NEW YORK (AP) From the start of spring training in Florida, their lockers were lined up all in a row at one end of the rectangular clubhouse.
Left to right: Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler.
The dream rotation for the New York Mets – if only their health would cooperate.
More than a month later, with opening day in sight, those five prized pitchers are still feeling good and the Mets finally have a chance to roll out that entire quintet together for the very first time.
After hiring rookie manager Mickey Callaway and spending nearly $90 million to fill holes in free agency, New York (with fingers crossed) is counting on its homegrown power arms to lead the way this season.
”All of us are All-Star capable,” Wheeler said.
Harvey, Matz and Wheeler struggled on the mound last year during their latest injury-stunted seasons, so they must rediscover the nasty stuff that looked so promising when they first arrived in the majors.
At the top of the rotation, Syndergaard and deGrom make for a terrific tandem that offers more certainty.
Syndergaard is back from a torn lat muscle that limited the hardest-throwing starter in the majors to 30 1/3 innings last season, while deGrom is coming off 15 wins and a 3.53 ERA with 239 strikeouts in 201 1/3 innings.
”The potential speaks for itself,” new reliever Anthony Swarzak said. ”It’s incredible, the stuff that’s in that rotation. It’s second to none, I think.”
To solidify a fragile group, general manager Sandy Alderson signed veteran lefty Jason Vargas, an 18-game winner with Kansas City in 2017. Vargas got hit by a line drive in spring training and had surgery for a broken bone in his right hand. He’ll miss some time at the beginning of the season, perhaps assuring Wheeler an opportunity to start.
On offense, slugger Yoenis Cespedes returns after playing only 81 games last season because of leg injuries. All-Star outfielder Michael Conforto is targeting a May 1 return – maybe sooner – from surgery for a dislocated left shoulder.
Right fielder Jay Bruce was brought back as a free agent after the Mets traded him to Cleveland last August. He joins newcomers Todd Frazier and Adrian Gonzalez in a plodding lineup that boasts power.
”This has been our theme with the Mets: If we can be healthy, we can do some damage,” lefty reliever Jerry Blevins said.
Early in camp, Callaway boldly proclaimed that if his club fails to ”do something special,” the blame should fall on him.
”I think Sandy and the brass have done a great job getting this team to where we should be. Now it’s our time to take care of the rest,” Frazier said.
Things to know about the Mets heading into their opener Thursday at home against St. Louis:
HERE’S THE PITCH: Decimated by injuries, New York’s talented staff fell apart last year and finished with a 5.01 ERA that ranked 28th in the majors. After making consecutive playoff appearances, including their run to the 2015 World Series, the Mets traded away veterans during the summer and tumbled to 70-92. The 42-year-old Callaway, a highly successful pitching coach in Cleveland, replaced Terry Collins, 68, the longest-tenured manager in Mets history. The team also overhauled its medical department and brought in new pitching instructor Dave Eiland, who held that job for World Series champions in 2009 (New York Yankees) and 2015 (Kansas City).
THE CAPTAIN AND THE QUARTERBACK: Mets captain and longtime third baseman David Wright is still trying to return from back and shoulder problems that have sidelined him since May 2016. After yet another medical setback, he hopes to begin baseball workouts in May, but his future is uncertain. Early in spring training, Alderson said he thought Tim Tebow would make it to the majors one day. The former NFL quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy was reassigned to minor league camp after going 1 for 18 (.056) with 11 strikeouts in seven big league exhibition games. The 30-year-old outfielder also was hampered by a left ankle sprain. He’ll likely start the season at Double-A or a level lower.
BEST CASE: The starters pile up strikeouts, the sluggers pound home runs and most of them remain healthy as New York earns a wild card and maybe even pushes Washington for first place in the NL East.
WORST CASE: Injuries wreak havoc again, age takes a major toll and the back of the rotation is a mess as the Mets finish under .500 for the second straight season.
AP freelance writer Bill Whitehead in Port St. Lucie, Florida, contributed to this report.
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