Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Ground-Level Work

Can David Stearns build the deep, competitive 40-man roster that has eluded the Mets for so long?

Since the World Series ended, things have begun to heat up for the Mets. It kicked off with the news that Carlos Mendoza had been hired as the new manager, which became official at the news conference on November 14. On Friday of that week, we learned that the Mets had elected not to tender contracts to several of their eligible players: DH Daniel Vogelbach, Utitly Infielder Luis Guillorme, and relievers Trevor Gott, Jeff Brigham, and Sam Coonrod. Along with some of the moves made earlier in the month, the Mets 40-man roster is sitting at 28 players. We knew there would be massive changes to the team in David Stearns's first offseason calling the shots, and there certainly is plenty of roster room for those changes.

The only mild surprise in the non-tendered group was Luis Guillorme. Luis was a useful player over his six seasons with the Mets. He had a bad offensive season last year, although injuries limited Guillorme to only 120 PA. Luis has hit a combined .270/.359/.331 in just under 500 PA in the previous two seasons, with a 98 OPS+. That's just under league-average offensive production from a guy who could fill in quite well at all the infield positions, including shortstop. Gulliorme played most of this season at age 28 and was paid $1.6 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility.

My guess is that Stearns felt that Luis could be replaced for less money, which is certainly possible. What seems odd to me was picking up infielder Zack Short off of waivers earlier in the month and keeping him on the roster over Guillorme. I understand the math. Zack Short will cost less than Luis Guillorme. He made $700,000 last season and won't even be eligible for arbitration until 2026. Still, Short's offensive production with the Tigers was awful. Leo Morgenstern at MLB Trade Rumors had this to say about the young infielder when the Mets picked him up:
While his offense may never be a strength, Short draws walks well, and he can put his plus speed to work when he reaches base. Moreover, his defense might not stand out at any one position, but he is capable of covering second, third, and short, and even the outfield in a pinch. As long as he doesn't regress at the plate, his flexibility could earn him another shot at MLB playing time next season, especially since he is out of minor league options.
It doesn't exactly make you salivate over the potential, does it? In his "best" offensive season last year, Short had an OPS+ of 73, only 3 points higher than Luis Guillorme's acknowledged bad year. Neither Luis nor Short have minor league options remaining. If they had to keep one player, I'd have preferred Guillorme for a bit more offense and his defensive abilities. Then again, Short may be long gone, too, by the time Opening Day rolls around next season.

As for the bullpen guys, only Jeff Brigham looked like a guy who could contribute for a while last season but was ultimately too inconsistent to be even a capable middle reliever. Gott walked too many guys, and Coonrod couldn't stay healthy. Putting aside the IL investigation that led to his departure, Billy Eppler's undoing as GM was the inability of his regime to find some gems among the discard pile of relievers to build a cost-effective bullpen.

Next season will be a real test for David Stearns in bullpen construction. There aren't a lot of great options in the free agent marketplace to buy a bullpen. I don't think Stearns will try to sign Josh Hader to a contract, as enticing as it might seem to combine him with Edwin Díaz at the back of the bullpen. Paying two closers top-of-the-market salaries doesn't seem like the best investment. Steve Cohen didn't invest so much in hiring Stearns for his new PBO to try to simply spend his way to a winner. Building an effective bullpen that doesn't break the bank is something that perennially strong teams are able to do consistently. It's been one of the admittedly many reasons why the Mets have been unable to be that kind of team.

This is going to be a tough winter to land big free agents. The Mets are reportedly in hot pursuit of Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but so are the Yankees and many other teams. There aren't a lot of difference-makers available, so the ones who are will have plenty of suitors willing to toss a lot of money at them. I really hope the Mets can come out on top for Yamamoto, but I don't kid myself that Steve Cohen is the only one out there willing to spend what it takes. Unlike last year, where the Mets were able to spend their way to what was deemed at the time a successful offseason, it will be much more challenging this time around, no matter what the ultimate payroll turns out to be.

While I certainly wouldn't bet against a big free agent signing or two, I foresee considerable action on the trade market. And I'm not thinking of Juan Soto here, even though it does appear likely that San Diego will trade him this winter. Soto is a great player, but giving up multiple prospects for a player with only one more season of control makes sense for teams who only need to fine-tune their rosters. The Mets need to bring in multiple players to compete next year. Soto just seems like too big of a luxury item for a team that needs to stock up on meat and potatoes for 2024. The farm system isn't yet deep enough to accomplish a Soto trade and make other deals that may be required.

I mentioned earlier that the Mets currently have only 28 players on the 40-man roster. They're actually thinner than that if you look at the 28. David Peterson will miss at least a chunk of next season after hip surgery. Tylor Megill had a decent finish to the year, but it's fair to say the jury is still out on him. Sean Reid-Foley made a late return from Tommy John surgery and pitched well, but he hasn't established himself as a Major League caliber pitcher and has no minor league options remaining. Joey Lucchesi also came back from TJ. Lucchesi had a weird season — good for the Mets over 9 starts, but not very good in Triple-A. It's hard to know what to expect from the lefty in 2024. RHP José Butto also pitched well in limited starts for the Mets but was just plain awful with Triple-A Syracuse.

Drew Smith wasn't great last year but has established himself as a Major League reliever. Not so for Phil BickfordGrant Hartwig, and Reed Garrett. Bickford has a good arm, and Hartwig showed some promise, but I'm not sure why Garrett even earned a roster spot. Also on the 40-man is lefty Josh Walker, who really struggled in a short stay with the Mets, then ended the year on the IL.

On the position player side, you have the aforementioned Zack Short, who has yet to establish himself as a legit MLB player. Ditto for Brett Baty, Mark Vientos, and Ronny Mauricio. You could put DJ Stewart in that group, too. Did DJ really turn the corner, or was it just a very hot month? Finally, you have prospects Alex Ramírez and Luisangel Acuña, both highly unlikely to break camp with the Mets.

Essentially, you have a 40-man roster with 12 empty spots and a bunch of question marks among the 28 players who currently occupy roster slots. Even if Stearns and his team can make a flashy move or two, like signing Yamamoto, it will take a lot of successful, non-flashy moves if the Mets are really to compete next year. Some of it — maybe most of it — will be pretty boring.

It's already starting, with the Mets signing some free agent pitchers to minor league contracts. Can they find a hidden gem or two in signings such as these? Their ability to identify some talent, then use the technology they've invested in to make some MLB ballplayers from this pool, will have as much to say about the club's ultimate success as any splashy move could. Such is the reality for a ballclub that has generally failed to build deep rosters, no matter the budget.

When the Mets hired Jared Porter as GM in December 2020, Bill James — who knew Porter from their time together in Boston — wrote an excellent piece on the hiring. The article has disappeared from the web, unfortunately, but can still be found in the Internet Wayback Machine archive. I'm sure James wasn't aware of Porter's harassment of women that came out after the hiring, but what Bill James wrote about ground-level and top-level operations was quite important and stayed with me long after Jared Porter became a bad memory.
Theo [Epstein] used to talk about seeing baseball with both eyes, the scouting eye and the analytics eye. But there's another way to think about an organization, which is ground-level and top-level operations. Everything the fan SEES, everything they talk about on talk shows, everything that people like me in the public eye discuss, that’s all top-level stuff.

The top-level stuff is important, but it's. . .what, 40% of what makes an organization work, maybe? An organization can't succeed if they trade away young players they should have kept and keep young players they should have traded away. They can't succeed if they have the wrong manager and they make player decisions that waste tens of millions of dollars.

But what people who don’t work in the game don’t understand is, 60% of what makes an organization successful is the ground-level work. The ground-level work isn't one thing; it's a million things... It's making sure that you have minor league coaches and managers who can actually teach a 19-year-old third baseman how to plant his right foot and line up the throw to first base, and when to put the ball in his pocket because it's too late to make the throw, as much as you want to... It’s getting a Low-A pitching coach who can show a kid why you don't stand on the first base side of the rubber and throw a curve ball.   It is having medical and training staff that can help you a little bit to maybe occasionally see an injury coming before it gets there, and having nutritionists and psychologists and Spanish speakers everywhere, and having English language instruction for people coming to America. It is doing everything possible to make sure that every player is ready to do what you will need him to do when he gets to the show level.

It is WORK, in other words; it is organizing work so that everything gets done. It's ground-level work; that's 60% of why organizations succeed.

I am not in any way knocking the Mets’ previous General Manager; the Mets' organization has had challenges in this area for decades.  But what I am trying to say is that there are "Ground Level" organizations, and there are "Top Level" organizations.  You can't win by doing one or the other.  Some organizations—the Angels, the Mets, the Red Sox before the current owners bought the team—focus on the Top Level stuff, and let the ground-level stuff run on auto-pilot.   Some organizations—the Pirates in recent years, the Twins, the Royals, do the ground-level stuff well, but don't do the top-level stuff well, or perhaps don't have the money that it takes to do the top-level stuff well.  Some organizations do both things well; some organizations don't do either one well.

But if you do the top-level stuff perfectly, absolutely perfectly, you'll still fail most of the time if you don’t do the ground-level work. 
Signing Yoshinobu Yamamoto or Shohei Ohtani or trading for Juan Soto would be enormous moves for the Mets — top-level stuff, as James put it. But the ground-level work will ultimately make or break the 2024 season, with implications that stretch well beyond. As much as I love the big, showy move, I'm curious how David Stearns handles the ground-level work. As Bill James noted, the Mets organization has failed at this stuff for decades under the Wilpon ownership. And it has remained a problem seeking a solution with Steve Cohen signing the checks.

Billy Eppler did many things right with the Mets organization, but he decidedly failed to find enough pieces to build the depth an organization needs to succeed. Eppler did a great job signing some big names last winter — top-level achievements. However, his organization failed to succeed at the ground-level work in identifying some players who could help the club and fine-tuning their skills to enable their success. The bullpen, starting pitching, and position player depth all failed in 2023. If David Stearns is to prove worth his paycheck, we won't see a replay of this in 2024.

There is little chance that the Mets will enter the 2024 season with the level of star power that they broke camp with last year. But that star power didn't get them very far, anyway. They've made a lot of big hirings this winter beyond Stearns, and now we'll see if the organization can use that pitching lab and the new talent in their midst to take it to the next level with some of their talent. For instance, there are some pitchers in their org who could conceivably help the big league club as early as next year, if all of those talented people and technology that Cohen invested in can start to pay off.

I understand that turning the Mets into a really successful organization will continue to be the work of years. But for all of our sakes, it's time to make some big strides forward and build a foundation for success. David Stearns and his team finding a way to field a truly competitive Mets club next season would definitely be a step in the right direction.

Be well and take care.

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  1. There are so many things the Mets need to accomplish from improving the minor leagues, doing respectable drafting, assessing how and where to spend money, and giving legitimate chances to younger players instead of one-year patchwork of past-their-prime veterans.


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