You may have heard about a football game coming up tomorrow, some minor affair involving teams from Kansas City and San Francisco. Besides the promised sideshow of the current hottest pop star on the planet cheering on her boyfriend and the attendant political theatre that has come along with it, this other-sport replay of the 2014 World Series should be a fine matchup between two quality teams. The big story, though, happens the next day: it’s the official reporting day for Mets’ pitchers and catchers. This herald of springtime seems to come earlier and earlier, even as the Super Bowl keeps getting scheduled later and later; I can’t ever remember Spring Training starting the very next day. Locally, Channel 2 News, the CBS affiliate for the New York metropolitan area has dispatched all their sports department personnel to Las Vegas to cover the football festivities, of course – CBS has the game this year – and from that remote locale came a truly heartwarming image: Edwin Diaz throwing pitches from a mound.
Sports anchor Otis Livingston’s video showed Diaz throwing off a hill in Port St. Lucie, sweating profusely, through his white Mets “Property of…” tee-shirt. It brought to mind all the hard work players of bygone days used to have to put in during the spring, after long winters of bourbon, rubber chicken and insurance sales. Diaz’s story, of course, is a different one, a modern take on rehab and return. During the Mets’ 101-win playoff season of 2022, Diaz was the most dominant closer in the game, the closest thing the Mets ever had to an “automatic” save this side of Jesse Orosco. He recorded 32 saves, surrendered a bare 9 earned runs in 62 innings, good for a 1.31 ERA, which, coupled with other pitching factors led to a 297 ERA+, which means he was 197 times better than the average MLB pitcher. He finished ninth in the Cy Young Award voting and sixteenth for NL MVP. It was a season for the ages. As it happened, the World Baseball Classic – basically the baseball version of soccer’s World Cup – was scheduled to occur durng spring training of 2023. Of course, Diaz was selected to join the squad representing his native Puerto Rico. After recording a save in the game that sent them to the WBC quarterfinals, he celebrated on the field with the rest of his raucous countrymen and in so doing, tore his right patellar tendon, ending his 2023 before it really began. The injury cast a heavy pall over the Mets’ season, one from which they never really recovered. Not that the Diaz injury was the only factor in the team’s desultory 75-87 final tally, but it started the season off on the wrong foot, for sure.
The best you can say about the Mets’ bullpen in 2023 is that it was a weakness. Obviously, the loss of Diaz created a domino effect to the rest of the relief corps. David Robertson did yeoman work in taking on the closer’s role, but he had spent his entire career as a set-up man and recorded a paltry 14 saves before being dealt – as were so many others – at the trading deadline. Adam Ottavino was tried there for a bit, but he was too inconsistent to nail down the job. None of the other combinations worked, either. To say that Diaz’s return will help remedy this situation is quite possibly the grossest understatement of this young year. With the Mets’ admittedly thin rotation, the bullpen will become most important if they truly do “intend to compete” – in the words of President of Baseball Operations David Stearns – this season. As has been noted, the latest ZiPS projection has the Mets finishing with 83 wins, tied with the Philadelphia Phillies for second place in the NL East and taking the third Wild Card spot. An awful lot is going to have to go right for that to happen, not the least of which will be Edwin Diaz retuning to form as quickly as possible.
Most of my columns seem to end with a sentence starting “We can only hope.” In this case it seems truer than in others. If Diaz can come back strong, the offense recovers its consistency and power, the starting pitching holds up, Pete Alonso’s contract situation isn’t too big a distraction and Stearns decides to add some pieces at the deadline, this could be a playoff team if you squint.
We can only hope.