As Mets Open Camp, the Astros’ Shadow Looms Large

As Mets Open Camp, the Astros’ Shadow Looms Large

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — As the Mets settled into their spring training complex on Tuesday, they could hear distinct banging sounds in the background. This time, at least, there was no need for an investigation: The culprits were construction workers with hammers. There were no visible dents in the trash cans at the renovated Clover Park.

Yet the shadow of the Houston Astros, who this week will report to their camp about 40 miles south of here, looms over all of Major League Baseball and especially the Mets. Carlos Beltran was supposed to be here for his first spring training as the Mets’ manager. Instead, because of his role in the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing scheme as a player in 2017, the Mets fired Beltran on Jan. 16. A week later, they gave the job to Luis Rojas, their quality control coach.

“We were all very excited about getting the chance to play for Carlos,” outfielder Michael Conforto said on Tuesday. “It’s tough to not have the chance to play for him and see what he had to offer.”

Conforto added: “Everybody who plays Major League Baseball was locked in on the stuff that was going on. Obviously there’s a line that definitely shouldn’t be crossed, and Carlos’ involvement in that, it is what it is. Moving forward I think it’s best that we focus on us and this season, with Luis in that spot.”

The Mets have reason for optimism, even without their first choice as manager. They won 86 games last season, the most of any National League team that did not make the playoffs. They lost starter Zack Wheeler to the Philadelphia Phillies, but their top five starters are still imposing — Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz and Rick Porcello — and they added reliever Dellin Betances.

“Electric arms in the bullpen, both righties and lefties,” Betances said. “Definitely excited to join this group. I think we can be special with the guys we have.”

Betances was a four-time All-Star for the Yankees, and part of the team that lost to Houston in the 2017 American League Championship Series. Two of his new Mets teammates, J.D. Davis and Jake Marisnick, did not play in that series but made more than 300 plate appearances for the Astros that season.

Betances said there was no need for a conversation — “Everybody knows what happened already,” he said — but Conforto said it was natural for teammates to be curious about the involvement of Davis and Marisnick.

“I’m sure there will be conversations about it, if I’m being completely honest,” Conforto said. “Guys will talk about it. But there’s not going to be any animosity toward them. When you’re in a team setting, any of these guys that are in here now, they’re our guys. That’s the way winning teams are.”

Marisnick — who was on deck last fall when Jose Altuve clinched the A.L.C.S. with a Game 6 homer off the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman — is one of the Mets’ few new position players. He projects as a reserve outfielder, with Davis in left, Brandon Nimmo in center and Conforto in right. Yoenis Cespedes is running and hitting, Rojas said, but there is no timetable for his return from a broken ankle.

Cespedes sustained the injury last May while escaping a wild boar on his ranch, the kind of wait … what? … REALLY? incident that is baked into life as a Met. Familiarity with the team’s distinct, peculiar culture should only help Rojas, who managed in the Mets’ farm system for eight years before joining Mickey Callaway’s major league staff last season. He is 38 and has never managed in the majors, but his organizational and family backgrounds are encouraging.

“I know the guys pretty well, and the guys know me back,” said Rojas, whose father, Felipe Alou, played and managed in the majors for decades. “We’ve had good relationships throughout the years.”

The hurried transition from coach to manager will not be an issue, Rojas said, because of his coaching staff, which stayed intact when Beltran was fired. Brian Schneider was bumped up from his assignment as Class AAA manager to take Rojas’ old job.

“I’m very confident leading the guys,” Rojas said. “The main reason for that is the coaching staff. We’ve been working in collaboration almost the entire off-season. You almost feel like it was attached. Going into the off-season and coming into spring training, we saw each other all the time.”

Conforto said he and his teammates respect Rojas because so many of them knew him in the minors, when they were all striving to advance. As a major league manager, Rojas has made it to the top of his profession, even though it took an Astros aftershock to get here.

“It was strange circumstances of how it came to be,” starter Noah Syndergaard said. “I’m extremely pumped and excited to have Luis as our manager. He’s a guy that has a winning pedigree throughout the minor leagues — two championships in Savannah and one in Binghamton. He’s a guy that knows how to win and knows how to reach the ultimate goal — and that’s winning a championship.”

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