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Assessing the Marcus Stroman trade

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A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.

Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

In the first big move of 2019’s trade season, the Mets surprised many by acquiring Marcus Stroman. Some rumors had suggested the Mets were looking to bring in an established starter as part of a Noah Syndergaard trade, but no one expected the Mets to make a straight up addition. Based on their place in the standings - six games back of a three way tie for the NL Wild Card spots with four other teams in front of them - the move is a bit perplexing, but perhaps there is some logic to the Mets’ madness.

The Mets gave up their two best pitching prospects - Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson - to get this deal done, and we posted a detailed profile on both here. To summarize, both have posted excellent but somewhat deceptive stat lines; Kay spent far too long in Double-A (through no fault of his own) where he could thrive while spamming his above-average curveball, while Richardson was dominating at a level where his lack of a third pitch or premium velocity went unpunished. Kay has the stuff to be a back-end rotation option, but not much upside beyond that, while Richardson’s violent mechanics and limited repertoire will likely make him a reliever. Neither was featured on Baseball Prospectus’s midseason top-50, nor are they in the top 100 on Fangraph’s The Board.

Stroman, meanwhile, is one of the most unappreciated #2 starters in baseball. With the exception of last year and his injury shortened (ACL tear) 2015, Stroman has been at least 10% better than league average by DRA- every year of his career. The strikeout numbers have never been particularly impressive, but he keeps the ball on the ground and in the yard extremely well. Remarkably, he’s continued that trend in a season where nearly anything in the air gets out, with a slightly adjusted pitch mix (more cutters and sliders replacing some sinkers) resulting in his lowest home run rate since his debut season in 2014. That’s a pretty incredible skill, and one that is perhaps particularly valuable in modern baseball.

Stroman’s groundball heavy approach puts a lot of pressure on a teams defense, and that’s certainly a weakness for the Mets. The infield, particularly up the middle with Robinson Cano and Amed Rosario (and at third if J.D. Davis is on the dirt), is a liability, lacking both in raw skill and in proper, analytically informed positioning. Delving too deep into this issue with only notoriously finicky public facing metrics isn’t worthwhile, but this is something of a concern. That said, the Blue Jays don’t have an elite defense either, and the Mets can hopefully put the work in improve in this area during the offseason.

So the Mets gave up a couple noteworthy but not elite prospects and acquired a good-to-great pitcher in his prime with a year of control who also grew up in the area and might be willing to sign an extension. In a vacuum, that sounds like a fantastic deal. With context - where the Mets have been openly shopping Zack Wheeler and, more surprisingly, Noah Syndergaard for weeks - the picture is much murkier.

In the short term, the addition is a bit odd. Per Fangraphs, the Mets have a meager 11.8% of making the postseason, and if this season is indeed effectively over, nearly a third of the time they’ve acquired Stroman for is wasted. On the other hand, the underwhelming return for Stroman perhaps indicates the market is more depressed than many believed. If that’s the case, holding or even buying - at the opportunity cost of not moving your own trade pieces - could be worthwhile even with the long odds the Mets currently face.

More important than the short term outlook is what this indicates about the Mets’ overarching plan. Acquiring Stroman, a free agent after 2020, clearly indicate that the Mets fancy themselves contenders next season, a reasonable take given the core talent on the roster. What is not reasonable is trading Noah Syndergaard, a key piece of that very core. Barring a ludicrous return that blows expectations out of the water, no package of players the Mets receive for their struggling ace will be more valuable than Syndergaard will be to the 2020 Mets. Trading Syndergaard right after acquiring Stroman would be taking three steps back after taking two steps forward.

Ultimately, the assessment of this move depends on what the Mets do next. This move could be a shrewd buy based on a re-assessment of the market, one that improves the team for both a long-shot run in 2019 and a reboot in 2020. Or Stroman could just be the latest propaganda ploy from the Mets to justify trading a player that ownership clearly doesn’t like for non-baseball reasons. Hopefully we wind up with the former rather than the latter.