Monday, January 29, 2024

The Defense Doesn't Rest

A renewed emphasis on defense would be a good thing for the New York Mets.

Mike Vaccaro had an interesting column in the New York Post about the rather dull first winter of David Stearns's tenure, compared with the splashier debuts of some other recent Mets GMs. Back in the offseason of 2004-05, Omar Minaya famously hit the ground running, signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran in his first offseason in charge. In his inaugural hot stove as GM, Brodie Van Wagenen swung a deal for Edwin Díaz that, unfortunately, also saddled the club with the Albatross of Robinson Canó's contract.

Contrast this with Stearns, whose biggest deals this winter was the signing of pitchers Sean Manaea and Luis Severino. While I certainly understood the logic behind inking these guys, neither of the announcements made a chill run down my spine as I felt when I first learned of Beltran's agreement. The 40-man on Mets.com is loaded with the names of guys David Stearns brought in to deepen the roster. Some of these new guys could play an important part in what happens to the Mets in 2024. A few of them even fascinate me a tiny bit.

I'm intrigued by the defensive skills Harrison Bader can contribute in the outfield, even as I acknowledge that he is likely to miss time due to injury and hasn't posted an OPS+ over league average since 2021. Bader is with the Mets on a 1-year contract. Those short-term deals are hard to find fault with, as the player won't be around long enough to cause any lasting pain, even if he doesn't really work out. What makes Harrison Bader interesting, and has kept him employed in MLB despite a lackluster batting line of .243/.310/.396 over 7 seasons, is the elite defense he brings to the table.

The Mets have a history of prioritizing offense over defense going back decades. Davey Johnson, still arguably the most successful manager in Mets history, would often sacrifice some defense to get a bit more pop in his lineup. For instance, he often started Howard Johnson or Kevin Mitchell at SS when Sid Fernandez was pitching. There was logic to this choice, as El Sid was an extreme fly ball pitcher. But it was notable in the pre-steroid era when defense was still prized over offense in baseball.

Omar Minaya's best Mets teams were offensive juggernauts that emphasized pop over defense, although this wasn't unusual in the dying days of the steroid era. Sandy Alderson, who followed Minaya, was also known for prioritizing offense in his roster choices. Minaya's and Alderson's clubs both included one very successful playoff run. What was more frustrating as a fan was all the Mets clubs that were not winners, did not score many runs, and still featured lousy defense.

I had heard that Stearns prioritized defense going back to before he was hired by the Mets. I think this is long overdue for the Mets. Don't get me wrong, I'm not in favor of returning to a 1970s-style roster construction where the bottom 3 lineup spots featured virtually automatic outs — usually players who brought strong gloves to positions such as shortstop, catcher, second base, and centerfield. But, in our somewhat offensively-challenged era, defense wins some tight games over the course of a season.

It is also beneficial for young pitchers trying to establish themselves in MLB to have confidence that their fielders can make plays behind them. Indeed, having their fielders make great plays that save them runs is uplifting to even veteran pitchers. Good defensive teams particularly help hurlers who don't pile up big strikeout numbers.

It will be interesting to watch the evolution of this philosophy over the next few years. Despite the pessimism of some fans, I believe this dull winter is part of a deliberate plan to better position the Mets for future playoff runs. I think next winter will feature bigger names and a much higher fan interest level. There are also some prospects already in the Mets system who will be true contributors to future success, and even some actual stars.

I want to root for Mets teams who are fun to watch and can score some runs. Offense is always a pleasure to watch when it's clicking. But I also want to cheer on clubs that can help their own cause with the leather. As David Stearns builds the rosters for these future clubs, I suspect his roster decisions will feature a real balance between offense and defense. For instance, if a below-average fielder is allowed to play a significant role, it will be because his offensive contribution is well above average. And it should be proportional to whatever he might cost the team in the field. I'm absolutely on board with that type of roster building.

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In my last blog post, I wrote about what I want the Mets to accomplish this season. One of the most crucial is getting something more out of prospects with some strategic development. I should expand that to include players who are no longer prospects but have yet to establish themselves as successful Major Leaguers. This could be players drafted by the Mets or the lottery ticket types that Stearns has accumulated this winter.

In a piece for the Post this past weekend, Mike Puma wrote about the pitching depth added this winter. As Puma points out, there is much more depth — and much less star power — on the roster heading into 2024. If you haven't read it, it's well worth your time, with updates on all the starting candidates. Puma's update on Tylor Megill has been drawing a lot of interest in Mets circles:
The largest strides this winter by any Mets pitcher might be from the right-hander, who is working out at Push Performance in Phoenix.
Megill has developed a split-fingered fastball, a pitch he dabbled with toward the end of last season that now stands to become an important part of his arsenal.
Megill has worked on using a split-fingered fastball.
Mets' analytics deem it an "elite" pitch, but Megill must show it facing batters.
Megill is said to have surpassed by plenty all that was expected of him this winter and is viewed as an important piece of the team’s rotation depth.

Tylor was an 8th-round pick by the Mets in the 2018 draft. While he has shown flashes at times, Megill can't seem to sustain them, nor can he stay healthy. I like that the club is working with the data from the company Megill is training with. It would be a massive win for the club if Tylor could develop into a rotation piece or even a solid relief option.

Multiply that success by achieving the same with other pitchers, including some other interesting arms the Mets have taken in later draft rounds in recent years. While it's nice to draft and develop a top-end starter, there are other ways to build a good rotation. I'm really interested in watching whether the Mets' pitching development can take a step forward this year.

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Finally, I want to make a brief point here that isn't about the Mets or baseball. I've been increasingly dismayed over the years by all of the people who want to endow former NFL quarterback Michael Vick with a do-over for the unbelievable cruelty he actively and personally inflicted on dogs in his infamous dog-fighting scandal.

I do not believe that Vick was adequately punished for his absolutely psychopathic behavior with 23 months in a minimum security prison. I do not think he should have ever been allowed to play NFL football again, profiting greatly by doing so. I do not believe that Vick ever showed genuine remorse for anything except having to go to jail and lose a lot of money, to which I can only say, "boo f***ing hoo." Vick never even directly apologized for what he did, skirting around the issue in later interviews.

I believe in second chances, but I do not believe Vick has even come close to earning his. I may write a full post on this subject if time permits in the future. If I do, I will clearly label it as such for those of you who may not agree with me or are not interested in the subject. For now, I simply conclude with the statement that Michael Vick was, still is, and likely will always be a piece of absolute garbage who has not earned forgiveness for his blatantly evil behavior. And, if you happen to stumble across this Internet backwater, Mr. Vick, please feel free to go f*** yourself.

For everyone else, please be well and take care.


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