Monday, December 18, 2023

Eating Your Vegetables Is Never Fun

Last winter was a blast for Mets fans, at least until the Correa deal fell through. This year is less about immediate gratification, with a significantly reduced level of fun.

What a difference a year makes. The Mets were quite active at the 2022 Winter Meetings, signing top free agents at a feverish pace. This year, the Mets departed Nashville with little to show for their time in Music City besides minor league deals to reliever Andre Scrubb and infielder José Iglesias, along with a split deal to reliever Michael Tonkin. Since then, most of the news has featured David Stearns doing organizational depth signings, primarily to minor league contracts with an invite to spring training. I certainly can't fault David Stearns for building as much depth as possible, but these aren't the sort of deals that will make Mets fans stand up and take notice.

There was a consensus around baseball that the free agent market wouldn't heat up until the big dominoes began to fall. The biggest finally did tumble, with Shohei Ohtani signing a record $700 million deal with the LA Dodgers — despite skipper Dave Roberts committing the reportedly unforgivable transgression of actually talking about meeting with Shohei and his club's desire to sign him. Meanwhile, rumors of Ohtani flying to Toronto proved to be unfounded. Apparently, it was actually a jolly old fat man in a red suit and some hoofed friends doing a test run for later this month.

The Dodgers always seemed to be the team that made the most sense as a landing spot for Ohtani. He preferred the West Coast, wanted to play for a winner, and never seemed a good match for the New York media market. Even if Ohtani decided he was okay with New York, the Mets simply have yet to establish themselves as a winner. Steve Cohen has invested a lot of money in the club in the three seasons since he took over from the Wilpons, but there is still only 2022's Wild Card round playoff appearance to show for it.

There has been some reporting that the Mets were unwilling to make the investment that the Dodgers were making with Ohtani, to the consternation of some fans. But it's unclear whether this was simply a money decision or if Shohei never really showing any interest in the Mets factored in. Either way, I'm just not going to lose sleep over it. I'm also not going to jump on the bandwagon with those criticizing LA for making the deal. It's a lot of money, but I'm sure the Dodgers took into account Ohtani's unique marketing value as well as his extraordinary talent.

It wasn't that long ago that the Dodgers franchise was a complete mess — not all that different from where the Mets found themselves at the end of the Wilpon era. After Parking Lot magnate Frank McCourt was finally forced to sell the team in 2012, the Dodgers turned things around fairly quickly, partially aided by being in a rather uncompetitive division, at least then. After a nice run, the Giants were on a downturn, and the rest of the clubs played in relatively small markets.

That's not to disparage what LA has accomplished. They've undeniably built an absolute juggernaut over the past decade. The Dodgers' ability to develop a ton of homegrown talent despite finishing at the top of the league year after year gives them a great deal of flexibility when they choose to go out and acquire talent, such as trading for Mookie Betts or signing Ohtani and Freddie Freeman.

Steve Cohen has been open about his desire to emulate what the Dodgers have done in turning their franchise into one of MLB's elites. You can understand why. LA has been unlucky when it comes to winning actual titles, but they've won over 100 games in four straight 162-game seasons and have won at least 90 every season going back to 2013. LA's talent pipeline keeps producing, and they also find a way to unlock talent in players where other teams have failed, as with Jason Heyward last year. That enables them to sign Ohtani and still be seen as one of the front runners for Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

I understand that many of you fellow Mets fans out there are disappointed that Steve Cohen can't just land every coveted free agent by writing a bigger check than everyone else. I understand the temptation to buy into that thinking, particularly after last winter's spending spree that came just short of bringing Carlos Correa into the fold after signing Justin VerlanderJosé Quintana, Kodai Senga, and David Robertson and retaining the services of Edwin Díaz and Brandon Nimmo. Last year, it seemed like there was a stunning bit of news every couple of days. This year, it's a bunch of signings like Taylor Kohlwey and Jorge López and trading for Ryan Ammons and Yohan Ramirez.

It's been almost three weeks since my last post. Apologies for that; I had to put a lot of time and energy into taking care of some rather un-fun business that's thankfully almost done. Last time out, I delved into the importance of what Bill James has called the "ground-level work" — the unglamorous stuff that doesn't draw plaudits or headlines for an organization but separates the great teams from also-rans like the Wilpon Mets. While not much headline-grabbing stuff has occurred this winter, the ground-level work has been ongoing.

When the Mets hired David Stearns to run their baseball ops, that was the most significant event of this offseason by far. But it also signaled the beginning of a bunch of ground-level stuff that will significantly impact whether the Mets can overcome all of these fits and starts to eventually become a truly great organization. The Mets hired Kris Gross, the highly-regarded scouting director of the Astros, to oversee their amateur scouting and Andy Green to run their player development. Eduardo Brizuela, who worked for Stearns in Milwaukee and has extensive experience in Latin America, will be a special assistant to Stearns here in New York. Kevin Mahala was hired to be the minor league hitting coordinator.

The Mets have some decent prospects in their system, but the next step is to turn some of these kids into successful Major League ballplayers. It seems imperative that the club also finds a way to build the cost-effective bullpen that has eluded them into the Steve Cohen era. David Stearns's front office needs to uncover some talent that doesn't come at a 7 or 8-figure price tag as the Mets reconfigure their roster to something much less bloated and much more competitive.

As I'm sure many of you Mets fans out there are doing, I'm keeping abreast of all the Yoshinobu Yamamoto news, hoping the talented pitcher will sign with the Mets. It's been a roller coaster ride, a somewhat toned-down version of the bizarre Ohtani coverage. One day, I read something totally discounting the Mets' chances of landing him; the next day, there is news that the Mets are still very much in the running. Frankly, it's giving me a headache and is not helpful for maintaining a positive outlook. I simply refuse to invest much energy in following all the speculation. If Yamamoto does sign with the Mets, I'll be happy. If not, I'll survive.

Will Sammon had a piece in The Athletic this past weekend discussing the Mets' pursuit of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, which has received quite a bit of attention. Basically, Sammon's article states that, although Stearns will be aggressive in trying to sign Yamamoto, he does not plan on a commensurate spending spree if the Mets whiff on the star pitcher:
...if the Mets miss out on Yamamoto, they are not expected to simply pivot to the next-best available free-agent pitcher whether that be Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery. Somewhere in the next tier, Lucas Giolito would be of interest to the club in theory, but he also may end up commanding a deal beyond the Mets’ preferred range. To find matches with the club's line of thinking, keep looking lower.

The Mets' roster — particularly the pitching staff — features holes, so they will remain active and spend money. But people familiar with the club's thinking expect them to continue to dole out one-year or two-year deals here and there. This isn't like last season when the Mets signed Justin Verlander but likely had Carlos Rodón as their pricey fallback plan; it sounds as if the Mets have a more focused approach for 2024.
Sammons's piece states that the Mets will go to great lengths to sign the 25-year-old Japanese pitcher but are not interested in the other top-of-the-market options if they can't coax Yamamoto. Apparently, David Stearns doesn't believe that the value they would bring is in line with what they would cost. In  addition, Sammons cites some sources who offered insight into the Mets' thinking:
For one, Yamamoto presents a special opportunity for any club because he's about five years younger than the typical free agent and profiles as a front-line pitcher.

Also, several people within the industry see a recalibration year as a need for the Mets.
The idea of a "recalibration year" is understandably not drawing rave reviews from the fanbase. Heck, I'm a relatively patient person who really wants to see the club build a solid foundation from which to build in the ensuing years, and I'm still a bit bummed over the thought of recalibration. But then I remember back to 2004-2005.

A while back, I wrote a whole series of posts on the 2005 season. After making it to the NLCS in 1999 and the World Series in 2000, the Mets had fallen on hard times. They were mediocre in 2001, and floundered completely from 2002-2004. When Omar Minaya was hired as GM after the 2004 season, he inherited a bad club with a poor farm system. The thought was that Omar would oversee a slow rebuild that would focus on putting together a talent pipeline for the next championship push a few years down the road. That certainly would have been the prudent approach, as the cupboard was bare down on the farm after the promotions of José Reyes in 2003 and David Wright in 2004.

But, of course, Minaya was uber-aggressive, signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltrán for 2005 and trading for C Paul Lo Duca in 2005 and 1B Carlos Delgado the following year. It almost worked, but the lack of any depth in the organization sowed the seeds of the back-to-back collapses in 2007 and 2008. Eventually, it earned Omar a pink slip and the organization another long dry period.

So, as much as I would like to see a really competitive Mets team in 2024, I'm willing to eat my veggies as Stearns tries to build something that's more than a house of cards with a few superstars. That's not to say I would tolerate an awful Mets squad on par with the post-trade deadline club last season. David Stearns has to find a way to locate some bargains and help some of the kids thrive in the majors. The 2024 Mets may not be elite, but they need to show positive signs for the future, be fun to watch, and compete for a Wild Card through the end of the season.

I'm really curious to see what David Stearns can do to make the 2024 Mets compelling while building the foundation of something much better. And I really do hope the Mets can somehow land Yamamoto here. I'm just not banking on it, and I'm staying away from the endless media speculation.

I should be back to posting more regularly now. This will be an important winter, with or without Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Once he decides on his landing spot, we should see a lot more action beyond organizational-type signings,

Be well and take care.

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  1. Nice to have you back. Will this be the winter of our discontent? Tune in for more details.

  2. Thanks. I don't think it's going to be the winter of our discontent, but it probably won't be the winter of our dreams, either. Still should be fascinating to see how Stearns built a competitive team


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