Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Getting from Here to Greatness

It will take some time for the Mets to remake themselves into a great organization. However, there are things they can do right now to help themselves bridge that gap.

The New York Mets have a ton of free agent decisions to make this winter. I took a preliminary look at starting pitching, the bullpen, and position players earlier in the summer. I recently gave them a quick read, thinking perhaps I would update my thinking. But nothing really has changed. It seems likely that the Mets will take a go at re-signing Jacob deGrom, Edwin Díaz, and Brandon Nimmo. Those three will be, by far, the most expensive to retain of all their current free agents. Other decisions as to who to attempt to keep and which other players to pursue will branch off the success or failure of retaining the top 3. And that will greatly depend upon other teams seeking these players and what sort of contracts get tossed around.

So I'm going to hold off for now, at least until we see how things begin to develop. It makes sense for the Mets to move quickly on their top free agents to get some clarity for the remainder of the offseason. Of course, it takes two to tango. It remains to be seen how fast any of these guys are willing to sign. Nimmo and Díaz seem inclined to stay, all things being equal. But I'm sure that the Mets have some limits as to where they're willing to go in both dollars and years, and you just never know who will show up with an offer that seems a bit crazy and lure them away.

As for deGrom, I've noticed that a surprising number of fans — at least the ones inclined to voice their opinions on places like Twitter — are ready to move on from Jake. I think some of that has to do with a summer of reading and hearing media speculation that deGrom wants out of New York. Personally, I don't engage with this stuff anymore, not even the recent reporting that deGrom actually likes New York. If, indeed, Jake wants to stay, it's up to the Mets to correctly evaluate what might be left in deGrom's right arm and what dollar value to place on that evaluation. However it goes, I just won't take the decision by Jacob deGrom or the Mets personally. Life's too short.

My real concern about the Mets goes beyond any free agent decisions. I understand it will take a huge payroll to field a winning team in 2023, whoever the Mets decide to keep or add. That's mainly because there's so little in the farm system ready to help immediately. With few young, cheap players to plug into the major league roster, the Mets will have to overpay to keep up with teams like Atlanta and Houston that have already reaped the rewards of fertile player development. The only answer is for the Mets to do better in this area themselves. That will take time to accomplish.

While owner Steve Cohen may indeed choose to allow for a payroll significantly higher than any other team to compete in 2023, it's clear that he won't continue to do that indefinitely. From the first, he's talked about winning the right way and building a great franchise here. Cohen has invested considerably into building the club's infrastructure, and surely will continue to do so. Those investments should pay off in a manner that negates the need to purchase so many veteran free agents going forward.

As I was thinking about what it would take for the Mets to succeed in player development long-term, I looked at the Astros' success. They're in the World Series, thanks to a roster that is much deeper than the Mets, yet also much younger and cheaper. According to Spotrac, the Mets led all teams in payroll in 2022, spending $282,709,066. Houston was ranked ninth at $192,931,925. Yet the Astros have better starting pitching than the Mets, a better bullpen, and a deeper lineup. It gives me no pleasure to write these words, as I loathe the Houston Astros, but it's undeniably true.

I found a great piece in The Athletic from May 2019. Titled "Inside the Astros' cutting-edge approach to minor-league pitching development," author Jake Kaplan went into great detail on Houston's approach, which has led to a staff bursting with home-grown talent. While some of the people featured in this article have moved on, such as GM Jeff Luhnow and pitching coach Brent Strom, their contributions continue to pay dividends for the Astros. If you have a subscription to The Athletic, I recommend reading the whole piece, but here's a taste of it:
"The coaches have done a really good job of identifying how to work with each individual athlete," said Jeff Luhnow, who's in his eighth season as the Astros' general manager. "We've always said that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to player development. It's especially so in today's world because you really can customize a player development plan for each athlete, and that’s what we do and that's what we've been doing for the past three or four years. And I think our (coaches) have enough experience doing it now and our players trust our coaches and are willing to go ahead and take the plunge and try something new."

At the major-league level, the Astros, under pitching coach Brent Strom, have developed a reputation for unlocking pitchers whose repertoires weren't maximized elsewhere. But for every Charlie Morton or Ryan Pressly, there are countless minor leaguers who can also stand to improve their deliveries and the qualities of their pitches or alter their pitch usage.

The Astros don't wait for pitchers to reach the majors or even Double A before using data and technology to analyze the qualities of their pitches. The process begins as soon as they enter the system. And at every level of the organization, pitchers are trained to pitch to a game plan that's based off TrackMan information that has been distilled by their internal interface.

The Astros invested heavily in technology early on, but that's only part of the story. Houston's player development system is loaded with coaches who understand the technology and can translate the information for young pitchers. Technology and data are wonderful, but it's essentially useless if they can't be imparted to the players in an understandable manner. It could even be harmful, giving young pitchers too much to think about rather than arming them with a game plan to develop and hone their skills.

Emulating what clubs like the Astros and Dodgers have done requires investment in technology and personnel. But it also takes creating a repeatable methodology to properly use the available tools, and identifying the right people to help the team achieve its goals. Beyond all that, a great organization must constantly question and refine its methods, continually evaluating and implementing the new cutting-edge technology constantly being introduced.

It took Houston several years to institute and reap the rewards of what they do. It won't all happen for the Mets right away. In the best case, they are most likely 2 or 3 years away from reaping the benefits of current upgrades to player development. However, I think there are still areas where the Mets can improve right now to save money in some areas of their roster. This will allow the Mets to compete in 2023 without raising the payroll to a level far above all other teams.

The most obvious first move is to take the two players most ready to contribute now, Francisco Álvarez and Brett Baty, and develop a solid plan for them in 2023. What we witnessed this season with these two, along with Mark Vientos, reeked of indecision about when to bring them up, along with weak execution integrating them onto the major league roster. I understand this. Managers and GMs would prefer to field a lineup of experienced veterans when competing for a playoff spot. Although some players like David Wright seem to arrive in the majors almost fully realized as ballplayers, most kids take a while to adjust to the level of competition.

To get younger, the Mets will have to be much better at creating an environment where their prospects can take that final step into the majors. It would undoubtedly help to get these kids on the major league roster earlier in the year, rather than waiting until the heat of the pennant race as they did with Álvarez this past season. If the Mets decide that Álvarez and/or Baty need a bit more time in Triple-A, that's fine. But get them up reasonably early in the year. And, once they're up, the front office and coaching staff have to commit to helping these kids work through the rough spots instead of going right back to a "proven veteran."

It gets tougher when looking at Mark Vientos and how the club might work him into the mix. Vientos doesn't really have a position right now. He looks like a first baseman and DH in an ideal world. The most logical opening for the Mets would be the right-handed side of a DH platoon. However, that's not many ABs for a kid in that scenario. It's questionable whether a young player could succeed in the majors getting around 250 plate appearances in a season — probably less than that, considering they'd want to spread the DH around a bit more. While I don't know the Mets' plans for Mark Vientos, they should probably consider trading him to a club that has an opening at 1B. In my opinion, the worst-case scenario would be having Vientos fail in a limited role with the Mets and lose most of his trade value. So, if the Mets keep him, they really have to figure out how to get him enough major league ABs.

Another area where the Mets should strive to save some money is in the bullpen. Assuming that the Mets are able to keep Díaz, it's likely to cost the club around $20 million per year. While you could definitely justify that expenditure, it would make it imperative to save some money on some of the other relievers. This might involve finding a way to get one or two young relievers into middle relief roles. Bryce Montes de Oca showed some promise in his brief callup last season. If they could get Bryce to throw strikes, I could see him filling a role at the minimum salary.

Another possibility is Grant Hartwig. He was a fifth-year senior who the Mets signed as an undrafted free agent. Lacking elite velocity, Hartwig excelled as a Mets farmhand this season, advancing all of the way from Low-A St. Lucie to Triple-A Syracuse. Grant enjoyed great results utilizing a good sinker and an excellent slider. Teams like the Rays figure out how to take a pitcher like Hartwig and make a successful major league reliever out of him by emphasizing what he does well. In Grant's case, that's likely to be mainly throwing sliders.

If the Mets could take a Hartwig or Montes de Oca, or another promising arm in their system, and turn them into competent relievers, they wouldn't have to spend millions on signing guys to fill out their 'pen. Even when teams spend on relievers, it's often a crapshoot whether they perform up to an expected level. If the Mets could become proficient in developing relievers, this could be one area of the roster where they can save money.

Houston and LA have also shown proficiency at finding promising players that other teams haven't been able to fully develop and help them achieve their potential. Whether it's relievers, starting pitchers, or position players, these players come fairly cheaply. Figure out how to get the best out of them, and it's an excellent way to offset some of the large contracts of your star players. If the Mets can have any success in the short term in this area, it will help bridge the gap while waiting for their investment in player development to fully pay off.

So, I'll be watching with interest to see if the Mets can begin to have some success in the non-splashy moves detailed above that can help them compete in the near term. As vital and intriguing as it will be to see what choices they make in the luxury aisle, getting some of the little things right is what often separates great organizations from merely competent ones. I know Steve Cohen really wants the Mets to be great. As a fan, I appreciate that, particularly after living through decades of mediocrity and incompetence.

I'm not big on inspiring quotes, as I believe most are just obvious truths. I do enjoy a few that I personally find meaning in. The quote in the image for this post is one of my all-time favorites. It's from the great John Wooden: "If you do enough small things right, big things can happen." It's a philosophy the Mets would do well to follow as the organization continues to work toward greatness.

Be well and take care. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

1 comment:

  1. The Mets need to work on defense, contact hitting, starting pitching, middle relief and base running. That's an awful lot to bite off, but we saw what happened when you win 101 games and everyone is down on you.


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