Friday, February 19, 2021

Signing Taijuan Walker Was a Terrific Move

Mets fans received some good news today. Signing a starting pitcher to compete for one of the two bottom-of-the rotation slots really was a must for this team. Don't get me wrong, David Peterson and Joey Lucchesi are both perfectly acceptable options for the role, but there needed to be more competition for those spots. Now there is. Bringing Taijuan Walker into the fold for a reasonable 2 year, $20 million deal seems to be, at least in my opinion, exactly the right balance of risk and potential upside. While it seems almost comical to refer to a $10 million per year salary as "reasonable," it really is in the context of how players are valued these days. As a fan, I feel much better about the Mets' chances of having enough starting pitching to survive this season today than I did yesterday.

I really think this move brings the Mets closer to the Braves in strength. Atlanta has some great players, and their deep farm system gives them an advantage over the Mets in young depth. That's an imbalance that never was going to be rectified in a single offseason. It will be the work of years and the wise spending of a bit of Steve Cohen's fortune to overcome. While a storyline of this offseason continues to be the players on whom the Mets missed out, the progress they've made in creating the sort of depth that might actually allow them to survive some injuries this year should not be overlooked.

I'm searching my memory for when I've felt the Mets were going into battle with such a deep, well-balanced roster. It wasn't the Mets club that made the 2015 World Series. They were all starting pitching and the heroics of Daniel Murphy and Yoenis Céspedes. It wasn't the last playoff club before that. The 2006 Mets featured David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Reyes as key contributors to a terrific offense. They also had a serviceable bullpen, but their starting pitching was held together by duct tape and Bondo. And it wasn't the Bobby Valentine clubs, who had Mike Piazza, Fonzie, and John Olerud, but never seemed to field a major league outfield during those years.

It's really been since the end of the '80s dynasty that the Mets have possessed this sort of a roster. Now don't get me wrong, this current iteration of the Mets is decidedly not at the level of those Mets. That's another work in progress that won't happen this year. But if you look at what's in place, right here, right now, you have to admit it's a pretty good team. A year ago, any sane Mets fan wouldn't have dreamed about having a team like this for 2021. Some issues need to be addressed, and better fundamental play has to be demanded from players, but I would have signed up for this team in a heartbeat in the dying days of the Wilpon era.

The starting rotation already enjoyed a strong top three in Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, and Marcus Stroman. Noah Syndergaard is, by all accounts, on track for a return in June, offering the equivalent of an early huge trade deadline pickup. Now you have Walker, Peterson, and Lucchesi, all perfectly reasonable candidates for fourth or fifth starter. Your depth starters include whoever of the three is the odd man out, along with Thomas SzapuckiRobert GsellmanJordan YamamotoSam McWilliams, and Franklyn Kilome. Of that group, all have remaining minor league options except for Kilome. There's enough depth to cover for injuries, provide some extra rest for starters, and replace a struggling starter if need be. The Mets may have missed out on Trevor Bauer, but they had a pretty good offseason. Remember, at the start of the winter, there was little starting pitching depth in place.

With Seth Lugo's injury, I'd still like to see the Mets get another decent reliever. The great options are pretty much gone, but having another veteran in camp wouldn't be a bad thing. Still, the Mets have assembled a decent group of options; much will depend on them hitting with some of those. I still worry about the bullpen quite a bit, but relievers are always available at the trade deadline if the Mets still need one.

I continue to hold out some hope that the NL might get a DH still this season. However, that doesn't seem likely to happen in time for the Mets to sign Jackie Bradley Jr. Having a real plus centerfielder patrolling the outfield in Queens is a dream of mine but, as with Player Development and building a true juggernaut of a team, this might have to be tabled for a future season.

In any case, the Mets really have managed to put together some good depth in the infield and outfield. I know none of the group of Jonathan VillarJosé MartínezAlbert Almora, and Kevin Pillar are perfect players. If they were, they'd be starting for other teams. As bench players, they bring a set of useful skills along and are miles ahead of the Quad-A types that have traditionally populated the Mets' bench. Khalil Lee's pickup gives the Mets something they lacked going into the offseason — an outfield prospect close to major league ready. Luis Guillorme is a terrific defensive option at 2B, SS, and 3B who might be able to contribute enough offense to be a bit more than a run-of-the-mill utility infielder.

My one real downer take is that I'm still quite worried about catcher. I don't think the Mets have enough depth behind James McCann. Tomás Nido is still very much unproven as a major league player, but the options behind him are even worse. I was very surprised the Mets didn't sign a solid veteran backstop to back up McCann. Even if it works out with Nido, catchers get dinged up over an MLB season. Patrick Mazeika, the only other catcher on the 40-man roster, is not well-regarded defensively. Top prospect Francisco Alvarez is 19 and has yet to play above Rookie level in the minors. I just think the Mets need to do more in having options beyond McCann.

When you look at the non-roster invites to spring training, a few wildcards in that bunch can conceivably contribute to this club in providing more valuable pitching depth. I'll be interested in getting a look at Tommy HunterJerad EickhoffJerry BlevinsMike Montgomery, and Arodys Vizcaíno early on. I know that some of them are going to crap out, but the beauty of having deep depth is that you don't need all of them to pan out. Or you can take a chance on a guy like Taijuan Walker, knowing that if it works out, you can have a really good fourth starter for a couple of years. If it doesn't, you move on to the next option.

There's been a lot of negative stuff written about the Mets this week, which is somewhat surprising for the first freaking week of training camp. Joel Sherman in the Post has been pretty tough on them. It's not his job to be a cheerleader for the team, but I think he's been a little overly long on the pessimism. Today Sherman's take was that the Mets have played too much for upside with their signings and missed an opportunity to snag top free agents in a down market year. He's got some points, no doubt but, other than not trying a bit harder for George Springer, the Mets really didn't disappoint me this winter.

Free agent opportunities will always be there, even if more teams are competing for them. It's not really my desire to see the Mets sign many big free agents. I'd rather see them concentrate on keeping some of their own players and making strategic additions as needed. I do honestly believe they'll be better in the long run by following that path.

I'm going to repeat something that I've felt the need to say more than once recently. I'm not going to be someone who cheerleads everything the Mets do. When I think they're wrong, I'm going to call them on it, as I have today with the catching depth. On the other hand, I'm not going to let my beginning-of-a-new-season buzz get dampened because they didn't sign the player I wanted (Springer), or even the one I didn't want but thought might have made them awesome (Bauer). I believe there is more than enough, playerwise, for them to compete. Now other things have to happen.

The coaches and the analytics people have to team up and help the players they have right now to improve. Their development folks need to do better at getting more out of the players in the system. Their scouting people have to find some undervalued players currently on other clubs' rosters to bring into the Mets organization. Improving this roster isn't the work of one winter. It should be an ongoing effort.

Luis Rojas and the rest of the staff got somewhat of a pass last season for guiding what was a very uneven roster during a historic pandemic. No passes will be issued this year. Rojas and his coaches will need to maximize the production of the much better roster they've been handed. Much has been written and said about changing the perception of the club from the outside and the culture of the club in the front office and throughout the organization, but nothing really matters if they don't simply start winning.

The most important perception that the outside world has of any sports team is formed by what they do on the field. Expectations can and should be high in that area. Moves made and moves not made are best debated by true fans over cold beers in air-conditioned bars with the games playing on multiple screens. Now that the Mets are together in camp, it's time to start building a tradition of winning. The rest is just noise.

Please stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

7 comments:

  1. From the title to the end of your piece is absolutely spot-on. It has triggered a lot of different thoughts I have had over the last two or three months.

    Great job.

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  2. I'd like to see them add a real backup catcher as I'm not sold on Nido.

    I'd also like to see them add another quality relief pitcher unless they want to miscast a starter there.

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  3. I'd love to see them develop 1 or 2 multi-inning relievers from that group

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  4. Really good piece, Mike. It would surprise me if, from your lists of five "depth starters" and five non-rosters plus the unmentioned Barnes, Tarpley and, especially, Drew Smith, at least a couple more decent-or-better bullpen options do not emerge during spring training. It may not happen, but as I say, I'll be surprised if it doesn't.

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  5. Thanks, Dave. I agree with you. One of the benefits of accumulating pitching depth is having some flexibility with how it's deployed

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  6. Mike ..As an extension of my 'relief catcher' and your new relief strategies, I really like that idea of multi-inning relievers. I think as part of the new bullpen strategy, instead of using an opener, have guys like Lucchesi and McWilliams available to pitch 4 innings and finish games a couple times a week, then running the rest of them out the on other days. I'll try writing this up with a little more depth and see if it still makes as much sense as I think it might. It might need some flexibility built in for game situations, but I can see the merit initially.

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  7. I agree. I think we're going to see an acceleration in teams getting away from teams using guys in predefined roles one inning at a time

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