As the days and weeks without baseball drag on, we naturally look to the past for our fix. While YouTube highlights and comment-thread arguments are entertaining, our minds naturally drift towards the hypothetical. What might had happened had one play gone differently, one trade been made, one free agent been avoided? In-game changes are a fairly closed loop, but questions of long-term roster construction open many cans of worms.
To occupy our time, let’s entertain those flights of fancy. The rules are fairly simple: We’ll make as few changes as possible and model the Mets’ behavior as faithfully as we can. Common patterns, such as a proclivity for re-signing former Mets or not addressing rotation depth, will continue, and we’ll strive to not cheat and use our knowledge of the future to project past moves.
On July 25, 2016, the Cubs traded Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney, and some other minor pieces to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. Arguably the best reliever in baseball, Chapman fortified a weak Cubs bullpen and helped break the longest championship drought in professional sports, though he almost helped extend it along the way. The Cubs paid a hefty price in Torres but ultimately reached the pinnacle of the sport, while the Yankees turned around and re-signed Chapman in the offseason.
The Mets, meanwhile, were a fringe contender. At 52-45, they sat five games back of the division leading Nationals, holding on to the second Wild Card spot by percentage points over the Marlins and a half-game over the Cardinals. The bullpen had a pair of excellent anchors, with Jeurys Familia closing almost as effectively as he did in 2015 and Addison Reed blowing people away in the best season of his career. Both were among the ten best relievers in baseball, and both had additional years of control. What if the Mets had called up the Cubs and told Theo Epstein they were willing to trade, ultimately landing Torres and McKinney in exchange for both Familia and Reed?
The 2016 Season
The most immediate effect on the 2016 season is the move the Mets don’t make: trading for Jay Bruce. Instead of acquiring a square peg to plug a round hole in their lineup, the Mets hang on to Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell while looking to sell off any of their other expiring free agents. Neil Walker catches the Cardinals’ eye, as they supplement their Wild Card push by swapping relief prospect Sam Tuivailala for the switch-hitting infielder. Torres is the jewel of the trade deadline, as the Mets capitalize on the best seller’s market in years to build for the future.
As for the major league side, they sputter down the stretch. Hansel Robles and Antonio Bastardo are unable to anchor the back of the bullpen, and Herrera’s shoulder doesn’t look quite right as he gets an extended look at second base. Jose Reyes rejoins the team mostly for nostalgia reasons but doesn’t really move the needle. The Cardinals take the Mets’ place in the Wild Card game only to suffer the same fate and fall at the hands of Madison Bumgarner and Conor Gillaspie. Meanwhile, the Cubs find themselves with a deeper bullpen that doesn’t make Joe Maddon ride one pitcher to exhaustion, ultimately breaking their 100-year drought without sending the entire state of Illinois into cardiac arrest.
The 2017 Season
Smartly, the Mets recognize that retaining Yoenis Cespedes is a priority, and they bring him back on a 4-year, $110 million contract*. Next, they turn to the bullpen, adding a Proven CloserTM in Sergio Romo (2 years, $10 million) and re-signing Jerry Blevins* (1 year, $6.5 million). To round out their offseason, the Mets add Johnny Giavotella and old-friend Yusmeiro Petit on minor league deals, adding more competition to the infield and bullpen mix respectively. Neil Walker winds up somewhere, while Chapman re-signs with the Yankees and the Cubs retain both Reed and Familia. When the draft comes around, the Mets zero in on David Peterson and snag him just a few spots earlier than they did in reality.
In this timeline, 2017 plays out much the same way it actually did. Matt Harvey is diagnosed with TOS. David Wright doesn’t get on the field. Noah Syndergaard, Dilson Herrera, and Yoenis Cespedes all miss half the season. Michael Conforto and, to a lesser degree, T.J. Rivera break out, but both suffer serious injuries (shoulder, torn UCL) in the closing weeks. Gleyber Torres hops in on the misfortune, tearing his UCL in mid-summer and never seeing major league action. Dom Smith and Amed Rosario disappoint in late-season cameos, while the return on Lucas Duda and Curtis Granderson is close to nothing. The Mets do add AJ Ramos cheaply and get major contributions from both Brandon Nimmo and Petit, but this season as a whole is a wash.
The 2018 Season
The Mets start the offseason by retaining four of their own, exercising Asdrubal Cabrera’s ($6.5 million) and Jerry Blevins’s ($7 million) options*, re-signing Reyes for $2 million*, and bringing back Petit on a 2-year, $12 million deal. In need of a starter, they ink Jason Vargas to a two-year, $16 million contract*, and they bring in Adrian Gonzalez on a league-minimum deal to compete for time at 1B*. With Torres looming and enough depth to justify being cheap with the infield, the Mets turn their attention to the outfield. With the injury risks around Cespedes and Conforto, they make a big splash, signing Lorenzo Cain to a 5-year, $85 million contract (this is the money that went to Frazier and Bruce in the real world).
Here, things start getting interesting. The Mets blaze out to a fast start, with Cespedes looking like his usual self. Unfortunately, injuries eventually catch up to him, and the star outfielder again misses extended time. Nevertheless, the Mets keep on chugging, driven by a career best season from Cain in center field and a truly spectacular performance from Brandon Nimmo in left. Conforto returns and is solid, Torres debuts and looks like a long term fixture, and Wilmer Flores holds his own at fist once the Mets finally jettison Adrian Gonzalez.
Still, this team is too flawed to win it all. Matt Harvey is toast and Jason Vargas struggles mightily. Travis d’Arnaud gets rage-cut early in the season, Hansel Robles gets DFA’d, and Amed Rosario struggles at the plate. The Mets win 85 games in the end, but fall short in the NL East to the surprise Braves and lose out to the Rockies and Brewers in the Wild Card race. As a bonus kicker, fans finally get their wish when Jeff McNeil debuts, and he impresses over a 248 PA debut. The season ends on a beautifully sad note, as David Wright gets the sendoff he deserves.
The 2019 Season
With a young core in the infield and outfield and a full rotation, the Mets turn their attention to the main hole on their roster; catcher. Rather than skimping and going for the second tier option, they land the biggest fish in the pond, signing Yasmani Grandal to a 4-year, $70 million deal. Next, they make a questionable trade for former top prospect J.D. Davis*, before addressing the bullpen with Justin Wilson (2 years, $10 million)*, Joe Kelly (3 years, $27 million), and Luis Avilan (minor league deal)*. In spring training, Pete Alonso continues his meteoric rise, winning the first base job and heading north with the team to round out the most promising young infield in baseball.
The Grandal and Davis moves prove to be masterful. Davis breaks out and helps cover for a suddenly declining Cain and an injured Brandon Nimmo. McNeil, Torres, and to a degree Rosario all improve, while Alonso sets a new rookie home run record. Jacob deGrom blows the league away en route to a second consecutive Cy Young award, and the Mets supplement their pitching staff at midseason by acquiring Marcus Stroman and Daniel Hudson from the Blue Jays (at the cost of Anthony Kay, Simeon Woods-Richardson, and Junior Santos) and picking Brad Brach off the waiver wire. The Joe Kelly signing doesn’t really work out, but the bullpen is more than adequate given the strength of the lineup and rotation. Meanwhile, a certain prep outfielder turns into a legitimate top-10 prospect.
The Braves are still the class of the NL East, but the Mets push past the Cubs, Brewers, and Nationals to claim the first Wild Card spot. Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer have a showdown for the ages in the Wild Card game, but the Nationals prevail unfortunately before going on to win the World Series. Regardless, the season is an unmitigated success, and the Mets head in to the offseason looking to put the final touches on a championship roster.
The 2020 Season
This past offseason plays out almost identically. Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha are brought in as rotation depth, depth that will be immediately tested after Noah Syndergaard tears his UCL. Brodie Van Waganen makes a trade with the Astros for the second straight offseason and brings in Jake Marisnick as a 4th outfielder, then turns around and signs Delin Betances to improve the bullpen. It’s an underwhelming group of additions, but spring training starts on an optimistic note given last year’s success.
Punting 2016 was likely a painful decision, but it seems to have been in the Mets’ long term interest. Having never acquired Jay Bruce in the first place and traded Jeurys Familia two years before free agency, the Mets avoid the impetus to re-sign both in free agency while getting real value in a trade rather than the pittance they actually received. Down the line, Torres’ presence at second base makes the Mets unwilling to absorb Robinson Cano’s contract, short-circuiting their attempt to swap Jared Kelenic for Edwin Diaz.
Without those other large contracts on the books, ownership is more willing to go out on a limb for both Cain and Grandal. The former’s contract might look rough for a couple years, but the latter remains the best catcher in baseball. Most importantly, the Mets have an extremely promising group of young position players (Alonso, Torres, McNeil, Rosario, Conforto, Nimmo, Davis) with another top-10 prospect in the pipeline. The pitching staff is a bit suspect beyond the top three starters, but David Peterson and Justin Dunn are knocking on the door.
In terms of playoff appearances, this what if comes out a wash so far. A one-game stint in 2016 is swapped out for a one-game stint in 2019. Still, the long-term foundations are undoubtedly stronger than in the real world, with Torres looking like a real star in the making at second base and a roster that makes a lot more sense on paper. An incomplete but still entertaining end point for this what if.
Links for Reference
* Indicates a transaction occurred in reality