Tuesday, May 11, 2021

This Ain't Dysfunction Junction

The New York Mets 2021 season has been anything but a smooth ride so far, and the events of the last week or so haven't changed that. After dropping the first game of a doubleheader to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday, the Mets were sitting at 11-13 on the season. They were looking little like the potential playoff team we all hoped for after a solid offseason. The idea of that club going on a 5-game winning streak seemed quite remote.

They hadn't managed to win more than 2 games in a row since mid-April, had fired their hitting coaches, and were enduring prolonged slumps from some of their key players. Even the boost from winning the last two games of the Cardinals series coincided with receiving the bad news that the return of starter Carlos Carrasco would be delayed. And the 5th win in the streak cost the Mets the services of Jacob deGrom for at least 10 days.

Last week also prominently featured a phantom "hitting approach coach" who turned out to be the alter ego of Pete Alonso and an emergence of a rat/raccoon hybrid — a legendary animal who made an appearance to ask Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil that age-old question, "why can't we all just get along?"  Yet somehow, through all of the turbulence, the Mets have managed to play their best ball of the season while teasing the possibility of better things to come.

Every season has its ups and downs, of course, and its signature moments of craziness. But the first 29 games of the 2021 season have been quite the rollercoaster ride for the Mets. The last few days were just the cherry on top of the sundae. A portion of my mind craves some clarity on how real the chances are for a Mets playoff run this fall, but it's going to continue to have to wait for any sort of decisive answer. For now, I content myself that the Mets seem to be figuring some stuff out, and that's always the foundation for eventual success.

While I was thinking all of this over last night, I came across a scolding piece in the New York Post by Joel Sherman, under a headline warning the Mets that they needed to "prove" their dysfunction was in the past. And I'm sorry, I genuinely like Sherman as a baseball writer, but I thought his efforts to drag Wilpon era dysfunction into the story was just a lazy, tired take on recent events:
As long as the deGrom injury is just a start or two, the Mets stand with the Braves for the most talent and depth in the NL East; perhaps even more. They lead the tightly packed division, and could and probably should win it. 
Yet, these are the Mets, which serves as shorthand to explain dysfunction amid just one division title and two playoff appearances since 2006. It is what holds back a firm embrace of these Mets as the NL East team to beat. Steve Cohen has badly wanted to distance that past, pumping millions into personnel and systems to try to play catch up. But are Cohen and his lieutenants getting a honeymoon they have yet to earn? After all, how would the past few months have been received and covered if the Wilpons still ran the team?
God, I really hate this stuff. The oft-discussed dysfunction of the Wilpon years wasn't some sort of chronic disease that caused the Mets problems. Those were a lack of vision, chronic poor decision-making, and a failure of leadership at the top. The outward-facing dysfunction was just the pus oozing out of the wounds. Pardon the gross analogy.

Steve Cohen "pumping millions into personnel and systems" was a great start at overcoming years of neglect and poor decision making. It's not going to fix everything that's wrong all at once, but the willingness to invest in building up the club's infrastructure is a very positive step on the road to more predictable future success. I can't speak for anyone else, but my recognition of this commitment is the reason why Cohen and his lieutenants have earned a honeymoon with me.

I already wrote a piece earlier this week laying out why I was fine with replacing the hitting coaches. I don't care that they didn't wait for an off day to do it, as some in the media suggested. However, the Mets did make an unforced error in failing to inform the team of the change before it came out in the media. I doubt Steve Cohen was happy about that. Nor should he have been. That was a really lame mistake by the front office that shouldn't be allowed to happen again.

I thought Lindor's creation of the rat story was an unfortunate attempt to deflect with humor that was ill-advised, but ultimately forgivable. The guy is 27. People don't always make perfect decisions at that age. If some writers are still upset at his awkward handling of the matter, it's up to Francisco to work it out with them. Alienating folks who cover the team is always something to be avoided, if possible.

Putting aside all of the noise and getting down to the signal, I hope the Mets have righted the ship somewhat and are on the path to more consistent play. I guess we'll see how that plays out. However, if the Mets don't compete strongly for the playoffs, it won't be because "these are the Mets" is some sort of shorthand for dysfunction. If Joel Sherman is paid to provide solid baseball analysis to the rest of us, he stole whatever percent of his paycheck contributed to that dysfunctional failure of an article. Sorry, but saying, "thus it has always been; thus it always will be" carries all of the intellectual heft of an old Bazooka Joe comic strip.

If the Mets fail to come out on top of the National League East in 2021, I'm certain that it won't be due to some leftover affliction from the Wilpon years. As I see it, lingering issues that could still sabotage the season are as follows:

  • How much do the changes made to the baseball effect home runs? The Mets have been dependent on hitting home runs to score for a while now. They struggle to score when it comes to stringing hits together. If the return of warm weather brings more Met home runs with it, they'll probably be fine. If home run totals continue to be suppressed as they have been, the struggle to score enough runs is likely to continue.

  • Can anyone step up in the rotation? With all due deference to questions of health, the Mets look in good shape with deGrom, Marcus Stroman, and Taijuan Walker. But Joey Lucchesi and David Peterson have offered fleeting moments of promise intermingled with big questions of whether they belong in a contending team's rotation. Sure, Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard are future reinforcements, but it remains to be seen when they'll return and whether they'll be effective when they do.

  • Can James McCann stay healthy and contribute something offensively? McCann can be valuable to the Mets if he handles the pitching staff well and controls the other teams' running game. Still, they need him to give them something offensively. His OPS+ is 49 right now. And the catching depth behind McCann and Tomás Nido is still virtually non-existent.

  • Will Lindor get comfortable playing in New York, or will his early-season struggles continue? The Mets don't necessarily need Francisco to have his best season in 2021, but performing close to his historical levels will help everyone relax and enjoy things more.

  • Can the bullpen continue to hold up? They've been amazing so far, but the season still has a long, long way to go. Even before deGrom's current injury concerns, it was clear that it's going to take solid contributions from the relief corps to navigate the long season. The Mets would be in a much worse place in the standings right now if the bullpen wasn't consistently keeping them in games where the starting pitching and offense let them down.
The Mets play has been decent over the past week, but they probably got a little lucky catching the Arizona Diamondbacks at a down time for that club. The Mets will need to show some more consistency in scoring runs before I'm convinced that they're ready to leave .500 behind and show the rest of baseball that they're for real. Make no mistake, though. It will be how they handle the answers to the questions above, not the hoodoo of some leftover dysfunction from the past that will control how this season turns out.

Please stay safe, be well, and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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