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A injury to star starter Noah Syndergaard was an omen of what was to come in the Mets’ doomed 2017 season, described in this excerpt from Post beat reporter Mike Puma’s upcoming book, “If These Walls Could Talk: New York Mets: Stories From the New York Mets Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box.”
Noah Syndergaard had a good idea he was going to tear his lat several weeks before it actually happened.
In an effort to bulk up before the 2017 season, the pitcher joined a gym near his home outside Dallas, spending roughly $3,000 a month to work out with a group of athletes under trained supervision. Syndergaard carried the nickname Thor, but arrived at spring training resembling the Incredible Hulk, hardly the ideal form for somebody repetitively throwing a baseball.
“At that point everybody was doing the same workout, which I think is stupid,” Syndergaard said. “Everyone has different goals, different body types, and different needs.”
Syndergaard learned the hard way. After arriving in Florida, he sought out personal trainer Eric Cressey and a soft tissue specialist to learn more about his body and how it should perform.
Both studied Syndergaard and informed him he had become a high risk to tear his lat because of his offseason workouts.
With baseball workouts already underway in Port St. Lucie, time was of the essence.
“We tried to mediate the problem as much as possible, but at that point you can’t do much,” Syndergaard said. “My overhead mobility and the way my scapula worked with the rest of my body at that point was pretty much crashing down. They kind of predicted it. They weren’t too surprised when the lat tear happened.”
The fact Syndergaard was a high risk for the lat tear came as news to Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson when I informed them about it in 2019. Collins offered a dismissive laugh, while Alderson wondered if Syndergaard’s version of events was revised history.
“Syndergaard had a hard time listening to other people, but that is the first I have heard of that,” Alderson said.
In the days before Syndergaard’s start in Washington on April 30, the pitcher was diagnosed with biceps tendonitis. Alderson suggested further evaluation with an MRI exam, but Syndergaard brushed aside the idea, insisting he was fine.
On a change-up to Bryce Harper in the second inning of that April 30 start, Syndergaard grimaced and reached for his right side, having torn the lat, sending the Mets’ season into a spiral from which they would never recover. Within days, Yoenis Cespedes was headed to the injured list with a quadriceps injury, depriving the Mets of two elite performers.
“I don’t know if [the MRI] would have done anything or not for Syndergaard, but it would have been prudent on our part if it had happened and it didn’t, and that was my fault, my responsibility,” Alderson said. “I should have insisted on it, and didn’t.”
Syndergaard still bristles at the idea an MRI exam would have prevented his injury.
“That drives me insane,” Syndergaard said. “The MRI wouldn’t have made a difference, because the start that I threw and tore my lat, the first inning I was throwing 100 and 101. An MRI is not going to show anything if you go out there and are still able to throw that hard.”
The Mets’ chances of reaching a third straight postseason had narrowed and within weeks were effectively dead.
Coming off their surprising World Series appearance in 2015, the Mets had enough young or in-their-prime quality pieces to believe October baseball would become a regular occurrence. The first miscalculation came before the new year, when the Mets extended a qualifying offer to Daniel Murphy, only to watch their postseason hero leave for the rival Nationals on a three-year contract worth $37.5 million.
But Murphy’s postseason for the Mets wasn’t a fluke. Though still defensively challenged, he finished second in National League MVP voting for the Nationals in 2016, after hitting .347 with 25 homers.
“I told Murph himself it was a mistake not to keep him,” Alderson said years later. “He had such a good playoffs and then in the World Series was pretty much shut down — offensively, shaky defensively — and I think we kind of thought, ‘Here’s the old Murph re-emerging,’ but he continued to hit for Washington.”
Adam Fisher, the team’s director of baseball operations under Alderson, said Murphy’s personality also played into the decision to let him depart.
“Just the brutal defense and the way he plays the game, all the goofy mistakes and the ‘rah, rah’ stuff,” Fisher said. “I think a lot of us were just, ‘Eh, it’s time to move on and get a second baseman and a little better defender. Murphy … has clearly made adjustments, but that he would be the player he was in the postseason takes a real leap of faith, and that is what he turned into. Good for Daniel.
“Hindsight completely 20/20, you trade Lucas Duda and put Murphy at first base. That is a better fit and you still can get Neil Walker to play second. A few years of [Murphy] as your first baseman and you’re looking real good and that alleviates most of the issues.”
The Mets turned their focus toward Ben Zobrist, one of the first players to carry the “super-utility” label. Team officials had received a good look at Zobrist in the World Series, as he posted a respectable .781 OPS for the Royals in the five games.
Zobrist got deep enough into negotiations with the Mets that he toured the New York City suburbs looking for potential places to live. He ultimately accepted a four-year deal worth $56 million from the Cubs that kept him close to his Midwest roots.
“I don’t know if we thought we were getting [Zobrist], but he was clearly our No. 1 target,” Fisher said. “We liked him the same reason the Cubs did, and he helped the Cubs win the World Series by being the exact player that we wanted. We just wanted someone with versatility, leadership, and a really good approach. He beat us with the Royals and he was so good.”
The Mets pivoted to a trade, acquiring Walker in a deal that sent Jonathon Niese to the Pirates. The left-hander Niese was maybe most remembered during his Mets tenure for receiving a nose job at the expense of Carlos Beltran, who one day told the pitcher, “Hey, we need to get you a new nose.” Niese received a rhinoplasty after the season that helped him improve his breathing.
Murphy continued to torment his former team every chance he received. In 2016, he batted .413 with seven homers and 21 RBIs against the Mets. He finished behind only Kris Bryant in the MVP race in helping the Nationals win the NL East.
Clearly, Murphy had become a steal for the Nationals, and that wasn’t lost on the Mets after the season, with a team official pointing out that if the second baseman had accepted the club’s qualifying offer the previous year, he would be staring at a much larger contract in free agency — perhaps in the neighborhood of nine figures — than he had received from the Nationals.
“We both screwed up,” the Mets official said.
This excerpt of “If These Walls Could Talk: New York Mets: Stories From the New York Mets Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box” by Mike Puma, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy please visit triumphbooks.com/wallsmets.
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