A dream season for the Chiefs — and really, wasn’t it? The fairy tale included a pop-star romance, a midseason underdog figuring it out in the playoffs and a comeback victory to steal the Super Bowl in overtime — got us dreaming: What would need to happen for the Yankees or Mets to reach the same pinnacle (sans Taylor Swift, probably) in about eight months?
The Super Bowl coming and going means football Sundays are over until the fall, with spring training serving as the immediate salve for sports fans.
Yankees and Mets pitchers and catchers are reporting to their respective camps this week. The optimism will never be higher than it is right now. The camps and Florida sun are so bright DJ LeMahieu might crack a smile.
So under such a rosy backdrop, let’s explore what would need to happen for each team to feel just as joyful as the Chiefs come October.
For the Yankees to win their first World Series in 15 years, it would be awfully helpful if:
Giancarlo Stanton hits above .250.
The Yankees might have the two best hitters in the American League in Juan Soto and Aaron Judge. Solid track records up and down the lineup — from LeMahieu to Gleyber Torres to Anthony Rizzo to Alex Verdugo — offer near certainty that the offense will be better (likely much better) than it was last season. But there is no Yankees wild card like Stanton, who has been an MVP and has been among the most hopeless hitters in baseball.
Among 162 players with at least 850 combined plate appearances over the past two seasons, Stanton’s .202 batting average ranks 161st. The only one worse? His new teammate, Trent Grisham, at .191.
Stanton, now 34, has looked far older than his age, has lumbered around the bases on the occasions he does reach base and has not made contact with enough pitches for his power to matter.
In pictures that have cropped up on social media over the offseason, Stanton has appeared to have dropped some weight — he’s “leaner,” as Aaron Boone put it — in the hopes of being a more athletic, less all-or-nothing player and hitter. Can that kind of body transformation help Stanton rediscover himself at the plate?
The Yankees do not need him to be the .266/.343/.509, 38-homer slugger he was in his first season in The Bronx in 2018, but if he drags his average up to .250, his bat and pop could turn the Yankees’ lineup from good to great.
Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes combine for 45 starts.
The last time this happened — merely two seasons ago, in 2022 — the now-teammates were both All-Stars who combined for a 2.68 ERA in 59 starts. Last year, their combined ERA more than doubled (5.92) in less than half the number of starts (26).
Gerrit Cole offers a Cy Young ceiling and still-excellent floor. Since 2019, Marcus Stroman has not finished a season with an ERA higher than 4.00. There is reason to believe in upside with young pitchers such as Clarke Schmidt, Will Warren and Clayton Beeter. But the two oft-injured, oft-exceptional lefties in the rotation loom as the largest variables.
Can Rodón, who is as dominant as anyone when healthy, be lucky enough to start the 24 games he did in 2021, when he still coped with injuries but finished with a 2.37 ERA? Can Cortes piece together the other 21-plus outings after a rotator cuff strain ruined his 2023? The Yankees do not need either to be a workhorse, but some semblance of reliability would be crucial.
Judge and Soto combine for 1,200 plate appearances.
Which would mean they both play roughly full seasons, give or take an injured list trip or two.
Last season — even with Judge missing 56 games predominantly because of a torn ligament in his toe — the then-opposite-coasters tallied 1,166 total plate appearances, Soto providing the bulk because he played in all 162 games for the Padres.
If Soto and Judge are atop the Yankees’ lineup on a consistent basis, a lot of the weak links elsewhere would be camouflaged. Soto has been a rock his entire career. Judge faced consistent injury questions until durable (and excellent) 2021 and 2022 seasons, before last year’s fluky toe injury in Los Angeles.
The Yankees’ largest strength should be two of the best bats in the game playing in just about every game.
Anthony Volpe’s on-base percentage exceeds .340.
After an uneven rookie season in which he hit .209 with a .283 on-base percentage, a .340 OBP would be a big leap. But the Yankees could use a big leap from Volpe, whose development they gambled on when they ignored the likes of Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Marcus Semien in free agency because they believed they already had their shortstop of the future.
In Year 1, Volpe was better than expected defensively (resulting in a Gold Glove) and showed more pop than most forecasted (with 21 home runs), but his overall numbers were underwhelming. As Volpe adjusts to major league pitching, the hope is the 22-year-old makes more consistent contact, which leads to his more consistently reaching base. When on base, he can do damage: He stole 24 bases last season despite the low OBP.
If that OBP trends up, so would his steals and his position in the batting order. If Volpe leaps in front of Soto and Judge and claims the leadoff gig, the Yankees’ lineup would be rolling.
For the Mets to win their first World Series in 38 years, it would be awfully helpful if:
Either Luis Severino or Sean Manaea is fixed.
Here’s guessing Kodai Senga will continue to thrive at the top of the rotation and José Quintana — about as reliable as any starter in MLB before a stress fracture in his ribs complicated his first season in Queens — will be fine. Adrian Houser is a solid swingman/No. 5, and at least one or two names should emerge from a fairly deep group of fliers and prospects (Tylor Megill, eventually David Peterson, Mike Vasil, Blade Tidwell, Christian Scott, Dominic Hamel, Tyler Stuart).
The Mets have a deep enough pitching group to feel comfortable, if not thrilled, with their rotation options. What they could really use is one more high-octane arm, and Severino and Manaea are their best bets.
As Yankees fans can tell you, Severino is about as electric as any pitcher in baseball when right. He has finished third in Cy Young voting; he has been an All-Star twice; even during last season’s disaster, his velocity (with an average fastball of 96.5 mph) was there.
His control was not. Perhaps his health or pitch-tipping was to blame, but Severino still can be a top-flight pitcher with the right minds around him. The Mets, under the new David Stearns regime, are hoping they have found those minds.
Manaea, meanwhile, might have been fixed last season. He was awful in his first eight games with the Giants (7.96 ERA) before losing his rotation spot, transitioning to the bullpen and eventually adding a sweeper to his arsenal. He rejoined the rotation in September, and pitched to a 2.25 ERA in four starts that month.
If Severino or Manaea emerges as a legitimate No. 2 or No. 3 starter, the Mets likely can believe they have enough firepower not just to reach October but make some noise once there.
Starling Marte and Harrison Bader combine for 1,000 plate appearances.
Reaching such a total would suggest two things: 1) Each was healthy enough to earn regular, if not everyday, playing time and 2) Each hit well enough to justify regular, if not everyday, playing time.
There might not be a more boom-or-bust Mets player than Marte, who was an All-Star as recently as two seasons ago, but had the 26th-worst OPS (.625) among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances last season. Marte clearly was not the same player after November 2022 groin surgery, and complications from that injury ended his 2023 season early.
Bader, meanwhile, slid right behind Marte with the 25th-worst OPS (.622) last season, which also was one to forget. Multiple IL stints with the Yankees did not allow him to carry over any momentum from a monstrous postseason the season before. He struggled staying on the field, then struggled on the field, before the Yankees placed him on waivers in late August. He was claimed by the Reds, and he did not hit with them either.
At his best — like when he was generally healthy with the Cardinals in 2021 and posted a .785 OPS — Bader is a dominant outfielder and capable hitter. As is Marte, provided he has more left in the tank. Can they convince the Mets they can both stay healthy and deserve regular time?
A third baseman emerges.
We aren’t going to be picky here.
Maybe Brett Baty — one of the better prospects in baseball entering last season and who clearly has mastered Triple-A pitching — tweaks his swing to put more batted balls in the air, and he grabs the third base job for the next decade.
Maybe Mark Vientos, fresh off an offseason spent working on his defense (which included a trip to Puerto Rico to train with Francisco Lindor), shows he can be adequate at the hot corner, which allows manager Carlos Mendoza to pencil his powerful bat into the lineup every day. Vientos crushed Triple-A pitching (.999 OPS) last season.
Or maybe both prospects falter, but Joey Wendle enjoys a nice season and takes the job. Or perhaps Gio Urshela, still a free agent, comes aboard late in spring and wins over the other segment of New York baseball fans.
The Mets will need someone to step up at third base after last season, when no one did.
Jeff McNeil hits .310.
The Mets can expect Lindor to continue to thrive as a two-way star, Pete Alonso to smoke in the neighborhood of 40 home runs and Brandon Nimmo to be a force at the top of the lineup with an OPS greater than .800.
What McNeil can produce is a much greater mystery.
For his first three, excellent seasons, the second baseman was a throwback, contact-oriented spray hitter who batted .319 from 2018-20. He battled several injuries during a down 2021 campaign that ended with a .251 average before bouncing back to win the batting crown (.326) in 2022.
Last season, though, represented another step back, and he was fortunate to hit .270 because of a second-half surge.
McNeil was shut down in late September due to a partial tear in his UCL and alluded to several other nagging injuries that had plagued him during the season. Is the equation as simple as: If he is healthy, his batting average will tick back up?
The Mets lineup looks much different with a batting champion in the middle of it.
Today’s back pages
The refs blew it
The All-Star break cannot come soon enough for the Knicks.
A team that had so much momentum and optimism a few weeks ago now has a lengthy list of injury concerns, four losses in five games and legitimate gripes about Monday’s officiating crew.
The Knicks dropped a heartbreaker, 105-103, in Houston on what can be generously termed a questionable call. The game was tied in the closing seconds when Aaron Holiday flung up a prayer from beyond the arc. Jalen Brunson, who had knotted the game seconds earlier, leapt to contest the deep jumper and maybe — maybe — made marginal contact with Holiday. On a night when a lot of contact did not produce a whistle, a touch foul gave Holiday three foul shots and essentially gave the Rockets a win.
“That’s a tough way to lose,” Tom Thibodeau understated to reporters, trying his best to avoid the obscenities that had flown while on the court.
The crew chief himself acknowledged — too late — the call was the wrong one.
“The contact which occurred after the release of the ball … is incidental and marginal to the shot attempt and should not have been called,” Ed Malloy told a pool reporter after seeing a replay.
With one game to go (Wednesday in Orlando) before the break, the Knicks (33-21) are tired. With Isaiah Hartenstein missing a second straight game and fourth in the past 11 with his sore Achilles — to go along with the injuries to Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle and OG Anunoby — the Knicks are hurting.
And now the Knicks are mad, too.
The other side of the coin
For a moment, imagine the 49ers’ overtime drive finished differently. That on third-and-4 from the Kansas City 9-yard line, Brock Purdy wasn’t rushed into an incompletion; instead, he received an extra second of protection, completed his pass to Jauan Jennings and scored the go-ahead touchdown.
For one more moment, imagine the Chiefs responded, well, exactly as they did: with a touchdown of their own.
And for one last moment, imagine it was the 49ers’ turn again, and Purdy led a drive for the game-winning, sudden-death field goal that made San Francisco the Super Bowl champions.
In this plausible scenario, Kyle Shanahan would be regarded as a genius by the football-loving public for trusting in his offense, reading the game correctly and gambling that getting possession third was a larger advantage than getting possession second.
Of course, this scenario is fictional, so Shanahan is regarded as an idiot.
The largest Super Bowl loser has become the 49ers head coach, who won the overtime coin toss and elected to receive the ball first. Under the new overtime rules, both teams are entitled to a possession. If the score is still tied after each team’s possession, then the next score wins.
Because the 49ers received the ball first and their drive ended in a field goal, the Chiefs’ offense knew that scoring a touchdown would end the game.
If the roles were reversed and the Chiefs had received the ball first, maybe they would not have gone for that fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line, when Patrick Mahomes ran off right tackle for 8 yards. By getting the ball second, the Chiefs had the advantage of knowing what score was needed.
Shanahan knew this. He also knew, though, that if both teams engineered touchdown drives, then by choosing to get the ball first, his team would have gotten the ball third — the first chance at a sudden-death scenario. His decision did not work, but it surely was a defensible one.
The 49ers lost because their offense could not score an overtime touchdown and their defense, like every other team’s, could not stop Mahomes late in the game.
They did not lose because of a coin-toss choice that is being ripped by people who only look at the result and not the process.
What we’re reading 👀
🏒 Igor Shesterkin delivered a 30-save shutout as the Rangers won their fifth straight game. What goalie controversy?
📺 The Super Bowl drew record-setting ratings, including 120 million viewers on CBS.
🏈 The Chiefs’ quest for a historic three-peat starts now.
🏀 The St. John’s game at Providence was maybe going to be postponed, but for now it’s on for Tuesday night.
🏀 Spurs rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama posted a triple-double … with blocks.
⛳ Tiger Woods started pushing his new apparel brand: Sun Day Red.