Monday, June 26, 2023

Dead Team Walking

There will be no second-half surge from the 2023 New York Mets. The real questions now are all some variation of "What's next."

I've been putting off writing this piece for days — going back even before the Mets dropped their series against the Phillies in such a horrendous fashion. It has been clear for quite some time that these Mets aren't going to pull off some scrappy comeback story. It's not entirely impossible, but the turnaround would have to be miraculous and almost instantaneous. It would require a bunch of ballplayers currently underperforming at various rates to reverse course almost to a man. It would make a wonderful story if it happened, but what would make it so remarkable is how infrequently we see something like that.

My most immediate thoughts — beyond profound depression — at coming to the realization that the season is lost is to question what happens next. I've seen plenty of calls for the head of Buck Showalter, some well-reasoned, and some just shouted out in anger. For what it's worth, I don't believe Buck should be fired. With the minuscule chances of a turnaround, I just don't think it's worth the message of organizational dysfunction it sends out to the rest of baseball.

We all remember how difficult it was for the Mets to get people to interview for open positions in Steve Cohen's first two offseasons owning the club. Much of that was attributed to a reported degree of apprehension on the part of potential targets as to what sort of owner Cohen would be. As I wrote in my last post, Cohen's statements and actions have greatly alleviated those concerns. Why risk backtracking on that perception for a relatively tiny chance of a miraculous second half for the Mets?

One caveat here. I'm not in the room with the decision-makers. I lack the real data required to adequately critique Showalter's performance as manager this season. Sure, he's made some questionable decisions managing the bullpen. But are those decisions Buck's alone, or do they reflect input from the front office? One thing is evident to me. If you fire the guy who is widely respected around the game and was the NL Manager of the Year a mere season ago, you must have better reasons than just some bad in-game managerial calls. Otherwise, you are sending out a virtual broadcast to the baseball world that the organization dysfunction from the Wilpon era still proliferates.

I think the same is true about Billy Eppler. Don't get me wrong. Eppler ultimately needs to answer for what happened to the Mets after a winter where the GM received unfathomably rich support from his owner to build a contender for this season. At the very least, the chances of Billy Eppler finding himself working under someone like David Stearns have to be much higher following such a disappointing season.

One thing I do when trying to evaluate someone like Billy Eppler is ask myself what I have done differently. Going back to last winter, I favored the Mets' signings of Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga, and even José Quintana. I thought bringing back Adam Ottavino and signing David Robertson were good moves for the bullpen, as was trading for lefty Brooks Raley. No one knew at the time that Edwin Díaz would sustain a freak injury and miss the season after the Mets spent so much to bring their closer back.

The one real big move for position players was to re-sign CF Brandon Nimmo, another move that I liked. Signing Tommy Pham as the fourth outfielder is certainly looking good for Eppler's front office right now. Extending Jeff McNeil is not looking so good, of course, but I favored that one, too. It's hard for me to demand Eppler's head based on these deals.

My problems with Billy Eppler are more around the margins of the roster. As far back as last August, I questioned whether bringing back Carlos Carrasco was a "no-brainer." Carlos is a great guy, beloved by his coaches and teammates. I certainly don't root against him, but I thought we saw enough regression in his stuff toward the end of last season that made me feel that the $14 million investment might be better spent elsewhere.

Of course, Carlos was penciled in as a fifth starter, but injuries to Quintana and Verlander and the Max Scherzer suspension boosted Carrasco's importance. Then David Peterson and Tylor Megill both took huge steps backward. Now Carrasco and his 6.09 ERA have made 10 starts for these Mets, averaging less than 5 innings per start.

Many fans and pundits have criticized Billy Eppler for failing to secure another dependable late-inning reliever once Edwin Díaz was lost for the year. My criticism is more nuanced than that. I don't have a problem that Eppler's front office favored having guys with options who could go back and forth between the majors and the minors. My problem is, simply, they didn't have a real success story with any of these guys.

Probably the best of that crew this season has been Jeff Brigham, who managed to hit not one, but two hitters with the bases loaded in blowing the finale of the Phillies series. Beyond that, you have a bunch of interchangeable flotsam and jetsom bullpen types who have been mostly awful. Stephen Nogosek and Tommy Hunter pitched themselves right off the ball club, period. 

Top organizations find some gems among talented arms that have yet to establish themselves as major league relievers. The Mets under Eppler have been unable to do that. Due to this failure, the Mets must still buy late-inning relievers at full market value.

The Mets are attempting to build a great farm system, but that's the work of years. They seem to be making some progress there, but it's too early to gauge the success of Billy Eppler's front office. Francisco Álvarez and Brett Baty have contributed this season, albeit with some occasional hiccups, but they were, of course, brought into the organization before Eppler took over. It will be some years before we can even attempt to judge the hirings Eppler's front office has made on the development side.

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh here, but I think the one place where Eppler's front office has demonstrably come up lacking is in this idea of finding some gems around the fringe of the roster, whether in the bullpen, depth starting pitching, or in non-stars like Daniel Vogelbach. Of course, Vogelbach is showing signs of being productive lately, but he has been awful for much of the year.

Another black mark for Eppler is the handling of Mark Vientos. A prospect such as Vientos should either be brought up to play at least fairly regularly or left in the minors. Instead, the kid spent over a month in the majors while accumulating less than 50 plate appearances. From the outside, it seemed as if Vientos was promoted to appease the fans rather than fill a defined need. If the Mets decide ultimately to trade Mark, it has to ultimately hurt his trade value that he has been unproductive in the majors for parts of two seasons. But it's hard to make an argument that Vientos had a fair chance to show what he could do.

Ultimately, I'm hoping that the David Stearns rumors are accurate. In my opinion, the Mets need more than what Billy Eppler can give them. But that's an opinion based on limited data. Steve Cohen has much more to base a decision on than I do, so I will trust the owner's judgment. But I would certainly like to see the Mets do better around the edges of the 40-man roster than they have done these past two seasons.

Either way, a decision on Eppler's fate can wait until after the season, when Stearns's contract with the Brewers concludes. But even if Stearns and the Mets do not ultimately find a fit, they must explore the market for an executive in baseball operations.

Barring a dramatic reversal of their fortunes, the next stage for the Mets is to focus beyond 2023. This includes not only exploring more trades of current assets. They need to figure out how to optimize their roster for the future. Frankly, if my choice is watching Carrasco, Megill, or Peterson pitch poorly, I'd rather see those starts given to someone who might be here next year. That certainly won't be Carrasco. The Mets also have one more year of control over Joey Lucchesi, who should also get a look. Honestly, I will be disappointed if Carlos Carrasco is even on this team for much longer.

I'd love to see the Mets give young relievers more of a look this season, even though I know the results won't always be pretty. It's not like it would be much of a step down from Jimmy YacabonisDominic Leone, or Vinny Nittoli types.

To say the least, I'm quite disappointed in the 2023 Mets. I'm losing interest in watching their games. If the club can change the focus to the future and give more young guys a chance, they have a much greater chance of me tuning in going forward. Beyond that, who they choose to fire and when they fire them just doesn't mean much to me right now. The head of Buck Showalter or Billy Eppler isn't going to help me get past my profound dissatisfaction with this club. Frankly, no matter who makes the decisions this coming offseason and beyond, that person will have a real challenge in creating a contender for 2024 from the roster he or she will inherit.

Please be well and take care. We now pause for a moment of silence for the untimely demise of the 2023 New York Mets.

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