Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Lost Season

Losing sucks. The hope now is decidedly on the future as the current Mets' season completely unravels.

The idea of a "lost season" is nothing new to longtime New York Mets fans. I've lived through so many more than I would care to count. Some years, you knew the team was going nowhere before the season even began. Others began promising, but injuries and a perennial lack of depth derailed them. This year feels even more frustrating because the resources were in place for a successful season. While Billy Eppler's front office made some errors in constructing the roster, there still seemed to be more than enough for the team to at least compete for a playoff spot. Yet key players endured long, unproductive slumps, with the bats time and again falling silent against mediocre opponents, and the pitching staff seemed to save some of their worst efforts for games in which the offense finally did their part.

The 2023 New York Mets will go down in infamy as a team that was unusually adept at finding ways to lose, almost comically so. Of course, none of us diehard fans were laughing. During one markedly poor stretch in June, I joked with a friend and fellow Mets fan that it looked like some players were being paid to throw games. I don't really believe that, even with all the money pouring into gambling these days. Ballplayers have too much to lose financially to risk their careers. The truth of the matter was more boring and, in a way, much sadder. This was a Mets club that, when challenged, almost always was found wanting. Hollywood will never make a feel-good sports movie based on this bunch. The will to overcome just wasn't there.

There are few positives to take away from this season. Francisco Álvarez looks like a potential star for years to come. The trade deadline selloff brought an undeniable infusion of talent into the system. For the first time in my years of rooting for this team, there is positional redundancy among their prospects. The Mets won't be dependent upon one or two guys successfully transitioning into the Major Leagues as they have so often been in the past.

But the immediate reality for the remainder of the 2023 season is grim. The Mets flirted at times with being competitive before the deadline selloff; now, all pretense has been dropped. They're not scoring, they're not pitching, and they're not playing defense. The Mets have devolved from underwhelming and underperforming to legitimately one of the worst teams in baseball. I feel sorry for every fan who bought tickets to see this team with the legitimate hopes of rooting in person for a really good ball club. The reality now is a fourth-place club free-falling to the bottom of the division.

And really, other than Álvarez, there is little to even dream upon with the current roster, particularly with the news today that Brett Baty has been demoted to Syracuse. Brett's season mirrored that of the Mets: starting with great promise but plummeting into oblivion as the summer wore on. Baty will be joining Ronny Mauricio in the Salt City. Mauricio was off to a hot start this season, sparking much interest among fans in when he might arrive in Queens. However, like Baty and, indeed, all things Mets, Mauricio's star has lost luster as the summer wore on.

The words of Billy Eppler and Steve Cohen at the deadline were not reassuring to fans fretting over the chances of potential glory returning in 2024. Both men expressed similar sentiments about the pursuit of a championship being put off to 2025 or 2026. I wasn't particularly devastated by those words. I understood the consequences of the lingering dollar commitments of this year's unsuccessful run. I found the honesty refreshing, actually, after so many years of having smoke blown up my ass during the previous regime.

Apparently, however, folks in the marketing department pointed out to the owner that this honesty was likely to have a negative effect on season ticket sales next season. An email, purportedly from Steve and Alex Cohen, was sent to current season ticket holders. The key takeaway:
We promise you, we will work hard to field a competitive team in 2024. Our core group of experienced players including Brandon Nimmo, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and Edwin Diaz, plus supplementation in the free agent market, will allow us to put together a formidable team next season.

Formidable is a relative term. It seems quite unlikely that the 2024 Mets will be formidable in the sense that they will challenge the Braves for the Eastern Division title or be a serious threat to win a World Series championship. Given all the money that Cohen is eating from players traded away, particularly pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, it's unsurprising that Cohen admitted that expectations would be lower for the 2024 Mets than they were this season. The Mets weren't going to be chasing the top of the free agent market while paying so much cash for guys to be playing elsewhere, although Cohen noted he didn't "want to roll a team out there that we're gonna be embarrassed by."

I've been thinking about this over the last few days. There is still a core in place for a competitive team. You could still build an offense around Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo, Francisco Álvarez, and Francisco Lindor, particularly if Jeff McNeil and Starling Marte can recover at least some of their 2022 form. Granted, there are big question marks, but it's not hopeless.

On the pitching side, the growth of Kodai Senga and the solid pitching of José Quintana since his return does give the Mets something to build around for a pitching staff. Hopefully, the sound of trumpets will return to Citi Field next season, and Edwin Díaz will return to form and retake his closer's role, anchoring the bullpen. The Mets will obviously need to add, but there is the foundation of something to work with on their roster.

I have no doubt that Steve Cohen will spend money, even if it won't be a repeat of last winter's spending spree. However, I have little doubt that any chance that the 2024 Mets have of being "formidable" in any realistic sense will be very dependent upon someone calling the shots who can find value out there in the marketplace and build a 1-40 roster that can hold up over the rigors of a 162-game season. It wasn't great with Scherzer and Verlander this season, but they weren't awful. The problem was some regression from key guys combined with Billy Eppler's failure to find that value in the marketplace, with the bullpen being the most glaring example.

There have been arguments on Mets Twitter and elsewhere about the whole analytics vs. scouting debate pertaining to this unsuccessful Mets club. I'm as old school as they come. I'll turn 65 this October. But I respectfully disagree with folks that want to hang all of this on overdependence on analytics. The truth is that the most successful clubs can integrate analytics and scouting into one coherent operation. Both disciplines have their usefulness. Neither are the be-all and end-all. I can't pretend to have any inside view into the Mets organization. However, it wouldn't surprise me if there is still a struggle at times to consistently get analytics and scouting working together on the same page.

I'm hoping for David Stearns to come in this winter, as I'm sure you know if you're a regular reader. I'm hoping that Stearns, or someone like him if he's not interested in the job, can come in and put an end to these arguments. I'd like to see the Mets become more proficient at finding value around the margins of their roster and becoming a more formidable club without setting spending records. Frankly, the bar for being a more formidable club next year is quite low: be competitive and give the fans a reason to cheer instead of asking ourselves, "What the hell is going on," as we constantly did this season. I'd love to root for a club that I could feel good about next year, even if they aren't among MLB's elite. 

I don't know what's going to happen this winter. I've often been wrong last winter and leading up to this trade deadline when I attempted to guess how far Steve Cohen is willing to go with his checkbook. And, if David Stearns does come on board, he will have his own views on what he feels the Mets need to do. Perhaps Stearns can do much more with less, putting a competitive team on the field for 2024. Pete Alonso's contract status also influences which direction the club will go. The Mets are approaching a crossroads this offseason, with multiple choices available in which road to take going forward. However, I do believe — and I think Cohen sees it this way, too — that it's essential for the 2024 Mets to reverse the bad feelings that this bunch of underachievers inflicted upon its supporters.

Be well and take care.

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  1. Timing is everything, my friend. I'm tackling what I identified as three feel good stories from player performance for the 2023 team, Francisco Alvarez being one of them. As bad as the team has been pitching wise, it's the hitting that really went into deep hiding this season with Alvarez, Lindor and Alonso showing power but not much else. Everyone else was pretty much not notified of what to do with this stick of wood in their hands or were buried on the bench by the Hall of Fame manager.

  2. I read your excellent piece. When we look back at this awful season years from now, I think Alvarez's breakout will be the biggest positive

  3. Maybe I missed it being talked about but I wonder about the impact the change in batting coach might have been this year. Last year with Chavez was so productive. Barnes was the assistant and apparently highly regarded but change often leads to change.

    1. I don't personally put much stock in the change of batting coach thing being the cause of the Mets' offensive problem. He's still with the team as the bench coach and has said that he still works with the hitters.


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