What exactly went wrong for Mets in 2021, and how do they fix it?

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Conforto after K looking in Atlanta
Conforto after K looking in Atlanta

A hugely disappointing season ended in all-too appropriate fashion for the Mets on Sunday in Atlanta, as their offensive ineptitude dogged them all way out the door to the offseason in a 5-0 shutout loss to the division-winning Braves.

Not that the game really mattered, of course. Long since eliminated from postseason contention, the Mets were already assured of a second-straight losing season and the fourth in their last five.

Still, the shutout -- which featured three hits, all singles -- was one last reminder of what went wrong for these Mets.

After all, this was a team that spent a total of 114 days in first place but in retrospect was always walking a tightrope, winning many a game with late-inning magic in the first half that said as much about their inability to score runs consistently as it did about their grit.

And so, in the end, perhaps the simplest way to explain the 2021 Mets is to say they weren’t who we thought they were.

That is:

*The young core of position players underachieved badly, save for Pete Alonso and Brandon Nimmo, raising the question of just which ones can be counted on moving forward.

*Francisco Lindor didn’t hit like the superstar shortstop the Mets acquired via trade last winter and then paid $341 million to lock up for 10 more years.

*Of the other major offseason acquisitions, Carlos Carrasco pitched to a 6.04 ERA when he finally recovered from a torn hamstring injury and James McCann played more like a backup catcher than a starter worth a four-year, $40 million contract.

That made for a lot of offensive futility, as the Mets all season ranked at or near the bottom of the majors in scoring and finished 27th, averaging 3.93 runs per game.

As such, you could see trouble coming, especially when the best pitcher in baseball, Jacob deGrom, went down with an elbow injury and didn’t make a start in the second half of the season.

Jul 1, 2021; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Truist Park.
Jul 1, 2021; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Truist Park.

But a 29-45 second-half record? Nobody saw that coming.

However, the schedule got tougher, especially that 13-game stretch against the Dodgers and Giants, and it turned out the Mets’ flaws were exposed against better competition, particularly their level of pitching.

The starting rotation pitched to a 4.93 ERA after deGrom’s last start on July 7, which ranked 20th in the majors during that period. And the bullpen gave up far too many big home runs as the Mets were trying to stay in contention in August and September.

At the root of the collapse, though, was the ever-present lack of offense. It was such an issue early that the Mets fired hitting coach Chili Davis on May 6, but that proved to have little effect.

No one seemed more befuddled by the lack of offense than manager Luis Rojas, who repeatedly questioned the hitters’ approach, specifically saying they didn’t look ready to hit the fastball in big situations with runners in scoring position.

Rojas made the same point so often that it seemed fair to wonder if he thought the Mets’ hitters were being overloaded with information to the point where they were looking for certain pitches in certain counts that left them vulnerable against hittable fastballs.

Sep 3, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Mets manager Luis Rojas (19) walks on the field during the sixth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Mets manager Luis Rojas (19) walks on the field during the sixth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In any case, the mystery of the missing offense tops the list of problems the Mets need to address going into 2022.

Expectations throughout the organization are that it will be an offseason of big changes, likely beginning with Rojas. Sandy Alderson had already offered a fairly strong indication toward that outcome, noting the need to make such a decision even before he and owner Steve Cohen hire a new head of baseball operations, and Rojas’ somber tone after Sunday’s game left the impression he wasn’t optimistic about returning.

From there, so much will depend on who does get hired to take over on the baseball side of the organization. As SNY’s Andy Martino has reported, the Mets want a big-name executive, a Billy Beane or a Theo Epstein, but whoever gets the job will need to get creative in finding ways to improve the roster from top to bottom via trades and free agency signings, as many of the organization’s top prospects figure to be at least another year away from helping at the big league level.

Meanwhile, the Mets need pitching help, depending on what they do with their free agents-to-be Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard, as well as lefty Aaron Loup, who turned out to be the best reliever on the team.

But mostly they need to figure out how to fix the offense. They could decide that the problems were an aberration, but it’s worth remembering that many of the same core players didn’t hit much with runners in scoring position in 2020, either. So while the Mets have no choice but to hope a second year in New York will cure what ailed Lindor in April and May, it would be a huge gamble to rely on a bunch of bounce-back seasons from the likes of Dominic Smith, Jeff McNeil, J.D. Davis, and Michael Conforto.

With that in mind it’s important the Mets pursue difference-makers in the free agent market, notably Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, or Starling Marte.

As for Javier Baez, re-signing him is an enticing idea, as he brings much-needed athleticism in addition to power from a middle infielder, but how much he’s worth could depend largely on whether his improvements in plate discipline the last six weeks of the season were something that will stick in the long run.

In any case, there is plenty of time for all of that this winter. For now, the end of a rather exasperating season probably comes as a relief to most Mets fans. At least the waiting for this team to hit is finally over.