Jayson Stark is most known for his work at the national level covering baseball for ESPN and as a senior writer for ESPN.com. He’s been around the game for four decades, writing columns, authoring three baseball books, and reporting on ESPN and MLB Network. I recently caught up with Jayson and he was kind enough to share some of his time and give me some of his insights and the perception of the Mets from outside the New York bubble. Please enjoy.
Noah: Coming off an unexpected run of success in 2015, what’s been the atmosphere surrounding the Mets in spring training?
Jayson: They’re very upbeat and they know that they’re built to win. They have the mindset that they are going to play baseball in October. That mentality is something we haven’t seen from a Mets team in a decade in spring training. The question now is – we know they’re built for October – can they get there?
Noah: Tell me about it. Who’s responsible for this change in attitude?
Jayson: I don’t think that it’s any one person or any one player. I think it’s just success. A reflection of finally having that rotation together, having Zack Wheeler on the horizon, and bringing Yoenis Cespedes back. This is the heart of a team that played in the World Series, played really well, and still matches up very well against a lot of other teams in baseball. I don’t think anybody has to give a pep talk, this team understands how good they can be.
Noah: How is this team different from ones in years past, both on and off the field?
Jayson: On the field, you’ve got a rotation that’s built to win any matchup against any lineup. Off the field, there’s finally a situation where there’s not a lot of controversy. They don’t have the debates over innings restrictions or have a lot of talk about how much money they did or didn’t spend. Nobody cares about the Wilpons or Bernie Madoff right now, and that’s refreshing. It’s just finally a baseball conversation, surrounding this team.
After Sandy Alderson came in, that regime spent a lot of time just tearing down what had been there before it arrived. (All of their actions) have been leading to this point. I’m not going to say they’re the perfect team, a team without holes. They’re a team that I’m going to pick to win the World Series. If you’re going to make a list of the six or seven teams in the sport that have the best chance to win the World Series, they’ve got to be on it.
Noah: Size up the Mets offseason moves. What do you think of the acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes and Antonio Bastardo?
Jayson: The Mets went into the offseason without any expectation that Yoenis Cespedes was coming back. In fact, they were fully prepared to move on without him.
With Cespedes, we saw what a franchise changing figure he could be over a short period of time. That said, he’s never been a franchise changing figure over the course of a full season. Still, he’s a really intriguing player with a certain aura about him, and he gets on streaks where he changes the face of a lineup. People can feed off of him when he’s on those rolls. But then he has other periods where he’s not that guy. The Mets are built in a way where he has to be the guy he was during the end of last season for them to be successful. There are questions in the minds of a lot of people in baseball over whether he can be that guy for a full season. Even so, he might only be in New York for just a year, and there’s no such thing as a bad one year contract.
Antonio Bastardo is a guy that I’ve seen pitch a lot and he’s got stuff that’s as good as any left handed pitcher in baseball. He doesn’t get hit hard, he’s got a big swing and miss component to his game. You don’t have to necessarily use him against just left handed hitters. I think in the way that the Mets use their staff and their bullpen, he’s a good fit. But like Cespedes, he goes on stretches where he doesn’t pitch with confidence, he gets himself in trouble by pitching away from contact and walking too many hitters. I think he can be really exasperating to watch because of that. Sometimes, when you need him in a big spot to be the guy, he doesn’t show up. On the other hand, you can match him up against any left handed hitter in the game and he’s got the stuff to strike them out.
With both guys, the upside is tremendous when they’re at their best, but they have that other side to them where they can be really frustrating players.
Noah: Of the young starting pitchers, who looks poised to take the greatest step in their development this year?
Jayson: That’s a really tough question. They’re all good options. I love Syndergaard. To me deGrom has already taken that next step towards becoming one of the best pitchers in the game. I also think that this is the year for Matt Harvey. He’s been a human highlight reel when he’s pitched, but this is the year where he pitches a full season, contends for the Cy Young and dominates from start to finish. He just has that look about him, he’s a star. So if I had to pick one, I would say him.
Noah: How are these young aces handling the pressure this season? They’re really being banked on to carry the Mets back to the playoffs.
Jayson: They’re a really confident group, and this helps them a lot. They’ve all done nothing except succeed, so why wouldn’t they be confident! I think the fact that there are four of them takes the heat off of any one of them. Harvey and deGrom are a little more advanced than Matz and Syndergaard. But I think this is one of those situations like on those great 1990’s Braves teams with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz where everybody feeds off of everybody else. It’s really a great situation to have.
Noah: So what should we realistically expect from the young aces this year? Is this when they all finally put it together?
Jayson: I really think that Matz and Syndergaard are going to find out how long the season really is and I think you have to factor that in to their performance expectations. I think you also have to wonder who stays healthy, statistics across baseball tell us that 50 percent of all starting pitchers go on the disabled list in any given year. So for the Mets, I think it’s a question of which two get hurt. But if they’re all healthy from April to September, this should be the best rotation in baseball, period.
Noah: We all know about the concerns surrounding David Wright‘s back, the spinal stenosis condition that was discovered last year, right now, what are the organization’s realistic expectations for him this season?
Jayson: Honestly, I think their bar is set low. I don’t think the organization would ever say that publicly, but I don’t think he’s a guy that they’re counting on for a whole lot. If you think about they way in which he was used, treated, and managed after he came off the disabled list, they were just trying to take care of him. This year they’re just going to try to get him through the season. Given what we’ve seen this spring, he’s barely played, I don’t think they expect a lot from him. This is the right approach. If you don’t expect much and you get more than you bargained for, that’s always a lot better than the other way around.
Noah: Is there any glaring weakness that this team acknowledges out of the gate?
Jayson: I don’t think that there’s a glaring weakness, but I do think that it’s team with some questions. We mentioned David Wright and their shortstop defense is certainly a question. I like their lineup with Cespedes back, a full year of Michael Conforto. But do I like their lineup more than the Nationals? I don’t know if I do. So I do think that there are questions, but no weaknesses. They’re definitely a team that nobody would want to play in October.
Noah: Now taking everything into consideration, what’s a realistic expectation for this team this season?
Jayson: Well if you ask them, they would say, “Win the World Series.” I think for me, a realistic possibility would be winning the NL East, get to October, and then it’s all matchups. There aren’t very many teams that they don’t match up with. It’s just a matter of getting there.
The National League is going to be very difficult to win. With at least five really bad teams and six or seven really good ones, there are going to be a couple teams that may win a lot of games, but not make it to October. That’s going to be the key for the Mets, making it there, and they should.
Noah: So what would constitute a successful season? Is it World Series or bust?
Jayson: I don’t like that way of looking at things, “World Series or bust.” I don’t think that it’s a fair way for any team to judge its season, not in this sport. For me, a successful season happens if they keep the aces healthy, win the NL East, and take your chances and see how good you are in October. I’d like to see these pitchers all take a step forward and see how good they can be. What a show, right?