An Optimist’s Case for 2024 Yankees & Mets

MLB Spring Training Game New York Yankees Against Toronto Blue Jays

Juan Soto is a very welcome addition to the Yankees.
Photo: Miguel J. Rodriguez Carrillo/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images

The possibilities for New York baseball — briefly, at least — seemed limitless.

In 2022, Aaron Judge smashed 62 home runs for a 99-win Yankee team. The Mets, dismal no more, rocketed to 101 wins, and a shock loss in the wild-card round seemed like just a temporary setback with Max Scherzer returning; Justin Verlander imported; and Buck Showalter, a four-time manager of the year, back at the helm.

All of it would curdle rapidly in 2023.

The Mets, underperforming and injury ravaged, limped to a Metsian 75-87. The Yankees barely avoided their first losing season since 1992, the year Judge was born. Steve Cohen, the swaggering billionaire hedge funder who bought the Mets and aggressively inflated their payroll, dealt away both Verlander and Scherzer. Showalter was eventually fired. The Yankees, meanwhile, hardly hit at all and trotted out a shockingly mediocre and forgettable team — a true Big Apple sin.

What to expect now? Neither team is forecast for genuine greatness. Thanks to their blockbuster trade for Juan Soto, the 25-year-old on-base machine who has drawn comparisons to Ted Williams, most projections at least have the Yankees ranked in the top half of the American League — seventh overall in ESPN’s ranking. But they’re starting the year without Gerrit Cole, last year’s AL Cy Young, who has nerve inflammation in his elbow and could be out until June. The only upside is that Cole dodged having season-ending Tommy John surgery and should return at full strength to top a rotation of evident talent and glaring question marks. The consensus pick to win the AL East are the Baltimore Orioles, who swung a trade for Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes and boast one of the deepest wells of young talent in baseball.

The Mets are viewed as a .500-team-in-waiting. Kodai Senga, their best pitcher in 2023, begins the season on the injured list. The rest of the rotation was stitched together at minimal expense. Cohen, who currently seems more interested in lobbying the state to build a casino next to Citi Field than he is in the Mets, sat out most of the offseason and only recently bolstered the lineup by signing J.D. Martinez, a veteran slugger and designated hitter. Carlos Mendoza, the new Mets manager — their fifth since 2017, and sixth if you include the ill-fated Carlos Beltrán hire — is well regarded but so anonymous he could streak down Broadway without being recognized.

But let me make an optimist’s case for both teams. There’s reason to believe the Yankees and Mets can surprise this year and scrape near the heights of 2022.

The Yankees, despite bizarrely low World Series odds on the popular Baseball Reference website, are a near-lock to improve over their 82-80 record and be playoff contenders. A lineup that was atrocious a year ago, with an outfield alone that may have cost the team nine wins, is now quite good. Beyond Judge, who would have hit 50 home runs if he hadn’t smashed his toe into the concrete of an outfield wall in Los Angeles, the Yankees boast Soto, who has every incentive to play to his potential entering his last year before free agency. Between Judge and Soto, the Yankees have two of the five best outfielders in baseball. Brian Cashman, the team’s long-serving and increasingly maligned general manager, wisely supplemented Soto with Alex Verdugo, a feisty and strong-fielding outfielder from the Boston Red Sox, and Trent Grisham, who arrived with Soto from San Diego and is considered one of the best defensive center fielders in either league.

D.J. LeMahieu, the 35-year-old third baseman, will start the season on the injured list after fouling a ball off his foot, but other veterans might immediately offer more punch than last year. Thirty-four-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who stopped hitting once he was concussed, appears fully recovered, and 34-year-old Giancarlo Stanton looked like his much younger self in spring training; if he’s an even middling power bat and not a catastrophe, he will represent a huge improvement for the Yankee lineup. Anthony Volpe, the nearly 23-year-old shortstop from northern Jersey, has the makings of a very good big-league infielder, with an ability to hit for power, steal bases, and draw walks. Austin Wells, 24, might end up one of the better catchers in the league.

The pitching, depending on your level of hopefulness, is going to be a profound strength or the team’s undoing. Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankee scion who inherited his father’s name but none of his Trumpian personality, is deathly afraid of paying the luxury-tax penalty that comes with a high payroll. Like Cohen, he chased the $300 million Japanese free agent Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Unlike Cohen, he seemed quietly relieved that the 25-year-old pitcher chose, like Shohei Ohtani, to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, thus saving the Yankees the expense. Minus Cole, the rotation features bounce-back candidates in Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortés, who might be two of the AL’s best pitchers — if they perform anything like they did in 2022 and try to forget 2023, when Cortés was frequently injured and Rodón turned in one start where he didn’t record a single out. Long Island native Marcus Stroman, arriving for a relative bargain at $37 million over two years, offers steadier production, and there is a reality where the Yankees have a rotation of three above-average starters and a well-rested Cole come June. Watch out too for Luis Gil, another 25-year-old who made the rotation out of the spring and has obvious talent.

In this analytical era, the bullpen is where games are won and lost, and neither the Mets nor the Yankees are lacking there. Cohen hired David Stearns, an Upper East Side private-school kid who engineered consistently competitive teams in small-market Milwaukee, as the new president of baseball operations, and Mets fans can trust he knows his way around a low-risk, high-upside maneuver. Outside of Edwin Díaz, who stormed into 2022 games to the tune of Timmy Trumpet and lost all of 2023 to injury, and Adam Ottavino, the Park Slope native who wears number 0 (weirdly, enough, like the Yankees’ Stroman), the Mets bullpen is unknown but potentially talented. Scouts like Michael Tonkin and Sean Reid-Foley. The rotation is tremendously shaky; don’t sleep, though, on ex-Yankee Luis Severino, who is straining to resuscitate his career. (The Yankees bullpen, like last year, should be a strength again, and Clayton Beeter is the pitcher to watch.)

The Mets lineup, like the Yankees rotation, is a journey through several parallel universes. It might be an underwhelming assemblage of decaying veterans, as it was last year. But, fronted by Francisco Lindor, the $341 million shortstop who has largely played up to his contract, and Pete Alonso, the dinger-clubbing Polar Bear entering his pivotal walk year, the Mets could still score a bunch of runs. The aforementioned Martinez, at 36, can still absolutely slug, and Brandon Nimmo remains one of the best leadoff hitters in the league. Jeff McNeil is young enough to chase another batting title. Most intriguing, perhaps, is Francisco Alvarez, the 22-year-old catcher who made spare contact but hit 25 home runs last year. Alvarez is the stuff of baseball dreams: youth and potential.

Where do these teams land? Last year was so devastating for both fan bases because expectations were exceedingly high going in and neither saw playoff baseball. In the 2020s, with an extended wild-card round and an 84-win team in the World Series, that is no longer excusable. The Mets have enough talent, still, to compete for one of three wild cards. Once in the playoffs, anything is possible. The Braves and Dodgers, National League juggernauts, couldn’t make it out of the divisional round a year ago.

The stakes are higher for the Yankees, who are in the frustrating and unfamiliar position of no longer lording over the AL. The Orioles and Astros are favorites. The Mariners are fast improving. The Rangers are defending champions. A Yankee team hasn’t reached the World Series since Taylor Swift was a teenager and Barack Obama was finishing his first year as president. Even the Mets have been there since. If the Yankees miss again — or come nowhere close — manager Aaron Boone may finally know Steinbrenner’s tepid wrath. And if Judge and Soto drag the team deep into October, Boone will be a hero again: arms outstretched as Yankee Stadium rocks like it once did.

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