Tuesday, January 23, 2024

What I'm Looking for in '24

Spring training is almost upon us. Here's what I hope to see from the New York Mets this season.

Here in New England, winter has announced itself rather loudly these past couple of weeks. It hasn't affected me as much as in a typical year. I'm stuck in the house the majority of the time, anyway, after hip replacement surgery. I can't drive yet, so I don't have to deal with the adverse conditions on the road. I can't go out and shovel after the relatively minor storms that have hit my area. Still, as someone who holds no love for the winter, I wouldn't be sorry to see Old Man Winter dial it back a bit.

I've been trying to find productive things to do during all of the downtime that my rehab has "gifted" me. I hoped to write more about the Mets during this stretch, but it's been a rather dull winter for the club, particularly in comparison to the non-stop excitement of last offseason. And a lot of what has been going on in David Stearns's first winter at the helm has been happening in the background, out of sight of fans like myself.

I've written about my patience for what Stearns is trying to accomplish in digging out of the hole created by the extraordinary failure of the 2023 Mets. I genuinely believe remarkable progress is being made to better position the New York Mets to finally exit the (occasional) Boom and (mostly) Bust cycle they've been stuck in for decades. I understand that 2024 will be a transition year. However, as I wrote in my last post, I don't give David Stearns and Steve Cohen a pass on making this a competitive season. Last year was such an ongoing bummer. This one has to be more fun for the fans and more helpful in building the brand that Stearns and Cohen hope to transform the Mets into.

With the lack of big-impact signings to think about lately, my mind has turned to what would constitute a successful season for the 2023 Mets. In a season that will begin with much lower expectations than last year, there still has to be something that builds momentum back in the right direction. While I'm sure that every Mets fan carries their own expectations for 2024, here are some of mine:

A winning season.
This might sound basic, but my absolute baseline criteria for this upcoming season is that the Mets finish above .500. Stearns and Cohen have both spoken of seriously competing for a playoff spot. Last year, the Diamondbacks and the Marlins parlayed 84-win seasons into Wild Card appearances. It was tougher in the AL, where the Blue Jays were the lowest-winning Wild Card club with 89 wins. Still, being better than .500 at least ensures a team is in the Wild Card hunt. And the Mets really have to be in the hunt, or we're talking consecutive failed seasons, and that's a massive step in the wrong direction.

Look, you can make a scenario where the Mets finish below breakeven again, manage to flip some veterans for decent prospects, spend big next offseason, and turn the corner in 2025. I get it, but you're still sending the wrong message to free agents whom you're hoping to entice if your club is coming off of 4 of 5 losing seasons since Cohen bought the Mets — and that's where they would be if the club can't manage to win more than they lose in the upcoming season. I really do believe they need to show progress in 2024.

Turn the corner on building a bullpen.
I know that I beat on this drum a lot, but in this era of baseball, a team can't win if they can't figure out how to put together a relief corps that can deliver. And the Mets have seriously sucked at this for decades. While teams in much smaller markets with fewer resources manage to construct viable 'pens consistently, the big-market Mets rarely do.

There have been brief shining moments. Back in 2006, the Mets had an old starting pitching staff. Pedro Martinez, who had been great in 2005, was breaking down. Omar Minaya scrambled all summer to plug the holes in his rotation. But the bullpen that season, along with a potent offense, held the club together. Despite their rotation, The Mets made it to Game 7 of the NLCS. As a fan, I hoped Omar could continue assembling quality relief corps. I was disappointed in this regard. 2006 proved to be the exception, not the rule.

Unfortunately, overusing their decent relievers — due to their inability to unearth more — led directly to the team's collapses in 2007 and 2008. Then, the entire team began to decline. Since then, the Mets have struggled to assemble a dependable bullpen year after year. As the number of innings from starting pitchers continues to decline, the Mets consistently handicap their chance of success with ongoing bullpen struggles.

When David Stearns was running the Milwaukee Brewers, they were a very small market club with noted success in putting credible bullpens out there. Stearns has been assembling the variety of low-investment arms this season that he used to build bullpens in Milwaukee. He apparently has a philosophy of trying to find a variety of stuff and arm angles with these pitchers. Tampa Bay has a similar philosophy in putting their bullpens together. Next comes work in the new pitching lab under the supervision of all the coaches and instructors the Mets have invested in.

The ultimate proof would be finding enough in their prospects and the other pitchers the Mets have assembled and hit on some of these guys as success stories. I would certainly like the club to add another experienced reliever or two to the bullpen mix. However, what would make me feel really good about the Mets going forward would be for them to simply succeed with some of these reliever lottery tickets.

Time to start having success with prospects.
We all understand that the backbone of a sustainable winner would be a prospect pipeline that actually produced viable Major League ballplayers. So far, only Francisco Álvarez has shown enough to establish himself as the starter going forward. Even Francisco slumped quite badly over the last two months of the season and needs to show more consistency.

Meanwhile, Brett Baty, who had a chance to grab hold of the 3B job, failed to show the promise of Álvarez. While still highly regarded, repeating last season's struggles would probably signal the end of Baty's chances to be a regular in New York. As a fan, I hope that the investments in technology and brain power noted above could work in Baty's favor and that the Mets can still unlock the potential that made Brett a Top-100 prospect in the game.

Mark Vientos accumulated 233 PA with the Mets last season. He struggled for most of the season with inconsistent playing time. Then, in September, all of the deadline deals allowed Vientos an opportunity to play almost every day. Mark slashed .230/.280/.460 with 6 HR that month. While not world-beating stats, those were, by far, Vientos's best numbers in MLB. It should at least earn Mark a real shot with the 2024 Mets to show whether he can make frequent enough contact for his power to play in the majors.

Of course, the most exciting prospect with MLB time, Ronny Mauricio, is likely to miss the entire season after tearing his ACL in winter ball. He's an exciting young player with a real chance of making an impact with the Mets. I hope his rehab progresses enough that the Mets can do some work in preparing Ronny for 2025.

Down on the farm, the Mets have several position players who may see the majors in 2024. Drew Gilbert and Luisangel Acuña, both acquired in deadline deals, will likely start the year in Triple-A Syracuse, one step away from Queens. However, the one who intrigues me the most, Jett Williams, will only be a step behind in Double-A. Drafted out of high school in 2022, the 5' 6" infielder made it all the way to Binghamton last season. Jett is a great athlete with a terrific, mature approach at the plate who may just get a call-up at the end of this season if he continues to progress as he did last year.

And while the headliners in the Mets' system are mostly position players, there are pitching prospects who can toe the rubber in Queens this season. In The Athletic this week, Will Sammon highlighted a couple of good ones: Mike Vasil and Christian Scott. Sammon wrote about how the new pitching lab is already helping Vasil to make the improvements necessary to graduate to the majors:
Inside the New York Mets' pitching lab in October, the high-speed cameras and sensors hooked up to prospect Mike Vasil helped inform staffers that the right-hander would benefit from a mechanical change.

Essentially, Vasil needed to stay on his back side longer during the early stage of his stride so that he didn't go down the mound too quickly within his delivery. From there, Mets coaches designed throwing drills with weighted balls and ultimately created a program to help him build up throwing while also implementing the new mechanics. Vasil hopes the adjustment leads to more consistent velocity at maybe a tick or two higher. In the meantime, Vasil has also worked on a bigger slider to pair with a harder one, which may evolve into a cutter that helps him perform better against right-handed batters.

David Stearns is on record saying he believes any of the starters in Syracuse this season, including Dominic Hamel and Tyler Stuart, could conceivably have a breakthrough season and find themselves with the Mets. There are also relief prospects who could make the jump.

Pundits opine that the Mets' pitching prospects lack high ceilings. But advanced teams have elevated some of their young pitchers above their purported ceilings by working to refine their talents with the sort of coaching and high-tech that the Mets have added to their development system. And make no mistake, if some of these guys can become MLB mid-to-back of the rotation starters or even effective relievers, that would still be a huge developmental win.

Whether it be position prospects or pitchers, I'm not looking for the Mets to succeed with all of them. That would be unrealistic. But my hope for 2024 on the prospect side is for the club to nurture some of these guys into genuine MLB contributors. If the Mets can accomplish that, they will have taken a giant step toward that elusive goal of sustainability.

Okay, that's it for now. We'll talk again soon. In the meantime, be well and take care.


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2 comments:

  1. Swallowing hard makes for often unpleasant experiences, yet that is what Mets fans are asked to do in 2024 in order to buy into the 2025 & beyond sales pitch. I'd accept them giving Baty and Vientos a real shot and not bench them after an 0-4 day or a defensive flub. You won't know what you've really got unless they get a full season's worth of ABs to determine what you've got. The fear here is that you do know what you've got with DJ Stewart and at least David Stearns knows about Tyrone Taylor. Everyone knows Harrison Bader can't hit and he has the track record to prove it. Yet I think the first minor slump by Vientos will Krazy-Glue his butt to the bench in favor of proven inferior hitters.

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    1. It hasn't been a lot of fun to watch, but they're pretty much doing what they said they would do all along unlike the situation with the Red Sox. I guess my point is not even with diminished expectations there are still reasonable expectations that the team needs to meet this year

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