Sunday, March 3, 2024

Lowered Expectations, Part Deux

A November parade is quite unlikely, but I'm oddly excited about the upcoming New York Mets season.

I was pretty confident in the Mets' chances heading into last season. While nothing is certain in baseball, I thought they were as close as it gets to a sure thing for making the playoffs. And that would have been a big deal. As I pointed out in a post that I wrote a year ago, the Mets have only made the playoffs in consecutive years twice in their entire history: 1999 and 2000 under Bobby Valentine, and 2015 and 2016 with Terry Collins running the show. And that 2016 appearance was a one-and-done Wild Card game ouster.

The last time the Mets came up short on repeating playoff appearances was in 2007. It took a rather epic September collapse to put that failure in the books. They went 5-12 over their last 17 games, which felt even worse than that, as it included a 3-game winning streak in Florida early on. I still vividly remember watching Tom Glavine's atrocious performance in his last game as a Met on the season's final day. While Glavine somewhat infamously characterized himself as "not devastated" after that game, I honestly don't think I've ever had a lower point in more than a half century of Mets fandom.

If the relative suddenness of the collapse characterized the 2007 season, 2023 was more of a slow, season-long descent to Palookaville. That Mets club managed to parlay a record payroll into a 75-87 record. While the trade deadline figured into that disappointing number, the Mets were 50-55 when Justin Verlander won his final game as a Met just before being traded back to Houston. The Mets slipped below .500 for the last time in early June in Atlanta. After that, it was confounding how poorly they managed to play against mediocre or even just plain bad opposition.

I wrote about the way the season was going last June, in a piece titled "Lowered Expectations." The title came from a recurring sketch that ran on the MAD TV show that ran on FOX from 1995 to 2009. The premise was a series of commercials for a dating service for "chronically rejected singles" who were "desirably impaired." Basically, the singles in these ads had given up on dreams of Mr. or Ms. Right and were just searching for someone with a pulse. I always thought that the concept was a perfect metaphor for Mets fans, who often found themselves vaguely hoping for a decent season rather than dreaming of a triumphal campaign. "Just don't embarrass me" is not the rally cry for fans of a top-notch franchise.

What happened to the Mets in 2023 wasn't nearly as traumatic as the 2007 collapse, but it will still go down as one of my least favorite New York Mets seasons. Steve Cohen invested $340 million into that club in an effort to keep the good times going from 2022. Instead, we spent a season watching a team that wasn't bad in some sort of perversely fascinating way, like the 1992 Mets were three decades previously. My memories of last season was watching a club that was frequently quite boring to watch as they meekly went down to defeat — as uncompelling as watching paint dry.

I know there are folks who are accusing Steve Cohen of being "cheap" this past off-season. For me, I kind of understand taking a step backwards after watching more than a third of a billion dollars in payroll flushed down the drain. That kind of money can seem unreal, like Monopoly money, to those like me who debate a potential $20 purchase. But even to a multi-billionaire like Cohen, that isn't sustainable — even if the club had managed to secure a playoff berth. To spend that much cash and lose 87 games? Any sane person would recalibrate their efforts after that sort of fiasco.

When the Mets sold big at last year's trade deadline, it was reported that both Verlander and Max Scherzer were told that the Mets wouldn't be going all out to win in 2024. There was some sentiment that Cohen was just blowing some smoke up their respective asses to get them to agree to a trade, and that the wealthy Mets owner would spend big to turn things around. But I always thought this thinking was wrong on a couple of different levels. One, it would harm the Mets' dealings with future free agents if the club developed a reputation of being untruthful with their players in order to manipulate them. Two, it just glossed over the huge investment in players such as Verlander, Scherzer, and James McCann who were no longer here. The Mets are spending ~$50 million, plus the luxury tax penalty, on players who will not be suiting up for the club in 2024. Something had to give, and it did.

I understood from last year's deadline that this year's Mets club would be taking a significant step backwards in 2024, at least as far as dollars invested. That certainly is how it all played out this past winter. Yet I don't feel the complete lack of optimism that I felt in the post-Madoff years when I knew the Mets would be essentially non-competitive. I believe that, with David Stearns running the show, this could be a very interesting season for the Mets — even if they come up short of the playoffs. And, despite the lamentable injury to Kodai Senga, I believe the Mets can still find their way to the playoff berth that eluded last year's club.

As the title implies, my expectations are undoubtedly lowered heading into the season. A lot has to happen for things to go well for the upcoming season in Queens. The Mets would need guys like Luis Severino and Sean Manaea to stay healthy and pitch effectively. They would need to do what they have failed to do repeatedly in recent years — figure out how to take a bunch of random arms assembled over the winter and put together an effective bullpen. They would need a lot of luck keeping key players healthy and on the field, including Senga making a return and avoiding more mishaps.

I understand the skepticism in many quarters that surrounds the 2024 Mets. I don't think it's unfair to say that they don't look like a sure thing at all. But what I do find compelling about this club is the somewhat blank slate that David Stearns represents. I take into account what can be learned from his years in Milwaukee. I've followed his statements to the press all winter and through the opening of camp. It has helped to convince me that Stearns has quite a clear-eyed vision for the future of this club. One that goes beyond whether signing a more experienced DH or another starting pitcher can tweak out another couple of wins this season.

I won't pretend that it doesn't matter to me if the Mets compete for the playoffs this summer. 2024 will be much more gripping to watch if they are legitimate contenders for the postseason when September rolls around. But I'm confident that the details that might keep the Mets in competition all season are the same ones that would portend success in future years.

For instance, having that pitching lab up and running in full swing is going to be a game-changer going forward. I hope they can take advantage of it to pull some extra value out of the kids in their system and the wildcard potential bullpen pieces that Stearns's front office spent the winter accumulating.

Tim Britton had a great piece in The Athletic, noting some ways the Mets are already putting this technology to use. And this data will only become more useful to coaches and player development folks over the long term, as data is collected over time from pitchers in the organization. But, even in the short term, it can be useful to help Mets pitchers figure out what's working and what's not. Getting something of value around the margins of the roster could be what separates this Mets club from previous disappointing teams.

If the Mets can take strides this season in getting more effective work from the various bullpen pieces and pitching depth they assembled, it can go a long way towards keeping the team in the running all season long. Moreover, it will have positive implications for future seasons where, even if the Mets spend more, they can't purchase an entire 40-man roster in the free agent marketplace. I would feel much more confident about the Mets going forward if they could finally display some competence in pulling some real value out of lower-cost bullpen acquisitions and starting pitcher depth.

It will be also fascinating to watch the wave of prospects that the Mets control begin to establish themselves in the Majors. This goes way beyond whether Brett Baty and Mark Vientos flop or triumph in their respective roles. It's much more than just the individual successes or failures that the young pitchers coming up in 2024 experience.

The equation with prospects is that there is always strength in numbers. Some will inevitably fail to perform or suffer injuries. But some have to succeed if sustainability is ever to be more than just a buzzword.

There is enough talent in the Minor Leagues that the Mets should see some of these kids make it. If that can just begin to happen this season, the future will look a whole hell of a lot brighter. If not, there's a real problem and major work still to be done within their player development system. But my strong suspicion is that the Mets have accomplished a great deal in upgrading that crucial department.

All of this is why I find the upcoming season compelling, way beyond whether the Mets go ahead and sign another experienced player for their rotation, lineup, or bullpen. There will be real drama in just watching to see if progress can be made in key areas I've listed. It may not be pretty every day, but I very much doubt that 2024 will unfold to be as unwatchable and yawn-producing as last season turned out.

I expect that we'll start seeing progress in key areas, and that growth and evolution for the Mets should keep the team interesting, watchable, and in competition for October baseball. They still need a lot of things to go right to nab a playoff berth, but I think the chance of that happening is more than just a hopeless pipe dream.

Be well and take care.

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