Sunday, January 10, 2021

Those Shiny New Mets and the Road Ahead

When Steve Cohen's purchase of the New York Mets went through, he was joined by new team president Sandy Alderson in a news conference where they shared their plans for the team. Both Cohen and Alderson spoke of the idea of building a sustainable winner with the Mets, which would necessitate improving the team's roster in the short term while building out the farm system for long-term success. With the addition of SS Francisco Lindor and SP Carlos Carrasco to the roster, the Mets are well on the way to acing the short-term goal of being more competitive in 2021.

To accomplish that, though, they had to take a step backward from their long-term goal. It was a very good trade for the Mets, and I have no complaints at all about them doing it, but the fact remains that they gave up two young, controllable major leaguers and two decent prospects from their system to pull off the deal. With the likelihood that the Mets will no longer be in the running for top free agents like George Springer and Trevor Bauer, most likely they will hold onto the second-round pick that they would have lost when signing one of those guys. Still, today they're farther away from the system they hope to have than they were before the trade.

I'm sure that this has been taken into account, and plans are already being implemented to work on long-term solutions. I'd love to be the proverbial fly on the wall, listening in on how Alderson, Porter, and the rest of the crew plan to accomplish that part of the mission. I'm sure that some of the plan would involve doing the best they possibly can to draft impact talent in the upcoming amateur draft. Drafting is an area where the Mets actually have excelled in recent years. Another road, where the Mets have not been doing as well, is signing international players. If there is one way for the Mets to really bring some talent into their system in the short term, it is through this route.

As with the amateur draft, teams are allotted a pool of international bonus money. If they exceed that amount they are assessed a luxury tax on the overage. If they exceed it by more than 10%, they are restricted in the amount of money they can spend on a single player in the following year. We've seen some clubs go really aggressive in their spending in a year, figuring that the one-time large infusion of talent would negate the penalty paid the next season. Now, it's quite possible that Cohen would want to avoid something that might possibly alienate other owners in that regard, but it's something to keep an eye on, at least. If the Mets really want to jump-start their player development, that would be one way they could accomplish that task.

Correction 1/16/2020: The information I had where a team is allowed to exceed their bonus pool and pay a penalty was outdated. The rules were changed a couple of years ago and the pools are now hard-capped. Teams cannot spend over their pool allotment.

Barring a willingness to push the rules, I'd still like to see the Mets pick up their game in the international market. While it's generally not a secret which players will sign for the largest bonuses every year, doing a better job of ferreting out some talent among the less heralded prospects would pay some dividends. I've been trying to learn more about the international market lately, particularly why some teams seem to do so much better there than the rest, so I'm not going to pretend that I'm some sort of an expert here. It's not as if the Mets have been coming up completely empty in this area, either, two of the players that the Mets swapped for Lindor and Carrasco were Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario. Even though Rosario in particular enjoyed some ups and downs in his MLB career, these guys do represent success stories for the Mets.

I'm sure that Sandy Alderson and Jared Porter are taking a hard look at their scouting operation in Latin America and the rest of the world, and will deploy Steve Cohen's money as needed to up their game in the international market. I'm also fairly confident that they will work to improve what happens to those kids once they make their way into the Mets system. The Mets have maintained a presence in the Dominican Republic for years now with their academy opened in 2008 and two different entries in the Dominican Summer League. I would expect that to continue and be augmented.

The other thing I would expect to see with the players from Latin America and, hopefully, Asia and other parts of the world, is more effort being made to help these players acclimate to playing here. Making it in minor league baseball is tough enough already, but for players who are young, far from home and faced with an unfamiliar culture, it's all that much harder. Admittedly, many of these kids are going to wash out anyway. That's just how it goes with young prospects. But anything that you could do to help them acclimate better — learn the language, have more familiar food to eat, help them to feel more a part of the community where they find themselves — can only help a precious few more of them to make it.

At his introductory press conference, new GM Jared Porter talked about finding players in many different ways. A good part of the reason he was hired here is a resume of identifying and promoting talent. In a lot of ways, the Lindor deal was the easy part of his job. The Indians were motivated to move the player, the Mets wanted him, and both sides were able to find a middle position where they were comfortable with what they were getting in return for what they were giving up. Porter, Alderson, and whoever else in the front office that was involved did a terrific job here, but now it gets harder. Now the farm system is in need of major upgrading without the boost that tanking some seasons has given teams like the Padres and the Braves who the Mets will be competing against.

Being as good as they can be in the amateur draft and upping their game on the international side are all on the to-do list, but improvements to the way they scout other MLB teams and develop their own players are priorities, too. Whether it's a player you've identified in another organization with some unfulfilled potential or one that's already in your system that isn't maximizing his talents, you need an army of evaluators and coaches, all armed with the most modern tools and methods to do their jobs. Even if the Mets do become one of the smart, really well-run organizations in the sport, doing both the top-level and ground-level work exceedingly well, they're not going to be competing in a vacuum. There are other extremely well-run organizations in the sport doing basically the same things. It won't be enough to simply get better at this stuff and then sit back and rest on their laurels. If they want to sustain success, they'll have to be willing to constantly evaluate everything they do and stay on the cutting edge of the sport.

Given the current relative lack of talent in the organization and the decision to eschew the tanking route, the task ahead of the new Mets front office is difficult enough. Complicating things even more, is the pandemic wiping out the 2020 minor league seasons. Although some of the prospects were at the alternate site getting some quality instruction, they weren't able to get the reps they would have playing a season of minor league ball. The Mets did run an expanded instructional league after the season for those top prospects and some others, but that was cut short after two players tested positive for COVID-19.

Basically, you already have one weird year of development in the can. As much as possible, the Mets need to get things back on track this year, both for the sake of the kids in the organization and the need for the new front office to begin evaluating what they have. If things were back to normal now, or at least projected to get back to normal by the spring, then this all could be accomplished fairly easily. However, that's not going to be the case.

The AP is reporting that spring training could be delayed for minor leaguers, particularly those in Double-A and A ball. Those players normally report to spring training after the major leaguers and the advanced prospects who get invited to major league camp. Unless there are widespread vaccinations available for ball players — which seems extremely unlikely at this point — the thinking is that these players won't be able to start spring training until the major leaguers leave camp. Peter Woodfork, an MLB senior VP, was quoted in the article:
"Assuming that a vaccine is not available to players and staff at the beginning of major league spring training, there is a strong possibility that minor league spring training will be delayed for players who otherwise would be assigned to Double-A, High-A, and Low-A because clubs have informed us that there is not sufficient space at spring training facilities for all of the players in an environment requiring strict physical distancing."

If — fingers crossed — the start of the MLB season doesn't get bumped back, it will be the beginning of April before the minor leaguers can begin their own training camp. So, at the very least, everyone will be getting off to a late start. While we can assume that MLB baseball can begin the season with severe restrictions on fans attending games, minor league teams are extremely dependent on gate receipts for their revenues. Are they going to be willing to start their season with few or no fans? These clubs are already hurting from losing the whole 2020 season. Are MLB teams, already crying poverty themselves, willing to subsidize minor league teams in order to get the season underway?

With all of the delays in the vaccine rollout that have happened already, it's hard to guess at what point this year the turnstiles start clicking in both major and minor league parks. With what we know now, it's unlikely to happen anywhere near in time to get any sort of "normal" minor league season going. It was always going to take a lot of hard work and creativity on the part of the new front office to get the Mets farm system from where it is now to where it needs to be to sustain a winning operation. It's going to take plenty of that hard work and creativity just to keep 2021 from being an obstacle to that goal. It wouldn't shock me at all if plenty of MLB clubs don't come up short when it comes to player development in 2021 but, if the Mets are serious about joining the league's elites, they can't afford to do that. This is definitely going to be something to watch in the coming months.

I'm signing off for today. Thanks for stopping by. Please stay safe, be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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