Saturday, December 3, 2022

Then Came the Last Days of Jake

This one undeniably hurts, even though I'm sure the Mets can successfully move on from Jacob deGrom.

I was going through my email last night when I saw one from the New York Post about Jacob deGrom signing with the Rangers. That's how I first heard the news. I've always understood that deGrom returning to the Mets wasn't a given, even though the chances have been looking better over the past couple of months. I also clearly understand why it might be better for the Mets to have their ace pitcher move on. But still, it hit me like a hard slap to the face. Logic is important, but it's straight emotion that underpins being a fan of a baseball club. That's only more valid for being a Mets fan. If logic ruled, I never would have lasted 5 years, much less more than 50.

There's something extra painful for me in watching an all-time great pitcher depart the Mets. My formative years as a fan were scarred by watching great pitchers like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack finish their careers elsewhere. Those wounds never fully healed. In fact, they were reopened when I was forced to watch Dwight Gooden pitch for the Yankees, Cleveland, Astros, Tampa Bay (when they were still the Devil Rays), and back to the Yankees. I chose a picture of Doc pitching in that ugly turn-of-the-century Tampa Bay uniform as the photo for this piece because it truly symbolizes the pain of watching a beloved favorite move on. (Besides, I just didn't feel like posting a picture of deGrom)

So Jacob deGrom will join a long list of Mets pitching greats who finish their career elsewhere. I can't say that I disagree with the club's decision not to go way out on a limb to outbid Texas for deGrom's services. The Mets are being careful in taking on too many dubious long-term commitments. They want to avoid finding themselves in a position a few years down the road where they are weighed down by the wrong side of expensive players' declining years. The reported offer they made to deGrom was more than fair. This wasn't a Wilpon-era cheapout.

Even though the contract was borderline insane, I understand why the Texas Rangers were willing to go there. It reminds me very much of the winter of 2004-2005, when new Mets GM Omar Minaya was eager to go past where the Boston Red Sox were comfortable to sign Pedro Martinez and bring credibility to an all-too-short winning era for the Mets. So good luck to them.

I thought the reported fact that deGrom cared about playing for a winner would help the Mets' cause. Apparently, not enough. Look, the Rangers are spending some money and positioning themselves to compete, but I don't think deGrom can possibly feel he has the same chance to win in Arlington that he had in New York. But, of course, the playoffs are a crapshoot. The Rangers might very well fall into winning a World Series before the Mets do, even if the odds would seem to favor the opposite. But in the end, deGrom made the all-too-understandable choice to place the money ahead of the chance to win. Facing that choice, perhaps many of us would have made the same decision.

If I'm in the stadium when deGrom comes back, I'll cheer for him once, but then I'll move on. Unlike the pitchers I listed above, Jake made his own choice. By the next time I see him, he won't feel like a New York Met to me anymore. Of course, that can be revisited when his career is over if the club honors him and he chooses to attend.

But right now, this one stings, coming at just about my least favorite time of year. It gets dark before 5 PM, and winter is only just beginning to settle in here where I live. Spring and the return of baseball seem a long, long, long time away.

It doesn't seem all that long ago that the Mets were building a contender around young starting pitching: Matt Harvey, deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler. Now they're all gone. Congratulations to any of you who had deGrom in the pool as the last one to leave the Mets. deGrom was considered the least of those pitchers when he first came up. Rafael Montero was rated higher in prospect circles. (Montero still has more innings as a Met, where he started 30 games, than he has accumulated since he departed.)

That era of Mets baseball is long gone now. Frankly, we're all the better for it. I'm reasonably confident that the Mets can repurpose the money they earmarked for deGrom and spend it wisely. I only feel more strongly than ever that this club needs to create its own pitching pipeline — augmented by, but not dependent upon, the free agent marketplace.

During the Wilpon years, particularly the last ones, there never seemed to be a strategic plan for locking up some of the best players long-term. I hope that changes. I hope we don't go into another free agent season as wild as this one. Don't get me wrong, I believe a certain amount of roster turnover is a good thing for clubs. But not the wholesale, chaotic churn taking place this year. Steve Cohen and Billy Eppler inherited this mess. They get a pass this time. I just want to see evidence of thoughtful long-term planning going forward.

I'm curious to see what, if anything, of significance for the Mets happens at the winter meetings this week. Perhaps we'll have a clearer picture of what the post-deGrom Mets world looks like by Wednesday evening.

By the way, the title is a hat tip to one of my favorite bands of my teen years, Blue Ӧyster Cult. It makes me proud that lead singer Eric Bloom is a Mets fan.

Please be well and take care.

Follow me on the dying embers of Twitter (thanks, Elon) @MikeSteffanos.

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