Sunday, November 8, 2020

Why Winning by Losing Wouldn't Be the Right Call

If you missed it, Saturday's post on this blog was a rebuttal to a Daniel Kaplan article on The Athletic site that took a pretty negative point of view on the team's future. Kaplan's angle was that the Mets would be unable to keep up with the Yankees in New York without deficit spending that would slowly bleed new owner Steve Cohen dry. The gist of Kaplan's view was that the Mets' revenues are significantly less than the Yankees and Citi Field was less ideally located than Yankee Stadium. I'm not going to rehash it all here, basically, I found his argument to be remarkably weak and superficial.

One of the things that Kaplan brought up that I did feel was at least worth considering was the idea that tearing things down and tanking for a while was a better idea than trying to follow the Dodgers' model of trying to compete and build for the future simultaneously. Kaplan quoted an unnamed "finance source familiar with the Mets balance sheet" to make the point:

"But the Yankees revenues are twice what the Mets revenues are. You can either deficit spend until [Cohen] gets tired of it. Or you can slowly try to rebuild a team like the Ricketts did" when they bought the Chicago Cubs.

"But to do that, you got to be willing to do what the Ricketts did, which is have 100-loss seasons in a row," which happened because of investment in the farm system and not free agency, the source said.

The implications are pretty clear. Kaplan's source is saying that Steve Cohen's only choice with the Mets is between accepting years of mounting losses or tearing everything down. Personally, I'm not fundamentally against the idea that sometimes by far the best choice for a team is to start over. I think that was the option that should have been taken by the Mets back in 2010 when Alderson was hired, but the Wilpons didn't want to go that way. They desperately needed attendance to stay as high as possible to pull in enough revenue to service all of that debt. The result was some bad Mets teams, but it also impacted the best Mets team of the last decade.

Imagine the 2015 Mets with that pitching staff, but a lineup full of better hitters. It wouldn't have taken a miraculous stretch from Yoenis Céspedes to turn the season around, they would have been on a playoff trajectory all season. You can imagine a sprinkling of players the Mets drafted early on along with more and better prospects available for strategic trades. Then again, the Mets could have gone the win now, win later route, too. This would have required a different, more visionary owner than Fred Wilpon. Perhaps if his friend the Commissioner didn't prop up his failing finances, that might have been the case a lot earlier than 2020. But of course we'll never know.

I think the key point to make here is this: if Steve Cohen wanted to take the absolute easiest way out, instructing Alderson to trade away everything of value and tear it all down would be the way to go. It simplifies the decision making progress, the Mets would basically just be trying to sell everything of value on their roster and stockpile prospects. Finishing at the bottom or close to it for at least the next couple of years would allow the Mets to select from the draft's top prospects and have a higher bonus pool available for both the amateur draft and international signings. Unless Cohen was looking to emulate the scam that the Marlins ran for so long against the rest of baseball, he would presumably use the money saved from the tiny payrolls the Mets would be running to pour into the infrastructure of the organization.

It's not crazy to go that way, doubly so since we're going to continue on through a period of decreased revenues into next season. I remember reading something a while back that the CDC head thought the most likely scenario for a widely distributed vaccine would be "late second quarter or early third quarter 2021." Assuming that he's right, you won't see any sold out stadiums until June or July. There would be no guarantee that the season would start in April and be the normal 162 games long. No one knows what the economy will look like by then, particularly if it's a tough winter dealing with the virus.

If Steve Cohen instructed Alderson to tank, presumably the new owner would no longer have to plan for losing $400 million over the next two seasons. I doubt that there wouldn't be losses — once the turnstiles were open, who'd want to come and watch the team that was left? — but they would certainly be a lot smaller. After at least two, and maybe even three, seasons of tanking, the economy would presumably look a lot better when it was time to start spending again. I can't argue against the idea of purposeful losing without acknowledging that there is a decent rationale for going that way.

Okay, so now for the reasons why I believe tanking to be the wrong move for the 2021 Mets: There's no doubt that tanking worked for both the Cubs and the Astros, and that some other clubs are understandably emulating the approach. Somehow, though, in all of the discussion about purposeful losing, it gets overlooked sometimes how much this approach is, even when it makes sense, a breach of faith with both a fanbase and the ideals of sport. Teams are still charging for tickets during years that they're not trying, and they're playing against other teams who are actually trying to make the playoffs. And no one is getting a discount on their cable tv or streaming packages for the years that the team's games on the local RSN are virtually unwatchable.

So yeah, tanking could work, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing wrong with it. There's a lot wrong with it. Besides breaching faith with your fans and the game itself, you're also committing to a period of time when you're going to alienate a decent number of your fans and are unlikely to attract new ones. No matter how much of an intellectual argument can be made for losing on purpose, no one should lose sight of just how cynical of an approach it is. At the very least, tanking should be a last resort when a team meets the following criteria:

  • An aging roster of diminished talent on the major league level that is no longer competitive
  • Very little talent in the minor league system of the club, with what talent there is mostly populating the lower levels
  • The strong likelihood that, no matter what you do, the team is likely to sustain multiple losing seasons.
If a team doesn't fit into that criteria, whatever intellectual argument that can be made for losing on purpose seems, at least to me, cancelled out by reasons not to go that route.

The Mets have some indisputable problems. There's no depth at the Major League level, and two years of Brodie Van Wagenen's leadership has depleted the upper levels of the minors. There's some upside in the system, but not much quantity of prospects.

But you can't characterize a club with Jacob deGrom, David Peterson, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso, Dom Smith, Jeff McNeil and Andres Giménéz on the roster as aging and barren of talent. There's a core here, and it's solid. And, while the system doesn't at this time contain the quantity and quality of talent to sustain the Major League club and provide intriguing trade bait, it's not hopeless, there just needs to be a lot of work done to get to where it needs to be. It doesn't make sense for Steve Cohen's new club to squander all of the optimism and anticipation that surrounds his purchase for multiple seasons for some theoretical payoff years down the road.

Kaplan presented a stark either/or scenario where the only choices are spending way above revenues until the club is drowning in red ink or doing the "right thing" by tanking seasons. I don't even remotely see these choices as the only possible ways forward. Neither Cohen nor the organization needs to spend a minute worrying about the Yankees success. Because the Mets were last really successful for more than a brief moment was the later part of the 80s, and that coincided with a period that the Yankees were pretty bad, there sometimes seems to be a belief among sports pundits in this town that the only way the Mets can rise is if the Yankees fall. That's such nonsense to me. There's a huge opening for a second team in this vast metropolitan area if the team is run right. The Wilpons always seemed a bit intimidated by the Yankees, but I hope and believe that this mentality is part of the past.

There is an extremely viable way forward that doesn't include trying to lose. Of course, it doesn't offer instant gratification, either. I don't think the Mets can possibly go all in on 2021 while simultaneously doing what they need to do to sustain success in the long term. And make no mistake, sustained success — not scattered peaks of winning surrounding by long periods of suckitude — should be the goal.

I've spent some time in the last few days during my long walks in the woods with my pups contemplating what it might actually entail to simultaneously try to bring in better, more talented players, deepen the 40-man roster and get the farm system to where it needs to be. That's a real challenge, much more so than trying to tank your way to success. In this fantasy, I'm in charge of making all of the decisions going forward.

My first step would be to have the most comprehensive evaluations of everyone under contract to the New York Mets organization, from the rawest of prospects to the cream of my major league roster. I want the most precise, unemotional outlooks on my prospects. I want the same for my major leaguers. Is the success Dom Smith and Michael Conforto enjoyed this season real, or do we foresee some regression? How about Luis Guillorme's improvements at the plate in 2020 — real or just a hot stretch over 57 AB? Were the struggles of J. D. Davis and Pete Alonso indicative of a couple of guys enduring prolonged slumps in a short 60-game season, or were they signs that the league has figured them out? Is Andres Giménéz a good starting major league shortstop? Can I come to any conclusion based on 2020 about the future viability of Seth Lugo as a starter? What innings total is it reasonable to expect out of David Peterson next season?  I need the best quality answers I can get to these questions and so many more.

The questions seem pretty obvious, but trying to come up with the best answers to all of them and many more is crucial for deciding what moves to make this off-season. The only way I achieve my goals of getting better for 2021 without harming my future success is having the best data at my disposal to answer all of the questions. I can't make a move over the winter involving either major league players or my limited pool of prospects without calculating as precisely as possible how that move impacts my team now and down the road. I can't go crazy making deals where I move quantity for quality, or visa-versa, without seeing that move in the overall picture of what I need to do.

I can't spend money on any player without understanding that the amount I have to spend is a finite number, even if Steve Cohen is willing to lose a chunk of change in the short term. Whatever I choose to spend in one place, say payroll, isn't available to upgrade somewhere else in the organization. Steve Cohen isn't going to write a blank check to his baseball people.

Because of all of this, there is going to be a level of complexity to whatever the Mets decide to do this off-season, and everything will need to be weighed against the twin imperatives of getting better and deeper now while becoming better positioned for the future. Yet, if I was the one making decisions in this scenario, the complexity of the task can't cause me to be afraid to make moves. That's why it's so important for the organization to get a whole lot smarter ASAP. This is going to be one hell of a fascinating winter for Mets fans who enjoy the offseason drama. Really, it's going to be the first really interesting one in a long, long time.

Oh, and while the rest of this is going on, the Mets are going to have to try to extend Michael Conforto and start making a decision on where to go with Noah Syndergaard. Noah has always been a bit of a cypher, now it's complicated by the question about how he bounces back from Tommy John surgery. Tough calls ahead, but if you're looking to compete over the next few years, having a really good number 2 in the rotation has to be key.

Okay, I've gone on about all of this enough for today. By the way, with all of the Cohen excitement, I missed the milestone yesterday that was my 200th post since returning to blogging in April. I wasn't sure when I started again if I could find enough things to write about and write interestingly enough about them. It's been a real blast, and I appreciate everyone who spends some time on this blog. Thanks to those of you who asked about Lisa. She's doing okay, but I sure look forward to her coming home sometime soon.

Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos


  1. Mike,

    I agree, the Mets do not fit the model for a te4am that should tank.

    And tanking doesn't always guarantee success down the road.

    How is "Trust the Process" working out in Philly for the 76ers or in NJ for the Devils? Glad those guys did not buy the team.

  2. I kept thinking about "trust the process" when those two guys who owned the Sixers were in the bidding for the Mets. Would have honestly preferred A-Rod to them


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