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Led by deGrom, new-look Mets gear up for rugged NL East

March 20, 2019
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FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2019, file photo, New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, left, talks with teammate Zack Wheeler while stretching during spring training baseball practice in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Jacob deGrom would like a big contract. If nothing else, he’s getting more help.

During a busy offseason under first-time general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, the suddenly aggressive New York Mets overhauled a significant portion of their roster in the wake of a second consecutive losing season.

New York added five recent All-Stars in second baseman Robinson Cano, closer Edwin Diaz, catcher Wilson Ramos, infielder Jed Lowrie and reliever Jeurys Familia. The bench was upgraded, and a faulty bullpen received a substantial boost.

With the new-look group in place, it would certainly appear deGrom has a good chance at a better won-loss record than the baffling 10-9 mark the NL Cy Young Award winner compiled last season despite a 1.70 ERA that was easily the lowest in the majors.

“Looking back, it was kind of a crazy year,” deGrom acknowledged.

You think?

What remains to be seen, however, is whether all the changes are enough to lift the Mets above fourth place in a highly competitive NL East. Philadelphia, Washington and defending champion Atlanta also spent the winter stocking up.

“It looks like a really tough division,” outfielder Brandon Nimmo said at spring training. “There isn’t going to be any letdowns and so you’re really going to have to come ready to play every single day and we’re looking forward to that. But we’ve got a really good team as well and so, we really like our chances.”

Once again, New York will count on its talented rotation to lead the way.

Noah Syndergaard (13-4, 3.03 ERA in 25 starts) is aiming for a fully healthy season, and Zack Wheeler (12-7, 3.31) was even more dominant than deGrom during a breakout second half last year (9-1, 1.68 ERA in his last 11 starts). Wheeler can become a free agent after this season.

Second-year manager Mickey Callaway and respected pitching coach Dave Eiland are anticipating more from lefty Steven Matz and 2017 All-Star Jason Vargas, too.

“There are some teams out there with very good rotations, but I think most teams would love to have our rotation,” Eiland said.

The 36-year-old Cano is expected to anchor the offense after the former New York Yankees star and his hefty contract were obtained in a blockbuster trade with Seattle that also netted Diaz, who led the majors with 57 saves last year.

Ramos joins Nimmo and fellow outfielder Michael Conforto (28 homers) in a lineup that should possess more punch — even with slugger Yoenis Cespedes sidelined until at least mid-July following surgery on both heels.

Looking to avoid distractions, deGrom and the Mets set an opening-day deadline for discussions on a multiyear deal.

The 30-year-old righty, set to make $17 million this season, is under team control through 2020, so the sides could always reopen negotiations next offseason. But deGrom didn’t rule out the possibility of limiting his 2019 workload to protect his own future.

Van Wagenen was deGrom’s agent — and that of several other prominent Mets — before switching sides last fall.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s made that big of a difference. I try to block out things that don’t really help me get ready for the season,” deGrom said.

The opener March 28 at rival Washington features a sensational pitching matchup between deGrom and three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, the NL runner-up last year.

Other things to keep an eye on with the 2019 Mets:

ROOKIE TO WATCH

Power-hitting prospect Pete Alonso looks ready for the big leagues and could make a huge difference by providing immediate pop from the right side of the plate. Alonso led all minor leaguers with 36 homers and 119 RBIs combined at Double-A and Triple-A last season. His defense is a question mark but he’s worked hard on that part of his game and it’s vastly improved, according to the Mets. Alonso was getting pushed hard for the first base job by a rejuvenated Dominic Smith, a 2013 first-round draft pick. Both were playing well down in Florida. “If spring training is any indication of what’s to come, the sky’s the limit for us,” said veteran Todd Frazier, another option at first base.

REINFORCEMENTS READY

Injuries always seem to hamstring the Mets, but they believe all the depth they’ve added makes them much better equipped to absorb those inevitable setbacks this season. It appears that will quickly be put to the test, too. Frazier (strained oblique) and Lowrie (sprained left knee) are expected to miss the start of the season, and reliever Drew Smith will be sidelined all year following Tommy John surgery.

UP THE MIDDLE

Talented young shortstop Amed Rosario made encouraging strides in the second half of his first full major league season. He’s a rare source of speed for the Mets, but needs to improve his .295 on-base percentage. New York hopes Juan Lagares and Keon Broxton can adequately plug a hole in center field — at least against lefties.

NEW FACES

Broxton, J.D. Davis, Rajai Davis, Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan were among those brought in to potentially help the bench and bullpen. Jeff McNeil, a big hit as a rookie second baseman last year, worked in the outfield this spring and could fill in at third for Lowrie and Frazier. Still, age and injuries might be a legitimate concern again for a team that finished 77-85 last season.

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AP freelance writer Bill Whitehead contributed to this report from Port St. Lucie, Florida.

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