Late last week, as the Subway Series approached, New York’s sports sections had a problem on their hands. The 27–32 Mets were spiraling, having lost six straight at home, while the 40–18 Yankees were scorching, as they had been all season. The series didn’t project to be any good—ultimately the Yankees took two of three from the Mets to push them to 1-8 on their homestand—so both the Postand the Daily News set about exploring possible trades of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, two of the club’s few successes. This team started 11-1; now matters have gotten so bad that Ken Rosenthal quoted Dave Matthews Band lyrics to describe their predicament.
With all the discussion about whether the Mets should pull an Astros-style teardown or just plod ahead, this much is worth noting beforehand: Viewed through the right prism, the pairing of the Mets’ actions and results over the last few years ought to make you laugh. In 2015, having missed the playoffs eight years running, the team took the dubious bet that a crew of spry but red-flagged arms and veteran spare parts could somehow surpass the mighty Nationals. And they were right! Had the luck waited a week longer to exhaust itself, those Mets would have had a Commissioner’s Trophy to pair with their pennant.
Crushed after the World Series but plowing ahead, the Mets decided not to leave so much up to the baseball gods’ whims in 2016. The front office retained or acquired credible veteran bats—Yoenis Cespedes, Neil Walker, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jay Bruce mid-season—and dodged big-ticket-free-agent lemons (Chris Davis, Jason Heyward, David Price). For all their savvy, they got an 87–75 club in 2016, with three-fifths of the rotation out by season’s end, and a 70–92 debacle in 2017, when, of the stud pitchers, deGrom alone managed to stay healthy and the Mets allowed the second-most runs in the NL. When you cast your lot with young and variable hurlers, shrewd moves on the margins barely help when they struggle.
Did it have to be this way? One could argue that the Mets, having graduated so much pitching talent ca. 2012–15, essentially had no choice in what their organizational profile would be. Even if general manager Sandy Alderson had wanted to hedge his bets and swap, say, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz for position players while both were healthy and thriving, other GMs or, for that matter, Mets fans might not have cooperated. What is less debatable is that the failures of 2017, in which Harvey, Matz, Zack Wheeler and Robert Gsellman were hurt and ineffective (and Syndergaard was just hurt), locked the Mets into a pitching-heavy path for good. With only deGrom having much value as an offseason trade chip, and a midseason veteran sell-off having returned no impact prospects (blame the skinflint owners, who preferred salary relief), the team reasonably figured its only shot at near-term contention would come by way of free-agent upgrades and the rotation returning to form.
See, this is where it gets really funny. They followed that plan. The Mets did spend on free-agent upgrades—Todd Frazier at third, Bruce again in right (yes, splurging on Lorenzo Cain would have been the better play), Jason Vargas as a fifth starter/long reliever, Anthony Swarzak in the bullpen—and the rotation has improved—their starters’ ERA is 10th in baseball; they’re fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio; 2017 starting disappointments Gsellman and Seth Lugo became dynamite relievers—and they are DREADFUL! They’re 11–25 since April ended and have been outscored by 49 runs since then. On the season, their offense ranks second to last in the NL. The team OPS is .685. They’re fourth in the East, seven and a half back of the Nats and Braves. So it goes. Lately with the Mets, the better the offseason, the worse the following season has been.
I could earnestly list the exculpatory factors here—Cespedes is hurt, as are some top relievers; Bruce and Michael Conforto look uncharacteristically lost at the plate, etc. etc.—but to do so would run the risk of excusing the shared failure of ownership and the front office to develop major-league-ready offensive talent. Young, which is to say cheap, position players represent modern baseball’s most valuable commodity.
And while Brandon Nimmo has been terrific this year and Conforto was an all-star last year, those two have been responsible for essentially all of the value produced by Mets position players to debut within the last five years. Amed Rosario, who arrived in the big leagues last July unable to hit a breaking ball and has not improved in that department, may yet play well. But 2012 and 2013 first-rounders Dominic Smith and Gavin Cecchini remain scuffling at Triple-A. Kevin Plawecki and Travis d’Arnaud have produced 4 total bWAR in a combined 500 starts behind the plate. Upon their fans the Mets have forced such duds as Eric Campbell (-0.5 WAR from ’14-’16), Danny Muno (-0.4 WAR in ’15), Matt Reynolds (-0.2 WAR from ’16-’17), and Tomas Nido (-0.4 WAR from ’17-’18). That’s why Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes, both of whom are past their prime (Adrian González, who was released on Sunday night, was another), all have roster spots. And it’s not like much help is on the way. Baseball America ranked the Mets’ system 27th entering 2018, and their top four position-player prospects according to MLB.com are all at least a year away. The Mets suffer tremendously in comparison with their crosstown rivals, who in the span of a few years have promoted Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres.
Which in no small part is why the baseball press has started to sketch out deals to send either of the Mets’ aces to the Bronx. With each righty two-plus seasons from free agency, they would likely return the sorts of pieces the Mets now lack (and the Yankees, among other teams, possess). I’ll admit a reset has some abstract appeal. This configuration of the Mets is bound for .500 and no better, and as the Phillies and Braves improve in future seasons, I see few chances for this core to win another division crown, unless Manny Machado falls in love with the Port Washington branch of the LIRR. Wouldn’t it be a treat for Mets fans if in four years this team became the Astros?
Even less likely than this group contending in its current configuration, though, is the prospect of this front office and these owners executing a successful rebuild. Indeed, this regime has already overseen one rebuild—the one that landed the Mets exactly here. Trading an ace would give the fans some hope, sure. Right up until the moment the team turns into the Cincinnati Reds.