A lot of Mets fans have been glum this off-season, suggesting that even should the team retain Jose Reyes, they are "years away from contending." This is certainly an understandable position, given that the team has averaged about 75 wins per year over the past three seasons (about 15 away from a wild card spot), that payroll seems to be constricted in a manner that prevents any big acquisitions, and that there don't appear to be any big-time A+ prospects in the high minors right now (though there is some quality).
However, the "years away" mantra makes a rigid formula out of something with lots of variables in play. As such, I think it might be useful for us to look at the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that went from a cellar-dwelling 65 wins in 2010 to a division-winning 94 in 2011, because their situation is similar enough to ours to inspire some hope.
In 2010, the Diamondbacks went 65-97, finishing fifteen games back in the NL West...of fourth place. Things looked bleak enough that the team was seriously considering trading its young potential start, Justin Upton, reasoning that they might be so far from contention that keeping Upton was not prudent. But they did keep him, and the following season they went 94-58, winning the division by eight games.
Surely they must have added some big-time hitters to achieve this feat, whether from the minors or other teams,yes? No, actually. All of Arizona's best hitters in 2011--Upton, Chris Young, Miguel Montero, Gerardo Parra, and Ryan Roberts--were on the team in 2010. It's true that Upton and Roberts had career seasons and that Montero was healthier, but then Stephen Drew and Kelly Johnson, the team's best position players in 2010, had poor years. They may have gotten some luck--I don't know how to calculate expected runs, but Arizona had the same team wOBA as the Mets and yet scored 731 runs, 13 more than the Mets' 718--but a combination of solid hitting all around and a generous ballpark led to good run-scoring.
Of course, this wasn't much different from 2010, where the Diamondbacks scored 713 runs on a slightly higher wOBA. The Diamondbacks' 2010 problem was their pitching, and in particular their bullpen. The Diamonbacks gave up 836 runs in 2010, and 307 of these came during the mere 439 innings their bullpen threw. (Their starters gave up 529 in 993 innings--not good, but much better.) Let's put it this way--their two best relievers were D. J. Carrasco and Blaine Boyer. In 2011, though, Diamondback relievers threw the same 439 innings, but only gave up 197 runs--a 110-run improvement. How did they do it?
Well, they signed J. J. Putz to a 2-year deal for $5m a year. While we know that acquiring J. J. Putz to improve one's bullpen is a gamble, their more-competent medical staff apparently approved it, and he was spectacular for them this year: 58 innings, 2.17 ERA, 2.54 FIP. Those were closer innings that were going to Juan Guitierrez and his 5+ ERA/FIP last year. Fangraphs rates that single replacement to be a +2.7 WAR move (-1.0 to 1.7).
They also traded Mark Reynolds to Baltimore for David Hernandez. Though only a year removed from a 44-homer season, Arizona disliked Reynolds' defense and strikeouts and trusted Roberts more. Hernandez had not looked like much of a return, but Arizona saw improving strikeouts and a flyball pitcher who really would benefit from getting out of a bandbox. It paid off; Hernandez pitched 69 innings to a 3.38 ERA and 2.94 FIP. Those were innings that had gone to the likes of replacement-level guys like Aaron Heilman and Esmerlin Vasquez.
Other guys contributed too: Joe Paterson came over in the Rule 5 draft; Bryan Shaw got promoted from the minors; they traded for Brad Ziegler. Suddenly, the bullpen was good--not great, probably only middle of the NL, but competent where it had once been godawful. And when you consider that they cut basically the same payroll trading Reynolds as they picked up signing Putz, it cost them pretty much nothing cash-wise.
Of course, it helped quite a bit that the starting pitching improved too, giving up only 465 runs in 1004 innings, a 64-run improvement. That was mostly just a case of letting Ian Kennedy develop, giving Daniel Hudson (who had come up the previous year) a full season, and bringing up Josh Collmenter to be a solid starter. Those pieces were pretty much already in place, though, as was the team's excellent Reynolds-less fielding.
And that added up to 29 more wins without a single big, flashy move. Obviously, there was some luck involved--Pythagorean expectancy only had them improve from 68 to 89, but 89 would've won the division too; the run-scoring outpaced the overall hitting by a bit and the pitchers outperformed DIPS, but neither was hugely fluky.
What conclusions can we take from this? The Mets' biggest single problem last year was the same as the Diamondbacks', a terrible bullpen and not-good starters, and the avenues the Diamondbacks used to solve them--trading infield depth, making reasonable signings, having good young pitchers in the high minors come up to take over, and having some bouncebacks from injury and underperformance--are also available to the Mets. It would take some luck to have it work out, but then the Mets, as relatively disappointing and cash-strapped as they are, are starting in a much better place quality- and finance-wise than is Arizona. Unless you believe Dan Warthen destroys all pitchers, there's no reason this can't work for us.