Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The One That Didn't Get Away

Let the celebrations begin. David Stearns signing on as the new President of Baseball Operations signals the start of a new — hopefully much better — era for the New York Mets.

When last we met in this space, I wrote about my concerns that the hype surrounding David Stearns and the Mets was starting to feel like last winter's Carlos Correa debacle. Even though Correa is having a poor season in Minnesota, I never really got over the disappointment of how things turned out after the initial euphoria when the deal was announced. In my mind, there is a clear line of Mets misfortune running from Correa signing with the Twins through Edwin Díaz injuring his knee in the WBC, culminating in the front office finally bowing to reality at the trade deadline and acknowledging a failed season. Looking back, it feels like the baseball gods were sending a message: this ain't your year, Mets fans.

I hesitate to lean too heavily on words like "suffering" when referring to fandom. There is much worse suffering in this world than having your baseball team disappoint you, even a serial disappointer like the Mets franchise. I don't want to minimize real human misery. But man, the Mets just seem to find a way to crush their fan base time and again. Following up on a 100+ win season and record spending in the offseason with a dismal sub-500 sequel feels like "old Mets" under the previous ownership rather than the new Mets that Steve Cohen is spending a lot of cash trying to make a reality. This season has been a hard, nasty punch to the gut for Mets fans.

Then, the news came out Tuesday that David Stearns was, indeed, coming to the Mets. It was a badly needed piece of good news for a franchise that had taken an enormous step backward in 2023. The bad mojo that began last winter with Correa's deal falling through is finally subsiding. The 38-year-old President of Baseball Operations coming on board signals the start of a new era in Mets history, with hopes that this one features more than ephemeral success. The fan base that has stuck with this team for so long really deserves that.

Of course, David Stearns is not a magician who can mutter some spell that will fix all that is broken with the New York Mets. He doesn't have to be. This is different from the franchise in disarray that it was when Cohen bought the team, only to see things get more chaotic with the hiring and quick firing of Jared Porter. Billy Eppler may have struggled to construct the deep roster necessary to succeed in MLB these days. Still, he's done many good things to stabilize the Mets after the initial year of upheaval with Porter and Zack Scott coming and going.

After David Stearns's signing was reported, I noticed Mets fans on Twitter debating the new PBO's thin record in Milwaukee in signing and developing position players. While the Brewers have undoubtedly done a great job nurturing pitching prospects, the failure to enjoy corresponding success with hitters is noteworthy. But it's not like the Mets were looking for David Stearns to come aboard and "save" scouting and development.

The Mets had some success in Amateur scouting and the draft predating Cohen's purchase of the club. Recent drafts have brought in some intriguing prospects. Jett Williams, drafted out of high school in 2022, has enjoyed a meteoric rise through their system this season after enduring a bit of a slow start. He's considered one of the top prospects in the game now. After Brooklyn's season ended, Williams was promoted to Double-A Binghamton, joining fellow 2022 first-rounder Kevin Parada. Prospects the Mets acquired with their deadline sell-off also rank highly. There is talent on the position player side of the Mets' farm system. It won't be on Stearns's shoulders to create something from nothing.

On the pitching side, the Mets opened their lab in June. It will also help develop hitters. Although this lab was on the drawing board when Billy Eppler was hired, his regime made it a reality. While the current situation in the farm system finds Mets pitching prospects behind the hitters, the lab, along with some significant hires on the development side, should help remedy this in future years. There are already some exciting arms in the system, headed by Mike VasilBlade TidwellDominic Hamel,  Christian Scott, and Tyler Stuart, along with the recent return of Calvin Ziegler. It will be the job of the beefed-up development department and the pitching lab to turn some of these arms into Major League pitchers.

A person charged with running baseball ops for an MLB club isn't expected to handle everything by himself. As noted, the bones of a solid organization already exist here in New York. Although Director of Player Development Kevin Howard was one of the directors purged back at the end of August, there have been important hires on the development side beneath that level that bode well for the Mets bringing their development system in line with the clubs already doing it right.

So, essentially, I'm not concerned that David Stearn's record in Milwaukee was spotty when it came to adding talent via the draft and international signings. I can't speak to why that was so and why Milwaukee, in the Stearns era, always seemed a bit lacking on the position player side. Stearns was a very young man when he took over that job. I'm sure he's learned some things. He certainly won't lack for resources in scouting and development, given Steve Cohen's goal to have a top farm system.

Stearns excelled at finding value and creating a deep roster in Milwaukee. The Mets can sure use some of that here. Many in the media have pointed out the similarity of Stearns with Dodgers PBO Andrew Friedman, who also came from a small market (Tampa Bay) where he learned to do the maximum with limited financial support. For the Mets to ultimately succeed, they need Stearns to do what Friedman has done in LA: take small market smarts, mix that with large market resources, and build a sustained winner. Although there will always be personnel coming and going in a baseball organization, Stearns's hiring should signal less churn and upheaval and more stability going forward than we've seen here over the last 3 years.

Stearns is still under contract with Milwaukee until the end of the regular season, so there won't be an introductory press conference until early October. I look forward greatly to that event, even though press conferences to introduce new executive hirings are generally not at all interesting. What makes this one different is that, for the first time since Frank Cashen came on board in 1980, the Mets have hired an acknowledged, gifted baseball mind to run the operations. This is by no means to disrespect some others who ran baseball ops for the Mets in the past and did their best. Sandy Alderson is probably the closest comp in the interim, and he was, frankly, decades past his prime by the time he came here.

I turn 65 in October. I was 28 when the Mets won their last title. I am increasingly aware that my chances of being around the next time the Mets win depend greatly on them getting their important choices right. There certainly is no more important choice than this hiring. I believe they got this one very, very right.

Be well and take care.

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