Last Tuesday, we published a breakdown of the Mets’ outlook for 2018 and beyond. The first draft of that article was much, much longer, however, and the original provides a much deeper dive into how the Mets got to this point, what the problems with the team currently are, and where the team is probably headed. Over the next few days, we’ll be publishing that longer original in parts, digging into the Mets’ organization to reset our understanding of the current roster. This is Part 3.
If they wanted to contend in 2018, the Mets needed to fill out a lengthy shopping list. Conforto’s injury left a major hole both in the outfield and the lineup. Coupled with Cespedes’ issues staying healthy, the team was in dire need of an outfielder, preferably a center fielder. The rotation was a minefield, with no dependable options after deGrom and Syndergaard. The bullpen was thin, with questions around Familia (blood clots in his shoulder last season) and Ramos (coming off his worst season, with his ever present walk issues). The infield needed an improvement at second or third - Asdrubal Cabrera and Wilmer Flores are both fine players, but starting both is not viable for a team that hopes to contend. Similarly, Smith’s disastrous cameo at the end of the season made first base an area of need.
In a vacuum, the Mets responded to this lengthy list of problems well, as they were arguably the most active team this offseason. Since November, they’ve added (in order of transactions):
- 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 milion option, $2 million buyout
Objectively, the Mets have at least attempted to fill every one of their aforementioned needs. In Swarzak, they added a reliever who struck out more than a batter per inning last season to serve as another late inning option. Bruce offers a useful albeit one-dimensional power bat in the corner that should help cover for Michael Conforto’s absence and lengthen the lineup. Todd Frazier is a fantastic value signing, offering a huge upgrade on both sides of the ball at the hot corner. Jose Reyes on a cheap deal as infield depth is fine, though a bit disappointing given what better options like Neil Walker signed for. Jason Vargas was an All-Star last year after a hot start, and should offer some stability at the back end of a very banged-up rotation.
In addition to their free agent expenditures, the Mets also had to remake their on-field staff. Terry Collins, very often the subject of fans ire (and justifiably so for his abysmal in-game management), finally moved to a front office role. The Mets brought in Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway to replace him, a well respected, younger face for a clubhouse that desperately needed a change. Dan Warthen - infamous for his heavy bullpens that may have played a role in the rash of injuries to Mets pitchers - was replaced by Dave Eiland, who managed the Yankees’ and Royals’ pitching staffs very well over the last decade. Ray Ramirez was also replaced, as was much of the training staff. At least on paper, this managerial staff should offer some more modern, intelligent in-game strategies while hopefully managing player health more effectively. That said, we’ve seen the same level of injury management dysfunction in spring training (Cespedes played for a week with a sore wrist that required cortisone, had X-rays without Callaway knowing, no communication to the media), so the team has a ways to go before we can have any level of trust in their training staff.
With this flurry of moves, the Mets are projected at exactly .500 by PECOTA. That leaves them on the outside of the playoffs, trailing the Giants, Cardinals, and Diamondbacks in the fight for one of the two Wild Card spots. There’s upside beyond that - if Smith or Rosario click quickly or the Mets get better-than-expected pitcher health and performances from their bevy of former top prospects, this team could win 90 games. On the other hand, we could also have a team that looks a lot more like 2017 than 2015.
It’s that caveat that has Met fans still upset - sure, a lot was done, but the needle hasn’t been moved a ton. Through their signings, the Mets have essentially replaced Addison Reed, Lucas Duda, Neil Walker, Jose Reyes, and Jay Bruce with Anthony Swarzak, Adrian Gonzalez, Todd Frazier, Reyes, and Bruce. That’s, at best, a lateral move; Swarzak has no track record of success, while Reed has been one of the best relievers in baseball since joining the Mets; Gonzalez’s back issues had his production falling off a cliff last year; Frazier is probably an upgrade over Walker, but no superstar; Reyes and Bruce are...well they’re Reyes and Bruce.
This recurrent strategy of reassembling more or less the same team speaks to a lack of creativity from Mets management. While we don’t know the details of every discussion within the front office, the executives that have run the team for much of the last decade have shown a strong affinity for maintaining the status quo. Just as an example, why not consider trading Rosario as part of a deal for Christian Yelich and signing Zack Cozart in free agency? That seems a reasonable starting point for a trade given what the Marlins received from the Brewers, and the combination of Yelich and Cozart is a significant upgrade over Rosario and Bruce at very similar cost. To a degree, this is a fan armchair-GMing at its finest, but it would be nice to see the front office think outside the box once in a while.
The bigger gripe is with the Mets’ payroll, which was a middle of the road $155M in 2017 (14th in baseball) and is even lower now, sitting at $147M (which, to be fair is 11th in baseball). That’s also not accounting for the roughly $15M in insurance the Mets get back every year on David Wright’s contract. For a team that is at the end of its contention cycle and with such strong incentives to go all in, that’s an anemic figure, without even considering that the Mets play in the country’s largest market. Further, every team in baseball is going to get a $50 million payout (and possibly even more) in the first quarter of 2018 thanks to the sale of MLBAM.
Imagine, for a moment, that the Mets spent like the Giants, a team in a very similar spot on the win curve, did this offseason. Replace Bruce with Lorenzo Cain (+$3M; +2 fWAR), Vargas with Yu Darvish (+$15M; +2 fWAR), and Gonzalez with Carlos Santana (+$20M; +3 fWAR). Such a spending spree would leave salary roughly $10 million short of the luxury tax while boosting the team by roughly seven wins, transforming a .500 team hoping on variance to carry it to a Wild Card game to the clear Wild Card favorite and a potential challenger for the Nationals in the division.
Spending like a drunken sailor isn’t a good strategy in and of itself - it often backfires, as it did for Omar Minaya and the Mets in the late 2000s. However, there is a time and a place, and when you’re about to lose your cheap young core to a combination of cost and injuries and there’s nothing left in the pipe to replenish your roster, it’s time to go buck wild. There’s no point in saving money to retain Conforto, Syndergaard, and deGrom if the team around them is going to be bad anyway. There’s also no reason to worry about being laden with terrible contracts with a virtually unavoidable rebuilding period on the horizon.
Unfortunately, the Mets are owned by the Wilpons, whose financial history is as checkered as Derek Jeter’s track record as a GM. A deep dive into how their debt is structured and how they exploit the Mets and SNY to pay it off is its own essay, and not one I’m qualified to write. Suffice to say that the situation is such that hiking payroll any higher is infeasible, as is giving out contracts of significant length (no, the Mets will not be players for Manny Machado or Bryce Harper). The Wilpons also have a reputation for meddling in baseball operations - Fred Wilpon was the only reason Terry Collins remained as manager as long as he did, for instance. It’s quite possible, even likely, that many of the complaints Mets fans make with regards to individual transactions or overall front office strategy are due to the Wilpons going over the head of their top execs.