As the trade deadline rapidly approaches, the Mets have big choices to make. Will they take a lower-value package for an injured Zack Wheeler or roll the dice on a qualifying offer? Will they target low-ceiling returns that are closer to the majors or players who are farther away but with more promise?
But the toughest question they have to answer is this: are the 2020 Mets a contending team?
This will certainly be debated on and off for the next eight months, but as teams scout Noah Syndergaard and other players under control through next season and beyond, the pressure is on to think about what the near future holds.
Like many teams that have enjoyed success recently, the core of Mets’ talent is young. Outside of Todd Frazier, a pending free agent and a near certainty to be wearing a different uniform by the end of the month, all of the team’s top batters are under control beyond this season. Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Dominic Smith, and Amed Rosario are all pre-arbitration; Michael Conforto has two more years of arbitration remaining. The pitching is somewhat less rich, with Syndergaard and Steven Matz both having two more years of arbitration, Edwin Diaz and Seth Lugo about to enter arbitration for the first time, and Jacob deGrom signed long term.
Nearly any team in the league going into 2020 with a collection of cheap and gifted players such as these—not to mention serviceable if not spectacular veterans like Wilson Ramos and Justin Wilson—would have every intention of vying for the playoffs, but by keeping the trade window open on Syndergaard, they are sending the clear message that they are not committing to a competitive season.
One of the challenges that gives the Mets an uphill battle is that they have quite a few holes to fill on the pitching side of things. The departures of Zack Wheeler and Jason Vargas means they need to bring in a minimum of two strong starters. The bullpen is even worse, with question marks in at least four of the seven slots. There are plenty of appealing options in free agency for the Mets to fill these spots. Gerrit Cole would be a big splash that would immediately impact the division, with other lesser but still attractive arms like Cole Hamels also hitting the market.
But therein lies the Mets’ other challenge: payroll. Should a mid-tier payroll be a major worry for a team currently valued at $2.3 billion? Probably not, but it’s the reality for the foreseeable future and even with the Mariners paying a considerable chunk of Robinson Cano’s remaining salary, the Mets’ words and actions have made it abundantly clear that they are uninterested in pursuing high-end free agents. Ultimately, this means the smart money is on departing and ineffective players being replaced by more of the same. Which in turn suggests 2020 will be more of the same.
If the Mets have no intention of making transformative moves to address their significant flaws going into next season, they have no business holding onto their players with shorter remaining lifespans with the team. This of course includes Syndergaard, who the league is already calling for, but it also needs to include Michael Conforto, who has strung together three straight strong offensive seasons and would benefit defensively from being on a team that doesn’t force him into centerfield regularly. The 26-year-old put up walk rates and power numbers, both this season and in his career, that are well above league average, and like Syndergaard, he could net the team an impressive package in a trade from a team looking to improve both immediately and in the longer term. Also like Syndergaard, Conforto isn’t a promising extension candidate, so if the Mets are looking beyond the near future for their window of contention, he is unlikely to be part of that.
Of course, the Mets are the kings of half-measures, and Brodie Van Wagenen will likely be loathe to admit defeat so early in his tenure as GM, leaving the team to continually shed only the least valuable components each deadline rather than make the bigger changes needed to reestablish themselves as a well-rounded organization going forward. At the end of the day, the 2020 Mets will probably be exactly who they’ve always been.