Carlos Mendoza, David Stearns, Carlos Beltran, Pete Alonso, pitching, Luisangel Acuña and more: Observations from Mets spring training

SOMEWHERE ABOVE THE EAST COAST – After a stretch of total immersion in Metsland in Port St. Lucie, here are thoughts and observations about the state of the organization.

Carlos Mendoza

The new Mets manager is already showing why he won the interview process over veteran skipper Craig Counsell. Back in November, Mendoza impressed Steve Cohen and David Stearns with his passion and authenticity, and became the team’s first choice to succeed Buck Showalter, as evidenced by Cohen’s low offer to Counsell.

Now at camp, Mendoza is setting a lively, inclusive culture. He takes time to engage players at all levels of the organization.

One morning earlier this week, he stopped minor league reliever Nate Lavender on Lavender’s way to the backfield. "Hey," Mendoza said. "How long have you been doing that little hesitation?"

As Lavender told how he developed his Nestor Cortes-like windup, the manager looked at him with genuine interest and engagement. This is just one of countless such moments that have nearly everyone at camp, from minor league-bound youngsters like Lavender to icons like Darryl Strawberry and Carlos Beltran, impressed with Mendoza’s energy and human touch.

One morning, as I was walking into the clubhouse for media access at 8 a.m., Mendoza was visible in the food room through a door that isn’t typically open. He was a kinetic presence – laughing, backslapping, joking in both English and Spanish. He looked like a person who was exactly where he belonged.

The reasons for the Mets' looser camp this year are many – lower team expectations, the absence of intense greats like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Showalter, and the slew of young, athletic players populating the clubhouse – but Mendoza is a major part of this refreshing air.

New York Mets manager Carlos Mendoza changes stations during workouts at spring training.
New York Mets manager Carlos Mendoza changes stations during workouts at spring training. / Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

As a first-year manager, he will naturally make in-game mistakes, especially as he gets used to running a pitching staff and bullpen at the big league level. But as one Mets lifer put it last week after spending a few hours with Mendoza, "He has a [unprintable anatomical reference; use your imagination] to be great." The early reviews are very strong.

Culture change on the executive level, too

Plenty of baseball operations staffers miss former general manager Billy Eppler, who engenders affection and loyalty in those who worked with him closest. But the new inner circle group of Stearns and special assistant Eduardo Brizuela are also building a collegial culture. Stearns is friendly but professional, and Brizuela, who worked closely with Stearns in Milwaukee, is a natural people person.

Brewers folks say that Brizuela played an important role with that team in communicating Stearns' thoughts and actions to players and staff. He seems to be embracing the same role with the Mets. One player development staffer who predated Stearns and Brizuela in the organization told me he appreciated that both were approachable while walking around the complex during morning workouts. This isn’t always the case with GM-types.

Steve Cohen delegating because of trust

One final C-suite observation of the Mets: Folks around Cohen note that he is more comfortable delegating than he was in seasons past, because of his comfort with and trust in new hires Stearns and president of business operations Scott Havens.

Cohen is wired to always be engaged in the weeds of the organization, but he is said to be more at ease with the day-to-day, and optimistic that he has found the right group to lead the organization after three seasons of turnover and instability.

Drew Gilbert stands out

Now to the field, where no player has captured attention in the early games like Gilbert. The outfielder, acquired by Eppler and Cohen along with corner INF/OF prospect Ryan Clifford last July for Verlander, has an electric skill set and a precocious approach at the plate.

Drew Gilbert
Drew Gilbert / Photo Courtesy of Bronson Harris/Binghamton Rumble Ponies

Like Daniel Murphy, a fellow left-handed hitter, Gilbert tries to pull the ball until he is in a two-strike count, then shortens up and aims to use the whole field. The most impressive at-bat of early camp came Tuesday when Gilbert batted with the bases loaded, fell behind 0-2, and fought off a slider into left field to drive in two runs.

Defensively, the former pitcher has flashed what one evaluator calls a "plus to double-plus arm." He has the speed for center field and the arm for right field. That’s a good problem to have.

What about Luisangel Acuña?

The Mets are also excited about Acuña, acquired last year for Scherzer. Acuña, along with Gilbert and Jett Williams, is one of several highly athletic prospects in camp – a more valuable, versatile type of player to collect than slugging corner guys.

Coaches speak of Acuña as a hardworking young man with strong makeup. They do believe he has work to do with fundamentals, like where to stand on relay plays.

Acuña is also trying to refine his swing decisions, work that was evident within the first handful of spring training games. Mixed in with unwise chasing were more judicious takes, including a few last-second check swings that impressed the staff.

Carlos Beltran’s meaningful role

Beltran has been watching closely and offering detailed feedback to players like Mark Vientos, Brett Baty, and anyone who asks. He is an important elder statesman to Francisco Lindor, as Lindor continues his adjustment to life as a highly-paid New York star. Beltran has been there, and Lindor looks to him with great admiration.

Mendoza wants Beltran around the major league club far more than Showalter did. Last summer, Eppler sent Beltran to work with and evaluate minor leaguers. This year, Beltran will have a significant presence around the Mets, especially on the road, where opportunities to engage in deep conversations with players are easier to come by.

Hayden Senger is impressing

Senger is a 26-year-old catcher who has avoided the prospect hype machine. Drafted by the Mets in the 24th round in 2018, Senger has yet to establish himself as a hitter in pro ball. But folks at the highest levels of the organization are wowed by his defense, particularly his throwing. "That guy could catch in the big leagues right now," says one Mets person.

If Senger can develop enough of a bat, perhaps he can be in the mix in future seasons as Francisco Alvarez’s backup with the Mets. It’s a big if, but the glove is ready. Something to keep an eye on.

Trayce Thompson, Brett Baty, Francisco Lindor, and Pete Alonso

Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo and Starling Marte just quietly working

There is very little to say so far about the Mets' core group of veteran stars. Following his initial news conference and the contract chatter that ensued, Alonso has quietly settled in to do his work. Lindor, McNeil, Marte and Nimmo are in the same mode – healthy, focused, not at the center of any news. Five guys who are comfortable as key Mets and getting ready for the season.

Pitching overconfidence?

The Mets' front office genuinely believes that it has built a playoff-caliber team capable of winning at least the 84-ish games that publicly available metrics like Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have them winning. I was with them, because of how easy it is to sleep on their excellent defense and run prevention. Maybe I still am.

But the loss of Kodai Senga for a few months exposed real issues with rotation depth, according to outside evaluators.

Without access to the Mets’ internal data, it’s hard to analyze their optimism with the ideal level of specificity. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that Luis Severino and Sean Manaea are additions that carry both upside and downside. Adrian Houser, another newcomer, looked so-so at best in his first Grapefruit League outing.

We’ve long since seen the pros and cons of Tylor Megill, Joey Lucchesi and the rehabbing David Peterson. The Mets have a few pitching prospects who project to be solid big leaguers, but need to draft and/or trade for more pitching upside in the coming years.

Sorry to end on a downer. There really are good vibes at Mets camp, and the team is extremely fortunate to have the smart and accessible pitching coach Jeremy Hefner leading the staff. But they do seem more exposed on pitching than they are willing to acknowledge.