Thursday, May 25, 2023

Rise and Fall

For my own sake, I'm just refusing to react to every peak or dip in the New York Mets' season.

There have been a handful of times in my life when things are going so well that I wish I had some mechanism to freeze things exactly where they were. Not a permanent suspension of time, of course. Just a long enough period of stasis where I could truly enjoy the place I found myself without having to wonder when the inevitable moment of returning to reality would come. Because, no matter what, something will always come along and knock you back off the pedestal of good fortune. But the knowledge that nothing good goes on forever is also why I've learned to not fast-forward recklessly past a terrific moment in anticipation of the tantalizing possibility of another one.

In Ancient Rome, when a general won a great victory, he was given a "triumph" upon his return to the great city: an ostentatious parade through the streets. In reality, the purpose was more to impress upon the citizens of Rome the greatness of their empire than to celebrate the achievements of one particular man. In fact, to try to ensure that the conquering general didn't get too full of himself, a slave was given an important task:
...behind the victorious general in the chariot stood a slave, holding a golden crown over his head, and whispering to him throughout the procession, "Remember you are mortal" in the ears of the victorious generals as they were paraded through the streets, reminding him that he is a man even when he is triumphing.

I doubt many long-time Mets fans would need any reminder that the team they root for is populated by mortals. The scars of the Wilpon years are just too fresh for that. But still, there was a heady moment this winter when the Mets reached an agreement with Carlos Correa that almost anything seemed possible. Even I, who should understand the perils of giving in to magical thinking about this ball club all too well after watching Lucy yank that football away over and over for five decades, allowed myself to contemplate a glorious future for the Mets, full of non-stop triumphs. The voice of that slave was momentarily drowned out by the magic of finally having an owner who seemed absolutely all-in on bringing a winner back to Queens. I allowed myself to get a bit giddy, although I fully understood that not everything that happens over a baseball offseason works out quite how I hope.

Well, the Correa saga reminded us that "pending a physical" is much more than just an insignificant asterisk. But it also served to shake me out of my momentary flirtation with euphoria. The Mets had added plenty to their roster over the winter. When it began, I wondered if the organization might choose to take a step back and spend the 2023 season trying to integrate their rookies and position themselves for a future playoff push. After all, the costs of rebuilding the Mets into a genuine contender seemed to be ridiculously high.

There proved to be little need to worry. Steve Cohen demonstrated to Mets fans that he meant business — and then some. Even without Carlos Correa, the 2023 Mets would be a legit contender, although much would depend on the health and performance of aging stars. But there were certainly plenty of chances for things to go sideways, and that's how it played out over the first quarter of a season.

I've recently completed a series of posts on the subject, concentrating mainly on whether it was reasonable to hope for a turnaround from the Mets. While I was writing them last week, the Mets managed to right the ship a bit by winning five in a row from the Rays and Guardians. What was particularly heartening was that these were comeback victories from a Mets club that was finally exhibiting some fight. On the other hand, it was still troubling that they were still falling behind game after game. That's not a prescription for turning a struggling team into a winner.

Sure enough, at the time of this writing, the Mets have dropped their first two games against the Cubs. The rollercoaster that is the 2023 Mets season has taken a sharp downward drop after that brief 5-game ride upwards. The Mets have fallen back to the .500 mark while continuing to leave fans wondering whether their club can win series against teams that — at least by record and on paper — the Mets should be able to handle. It's frustrating, and a good percentage of the media that covers the team feeds into the manic-depressive quality of it all by reacting quite strongly to the swings in fortune.

I'm pressing the pause button on my own personal feelings for the time being. I have been disappointed by the ongoing struggles of a team that should at least be good enough to comfortably contend for a playoff spot. But I'm not willing to make myself crazy over the ephemeral crests and troughs that have characterized the team's play this year.

I try to take as much pleasure as possible from the play of rookies Brett Baty and Francisco Álvarez. They have more than held their own this season upon replacing veteran players dragging the club down. And, for what it's worth, I don't believe that Álvarez is going back down to Syracuse this season unless the young backstop hits a protracted slump at the plate where he struggles so badly it seems prudent to allow him a reset. I'm not talking 0-10 or anything like that, either.

I see a lot of angst on the subject on Twitter mainly. Mets fans have been conditioned by years of mismanagement to expect questionable decisions from the brain trust of the ball club. But, even if you have a really low opinion of GM Billy Eppler, I'm pretty sure that a demotion for Álvarez while the kid is performing at a productive level and playing good defense would have to be run by owner Steve Cohen. I can't imagine Cohen going for it. Moreover, I can't see Eppler suggesting it for a couple of reasons:

  • Eppler's job is dependent on the performance of his club. Francisco is currently providing an OPS+ of 124: 24% better than the league average — not just of catchers, but all hitters. Eppler would have to be insane to give that offense up in favor of holding on to veterans who are not productive.

  • Demoting a kid who is performing would be sending the exact wrong message to other prospects in the system. It would be saying, "It doesn't matter how you perform. Your spot with the big league club will still depend on roster considerations." That destroys the incentive for young players.

If Billy Eppler's front office sends down Francisco for any reason other than a terrible slump, I'll be first in line questioning the decision-making. I just don't believe it's going to happen. There's plenty to worry about with the 2023 Mets. I don't believe that an Álvarez demotion needs to concern any of us right now.

The real question with Francisco Álvarez is when Buck Showalter will relent and move the kid up in the order. He's hitting ninth behind guys like Mark Canha (87 OPS+), Starling Marte (69), Daniel Vogelbach (98), Tommy Pham (82), and Eduardo Escobar (87). I'm not a hater of these guys like some fans. I also understand that Showalter isn't just concerned about the veteran's egos. Leaving a young guy still learning the ropes down in the order takes a bit of pressure off of him.

However, I have to believe we're getting to the point where the Mets will have to be more concerned about optimizing their batting order to try to win rather than worry about egos or pressure on a kid who seems to rise to it. Álvarez is batting ninth again against the Cubs in the series finale tonight. I really hope that changes soon.

Be well and take care. I hope by the time I write here again the Mets are back to moving upwards.

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