Monday, July 10, 2023

In Search of the Winning Attitude

With their poor play in May and June, the Mets showed just how far they still have to go to build a consistent winner for this franchise.

When the Mets completed a sub-par month of May with a losing 14-15 record, I worried about how that would carry over into June, where they were scheduled to face more formidable opposition. Even in my darkest nightmares, I didn't foresee a dismal 7-19 record that made a playoff spot a long shot for a team I once hoped would contend for the NL East title. If the Mets can't parlay the 6-game winning streak that fizzled out Saturday night and Sunday in San Diego into a sustained period of solid play, they will undoubtedly find themselves going home at the conclusion of the regular season.

Playoffless Octobers were a regular feature of the Wilpon era. Steve Cohen promised us things would be different when he took over in November 2020. He's undoubtedly placed a large chunk of money where his mouth is in trying to fulfill his promise. But, after Saturday's loss, the Mets are 7 games out of the last Wild Card slot with four teams (Philadelphia, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Chicago) in front of them on the outside looking in. Barring a dramatic second-half run, the Cohen era will only have produced one 3-game playoff series in Steve's first three seasons owning the club. I'm sure that's not what Cohen had in mind.

The 5-year plan writers have tried to tie Cohen to since his inaugural press conference isn't working out that well. For the record, when asked what his timetable was for winning a World Series, Cohen answered, "If I don't win a World Series in the next three to five years, I'd like to make it sooner, then I would consider that slightly disappointing." I'm not quite sure how the words "slightly disappointing" came to represent a title promise from the man, but that's how the New York media tends to roll. But it would be undeniable that failing to make the playoffs in two of three seasons would constitute disappointment to a much higher degree than "slightly."

While he didn't guarantee a title within five years, what Steve Cohen actually did commit to at his first press conference was winning:
"I want an exceptional team. I want a team that's built to be great every year," said Cohen. "I want Mets fans to have a great experience with us. I’m going to be an owner who builds a team that has continued success."

Now, I understand the context of those words being that this consistent winner would be built on the top-tier farm system that Cohen has been investing in for three seasons. While it is clearly in a better place now than in the fall of 2020, much work still needs to be done. That's why Cohen was so generous with the budget he gave his baseball ops people to bridge the gap until the farm system consistently produces talent. The idea was that when these waves of talent started hitting the majors, they would join a team already established as a winner.

Even if these 2023 Mets can sustain a level of play that gets them all the way back into the Wild Card hunt — and I'm fairly skeptical of that happening after watching this team scuffle in May and June — I have to look at the foundation of that "great every year" idea as crumbly and weak at this point. Teams that sustain winning year after year don't let things go as far astray as these Mets did when they went 11-22 from May 23 through June 30. For context, that would translate to a dismal 54-108 record over a full season.

The 101-win season in 2022 could have been an important building block toward that goal of building that winning mentality, but now it feels like the Mets almost have to start from scratch again. Every team scuffles for chunks of the season, even the best ones. But they find a way to limit the damage and survive until they start playing well again. Whatever happens with the Mets over the remainder of this season, that absolute swan dive into the abyss for more than 20% of their season is a huge setback that is just unforgivable. More importantly, it really calls into question the leadership of this team. That begins with the players themselves.

It's legitimate to question whether Billy Eppler is the right man to lead baseball ops for the Mets going forward. It's also fair to question if Buck Showalter should return in 2024. I have yet to entirely make up my mind on either one. For what it's worth, I think it's likely that Eppler will stay, but with someone like David Stearns placed above him. Showalter probably stays, too, unless the club completely derails in the second half. Putting aside those considerations for a minute, I keep coming back to the leadership of this team by the players. Not just how miserably they fared in 2023, but also going back to the last month of 2022.

It's not that I believe that Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso are somehow "not winners." However, I think there needs to be another star-level player in this lineup, particularly since Starling Marte is not showing signs of reversing his alarming decline. The Mets have received terrific production from Francisco Álvarez, but he's still a kid who is prone to ups and downs. Brett Baty has held his own but has much further to go to be a truly productive Major League hitter. You could dream on Ronny Mauricio coming up and contributing, but his learning curve is likely to be steeper than Baty's, who, by OPS+, is still a below-average Major League hitter.

As good as Álvarez has been as a 21-year-old catcher, I don't want him to be under pressure to carry the team. Not next year, either. I think there needs to be a mid-order type of veteran bat added who is also someone willing to provide leadership and shake up the clubhouse chemistry. Of course, that sort of pickup is really complicated by the constitution of this roster and the money already spent going into 2024. 

Starling Marte represents a huge challenge for whoever ends up running baseball ops this coming winter. Starling, who turns 35 in October, will be making $20.75 million in 2024 and 2025. That pay is commensurate with the performance Starling gave the Mets in 2022: a .292.347/.468 line and an OPS+ of 133. After undergoing core surgery this winter, Marte is slashing .256/.309/.336. His OPS+ of 79 is 54 points below last season. You can't have a corner outfielder making over $20 million per who is hitting 21% below league-average. Even Jeff McNeil, who has followed up his batting title season with a stinker, has a higher OPS+ (84). It's still terrible, but he's a second baseman.

I'm not sure who stays and who goes if, as seems likely, the Mets don't get back into a real playoff chase. Frankly, I'm quite skeptical of either Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander going. They would have to waive their respective no-trade clauses, and Cohen would have to eat so much of their respective salaries. Scherzer is making $43 million for this season and has a player option for the same in 2024. He'd be a fool not to pick up that option. Verlander is making the same this year and next and has a $35 million vesting option for 2025. I think by far the likeliest scenario is that David Stearns or whoever else is calling the shots has to calculate what these two pitchers have left as they try to fix the roster enough to contend in 2024.

Billy Eppler was given "brute force" resources to build this year's roster. Steve Cohen endowed his GM with a fortune to spend to make up for a farm system that just isn't there yet. I have a funny feeling that next year's leader will have to be much more creative, which argues as much as anything for a different person calling the shots.

Beyond the payroll, personnel, and leadership questions of the Major League team, the next leader will have to take a look at that farm system and player development in particular. The Mets have made so many personnel changes. They have enjoyed some success with pitchers, although it hasn't been a sweeping success. Prospects Mike Vasil, Blade TidwellChristian Scott, and Tyler Stuart have enjoyed solid first halves. But Dominic Hamel hasn't, and the struggles of David Peterson and Tylor Megill have really cost the Mets this season.

On the hitting side, last year's first-round picks Kevin Parada and Jett Williams have gotten off to slow starts. Parada has been picking it up, and Williams has shown the ability to draw walks, but neither has shined in the early going. Parada's Brooklyn teammate Alex Ramírez has taken a huge step backward this season after making several Top 100 lists before the season. Now you could go crazy trying to judge the effectiveness of player development staff on a case-by-case basis, but it at least calls into question whether further improvements are needed to create that prospect pipeline that Steve Cohen longs for. The person running baseball ops will need to make those evaluations this winter.

If the Mets are to be less disappointing in 2024, it's crucial that they become an organization capable of digging out some low-cost gems to plug the holes in this roster. They need to find a way to develop some cheap but dependable relievers. Maybe dig up a back-end starter from their own system or a discard from some other organization. While their own prospects represent the Mets' best opportunity to reduce their dependence on pricey, older ballplayers, unlocking the potential of a kid who wasn't able to succeed elsewhere is another way of doing it. But in all of these areas, the Mets simply have to get better than they've been, or their results will continue to be disappointing, and so will the Major League club.

It's easy to point fingers at Billy Eppler as we watch 2023 inexorably turn into compost material. He's made his share of mistakes. As much as anything, I'm frustrated at how indecisive this front office has shown itself to be at times, as with J. D. Davis last year, or bringing up Mark Vientos and not really using him this season. I don't feel as if Eppler is a bad baseball guy so much as he's just in over his head here with the Mets.

But the Mets organization itself still has some distance to travel if Cohen hopes to have a club that others look up to. It's easy to bemoan how the Mets organization is still found wanting when compared to competitors like the Braves. There certainly is still much work to be done in scouting and development and the team's day-to-day operations for winning to be something we as Mets fans can take for granted in an ideal future time. We just aren't there yet. I sincerely hope I live to see a time when we are.

Be well and take care.

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