Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Crossroads

Whether or not Jacob deGrom elects to return after this season, the Mets' future still looks great.

As I watched the New York Mets drop Saturday's contest in Oakland, the more hopeless the game became, the more my mind drifted to other thoughts. Watching Jacob deGrom struggle brought me back to the early years of my baseball fandom. Specifically, I recalled how it felt watching the great Tom Seaver occasionally toss up a stinker. Actually, that was even tougher because I was a kid and truly worshipped Seaver as a hero. There's nothing tougher than a kid witnessing a hero unmasked as a mere mortal. Hell, I still felt some of that seeing deGrom battered around by a bunch of palookas, and I'm in my 60s now. But that's baseball.

Seeing Jacob deGrom looking vulnerable and quite imperfect was a reminder that he is a human and subject to the same forces that define life for all of us. It also points out that deGrom, who will pitch at age 35 next season, is not a no-brainer for the large contract he will surely receive from the Mets or some other club. And don't get me wrong, I am not reading more into a bad performance than it should merit. Even the greatest baseball players have suffered performances that they would rather forget. But anyone that signs deGrom after this season will fully understand the risk involved.

The risks in signing deGrom start with the risk of injury. I understand that the stress reaction in his scapula this spring was a fluke. Still, thanks to the long rehab from that injury, deGrom has 10 starts this season with only 9 games left to be played. Jake only made 15 starts last year and 12 in the pandemic season. He's made less than 40 starts in the past three seasons. It really remains to be determined just how many starts he's capable of making going forward.

Also, 35 is old for a pitcher, particularly a power pitcher. Sure, there are other great pitchers who have thrived in their late 30s because they've been willing to make changes to their game. The Astros' Justin Verlander and our own Max Scherzer are two examples of that. But they are notable exceptions to the rule. You could make a case for Jake being a good candidate for that — great athlete, didn't pitch a lot as a youngster, only just over 1,300 MLB innings — but the risk is high for a pitcher his age nonetheless.

Age is the one certainty to rob any great athlete of his greatness. Tom Seaver was 32 when the Mets traded him. He had some decent years with the Reds. He won 21 games that season, 7 with the Mets and 14 with the Reds. It was the 5th time in his career he accomplished that, but it was also the last time. Seaver was 108-92 with a 3.49 ERA after that point. He was good, but never again great.

Willie Mays is inarguably one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. His last full year with the Giants was 1971 when he was 40 years old. In 537 PA, Mays slashed .271/.425/.482, good for an OPS+ of 158 in an era still dominated by pitchers. He was still pretty good the following year after being traded to New York, with an OPS+ of 145 over 242 PA with the Mets. But it was still obvious that he was approaching the finish line. Mays was a shadow of the player he once was when he hung it up in 1973. His greatness held off time for quite a while, but time always wins in the end. It will eventually catch up to Verlander and Scherzer, just as surely as it will with Jacob deGrom.

You can't wander through any scattered corner of the internet without coming across rumors that Jacob deGrom will be leaving the Mets for Atlanta, Tampa Bay, or the Texas Rangers. While deGrom has kept his thoughts to himself other than acknowledging that he will opt out, there's no shortage of those willing to prognosticate into that vacuum. They know very well it baits Mets fans to read about deGrom departing at the end of this season.

Steve Cohen has indicated he will do everything in his power to bring back deGrom. I know that's my strong preference, despite the obvious risks. But even Steve Cohen's great wealth can't bring deGrom back if the man doesn't want to pitch in New York any longer. Not that deGrom ever indicated that, but plenty of pundits out there are willing to put those words into his mouth, or at least insinuate that might be how he feels.

Look, if it's true that deGrom wants out of New York, so be it. It's a tough town to be a ballplayer in. The great ones need to embrace all of that in trade for the perks of performing on the country's greatest stage. If Jake doesn't want that, then he should leave. He wouldn't be doing any Mets fan a favor by staying if his heart isn't in it.

On the other hand, this isn't the Wilpon Mets. It's become very clear that not only will Steve Cohen provide all of the monetary resources necessary for this club to win, but he understands very well what his organization needs to evolve into in order to be successful. The Mets are clearly becoming a club poised to contend regularly. If Jake wants to win a World Series in his career, there are few destinations he could choose where he'd have a better chance than staying here.

In a similar vein, the Tigers recently hired former Giants GM Scott Harris to be their president of baseball operations. Harris declined even to be interviewed when the Mets were interested last year. A friend of mine tried to taunt me with that, but I just laughed. I asked, "would you really want the guy running your team in New York who would rather be in Detroit?" People who shy away from that pressure need not apply for the job.

And so, while the Mets were falling on a Saturday afternoon to a bad A's club, I thought of the analogy of a crossroads. No, not the one where someone sells their soul to the Devil in order to become a great musician. Just the idea that you're at a fork in the road, and your life will be very different depending on which way you choose to proceed. In those stories, the choice of forks can lead to either prosperity or oblivion. 

I believe the Mets organization will be at a crossroads with deGrom this winter. However, I think either fork can work if they handle it correctly. If they believe Jacob deGrom can continue to be an excellent pitcher for the next few years and Jake wants to stay here, then give him a nice chunk of Steve Cohen's cash, and we can all continue to root for the guy. There will be other decisions that need to be made to ensure that he'll be pitching for a serious contender next season, but it certainly can be done.

On the other hand, if Jake's heart is elsewhere, or some team wants to offer some sort of outlandish contract in the mode of what the Angels gave Albert Pujols a decade ago, then I'm prepared to move on. The key, I believe, is that I know the Mets won't lose deGrom simply by being too cheap to pay him, as was often the case with Fred and Jeff running the show. So, all of that trolling doesn't bother me as it would have a few years ago. Billy Eppler and the front office will find somewhere else productive to invest that money if deGrom turns it down.

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One last quick thought here. With the Mets currently holding a slim lead on the Braves, the NL East is certainly still up for grabs. However, it's funny how everything I read in the media goes on and on about the pressure the Braves are putting on the Mets, as if that pressure only travels in one direction.

No one seems to write about the pressure on the Braves, who have maintained a ridiculous pace of winning that, so far at least, has not led to them grabbing first place for anything more than a brief moment. Maybe the Braves will succeed in the end. If they don't, it will be due to the relentless counterpressure that the Mets exerted by maintaining a winning pace of their own. For quite some time pundits have written about Atlanta catching the Mets as if it was not a question of if, but only when.

I'm not going to bore you with any foolish declarations on how this race will end. I have no idea. These races hang on the vagaries of fate to some extent, such as deGrom being so bad yesterday when the club needed him to be great. But credit to the Mets for not so far giving into the perceived "inevitability" of Atlanta's pursuit, to the great consternation of most of the national baseball media.

Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!


Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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