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Tough decisions await Buck Showalter with five Grapefruit League games remaining

PORT ST. LUCIE — The Mets are in the home stretch of spring training.

Five Grapefruit League games are left on the slate, and manager Buck Showalter scheduled an exhibition next week to prep the Mets for the Opening Day in Miami. The team had their final off-day of spring training Tuesday, getting a much-needed break.

It’s been a rough few weeks for the Mets as the club has been dealt injuries to key players Edwin Diaz and Brandon Nimmo. There is some optimism that Nimmo could be healthy for Opening Day but as of right now, it’s still unclear. Left-handed reliever Brooks Raley is the only one of the injured players expected to be ready by March 30.

Injuries aside, there is still plenty to gain in this final week of tuning up.

Many of the Mets’ core players are returning from the World Baseball Classic. Francisco Lindor, Eduardo Escobar and Omar Narvaez are back in camp. Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil are expected to return this week and they will head north from Miami after the championship game against Japan concludes Tuesday night. The Mets have two games on the other side of the state Thursday and Friday, so most of the regulars will stay back and work out on the back fields or play in minor league games, but a few will face the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays in North Port and St. Petersburg.

Aside from health, the two biggest questions that still need answering over the next week are about the closer role and third base.

With Diaz likely out for the season, the Mets have to find a replacement. When building the bullpen over the winter, general manager Billy Eppler prioritized pitchers with experience in high-leverage innings. The thinking behind that was that the ninth inning isn’t always the most important one. Save situations do occur in other innings but it’s less about the specific situation and more about having the best reliever face the toughest part of the opposing team’s lineup.

We saw this in the postseason in Game 2 of the Mets’ Wild Card win over the San Diego Padres. Showalter brought Diaz into the seventh inning of a 3-2 game. Showalter had previously used Diaz in the eighth inning to face the toughest part of the lineup but in this particular situation, the manager didn’t want anyone else facing Juan Soto and he didn’t want the closer coming into the middle of an inning.

Smith and right-hander Adam Ottavino are the only pitchers from last season’s team with high-leverage experience, but the club might want to keep Smith in that setup spot that he thrived in last season.

The Mets only have one left-hander that fits that description in Raley, so they may want to save him for innings that feature multiple left-handed hitters. The club doesn’t view a left-hander as a required asset as long as the right-handers are getting hitters from both sides of the plate out at equal rates.

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That leaves right-hander David Robertson, the former Yankees closer who once had to step into the shadow of Mariano Rivera after the Hall-of-Famer retired.

Regardless of who gets that ninth inning or the winning inning, Eppler’s decision to stockpile relievers with the kind of makeup is already proving to be beneficial. However, the Mets would still rather have the best closer in baseball taking the ball with the game on the line.

The Mets could opt to sign a free agent or make a trade, though trades for elite players early in the season are extremely rare and would require a whole lot of prospect capital.

Brett Baty has made a case for himself at third base. A .342 average with a .915 OPS, a double, a home run, seven runs scored, seven walks and two stolen bases has made forced the Mets to make a tough decision. If they carry him on the Opening Day roster, what kind of a ripple effect will that have?

They could DH Eduardo Escobar, but that would likely mean cutting Darin Ruf. The club won’t promote a top prospect just to DH him and have him ignore his defensive position.

Meanwhile, back in Queens, the Mets are getting ready to unveil the giant new scoreboard at Citi Field. Also new for next season, is a 100-seat speakeasy membership club called the Cadillac Club at Payson’s. An exclusive club that will be limited to only 20-30 members will be located near the right field warning track and will be named for the club’s first owner, Joan Whitney Payson.

Things are starting to take shape, signaling that the regular season is just around the corner.

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