Friday, May 19, 2023

Man The Lifeboats, Part 4

We wrap up our 4-part series on the Mets' chances for turning the season around with thoughts on the manager and front office and summing it all up.

It's incredible how much has happened with the New York Mets just since I began writing this series on Tuesday. First, there was Wednesday night's epic win fueled, in part, by call-ups Francisco Álvarez and Mark Vientos. The Mets didn't even decide to bring up Vientos until Wednesday. Next, the Mets put forth a solid effort to defeat the Rays (and finally win a series) on Thursday afternoon. After the game, we learned that the decision had been made to bring up catcher Gary Sánchez. As of the time of my writing this piece, no corresponding roster move has been made. (Update: it has.)

Before I get into the meat of this post, let me share some thoughts on the latest move. I'm hoping the roster move will be to send down Michael Pérez. I have nothing against Pérez personally. It's just that he will have to go in the relatively near future, anyway. If the Mets choose to make the move I don't want to see — sending Álvarez back to Syracuse — that would only defer a decision on Pérez until Tomás Nido returns, anyway. Beyond that, I made the point yesterday that Álvarez's offensive number so far (.218/.274/.423), while hardly stellar, are above Gary Sánchez's MLB production from 2018-2022 (.202/.295/.427). I see no reason for Sánchez to suddenly improve on what he's done in the past 4 MLB seasons, while Francisco has a chance to be much better if he settles in. (Update: It was Pérez)

While I've seen multiple pundits opine that promoting Sánchez is a "no-brainer," I respectfully submit that it's not that simple. Any playing time that Gary Sánchez receives will come at someone else's expense. The list would include Álvarez, Vientos, Tommy PhamEduardo Escobar, and Mark Canha. Look, I can hear a chorus of "Who cares?" in response to some of those names, but please bear with me.

I'm sure plenty of Mets fans would willingly pack the bags of Pham, Escobar, and Canha and drive them to the airport if it would get them out of town faster. All of those guys are underperforming right now except for Escobar. Since the call-up of Brett Baty in mid-April, Eduardo has slashed .324/.375/.649 over 40 PA in a part-time role. Against lefties, Escobar is hitting .227/.277/.500, including 3 of his 4 HR. With Luis Guillorme sent down, Eduardo is the backup infielder, period. He's doing well in a part-time role for which he seems better suited.

Meanwhile, the biggest worry with calling Mark Vientos up is playing time. Mark is primarily in the mix for RH DH, and now Sánchez will also be competing for those ABs. Next up are Pham and Canha, neither of whom is currently in the good graces of fans. But what complicates this is that the team is incredibly thin in outfielders. Tim Locastro is out of the mix, as the Mets put him on the 60-day IL to clear a 40-man spot for Sánchez. The Mets need Pham and Canha to return to being useful, productive hitters. Like it or not, that requires ABs.

Last season, J. D. Davis struggled with the Mets. He was caught up in a playing-time crunch and could never hit his way out of it. Since being given regular playing time with the Giants, J. D, is back to being the productive hitter he was with the Mets from 2019-2021. Hell, the Mets could use his bat this season. The idea that you throw a bunch of guys into the mix and let the cream rise to the top is all well and good, but it doesn't always work out if no one gets enough opportunity. I'm worried that adding Gary Sánchez to the mix is more complicating than helpful. Gary is 30 years old and hasn't been a productive hitter since 2019. I get the attraction of Gary's power to a team that still lacks pop, but it comes at the expense of less opportunity for Mark Vientos to prove himself.

The above discussion of Gary Sánchez allows me to transition to what this post was supposed to be about: the front office, primarily GM Billy Eppler and Manager Buck Showalter. Both have garnered more than their share of criticism. In my opinion, some of it is warranted, and some is probably more indicative of the fan's understandable reaction to the poor play for a month.

Starting with Eppler, I certainly haven't agreed with every move that he's made, including the promotion of Gary Sánchez. Then again, I never expected to. There seems to be a portion of the fan base that believes that Eppler is an idiot who is the primary culprit in the early struggles of this ball club and has somehow managed to pull the wool over owner Steve Cohen's eyes for over a year. While we're all entitled to our opinions, that seems highly dubious. By all reports, Cohen really likes Eppler and discusses baseball matters with his GM constantly. Steve Cohen is not a man to suffer fools gladly, particularly those who are cashing his paychecks. He certainly didn't build his incredible fortune by not knowing which of his employees were pulling their weight and which were not. While I don't believe that Billy Eppler is the finest GM in MLB, by all reports, he's a very competent baseball man who likes to surround himself with good people and work collaboratively. That's a good recipe for building a successful organization.

I don't know if Eppler will continue to head this ball club going forward. Perhaps David Stearns will be hired at some point as the president of baseball operations over Eppler. If that happens, Stearns will be coming into a better situation than Eppler did when he was hired in November 2021. Despite the on-the-field struggles this season, the organization is on a much stronger footing these days. Eppler's front office has done a decent job of trying to put a playoff team on the field while simultaneously building a productive farm system. That's a challenging mandate.

The Mets' 100-win season in 2022 created a lot of expectations. But don't forget that the team's record over the proceeding 5 seasons was 336-372. Even Steve Cohen's first year owning the club produced a 77-85 disappointment. I'm not implying that Billy Eppler should get all the credit for last year's turnaround, but he certainly should receive some of it.

With a clear mandate from the owner to try to win without mortgaging the future, Eppler's front office had to gamble on collecting older veteran players and hope that they could stay on the field and stay productive. That gamble isn't going as well in 2023 as in 2022. However, the fact that Eppler's team managed to hold onto all of their top prospects has paid some dividends this year as the Mets start to call them up to the big leagues. I am not promoting Eppler's case for Executive of the Year. I do believe that much of the criticism is unfair.

As the Mets have struggled this season, last year's NL Manager of the Year, Buck Showalter, is also taking some hits. As with the GM, there have been times when I have not approved Buck's decisions. On the other hand, the 3 best Mets managers in my lifetime were, in chronological order, Gill Hodges, Davey Johnson, and Bobby Valentine. During their years in charge, I didn't always agree with their decisions. So I'm not shocked when Buck does something I disagree with.

Buck has done well this season in his usage of the bullpen, never falling into the trap that so many managers do of overusing his best relievers. Credit there for good work. Where I think Buck comes up a little short is being a bit conservative with playing some of the young guys. Like many veteran managers, Buck Showalter's clear preference seems to be playing seasoned regulars. That's not a news flash. One thing Buck does that annoys some fans is giving his rookies time off fairly regularly. I think allowing these guys chances to catch their breath in the early going is generally a good move. Also, I think we all understand that lineup decisions are made with direct input from the front office. The days of a manager wielding absolute power over a ball club are decades in the past.

I'm still cautiously optimistic about the 2023 Mets, although I am certainly less optimistic than I was heading into the season. Like many Mets fans, I have worries about Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. The Mets can survive if neither contends for the NL Cy Young, just not if they cannot find their way back to being quality starters. 

I am also worried about the bullpen. I had hoped that someone — preferably more than one — would step up and help out the top guys with a solid season. David Robertson, Adam Ottavino, Drew Smith, and Brooks Raley are a good group, but there has to be more help. Jeff Brigham has stepped up so far to provide competent middle relief. He needs to keep that going, and a couple of other guys have to join him. Stephen Nogosek and John Curtiss figuring things out would help a lot, as would rookie Josh Walker stepping up and giving the Mets a second lefty in the bullpen.

As for the lineup, I won't rehash everything I wrote in Part 2. It would really be great if Starling Marte would return to form. He's such a key to the Mets' offense, not to mention he is under contract for 2024 and 2025. Tommy Pham has hit in some bad luck in the early going but has also just scuffled. The Mets need Pham to return to hitting lefties, as he's always done. And Daniel Vogelbach has to rediscover his power. Getting on base is nice, but continuing with a .352 SLG is not a wise option if Vogie wants to keep his role as the left-handed DH.

A lot is on the kids: Baty, Álvarez, and Vientos. Mark Vientos has to be given a real chance to tap into some of his power. Álvarez and Baty have been holding their own, but both have to take that next step toward being truly productive MLB hitters. To a great extent, their success or failure will impact whether the 2023 New York Mets can turn things around. It doesn't even make sense to speculate about the trade deadline if the Mets can't play better now.

The Mets have no track record of sustaining success going back decades. Clubs that do tend to compete year after year seem to weather storms better than clubs that don't. But the only way for the Mets to become one of those clubs is to figure things out day by day. There's no shortcut to that.

Another thing that NL clubs that have sustained success over the years, such as the Braves, Dodgers, and Cardinals, have is a homegrown core. This is a key component of building an identity and a culture of winning. The Mets are just starting to do that. Most of their current key players have been imported from elsewhere. This whole thing is going to take some time. Last year's success and Steve Cohen's willingness to spend can obscure that simple reality.

I'd love it for the Mets to finally win the NL East again this season, but that sure is a long shot after the recent struggles. But righting the ship and getting back to the playoffs would still be a valuable achievement in the continuing effort to rewrite the narrative of the New York Mets organization. It's something I will personally keep rooting for despite the disappointments of April and May. I do believe that there is still hope for a turnaround and that it could be done with the folks currently running the show. I fully acknowledge that things can continue to go in the wrong direction if key players can't turn their seasons around. I'm not ready to abandon the ship this early in the voyage.

Be well and take care. Let's go Mets! Seriously, let's go. Enough of this lousy baseball, please.

Part 4 of Man the Lifeboats, Conclusions (This Post)

Follow Mike's Mets on social media:

 Follow us on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.
 Follow Mike's Mets on Facebook.
         Follow me on Instagram.
         Follow Mike's Mets on Spoutible @MikeSteffanos.
         Follow us on Mastodon
         Follow us on Post News @MikesMets.
         Follow us on Tribel @mikes_mets.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Defense Doesn't Rest

A renewed emphasis on defense would be a good thing for the New York Mets. Mike Vaccaro had an interesting column in the New York Post  abou...