Armed and ready: Cespedes, Mets prepare to play favorites
NEW YORK (AP) That surprising run to the World Series last season did a couple of significant things for the New York Mets: It reinvigorated a struggling franchise - and put a sizable target square on its back.
''We're not going to sneak up on anybody now,'' manager Terry Collins said. ''We were the hunters for a long time. Now we're going to be the hunted. We realize we're good enough to win.''
After re-signing slugger Yoenis Cespedes to complement a cadre of outstanding young arms, the well-stocked Mets certainly are a threat to repeat as National League champions. With baseball's hardest-throwing pitching staff, paced by Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and closer Jeurys Familia, they are favorites to win the NL East again.
The role of front-runner is unfamiliar to New York, which endured six straight losing seasons before last year's 90-72 breakthrough produced the club's first division title and playoff berth since 2006. Payroll is approaching $140 million, its largest in five years, and expectations are extremely high.
''When you start thinking about October in April, that's going to be a problem,'' captain David Wright said. ''We're going to have to compete, because there's going to be teams gunning for us. When we go on the road, fans are going to come out in full force to boo us. Everybody wants to beat the National League champs.''
After losing to Kansas City in the World Series last fall, the balanced Mets want to finish the job this time. They think they have enough talent to accomplish that - and others do, too.
But how well New York will handle that pressure remains to be seen, especially in a league dotted with legitimate and experienced pennant contenders: Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington.
''We have to continue to keep the pedal to the gas and moving forward,'' outfielder Curtis Granderson said. ''What that magical formula to get over the hump is, I'm not 100 percent sure.''
Things to know about the 2016 Mets:
KANSAS CITY, HERE WE COME: The season gets off to a rollicking start Sunday night with a World Series rematch at Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals will raise the 2015 championship banner and receive their sparkling rings.
''It will be a good test for us,'' Wright said, ''and provide a little motivation.''
Harvey, following a brief medical scare this week, remains set to start the opener vs. Edinson Volquez. The last time Harvey had the ball in a game that counted, he wouldn't give it up. He pushed to pitch the ninth inning at Citi Field, but that backfired when the Royals rallied to take the crown.
Syndergaard goes Tuesday in the finale of the two-game series - and there could be fireworks. Word is the Royals want retribution for his first pitch in Game 3 last fall, a 98 mph fastball above Alcides Escobar's head.
''I don't think they're too fond of me,'' Syndergaard said.
SPRING CLEANING: Spring training started with all sorts of fun: Cespedes showed off his fancy cars, bought a prize pig at the county fair and rode around on horseback with Syndergaard. But weeks after Collins said it was time to get down to business, March ended with a thud.
While rival Washington lost only one of its last 16 Grapefruit League games, the Mets sputtered to an 0-10-3 finish. Harvey had a 7.50 ERA over four starts and walked nine in 12 innings. His final tuneup was pushed back a day after he passed a blood clot in his bladder. Rookie left-hander Steven Matz, 42-year-old fifth starter Bartolo Colon and Familia all had ERAs of 6.00 or higher.
Will any of that matter when the games do? We'll see. Most important: New York did manage to break camp healthy.
MIDDLE MEN: Veteran second baseman Neil Walker and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera form the new double-play combination. Still, the shaky defense that got exposed in the World Series remains a concern. Walker was obtained in a trade with Pittsburgh and replaces Daniel Murphy, the record-setting postseason star who went to Washington as a free agent.
HELP ON THE WAY: Young starter Zack Wheeler and lefty reliever Josh Edgin are rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The target date for Wheeler's return to the rotation is July 1. Edgin hopes to be back in May.
PARTY ON: Big crowds are expected when the Mets celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1986 championship (May 27-29) and retire the No. 31 jersey of new Hall of Famer Mike Piazza (July 30).
AP freelancer Jon Santucci in Port St. Lucie, Florida, contributed to this report.