Sunday, July 23, 2023

The Long and Winding Road to Somewhere Better

2023 took a disastrous turn for the New York Mets. 2024 represents a new start. But the road ahead is not without potholes.

As the trade deadline rapidly approaches, the question of which direction the New York Mets might choose to take lingers as their hopes for making a real playoff push barely clings to life support. The most likely scenario continues to be the Mets mostly standing pat and riding out the second half with ever-dwindling hopes of a Wild Card slot. I agree with that approach, with the caveat that the club should certainly listen to offers on any asset they control that a contender covets. Perhaps a team out there might think so highly of David Robertson or Brooks Raley that they would be willing to trade at least one valuable prospect for one or both of them. I wouldn't want to see the Mets make any deal for dubious prospects that don't have a realistic hope of becoming contributors. But you can occasionally pry an interesting prospect from another team that might make a deal worthwhile.

While I don't foresee the Mets being big-time sellers at the deadline, that doesn't mean I'm buying into their chances at the playoffs. A famous Maya Angelou quote seems appropriate: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." While a ballclub is a collection of someones rather than a single individual, Angelou's quote sums up the 2023 Mets quite nicely. They've already shown us who they are over and over again. As I write this, the Mets are 7 games out of the final Wild Card slot (currently the Reds), with the Cubs, Padres, Marlins, and Phillies all between them and Cincinnati. I refuse to even consider the possibility of a playoff run until the Mets hit the .500 mark. Frankly, I'm not at all confident they can accomplish that before the season ends.

But whatever. I didn't choose to spend today complaining about how badly this club has comported itself. Barring a miracle, they'll go down in MLB history as a historic failure. Essentially they buried themselves with a horrendous 11-22 stretch from May 23 - June 30, a .333 winning percentage for just over 20% of their schedule. Through splitting Saturday's games with the Red Sox, the Mets' record outside that stretch is 35-30. Had they just been able to tread water over that dreadful stretch — let's say a still-bad 15-18 record with just 4 more wins over those 33 games — the Mets would be sitting 50-48 and 3 games out of the final Wild Card spot. Not what you would hope for from an all-time record payroll, but they'd have a legitimate shot at a playoff spot. The consequences of going so long without righting the ship are readily apparent.

I've written a lot here about Steve Cohen's dream of turning this club into a consistent winner. I fully support that vision while understanding the difficulty of making that a reality. Particularly while simultaneously trying to hold onto prospects and transform the farm system into an engine that can sustain the club's success. But I believe that 33-game stretch has implications beyond just rendering the 2023 season a huge disappointment. Success on the field attracts people to an organization, whether it's ballplayers or executives you'd like to lure to New York. With the Mets now likely to fall short of a playoff berth for the second time in three years, the Mets will be a tougher sell to anyone who really wants to be a part of a winner.

As someone who spends time on Mets Twitter daily, I see all the posts from fans who want to see Shohei Ohtani in a Mets uniform. But Ohtani reportedly wants to play for a winner. It's hard to blame him after 6 seasons in Anaheim. Going into Sunday's games, the Angels are currently 4 games out of a Wild Card spot in the AL. If they miss out, they will be a perfect 0-6 in playoff appearances with Ohtani. Given Shohei's known preference for the West Coast, if I put aside my bias as a Mets fan, I just don't see how they lure him here. If I were Ohtani, I would look at how the Mets have faltered this season and worry that I would be going from one losing environment to another if I signed with them. It's not that Steve Cohen lacks the money to make it happen if he wants to get Ohtani; it's just that Ohtani will get piles of cash no matter where he signs. I see the Mets as a long shot to sign him.

While I would be as psyched as any Mets fan if Shohei Ohtani did sign with them, my concerns about the huge step backward the Mets have taken in 2023 go way beyond one player. In my last post, I wrote about the Mets' struggle to create a winning culture here. When things went south in late May, the club had no tradition of winning to draw from. While they were dealing with injuries and the Max Scherzer suspension, the Mets certainly featured a roster good enough to win more than one-third of their games. For comparison, in that same stretch from May 23 - June 30, the Oakland A's went 12-23. The team with the worst roster in baseball actually outperformed the Mets over that timeframe. There certainly are problems with the age and roster construction for the 2023 Mets, but the club underperforming Oakland for 6-1/2 weeks goes way beyond any failures on Billy Eppler's part. There is something really broken here that still needs to be fixed.

There is a consensus around the game that the Mets will be a solid favorite to hire David Stearns after this season. Steve Cohen said at his press conference that the plan was still to hire a PBO and place him above GM Eppler running baseball ops. Of course, Stearns still has something to say about this. He might prefer to stay out of baseball longer or go somewhere else. Cohen did say that if he didn't find the right person, the hiring might not happen this winter. But until I hear otherwise, I think Stearns will likely be hired here.

It's fascinating to try to put myself in the shoes of Stearns or whoever might be running the show and ask what my immediate priorities would be this off-season. Since Steve Cohen would be signing what should be a rather large paycheck, the obvious answer would be that I would prioritize based on his wishes. We already know that a productive farm system would be near the top of the list. But Cohen craves something other than the great farm system for its own sake. He wants that system to be the engine that fuels winning on an ongoing basis.

There are challenges a-plenty on the Mets roster. Scherzer and Justin Verlander will still receive enormous salaries commensurate to ace-level pitching. Neither looks likely to provide that level of performance. Neither is going to give back any of their salaries, despite the wishes of some on Mets Twitter. That's just not how it works. I know I wouldn't if I were in their shoes.

While Edwin Díaz should be back, giving an enormous boost to the back of the bullpen, the Mets' efforts to produce some cheap, controllable relievers have been a colossal bust. Grant Hartwig is the one guy showing some promise — a big development win for a player signed as an undrafted free agent. Meanwhile, Drew Smith, who the Mets control for one more year, never seems to put an entire season together. And the question lingers if the Mets can ever develop the capability to produce in some quantity inexpensive relievers that are actually effective.

On the position player side, the incredible growth of Francisco Álvarez as a budding star has been one of the few unequivocally positive Mets stories of 2023. But, although he has shown promise, Brett Baty has an 86 OPS+ and needs to figure out how to elevate more of those ground balls. The Mets only have one year of control left on Pete Alonso, with his 2023 struggles complicating the idea of signing the first baseman to a long-term deal.

These tasks, decisions, and countless others await the person calling the shots for baseball operations next winter. But the biggest worry for that person will be the winning culture still waiting to be created in New York. Some of that will come as other young Mets players join Álvarez and Baty on the major league roster. Nothing helps create a team culture more than having a good chunk of the roster composed of players who have come up through the system and identify as New York Mets exclusively. Of course, to create a winner, these young ballplayers actually have to be good.

But we all know that the biggest key to creating a winning culture is the most obvious: to win. The weaknesses of the 2023 Mets certainly contributed to their season-killing 6 weeks. But they also lacked the culture to help them pull out a few more of those games in that stretch that would have left them as contenders rather than pretenders. Neither David Stearns nor anyone else calling the shots can magically create that winning culture here. All they could do is make better decisions to help field a club with fewer weaknesses. The culture will grow organically if they succeed. It won't happen if they can't simply do better than they did this season.

Ken Rosenthal wrote a piece on the Mets recently, succinctly summed up by the headline: "All that ails the Mets can't be fixed at the trade deadline, no matter the cost." I can't really argue with that thought. I don't think even a trade for Ohtani would guarantee a playoff spot this season, and I certainly don't think the Mets will take nearly that big a swing, anyway. But Rosenthal also went further by painting a pessimistic outlook for next season.

I've already noted some of the challenges in fielding a roster for 2024. We'll go into that much more in future posts because this season is already more about the future than the diminishing chances of sneaking into a Wild Card spot. Billy Eppler is an able administrator and will likely have a role with the Mets beyond this season. But the failure to create a 1-40 roster that carries clubs through rough patches has shown clearly that someone else needs to be calling the shots.

If that person doesn't work out to be David Stearns, whether by his choice or Steve Cohen's, it's difficult to see any other clear candidate for the position. I continue to cross my fingers, toes and anything else I can manage that Stearns and Cohen can come to an agreement. Outstanding leadership is called for to turn things around here. As much as I am disappointed in the 2023 Mets, they can't afford a second bad year in 2024. That result would be the opposite of working toward a winning culture. It would signal that the spirit of "LOL Mets" had not been exorcised from the franchise.

Be well and take care. I hope your summer is going better than this lost baseball season for our club.

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  1. There are so many issues for the Mets to address it is indeed unrealistic to think about 2023 and instead the focus should be on 2024. Load up the AAA roster with hot level minor leaguers who can both pitch and hit. Relieve yourself of salary to spend on the next Japanese starting pitcher and perhaps another outfielder. Give up the dream of Ohtani and instead focus on making the team reliable and consistently competitive.

  2. Honestly, when I read that Eppler is still on the fence about how to handle the deadline, it makes me more certain that a new person has to be running the show this winter.


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