Sunday, September 3, 2023

The Mets Are Still Searching for Stability

The Mets' decision to let go of key personnel might be a sign that a President of Baseball Operations hiring is imminent, but it also signals that there is still a long way to go for organizational stability.

While the Mets were idle on Thursday, news came out that the club had fired several folks in their organization, including some who held high-ranking director roles. Among them were Kevin Howard, the Director of Player Development; Director of Pro Player Evaluation Jeff Lebow; Director of Performance Jim Cavallini; and Director of Baseball Development Bryan Hayes. I guess it's no surprise that heads were going to roll as the Mets wrap up possibly the most disappointing season in team history. That's quite an achievement, given how many hugely disappointing seasons Mets fans have lived through.

The implications of these pink slips are quite obvious. Rumors continue to circulate concerning former Brewers head David Stearns taking over baseball operations for the Metropolitans. One interesting nugget that I came across was this from Peter Gammons on Friday (Hat tip to Mark Healey  for the retweet)

I know Gammons still has excellent sources around the game. Still, I find it hard to believe that famously prickly Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who reportedly has no love lost for Steve Cohen, would let Stearns out of his contract early. While Stearns stepped down from his PBO role with Milwaukee last October, he remains in an advisory role with the team throughout his contract. That reportedly is through the end of this season. The Brewers are currently in first place in the NL Central and will likely make the playoffs. And sure, some owners might just let a guy who's leaving anyway depart a bit early, but Attanasio doesn't seem to be that kind of guy.

Of course, you can't overlook the possibility that there will be a PBO named within two weeks who is not David Stearns. The Mets in the Cohen era leak less copiously than they did under previous ownership. Still, it seems unlikely that the Mets would be having significant negotiations with anyone to run baseball ops, and nothing leaked about it. Whether it's Stearns or someone else, I'll believe someone is hired once there is an official press conference announcement.

Firing directors of important departments allows an incoming PBO to place his own stamp on the organization. This season was quite a failure, but I couldn't tell you how much blame any of the reported firings deserved. But I doubt that this was about individual performance as much as just letting a new guy have the people he wants working for him.

The biggest name was Kevin Howard, who was hired as the Mets' Director of Player Development in January 2021. Assuming that the hiring was by Jared Porter, Howard served under three separate GMs in his relatively short tenure. He also infamously bounced into an assistant hitting coach role in May 2021 when the Mets fired Chili Davis and Tom Slater, then back into the Player Development position after the season. A year isn't enough to judge Howard's work. He's just serving in a role where an incoming head of baseball ops will likely want his own person.

According to reporting, Lebow and Hayes had both been with the Mets for 13 years. Cavallini had 5 years with the organization. I never enjoy seeing anyone lose a job, much less folks who have held those positions for over a decade. One thing I noticed about all of the departures whose names were reported: they all predate Billy Eppler's arrival in November 2021. There is speculation that Eppler might already be taking some direction from Stearns on what positions he would personally wish to fill.

There is constant turnover in MLB organizations. People are let go for performance issues or move on to other jobs inside and outside baseball. But we've seen an awful lot of churn in the Mets organization since Cohen took over in November 2020. Given Cohen's ambitions for the club, the amount of folks going in and out of the org is understandable. And it certainly isn't shocking that an incoming PBO would want his people there. But I also believe that it's become crucial that Steve Cohen makes sure he has the right person running the show, whether it's David Stearns or someone else.

In my post last week, I touched on former Rangers president Jon Daniels, who was fired by that team after running that club for a decade and a half. I also wrote about it at the time of the firing. There was a perception around the game that Daniels and the folks working under him had become a bit too comfortable, missing out on innovations that were changing the game after his initial run of success. I can't speak to that personally, of course, but I understand how that can become a problem. On the other hand, the opposite of that — having key personnel turn over too often — can become a problem for the Mets if they don't get their PBO choice right.

Given where the Mets were in December 2020, after so much difficulty getting their top candidates to even meet with them, I thought Jared Porter was the right choice for the job. I wrote a piece quoting extensively from something Bill James wrote praising the decision to hire Porter. That's not defending the inadequate vetting that allowed them to miss sexual harassment claims about the man, but other clubs he worked for missed them, too. But there is an alternate universe where Porter — who was quite qualified to run a big market organization — wasn't a sophomoric idiot with women and didn't need to be fired less than a month after getting the job.

Then the Mets wouldn't have turned to Zack Scott to take over. Scott was a good baseball man, too, but didn't seem to me to be suited for the top job in New York, putting aside the whole issue of his dismissal. The upshot of all of this was that Sandy Alderson was more involved in baseball ops for a couple of years than he would have been. I've never been a Sandy hater, but his best days running a club were way behind him. Even when Eppler first took over the GM job in November 2021, Sandy still had a prominent voice in Mets baseball ops.

Despite the huge payroll, I think the struggles to field a winning club this season can be attributed to all the coming and going and changes of direction of the past three years. Billy Eppler gets a lot of blame for this season, and much of that does fall on his shoulders, but he's brought some stability to this club that it needed. I believe that Eppler is fine in a GM role, provided the right PBO is making the right decisions above him. And I am intrigued by the potential of what David Stearns can do here after succeeding so well in Milwaukee without big resources. If Steve Cohen believes Stearns is the right person for the job and he accepts, I'm looking forward to less key personnel turnover and overall chaos. If the Mets are to become an organization that wins regularly, more stability, at least in the short term, is a necessity.

By the way, if things don't work out with David Stearns, I wonder if Jon Daniels' name might come up as a potential PBO. It didn't end well in Texas for Jon, but he deserves some credit for the club's current success. Daniels is currently working as a senior advisor for the Rays. He's still only 46 years old and presumably has a future in MLB running another ball club. I hope Gammons's tweet is correct, and this will all be wrapped up by mid-September, but I fear we'll have to wait until October for a resolution.


A couple of quick notes on ballplayers. Pete Alonso has once again gone over the 40 home run and 100 RBI marks in today's finale against the Mariners. I wrote last month about my worries that the Mets won't be able to re-sign their slugging first baseman to a contract. My fears are less about money and more about the fact that sluggers like Pete don't age well into their mid- to late-30s. Pete will turn 29 in December. While he's a top-notch slugger, he's not a great pure hitter or an elite athlete. But his skill set is valuable, particularly to these Mets.

My hope is still that they can sign him to something along the lines of a 6-year deal for a high AAV. My worry is that Pete will be looking to sign something much longer in years. That doesn't make sense for the Mets. I think they want to avoid being in a situation where Alonso is in severe decline in his mid-30s with several years of big-money contract remaining. But man, on the right length deal, I can see Pete being a big contributor to this club for the next several years. Maybe he's not the cleanup hitter in my ideal projected future Mets lineup, but that power would still play batting 5th or 6th. I hope Cohen and the Mets can figure out how to keep him here on a deal that makes sense for both parties.

Speaking of sluggers, no one I've read saw the success of DJ Stewart coming. While Stewart was once a first-round pick of the Orioles (25th overall), he wasn't a hugely hyped prospect. Stewart was a part-time player in five seasons with the O's, slashing .213/.327/.400 with an OPS+ of 97  — not great numbers for a bat-first OF.

Despite going 0-4 with 3 Ks in today's win over Seattle, Stewart is still slashing .265/.348/.622 for the Mets, with 10 HR and 21 RBI in just under 100 ABs. Stewart is making a strong case for at least a part-time job with someone next year. Perhaps that might be with the Mets. I could see him taking a spot away from Daniel Vogelbach. Stewart provides power and has always taken his share of walks, but he runs better than Vogie and can play decent outfield and DH. Given how many fans loathe Vogelbach, the red-hot Stewart would easily win a fan vote for a roster spot next season.

I've enjoyed watching Stewart relish his success with the Mets. He's the kind of guy easy to root for. But I'll hold back on going too crazy over DJ's potential. For one, Stewart has only amassed 114 PA in New York. He spent most of the season with Syracuse, where he hit a bunch of homers but slashed .229/.362/.516 in the supercharged offensive atmosphere of Triple-A this season. There was no sign that Stewart was on the verge of a massive breakout in MLB, or they certainly would have called him up sooner when they were desperate for offensive help.

Maybe the Mets somehow unlocked something with Stewart, as the Dodgers have done with players like Max Muncy and Chris Taylor. Or perhaps it's just a really nice month for a guy who always had some talent. We'll see if Stewart can maintain some production through the end of the season. Even if he does, that might not translate into future success as a part-time player. That's hard to do at the major league level. Just ask Vogelbach, who has been in that role this season and has yet to exactly run with it.

But, speaking of Vogelbach, he got his OPS+ on the season over the league average. He's been actually pretty good for a while. Daniel has slashed .237/.348/.542 in August after hitting .275/.341/.450 in July. That's a longer track record of success than Stewart's hot run. While Stewart has been playing every day of late, Vogelbach has been a part-time player where it's harder to produce, as I noted.

For what it's worth, given the premium on athleticism and versatility in today's MLB, even as a non-Vogelbach hater, I can't see how his offensive contribution outweighs his lack of defensive versatility and his lack of speed on the bases. Daniel would have to produce at a much higher level than that to justify a roster spot. The Mets should consider giving Stewart a chance for that spot in 2024 — provided they evaluate his success in the last month as more than just a fleeting illusion.

Be well and take care.

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