Monday, October 17, 2022

Playoffs Are Chaos

The Mayhem Guy loves
the MLB playoffs
All of the uncertainties and chaos of the MLB postseason are on full display this October.

All I kept hearing and reading, over and over again, was that the Mets were too timid at the trading deadline. They were a win-now team who should have gone all-in, even if it required parting with one or more of their top prospects to secure the players they needed to push them over the top. This was only amplified louder when the Mets played so poorly in Atlanta and lost the division, then fell rather meekly in their wildcard series against the Padres.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it's hard to imagine any level of aggression that could have netted the Mets a stronger roster than the Braves or Dodgers, yet we watched both of those clubs get swept out of the playoffs. Both fell to division opponents who they had handled fairly easily in the regular season. Both were heavily favored heading into their NLDS series, yet managed only a single win. Meanwhile, in the AL, while the Astros swept their series against the Mariners, the Yankees will have to stave off elimination for the second time tonight, if they hope to beat the lowly Guardians.

I've been watching baseball for over five decades. While it's unusual to see so many underdogs prevail, it's not shocking at all to see better teams go home while markedly inferior teams move on. It happens year in and year out. It's why the Yankees are in the playoffs every year, but haven't been in the World Series since 2009. It's why the Dodgers have only one World Series win despite dominating the NL for the last half-dozen years.

The truth of the matter is that a playoff tournament is a ridiculously unfair way of deciding the champion of a sport where teams play almost every day for 6 months just to get there. Yet we happily accept this blatant inequity for the compelling drama it produces. As a fan, you will curse the format when your team succumbs to it. But let them win the damn thing just once, and you'll have memories that you can cherish for the rest of your life.

I always smile to myself when sportswriters are compelled to write long pieces that see some sort of inevitability after the fact when one team eliminates another. Tom Verducci had an excellent example of the genre on today: "Padres Expose Dodgers' Flaws, Bullpen Mismanagement in Stunning Series Upset." Don't get me wrong, it's an excellent piece by one of the finest baseball writers in existence. But this piece would have never been written if the Dodgers had been gifted with a few more breaks and the Padres were the team going home for the winter. After all, LA managed to overcome said flaws a mere 111 times during the season.

As teams continue to be eliminated and the 2022 playoffs wind down to a conclusion, I could pretty much guarantee you that some more fine writers will be more than willing, after the fact, to share with you why the winner's push to a championship was the inevitable result of whatever precursor the writer chooses. I've read some version of this hundreds, if not thousands of times, in my decades of MLB fandom. I'm not criticizing, however. These guys don't get paid to not draw conclusions. I've just learned to take it all with a grain of salt and the realization that the truth is inevitably more nuanced and complicated than whatever becomes the post-mortem narrative after the fact.

I've come to believe that the greatest truth about winning a World Series championship is the simplest: a team has to be both very good and very lucky. Those 1986 Mets always seemed to be on the brink of elimination against both the Astros and Red Sox, but a combination of grit and luck got them to the Promised Land. The 1988 Mets were possibly the most complete top-to-bottom Mets club that I ever rooted for, yet they couldn't make it past an inferior Dodgers team to get to another World Series.

The failures of the Dodgers in the playoffs during their great run of dominance has become a topic of endless discussion in the baseball media. Some of it is interesting and compelling, like Verducci's article. Sometimes it is hopelessly simplistic and even way off base. But I just keep coming back to the "good and lucky" principle.

The best team coming into the playoffs seems to lose more often than they prevail year after year. Such was the fate of the Dodgers in 2022. Meanwhile, the Phillies staggered into the playoffs after almost playing their way out in September. But the Dodgers failed to bring their "A" game, while Philadelphia has really played well in taking two playoff series as underdogs.

The ongoing narrative is that the Phillies haven't been well-run for the past decade, while the Atlanta Braves and the St Louis Cardinals are seen as two of the showcase franchises in MLB. Yet Philadelphia sent both clubs packing after coming out on top 5 times in 6 games. Go figure. But the Phillies have 3 good starting pitchers and the ability to score some runs, and they got on a roll. Meanwhile, the Cardinals and Braves brought plenty of "good" with them to the playoffs but left their "lucky" at home. And, just like that, their seasons are over.

This is why I didn't blow my gasket when Billy Eppler spoke about the club remaining disciplined at the deadline, refusing to trade away their top talent for rental players. The Mets made some moves, but failed to make a big splashy one. But when I think of splashy deadline moves, I think of the Dodgers picking up both Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at last year's deadline. A great team made themselves even greater. Still, they went home before the World Series.

Even the splashiest deadline deals guarantee a club nothing, but those prospects given up in those deals are gone forever. When you have a deep, redundant player development system like the Dodgers, those deals make a lot more sense. When you're a team like the Mets, you really don't have that sort of luxury — not if you're serious about building your own strong development pipeline. And if you are indeed going to trade one of your best prospects, it really needs to be for a player that is under contract for more than a couple of months.

There was much discussion about the oft-rumored deal with the Cubs for C Willson Contreras and reliever David Robertson. The Cubs were apparently only willing to make a deal that included the Mets' top prospect Francisco Álvarez, which the Mets absolutely should not have agreed to. As for the Mets being "timid" in other deals, I notice that no one ever discusses the detail of any deal the Mets turned down.

I thought the Mets actually did make a couple of good moves this summer. Daniel Vogelbach was not a perfect player, but he helped the Mets with his bat, and they didn't have to give up too much to get him. Tyler Naquin did not hit well and will not be fondly remembered by Mets fans. In fairness, however, he was only picked up as an upgrade to the extra OF position that Travis Jankowski held down early in the season. When Naquin struggled and Starling Marte got hurt, that deal looked much worse than it really was.

The only real complaint I personally had at the deadline was the trade for Darin Ruf. I thought giving up J.D. Davis and 3 young arms was just too much. My preference would have been just to hold onto Davis and bring up Mark Vientos sooner. But I understand Ruf had a track record of mashing lefties. Sometimes you pick up a guy at the deadline and it works out, sometimes not. Ruf sure didn't.

It was more disturbing that the only reliever they added was Mychal Givens, a marginal addition at best. Givens actually pitched pretty well after a rugged start, but was certainly not a difference-maker in their bullpen. My biggest problem with Eppler was not at the deadline. It was that the Mets should have made a stronger push to sign a lefty before the season started. With all of the winter additions, the bullpen always seemed like an unfinished project. I worry about next season when the Mets will have to rebuild a bullpen almost from scratch.

An ongoing problem that really needs to be solved is the Mets' ongoing failure to produce a few home-grown relief arms. They really need to figure out how to turn some of the promising hard throwers in their system into viable MLB relief pitchers. If the Mets want to sustain success in the future, it's imperative that they find some inexpensive solutions for their bullpen. Whether they do this through development or "fixing" guys who have failed elsewhere, they shouldn't have to spend millions on middle relievers. We've yet to see the Mets display more than marginal competence in constructing a 'pen in that manner.

Getting back to Epler's comments about staying disciplined, there really has been a problem the last few seasons in the Mets being too willing to ship out prospects. Going back several years, many of the club's top draft picks are no longer in the Mets' organization:

No team can afford to keep shipping out so much of their top talent and expect to build a strong player pipeline. By all accounts, the Mets had an excellent draft in 2022, bringing a lot of talent into the system. But now the challenge is twofold: develop this talent and figure out how to keep adding to it.

Developing talent is about more than having some success in turning a handful of top picks into major leaguers. A true development system will have plenty of wins with lower draft picks and less-heralded international signees. It's nice to take a first- or second-rounder and see him become a star player in a few years, but it's just as important to turn some lesser guys into back-end starters, middle relievers, and role players. That's how a good organization can have surplus talent to make higher-impact deals, and save money in filling out their roster with good, cheap players rather than having to pay millions more in the free agent market.

And it's going to get a lot trickier to accomplish the second part of the challenge: how to keep adding talent. Presumably, unless something goes horribly wrong, the Mets are going to be picking much lower in the draft than they have been these last five years. And while it's great to have an owner that's willing to spend, there are penalties in both the amateur draft and the international signings that will make scouting and development have to work much harder to have a productive system. The Cubs had to go into a rebuild because they essentially failed to keep producing enough talent to avoid that fate. The Mets don't want to find themselves in a similar position a few years down the road.

I realize that all of what I've written seems to be an endorsement of Billy Eppler. Actually, I have no idea if he is the right man to lead the franchise. He did pretty well in constructing the 2022 Mets. Yes, he had a lot of money to spend, but a 24-win improvement is a BFD, my friends.

But now Eppler is going to have to do it again while re-signing some of his free agents and replacing others. And the team very much needs to get younger in both the pitching staff and position players. In my opinion, Eppler didn't handle bringing up prospects and integrating them onto the roster very well this season. Next year the Mets will simply have to get some of these young guys into more important roles. When to bring them up and how to help them handle the transition are things that Eppler's front office must get better at.

Meanwhile, I fully expect Eppler's front office will need to trade away some better prospects this winter to build a roster going forward. Making the right choice in who to trade, and getting meaningful talent back in return will be crucial.

I haven't made a final judgment on whether Eppler is the right man to run the baseball operations going forward. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, something that is not universal with the fan base. I think this year will be the proof of whether or not he's the guy. If his front office can spend Cohen's money wisely and transition some younger players onto the roster, that would certainly be in Eppler's favor.

While I understand the player development side of this equation is a longer-term deal, I'd love to see more progress in that area. Eppler apparently had the go-ahead to spend another good chunk of Steve Cohen's money to bridge the gap while scouting and development undergo their upgrade. But Eppler will need to prove he is more than just a guy who can add talent by spending tons of money. If not, I'm sure Cohen will find someone else for the job.

I'd love to see Eppler succeed, as I root for the Mets franchise to be much more stable going forward than it's been in the Wilpon era. Constant turnover in the folks running the show isn't a recipe for success. Eppler has a chance to earn his chance to stay in charge, but earn it he must. Steve Cohen isn't a guy that tolerates mediocrity from the people who cash his paychecks.

I've gone on long enough for today. I'm looking forward to previewing and dissecting this upcoming offseason. I'll be back soon. Please be well and take care.

Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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