Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Road to Sustainability

The Mets are making the final tweaks to their roster. Also, will the club finally figure out how to successfully integrate their prospects into the lineup?

With the excitement (and disappointment) of the Carlos Correa chase abated, the Mets are moving into the home stretch of the hot stove season. They're still making moves to strengthen their club three weeks before the official report date. By signing Tommy Pham as their fourth outfielder, the club thrilled approximately 0% of their fanbase, but it was a significant signing nonetheless. It was important to have a better option than Khalil Lee and Abraham Almonte for that spot. Pham may not be the dream choice of Mets fans, but he was a solid pickup for the club.

One negative about the signing is that Tommy Pham will play next season at age 35. The Mets roster is chock full of ballplayers at or near the end of their MLB journey, and Pham is yet another MLB senior citizen. There is also a question about how much Tommy has left in the tank. His last really good year was 2019 with the Rays. Pham posted an OPS+ of 120 and provided speed and power to that Rays club, hitting 21 HR and stealing 25 bases. However, it's been downhill for Tommy since. In the three subsequent seasons, Pham has put up a combined .231/.324/.372 slash line, amassing a sub-par OPS+ of 93 over that period.

The Mets were looking for a backup outfielder who could hit lefties, and Pham can still do that. In a weak overall season with Cincinnati and Boston last year, he slashed .273/.338/.446 against southpaws. The Mets would be very happy if Pham could match those numbers in 2023. Interestingly, of the four OFs currently on the major league roster, only Brandon Nimmo bats left-handed. We'll likely see Jeff McNeil spend a significant amount of time in the outfield in 2023. If, as I expect, Brett Baty gets promoted during the summer, it will be interesting to see if he gets some time in LF, also.

On Mets Twitter, the overall reaction to the Mets signing Pham seemed hostile. Fans seemed to hope for Adam Duvall or Jurickson Profar over Pham. Much has been made of Tommy Pham's infamous slap to the face of Joc Pederson. Personally, the way Pederson killed the Mets last season, I can't really hold that against Pham. Tommy is reportedly an excellent teammate who is well-liked in locker rooms. My only worry is that Pham might get too many ABs against right-handed pitchers if one of the starters gets hurt. But manager Buck Showalter and the current front office seem less prone to blindly handing out ABs to "proven veterans" when they aren't warranted, something we've seen from previous Mets managers.

As noted earlier, I see a scenario where Brett Baty gets some playing time in the OF. Barring spring injuries, Baty is likely to begin the year in Syracuse. The kid had only 26 PA in Triple-A, and Billy Eppler's front office seems to want to get him some time there this season. But I fully expect a promotion to the Mets unless Baty absolutely face-plants there. What happens next depends greatly on how Eduardo Escobar performs early on.

Last season, Escobar got off to a decent start with the Mets in March and April, but that was predicated on drawing an unusually large number of walks — 15 BB in his first 90 PA. That didn't last, as Escobar has historically been a free-swinger. Eduardo was awful from May-August and then was hurt in mid-August. At that point, Escobar was slashing .216/.269/.384 on the season — an offensive black hole in the Mets lineup.

In the 34 games played from the time he returned until the end of the regular season, Eduardo Escobar slashed a very impressive .317/.376/.575 with 8 HR and 25 RBI. Thanks to recency bias, it felt like Escobar had a better season than his full-season line of .240/.295/.430. Even that added up to a 106 OPS+, solidly above league average. But the real question is, which Eduardo Escobar shows up in 2023? He'll play at age 34 — another Mets' geriatric brigade member. It certainly isn't reasonable to hope those gaudy late-season numbers reflect how Escobar performs in 2023. But if he can give the club above-average offense, I could see Escobar continuing to get a good number of starts at 3B. Neither he nor Brett Baty is a potential Gold Glove at third, but Eduardo is more polished than Baty in the field.

As long as Baty looks good in Triple-A, how things play out for Escobar will affect how early Brett Baty gets called up and where Baty plays once he does get the call. One possibility would be a platoon, as Baty is a lefty swinger and Escobar is a switch hitter who traditionally does better as a right-handed hitter. This, of course, would offer Baty much more playing time.

If Escobar is hitting more like he did last September, the Mets might want to get him more ABs than just being the short side of a platoon. It's possible that Baty might play some LF in that scenario, and that would allow both players to play more. However, in an excellent piece by Will Sammon in The Athletic about the Mets' plans for their prospects, Sammon quotes GM Billy Eppler on the possibility of Baty in the outfield:

Eppler said the Mets want [Baty] to focus just on third base, where he has room to grow defensively.

"We'll be open-minded to other avenues," Eppler said. "But we kind of don't want to throw multiple positions at somebody when they are still refining one, especially with a younger player like Brett."

That would certainly seem to argue against Baty playing both 3B and LF. In fairness, it would make sense, also. It's tough enough to ease a prospect into the majors without throwing extra challenges at him defensively. I still believe it makes some sense to continue to give Baty reps in the OF to maximize flexibility. With so many players going to the WBC this March, there will be chances for kids like Baty to get extra work in drills and spring training games. I'll be paying attention to whether Brett gets some time in the outfield in camp.

As Sammon also notes in his article, we're unlikely to see either Baty or Francisco Álvarez on the big league club to open the season, and he quotes the GM to explain why:

Generally speaking, Eppler said he views Triple A as a "very important stepping stone for a player." The way Eppler sees it, Double A commonly features high-end traits like big velocity. It tests players' physical tools. Triple A features more experienced players, like pitchers messing with timing by throwing 2-0 changeups. It tests the mental side.

"I love (players) to be able to ace both of those tests before rolling them out in our situation with the kind of club that we expect to have," Eppler said.

While Álvarez played in 45 games for Triple-A Syracuse — he had an .825 OPS in 199 plate appearances before the Mets promoted him ahead of their final road series of the regular season — Baty appeared in just six games. Baty went 8 for 22 (.364 batting average) with Syracuse, and the Mets called him up in mid-August while they were dealing with injuries to their infield.

So, Baty didn't have the opportunity to "ace" the Triple-A test. Álvarez was there longer, but there is more to learn about being an MLB catcher than for any other position. The Mets want Francisco playing every day in Triple-A, at least early in the year. Barring an overwhelming camp, such as the one Pete Alonso enjoyed in 2019, both Baty and Álvarez will be Syracuse Mets when they open the season in Worcester, Massachusetts on March 31. Then the front office will need to decide when to bring them up and how best to ease their transition to the majors. How well they do this will be a vital test for the club if they mean to make "sustainability" more than just a buzzword for the fan base.

The only way the Mets can ultimately change the reality of fielding a very old ballclub is to figure out how to integrate promising youngsters like Brett Baty and Francisco Álvarez into their lineup. This hasn't been a strength of this team in recent years. Last season they didn't bring up either player until the season was winding down, and the pressure was ratcheted way up. Although Baty and Álvarez enjoyed a couple of decent moments in their respective debuts, it was a far-from-ideal MLB introduction for the kids.

Besides Baty and Álvarez, we might see Mark Vientos or Ronny Mauricio get an opportunity to contribute in 2023. Perhaps a young pitcher or two gets a chance, most likely in the bullpen. I'm not sure of the club's long-term plan for any of its kids, but I'd be absolutely thrilled to witness a level of competency on the part of the Mets in helping prospects succeed in their final transition to the majors. While it's all well and good to talk a good game about building something from within, it's all just hot air if the talk doesn't translate into action. Let's see the genesis of this in 2023, please.

The broadband blues

I had a very "interesting" week. My fiber optic internet went down late last Tuesday night. I called my provider's 800 number. There was no human at that time, but the electronic voice I interacted with told me there were reports of outages in my area. This had happened once before and was resolved before morning. Not the case this time, however.

So I called them in the morning. The first level of support walked me through the basics, which I had already tried. Rebooting the "modem" and router failed to work. They would have to send a tech out to my home. I was told that due to a "shortage of techs in my area", I couldn't get one out to my home for 3 full weeks.

That would be essentially impossible for Lisa and me to live with. Despite the location of our home on top of a hill and within a quarter mile of an interstate highway, cell service has always been lacking. This is the case with all three of the major cell providers. We just live too far away from the nearest tower to get better than the spottiest of data connections.

I hated to do it, but I had to go back to Comcast. It bugged me, as I was only paying $30 a month to get 500MB/500MB speed from Frontier, my fiber optic provider. I signed with them last April when they first wired my neighborhood. At the time, I was paying over $80 a month for 150MB/10MB service from Comcast. So I figured I would have to go back to paying more than double for less service.

Apparently, however, Comcast had finally bowed to the reality of having competition for the first time ever in my area — not counting expensive and not-so-reliable satellite internet. I was able to sign up for a 400MB/10MB plan for the same $30 a month I was paying Frontier. This did reflect a $10 discount for agreeing to stay with them for a year, but it was better internet at less than half the price than what I had with them just last spring. Hopefully in a year, Frontier will hire enough techs to provide better service than telling people they need to live without internet for three full weeks and I will switch back.

Before Frontier began offering fiber optic service in my neighborhood last spring, their top offering was extremely slow DSL. Comcast enjoyed a virtual monopoly for good internet in my area. Their price was very high and they even talked about implementing data caps. They've already done that in other places. But having a real competitor at last changed the ball game for them. If you live in an area like mine, keep an eye out for changes in the competitive landscape and take advantage of them when they occur.

Be well and take care.

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  1. Didn't you know DSL stands for "Deliberate Speed Lag"? :)

    1. Hey, back at the turn of the century when DSL first came into my area, it felt like a miracle compared to the dialup we were using. 20 years later, at almost exactly the same speed in my neighborhood, not so much


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