for an extreme amount of competition across the diamond, there are three battles that are worth keeping an eye on this Spring.
Rotation and Swingman Roles
Nobody needs to tell you how fragile the Mets rotation has been over recent seasons. The organization has taken notice and brought in veteran Jason Vargas to be a stabilizing force for the unit.
Before Vargas was in the picture, the team had eight pitchers vying for five rotation spots and the two swingman roles. Now, it’s likely that Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Vargas, and Matt Harvey have locked up four of the five rotation spots.
Naturally, that leaves one rotation spot, and likely two bullpen roles for the likes of Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo, and Robert Gsellman.
With addition of Jason Vargas, Mets starters face heated battle for rotation spot – @Ackert_NYDN https://t.co/FqfZ803RLt pic.twitter.com/ArhisJ7hR4
— NY Daily News Sports (@NYDNSports) February 19, 2018
The bullpen roles will likely be in the ‘swingman’ mold, which will task two pitchers with the duty of pitching multiple innings out of the bullpen as well as making spot starts when called upon.
What makes this battle so interesting is the fact that Wheeler does not have any more minor league options. Therefore, if he does not secure one of the three available spots, the Mets would be forced to designate him for assignment or trade him outright.
Will the Mets take this situation into account? Or will they award the three pitchers that earn the roles? Only time will tell.
Prediction: Steven Matz will join Vargas as the second lefty in the rotation, while Zack Wheeler and Seth Lugo will earn bullpen swingman roles. Robert Gsellman is shuffled to AAA to stay “stretched out” in case a rotation injury occurs.
Dark-Horse Candidate: Rafael Montero has the chance to finally return value after his initial prospect hype. Like Wheeler, Montero is out of options, so this will officially be the last of his nine lives.
The Battle for April’s Center Fielder
The Mets center fielder isn’t playing in Spring games right now, and likely won’t be playing in any games until his estimated May 1st return date. That’s right, Michael Conforto will be this team’s everyday center fielder when he makes it back from the nasty shoulder dislocation he suffered last season.
Until then, someone will need to be penciled into the lineup card every day to fill the void up the middle. Right now, the battle is shaping up to be between Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo.
We know that Lagares is basically the best defensive player on the field at all times, but Nimmo’s offensive acumen makes this a real competition. Nimmo isn’t as fast as Lagares, but his OBP of .379 last season would fit nicely into the leadoff spot.
Lagares isn’t taking this opportunity lightly though, as he transformed his body and swing this offseason in an attempt to earn more playing time.
Juan Lagares worked on his launch angle with an independent swing coach this winter. Mets hitting coach Pat Roessler's advice to him? "We don't mind ground balls as long as the first hop's 420 feet away."
— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 16, 2018
Lagares’ new swing is in the mold of former teammates Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy, who became much more successful when they began focusing on launch angle.
Prediction: This battle will help shape the Mets lineup card for the month of April and for my money, I think Nimmo will get the chance to lead-off and display his on-base skills. Lagares will see playing time against left-handers and be used as a defensive replacement as well.
Dark-Horse Candidate: Matt den Dekker is more than a long shot to win the job full-time in April, but if Lagares or Nimmo start slow or go down with injury, den Dekker’s defense and previous experience in New York make him a potential platoon option.
The First Base Debate
This is another battle that will feature a mostly two-player race. It will be the 22-year-old Dominic Smith competing against the 35-year-old Adrian Gonzalez. Both players are left-handed hitters with something to prove in March.
Smith needs to prove that his .198 batting average in 2017 was a fluke, while A-Gon needs to display a clean bill of health. Smith has a chance to win this job, but he’s started off on the wrong foot.
Here's Dominic Smith discussing his quad strain. He doesn't sound overly concerned. #Mets pic.twitter.com/6q0Jt6Kmay
— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 25, 2018
Not only did he earn a benching after showing up late to a team meeting this Friday, he now has a quad strain that will require an MRI.
If Smith’s injury sidelines him for any significant amount of time, this competition may be over before it even began.
Prediction: Gonzalez will win this job out of camp, but Smith could easily take over as early as May if A-Gon gets injured or does not perform up to expectations.
Dark Horse Candidate: Wilmer Flores is likely slated to be the utility man in the infield, but all he does is mash against left-handed pitching. He could easily find his way into a bunch of playing time at first base.
Not only will these battles be entertaining to watch, they will go a long way towards shaping the Mets Opening Day lineup and roster.