Since nearly reaching the pinnacle of the sport in 2015, the Mets haven’t been able to duplicate that same level of excellence. They scraped their way into a Wild Card game loss against the Giants in 2016 and suffered a near team-wide collapse in 2017 largely due to injuries. This puts them at a crossroads entering the 2017-18 offseason, as they were set to return the same core, a year older and a year more expensive. If contention were in the cards, there would be a lot of work to do.
The 2018 Mets have little in the way of reinforcements coming from their minor league system. Like with the major league team, injuries have wreaked havoc on the system. Marcos Molina, David Humphreys, Thomas Szapucki, and Anthony Kay are all in various stages of Tommy John recovery, while Desmond Lindsay has struggled to stay on the field with multiple leg injuries. Justin Dunn’s transition to starting has not been smooth, either, and he’s struggled with his own shoulder problems late in the season.
In terms of imminent major league impact, there are only a few names. David Peterson, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, could rise quickly and slot into the back half of a rotation. Andres Gimenez projects as a useful middle infielder. Luis Guillorme could be the same, but he has more offensive questions to answer. Peter Alonso has to show he can make contact in the upper minors, but he has a ton of power. Tomas Nido and Chris Flexen were rushed to the majors and struggled in 2017, but both still could contribute. None of these players are likely stars, however, and that’s reflected in the low rankings of the Mets’ farm system across the industry.
With limited help coming from the development pipeline, the burden of bouncing back falls almost entirely on the major league roster. There, we find many of the same names that led the Mets to the playoffs in 2015. The pitching core of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Jeurys Familia are still on the roster, as are outfielders Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes. Two years is a long time in baseball, though, and a lot has changed with this group.
Harvey may never be the same after undergoing surgery to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in 2016, often a death sentence for aces. Familia missed much of 2017 while recovering from blood clots in his right shoulder. Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz have struggled to stay on the field and have been underwhelming when they’ve made it. Yoenis Cespedes has dealt with repeated lower body injuries, and Michael Conforto is set to miss the first month of the season after suffering a freak shoulder injury on a swing down the stretch in 2017. Noah Syndergaard’s injury doesn’t raise the same level concerns as the others mentioned here, but he did miss the majority of 2017 after tearing his lat.
The Mets also have two former top prospects set to see major playing time in 2018 in Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith. Unfortunately, both struggled mightily in their debut, with Rosario looking uncomfortably close to the Alcides Escobar comp that was always thrown on him as a floor and Smith struggling in just about every aspect of the game. It’s not fair to discount their ability entirely after a rough debut—Mike Trout, of course, was terrible in his first taste of the majors—but relying on either to boost the current core back to contention isn’t viable.
Clearly, there was a lot of work to be done to transform the remnants of the 2017 Mets into a legitimate contender for 2018. To their credit, the Mets were one of the most active teams in baseball, signing the following players:
- RHP Anthony Swarzak: 2 years, $14 million
- OF Jay Bruce: 3 years, $39 million
- 1B Adrian Gonzalez: 1 year, $545k
- INF Jose Reyes: 1 year, $2 million
- 3B Todd Frazier: 2 years, $17 million
- LHP Jason Vargas: 2 years, $14 million w/ $8 million option, $2 million buyout
Swarzak adds another late inning-arm to complement Familia, Jerry Blevins, and AJ Ramos. Bruce was a necessary addition to the offense, particularly with the health questions surrounding both Conforto and Cespedes. Frazier is a very solid addition at third as the team unfortunately finally admits that it can’t wait for David Wright forever. Vargas will be a valuable source of stable, unspectacular innings for a rotation filled with health concerns. Gonzalez is a solid gamble on a former star, and Reyes is acceptable as a fifth or sixth infielder with some speed off the bench.
The Mets also revamped their coaching staff, dumping Terry Collins for Mickey Callaway. Dan Warthen and his philosophy of heavy bullpens was replaced by Dave Eiland, who successfully managed pitching staffs for the Yankees and the Royals over the past decade. The training staff was also mixed up, with Ray Ramirez departing and the team hiring its first ever Director of High Performance in Jim Cavallini.
These additions pushed the Mets to a .500 projected record by both PECOTA and Depth Charts, behind the Giants, Cardinals, and Diamondbacks in the Wild Card race. Simply looking at the number of wins doesn’t give us the full picture, however, as the Mets are an extremely high-variance team. With good health and bounce backs from any of the Mets’ former future aces, this could be a 90-win team with a top-five rotation supported by a powerful lineup. Of course, that pendulum could swing the other way too, and 2018 could look a lot more like 2017 than 2015.
On the surface, this looks like a successful offseason. Dig a little deeper, and the picture is much more bleak. The Mets have essentially replaced Jay Bruce, Neil Walker, Jose Reyes, Lucas Duda, and Addison Reed with Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jose Reyes, Adrian Gonzalez, and Anthony Swarzak. That appears to be a slight downgrade, if anything, with the losses from Duda to Gonzalez and Reed to Swarzak offsetting the improvement from Neil Walker to Todd Frazier. Jason Vargas is a nice piece on top of that group that pushes the net value added a bit higher, but it’s still an underwhelming revamp for a team that was terrible in 2017.
It’s not as if the Mets didn’t have better options, either. Payroll currently sits at $148 million, down from $155 million in 2017. And that’s before accounting for the $15 million in insurance money the Mets get back on David Wright’s contract—or for the $50 million every team is receiving from the sale of MLBAM this offseason. For a team that needed drastic action to maintain its current contention window, that’s an anemic figure, even before considering that this is a New York team. Even a modest payroll bump could have brought in one or two of Yu Darvish, Carlos Santana, Lorenzo Cain, or an additional reliever, all of whom would fill a notable hole on this team and make them a more legitimate contender rather than one relying entirely on variance. A smaller expenditure on Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, or Adam Lind could have drastically improved the first base depth chart, but even that wasn’t in the cards.
The blame for this of course falls on the Wilpons, who have reportedly made it difficult for the front office to operate when it comes to any sort of formal budget and were directly involved in keeping Terry Collins in his role as manager, even when the front office sought a change, until the 2017 season ended.
Complaints aside, the Mets are projected as a .500 team and have a decent chance to exceed that win total. Such a season would be a vast improvement over the 2017 squad that finished with 70 wins, behind the Marlins and Braves in the NL East. Things could always go bad again, of course. Many Mets fans thought 2010 would be a bounce-back year after a bottoming out in 2009, but there are legitimate strengths to this team. The outfield, if healthy, has as much upside as any in baseball, aside from the Yankees and Angels. Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard is the best 1-2 punch in baseball at the top of the rotation. And the rest of the pieces the Mets have should be either solid role players (Todd Frazier, Asdrubal Cabrera) or risky, high-upside plays that make a 90-win team a possibility.
Next year, the roster will be very similar. AJ Ramos, Jeurys Familia, and Jerry Blevins are set to hit free agency, as are Matt Harvey and Asdrubal Cabrera, but the star pieces of the Mets will still be in place. Rosario and Smith will hopefully improve with another year of experience, and the new training staff the Mets have brought in can hopefully stabilize some of the injury issues that have plagued this team for the better part of two decades. Bullpen additions will be necessary in all likelihood, but the Mets do have a handful of intriguing internal options, including several arms they acquired in deadline moves last offseason.
The flip side of bringing back the same roster is that the Mets will again be very restricted in how much they can spend. In case it wasn’t already obvious, they will not be players for Manny Machado or Bryce Harper and may struggle to sign even second-tier relievers as salaries increase elsewhere on their roster due to contract bumps and arbitration raises. Still, the team will likely have very similar projections to the current iteration: a .500 base team with a ton of variable pieces that can make things interesting.
Beyond 2019, things look much bleaker. Arbitration raises will choke out most of the Mets’ spending power, barring the Wilpons suddenly becoming much more generous with the checkbook. Todd Frazier, Juan Lagares, and Anthony Swarzak will hit free agency, and the already-thin farm system is unprepared to fill the gaps around Conforto, Cespedes, deGrom, and Syndergaard. With the Mets essentially being a mid-market team, a rebuild will likely be necessary at this point.
Things can change in a hurry of course. Perhaps 2017 was just a fluke and the Mets’ health improves drastically. Any of Matz, Wheeler, or Robert Gsellman blossoming into a third dependable starter for the top of the rotation would be a boon, as would further development from Rosario and Smith. Surprise breakouts happen all the time in the minors as well, so there’s always a chance things improve beyond the rather bleak outlook for 2020 and beyond laid out above. Still, the most reasonable projections support the idea that the current Mets core has a two-year window to capitalize on before things go downhill quickly.
It will be much the same bumpy, wild ride as always with the Mets in 2017. This team has stars at the top to draw fans in, enough interesting pieces to make you hopeful, and probably not enough depth to make a serious run at things come September. Still, we should expect a more engaging product than the 2017 iteration, and can dream about what more intelligent tactics and injury management practices can do with a talented group of players.
At best, Mets fans can hope for a Wild Card berth, but baseball playoffs are a crapshoot and getting there is often all that matters. Despite how much we may justifiably complain as a fan base, this team has a better chance of going the distance than most.