Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A Step Back Might Be the Best Way Forward

I'd love to see true creativity from David Stearns this winter in building a deep, competitive roster for 2024 rather than just handing out Steve Cohen's cash.

I'm 64 years old and have been a Mets fan since I was 10. After waiting for decades since the last championship, I'm selfish about wanting to be around for the next one. I'm not signing on for any 5-year plan back to the top for my team. Fortunately, that won't be an option for a club that now sports a deep farm system and an owner with a very big checkbook. On the other hand, I have nothing against the Mets taking a brief, strategic withdrawal to regroup. That may be their best plan of action for 2024.

John Harper wrote a column for SNY discussing what it might take to field a truly competitive team in Flushing next season, concentrating on the club's offense. Harper based this column on conversations with five unnamed talent evaluators. I thought it was an interesting topic, as most writers pontificating on what the Mets might need to compete next season tend to concentrate on a starting rotation where the only two proven commodities returning are Kodai Senga and José Quintana. While putting together a rotation that can truly compete would obviously be Job 1 for David Stearns this offseason, he would also be tasked with finding more offensive clout for a club that didn't produce enough even before the deadline day selloff.

If the Mets are serious about competing in 2024, they'll need to upgrade their offense at 2B, 3B, both corner OF positions and DH. (And that's assuming they hold onto Pete Alonso for next year.) Some potential puzzle pieces are already here. Ronny Mauricio has shown enough to be considered for an infield job next season, the exact position TBD. Jeff McNeil has bounced back enough offensively to merit consideration in a multi-position role. DJ Stewart has undoubtedly earned the chance to compete for a combination OF/DH role next season, although striking out in 30% of his PA is worrisome. If Starling Marte can heal enough, he will get a starting job in RF.

Then you have guys like Brett Baty and Mark Vientos. They'll be in the mix for jobs in spring training if neither gets traded. Neither has done much in 2023 to give themselves a leg up next year. In particular, Baty enjoyed an extended chance to win a job this season and has fallen far short of doing so. A slash line of .212/.282/.314 with an OPS+ of 65 in 348 PA speaks for itself, especially with Brett's defensive liabilities. Meanwhile, Vientos has slashed .218/.262/.345 in 187 PA. Both youngsters have struggled to make contact, with Baty striking out 28.2 % of his PA and Vientos 29.8%. Even fellow rookie Francisco Álvarez, who enjoyed a successful rookie campaign, has run out of steam as the season has winded down.

Getting back to Harper's column, John and his quintet of talent evaluators feel that the Mets would have to add an impact bat to their roster to have a chance of having a playoff-caliber offense in 2024. As Harper points out, Shohei Ohtani and Cody Bellinger are the only two free agents who fit that bill.

I've gone back and forth on whether the Mets have a real chance of luring Ohtani here. If the Mets somehow did land the Japanese superstar, I would simultaneously be thrilled and terrified by the money and years involved for a player turning 30 next July. Honestly, more thrilled than terrified, but there would be enough of both to go around. While employing superstars on your roster is generally a good thing, there are also inherent risks when these players are going to get older and more and more fragile during the life of their contract.

Putting Ohtani aside for the time being, we come to Cody Bellinger. This is assuming that Bellinger declines his part of a mutual option for next season, which is almost assured. Bellinger will turn 29 next July — almost exactly a year younger than Ohtani. Cody will sign a very nice contract this offseason, but it certainly won't be as massive in years or dollars as Shohei's. After posting a combined OPS + of 66 in 2021 and 2022, Bellinger has enjoyed an offensive renascence in Chicago this season after the Dodgers let him go: .311/.356/.534 with an OPS+ of 136.

These aren't the numbers that Bellinger had in his first three seasons with LA, a combined slash of .278/.369/.559 and OPS+ of 144 in a tougher offensive ballpark. He won NL Rookie of the Year and then an MVP in his third season as a 23-year-old. Then he hurt his shoulder in a fluke accident celebrating a playoff win in the pandemic season and was a shell of what he had been until this season. If you buy the offensive production from this year as something Bellinger can sustain, he's a legitimate star who can play all 3 OF positions and first base. I'm sure whatever contract he signs this offseason will reflect that.

On the other hand, if Bellinger regresses a bit offensively, he could still be a nice player but not a real star. If that problematic shoulder that limited Cody in 2021 and 2022 becomes an issue again, he wouldn't be worth whatever contract he signs. Now, I know that's a highly pessimistic point of view. But age and injury were undoubtedly factors in the epic disappointment that was the 2023 New York Mets.

As I read pieces like John Harper's or this excellent one by Jon Heyman in the New York Post, I agree that a serious run at contending next year will involve upgrading this offense. However, I wonder if taking on more significant risks on a roster already carrying plenty is the best solution for next year. The Mets have long-term commitments to Francisco Lindor (8 more years after this one through age 37), Brandon Nimmo (7 years through age 37), Jeff McNeil (3 years through age 34), and Starling Marte (2 years through age 36). The Mets will need to go out on a limb if they hope to keep Pete Alonso in orange and blue. Add more names to that list, and things can quickly deteriorate to the point where the Yankees find themselves now with an old, expensive position player roster.

I'm not going to throw a tantrum if the Mets elect to pursue Ohtani or Bellinger, but I'd like to see a different approach from David Stearns this offseason than just taking on more large risks. Something more creative that helps the Mets to field a younger and more athletic roster that would be better suited to today's game. An approach that would allow for greater flexibility in the future as the club gets better situated to compete for a title.

The Mets have a lot to accomplish in 2024. They'll need to decide which of the current baby Mets are part of the long-term solutions and which aren't. Drew Gilbert, obtained from Houston at the deadline, could be in the majors at some point next season, as could Luisangel Acuña, obtained from Texas. Jett Williams, who will play most of next season at age 20 but has an extremely mature approach, could also conceivably play for the big league club next year. 

Rather than trying to draw on an inside straight and be successful in signing three pitchers for the rotation, key pieces for the bullpen, and a star bat, I'd rather see the Mets take a shot at finding some value around the margins and determining which of their prospects can help them going forward. David Stearns has a reputation as a genius and a huge contract because of that. I'd like to see something creative out of him rather than just an ability to buy a contender with a huge payroll.

Be well and take care.

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  1. Mike

    Stearns has been known to build his winners around bats and.starters with high curve spin rates

    I expect his first round target to be SP Thatcher Hurd

    Forget what Heyman and other Mets writers are predicting. They are after hits not ticket sales and have no idea what the future Mets front office is going to do

    My guess is they will add pitching and target for 2025

    Just me


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