PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Around this time last year, as the Mets planned for their season, they placed particular emphasis on beating the Nationals. Those Mets were only a year removed from winning just four times in 19 tries against the reigning division champions, despite posting a combined winning record against all other teams.
Then the Mets went out and vanquished those demons last summer, putting them to rest for good during a three-game series against the Nationals in late July and early August. All of which makes the Mets, not the Nats, favorites to repeat as division champions this summer.
It's not that bold of a prediction to assume they will indeed repeat. And it's not that bold of a prediction to say that if and when the Mets do make the playoffs, anything can happen in October.
The Mets, after all, are a far better team than they were at this time a year ago. In addition to having Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto and others plugged into a far improved offense, the Mets will receive full big league seasons this year from Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz -- the former a National League Cy Young candidate, the latter a favorite for Rookie of the Year. And the Nats, on paper at least, may well be worse.
But the Nationals do figure to be healthier this year than they were in 2015, may have more clubhouse synergy with Dusty Baker at the helm, and also possess a Syndergaard-caliber prospect in waiting in Lucas Giolito. So don't consider another Mets NL East title a fait accompli.
To the contrary, scouts throughout the Grapefruit League almost universally expect the Nationals to improve upon the 83-79 record they posted a year ago. Those same scouts also expect the Marlins to be better, perhaps even making a run at the NL East themselves.
Prefer stats? Fangraphs' Steamer projections peg the Mets as an 89-73 team, just one game better than the Nats. So for the Mets to repeat as division champions, it's clear they'll again need to take care of business against their most familiar foes.
"Anything that can build your confidence in the game is good," manager Terry Collins said. "As good a lineup as they have, as good a team as they have, to be able to go out there and have a winning record [against them]? I think that builds up our confidence: 'Hey, look, we can play with these guys.'"