As someone who has endured his share of ups and downs over the years, I've had experience with what comes next after a big disappointment. The hardest part is understanding that you've put a lot of effort into something that won't reward that hard work. Trying harder won't repair what has proven to be unfixable. It's time to coldly assess what went wrong and then decide what's next. It's all too easy, if ultimately completely useless, to fall into the "what if" trap, or simply wallow in self-pity until you get disgusted enough with yourself to get back out into the world and chart a new direction. It can be a bit liberating to finally admit that something that has been going south for a while is finally a lost cause, but it's also quite a blow to be around at the death of an enterprise into which you placed your hard work and greatest hopes. Therefore, I can't help but feel some empathy for Billy Eppler and his front office as midnight has fallen on the 2023 season that began with great hopes and massive outlays of the owner's cash.
It's been clear for a while that the New York Mets aren't good enough to fight their way back into a Wild Card slot. Every tease where the club showed signs that they just might be able to get back on track has been followed immediately by conclusive evidence that they can't. In May, they won the last two games of the series against a Rays team that was still playing really well, then swept the Cleveland Guardians with their offense finally seeming to click into high gear. But this was followed immediately by a road trip that saw the Mets lose 2 of 3 to both the Cubs and the Rockies. Since then, this brief boom followed by deflating bust scenario has played out repeatedly. With 60 games left in the season and still 6 games south of .500, it was time for Steve Cohen, Billy Eppler, and everyone else in a decision-making role to make the only logical decision left to be made.
David Robertson was clearly the most valuable piece the Mets had to sell: a proven late-inning reliever enjoying a good season who was on an expiring contract. Last year, Robertson was dealt from the Cubs to the Phillies for Ben Brown, a minor-league starting pitcher in High-A at the time of the deal. The Cubs promoted Brown to Double-A immediately. After dominating at that level early this year, Brown was promoted to Triple-A, where he has been a bit up and down, while still considered a top prospect for Chicago. There has been a perception that the Mets might see a similar return for Robertson: an attractive prospect relatively close to the majors.
Then late Thursday night, while the Mets were in the midst of a lengthy rain delay with the Nationals, the word came out that the Mets had traded Robinson for two rookie-level position prospects. One of the two, an 18-year-old infielder named Marco Vargas, is considered an exciting prospect with some real potential. The other, 19-year-old catcher Ronald Hernandez, has some promise but will likely slot in a bit lower on Mets prospects lists. Still, any young player in the complex league is miles away from seeing a big league field, with the potential that plenty can go wrong and he might never make it.
I was on Mets Twitter last night, and there were a great many people convinced that the Mets had given away their best asset several days before the deadline for an underwhelming return. I wasn't so much surprised by the return. Typically in these deals for relievers, you'll see either a deal for lesser talent closer to the majors or higher potential that's further away. Still, if you wait it out, you can possibly find a team willing to overpay, as with the Phillies last season. I can't answer for Eppler's front office on what they see in Vargas and Hernandez that compelled them to move early. But if they really liked these kids, they understood that the Marlins could potentially find a trade partner elsewhere.
I've been reading as much as possible on the deal and the two new kids in the system. A Tweet from John Harper summed this deal up well:
Heard from former GM who wanted to defend Eppler: "I get that fans won't like the trade but this is how you build a strong farm system. You bet on the best talent, regardless of position, age/level, based on your organizational scouting, not prospect rankings. Give it some time."
I was looking back to a couple of deals from the previous era that were somewhat comparable. When the Mets traded closer Jeurys Familia on an expiring contract to the A's in 2018, they got back prospects Will Toffey and Bobby Wahl, along with some international bonus slot money. Toffey was a utility guy who is no longer with the Mets and has never made the majors. Wahl pitched in 7 games out of the bullpen for the Mets in 2018 and was part of the trade with the Brewers for Keon Broxton the following winter.
Closer Addison Reed was traded the year before to the Red Sox. The Mets got back relief prospects Gerson Bautista, Jamie Callahan, and Stephen Nogosek. Only Nogosek had any real impact on the Mets bullpen, and he has now moved on to the Diamondbacks system.
With exceptions like the Phillies parting with Brown last year — and, to be fair, Brown blew up as a prospect after joining the Cubs and receiving the promotion to Double-A — these deals generally bring back middling prospects closer to the majors or higher-ceiling kids very far away. On FanGraphs, Ben Clemens made a good argument why trading for upside made more sense for the Mets:
I've heard a lot of Mets fans and analysts questioning the return here. Not so much for the players – c'mon, even being generous about how knowledgeable the average fan is, no one has heard of these guys. I've only heard of Vargas because I love looking at minor league leaderboards, and I write about baseball full-time. No, the reason people are questioning the return is because neither player is nearly major league-ready, and the Mets have a team made up of men of a certain age.
I don't buy that assessment. If I were the Mets, I'd be trying to build a team for the whole future, not just the immediate future. Trading for need – asking the Marlins for a Double-A swingman who could spell Justin Verlander next year instead of focusing on getting the most raw value – is how you end up tripping from failure to failure. Trying to patch the last problem is never as good of a strategy as going out and finding the next big thing.
Taking a shot on higher-ceiling guys with the chance of really becoming good MLB ballplayers, despite the corresponding risk of having them turn out to be busts, makes sense for the Mets who are clearly serious about deepening their system. If they go on to trade Tommy Pham and Brooks Raley, I wouldn't be at all disappointed to see a similar player returned. Conversely, if all the Mets are offered are dubious returns as mentioned above in the Reed and Familia deals, I wouldn't bother — particularly with Raley, still under contract for 2024. Omar Narváez is one other guy who might possibly return some value.
I doubt that the Mets will get much, if anything, for Carlos Carrasco. However, I think the team should move him for the proverbial bag of balls, as he is clearly not part of the Mets' future. I'd rather see some kids who might be a part of that get some starts over these final 60 games. The only thing that would make sense and salvage any real value for the Mets playing out this disappointing season would be to get some good looks at kids. If someone like David Stearns was to take over baseball ops, any insights gleaned into what the Mets already have here could be very valuable.
Ronny Mauricio should get a look with the Mets this season. With all due respect, it would be more valuable to the future of this club for Mauricio to get those ABs than give them to DJ Stewart or Danny Mendick. Mark Vientos should get a real opportunity to play in these final games, too. While it doesn't look like he's not quite ready to take a regular MLB rotation job, I'd love to see the Mets give prospect Mike Vasil a chance to get his feet wet in the majors.
Really, the only way the Mets can get anything meaningful out of these next two months is to build for the future. Trying to win a handful of extra games playing "proven veterans" might put a dollop of lipstick on this pig of a season, but it does nothing to change the narrative for next year and beyond. But as important as I believe it is for the Mets to think about next year for the rest of this season, it's even more important that the improvements that they've been making to their player development system continue.
There's no point in bringing in raw, high-ceiling guys like Marco Vargas and Ronald Hernandez into the system if your organization can't turn a few of them into productive major league ballplayers. There's no doubt that finishing short of the playoffs yet again is a blow to Cohen's hopes for building something here. Doing the best they can in obtaining some value from sellable players is one way the club can hope to change things in 2024 and beyond, but that's only part of what needs to happen here. That talent pipeline that the Mets dream of creating is awaiting whatever success they can achieve in polishing these potential gems. I know it's something that I'll be paying a great deal of attention to going forward.
Be well and take care.