I had hip replacement surgery last week. Just reading those words on the page makes me feel old. I turned 65 last October. I'm not at death's door, but I understand that the clock is ticking and I won't be around forever. I know this is somewhat of a cliché, but time really does go by remarkably quickly. I woke up one day, looked in the mirror, and was surprised at the old face staring back at me. It doesn't seem so long ago that I was still a relatively young man.
I have a simple wish for my Mets fandom as I officially enter senior citizenhood: I want them to win at least one more title while I am both breathing and still holding onto my marbles mentally so I can truly appreciate the accomplishment. If I have to hear about a title from the person emptying my drool cup at an assisted care facility, that really won't do it for me.
As disappointing as the 2022 season ended, the dream of a championship seemed much closer in October 2022 than it does now. I knew there were major issues facing the club that offseason, such as the Jacob deGrom opt-out and the impending free agency of Brandon Nimmo and Edwin Díaz. Steve Cohen's Mets were in a position where they would have to spend prolifically and still could find themselves taking a step backward. When Cohen authored a historic spending spree last winter, it seemed that the Mets could at least tread water and make a second consecutive playoff appearance. Even despite the age of the club, it would take a cascade of injuries, underperformance, and just plain bad luck for the Mets to have a bad season.
As you know, the Mets stumbled into that worst-case scenario. There indeed were some miscalculations by the front office that gave the club less margin for error. Enduring a losing season while setting a payroll record makes second-guessing Billy Eppler's choices easy. While it still seems probable that Steve Cohen would have hired the finally available David Stearns even if Billy Eppler's club had enjoyed a much more successful campaign last season, Eppler's case certainly wasn't bolstered by the faceplant of the 2022 New York Mets.
But I harbor no residual ill will towards the former GM. Thanks to some of the work done under Billy Eppler, David Stearns is stepping into a much better situation than he would have if Brewers owner Mark Attanasio had set him free back in 2020 when the Mets first approached Stearns about the job. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the Mets have already come a long way as an organization these last three years, and even last season's disaster doesn't change that. And I'm heartened that David Stearns really seems to be the right guy to take the New York Mets to a more perenially competitive level.
Of course, not all Mets fans are enamored with Stearns presently. There is some sentiment that he brought a small market mentality with him to New York, the same sort of complaint that wound up driving Chaim Bloom out of Boston. I disagree with that, even though my age and recent surgery reinforce my sense of urgency that the Mets turn it around sooner rather than later. But I don't get a nickel-and-dime vibe from David Stearns — and decades of Wilpon ownership make me quite sensitive to any inkling of that particular vibe.
However, one of the earliest truisms I was taught in my younger days was that actions have consequences. I have made both good and bad choices in my life. While I have enjoyed reaping the rewards of my better decisions, I have also, at times, paid a personal price for my more regrettable choices. While it's never fun to be in that position, I have always done my best to learn from my mistakes and try to take at least something positive out of them.
The Mets made some bad decisions last year. Billy Eppler and Steve Cohen collaborated on the choice to greenlight a ton of spending, particularly on older players. Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Mark Canha, and Eduardo Escobar were MLB senior citizens already under contract. Eppler more than doubled down by adding 40-year-old Justin Verlander on a huge contract, along with older veterans José Quintana, David Robertson, and Tommy Pham. Eppler also elected to pick up the option on 36-year-old Carlos Carrasco despite Cookie's massive fade at the end of 2022. I thought at the time that move might come back to haunt the GM, and it certainly did.
As previously stated, the reasoning for Eppler and Cohen's gamble was clear. They didn't want to lose the momentum of the 101-win season in 2022, but they had big pieces to replace or retain. They could have played it somewhat safer by going after the sort of players they have been during this current offseason, but instead, they took a big swing, and the baseball gods did not smile upon their efforts. Such is life.
But while David Stearns arrived with a mandate to build a perpetual winner, there were some consequences to be paid for all of the gambles that failed last year and the resulting dead money clogging the books. I really don't blame Cohen for not being willing to take the Mets' payroll further into the stratosphere. If last winter was about one huge signing after another, this hot stove season is featuring Stearns and company acquiring a different sort of player in their effort to make 2024 a step back in the right direction.
From recent interviews, it's clear that David Stearns is committing to giving young players a chance. What happened to Ronny Mauricio is really unfortunate, but the Mets still have prospects they need to get an accurate read on. Brett Baty and Mark Vientos have been disappointing in the majors so far. But the Mets apparently still believe that Baty can be an above-average offensive player, and I would argue that Vientos was never given a real, true shot to show what he can do.
It has been head-scratching over the past couple of seasons to watch how the Mets have handled prospects. With some other young players likely to debut for them in 2024, I want to see a more cohesive plan on the part of the club to help some of these guys make it as solid pro contributors. Stearns is on the record that he wants to create real opportunity for some of these kids. Not only do I believe him on this point, it's exactly the right thing to do. Seeing a well-thought-out, cohesive process in place would frankly be a welcome change after two seasons that seemed to feature a lack of any plan.
We'll talk more about the kids going forward. As for the upcoming season, I know it won't look like a reincarnation of the 1986 Mets juggernaut. But, as a fan, I hold David Stearns to his word that this club will compete for a playoff spot. Even if the 2024 Mets aren't going to debut as World Series favorites, they really can't afford to have a second consecutive subpar season. The idea is to be attractive to desired players, coaches, and executives going forward. With Steve Cohen as owner and now Stearns as PBO, the Mets are moving in the right direction. But it's still crucial for the club to build a track record of winning on the field.
In my opinion, Billy Eppler wasn't a terrible GM. But there is a clear demarcation between the merely adequate and genuinely great when it comes to baseball execs. I'm hoping Stearns will bring something to the table to help this club compete for a playoff spot despite the decreased spending. I like the new emphasis on defense we've already seen. I want to see Stearns build a truly competitive bullpen out of some of the parts he's been assembling and a 40-man roster that won't wilt under the late summer heat. Stearns's mandate is to compete in 2024 while better positioning the club in 2025 and beyond. I fully expect him to do that.
Be well and take care.
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