After the Mets season came crashing to a close last week, the team wasted almost no time getting out in front of any potential rumors about the future of GM Billy Eppler, leaking to two different outlets that his job is safe and iterating a strong vote of confidence in his ability to handle the team’s offseason moves. Eppler also confirmed on Friday that he has full authority over the Mets’ offseason.
Not that there was much drama about Eppler’s job security after a 101-win season, but the reassurance was probably necessary since Eppler was not hired under the most usual of circumstances. The 47-year-old was hired only after Sandy Alderson and Steve Cohen had struck out on nearly a dozen candidates they had eyes on before hiring Eppler last offseason, thus creating the perception that the former Angels GM was more of a last-resort hire than the actual person the Mets wanted to head up their baseball operations. Their continued interest in bringing in David Stearns has also not helped this perception.
Regardless, the Mets seem to have put all their eggs in the Eppler basket for another year. Coming off such a successful season, you might think it would be easy to feel confident in Eppler going forward, but several mistakes and process failures from the front office this year should raise doubts about Eppler’s ability to run a modern baseball franchise and bring the Mets to where they want to be organizationally.
While it is absolutely true that Eppler made some good moves by doing what he has always been best at—using his owner’s money to sign good players to big contracts—it was what happened after those signings that Eppler displayed what he has always been weakest at: effectively building a roster around those players.
After the lockout was lifted, the Mets’ roster still had several weak spots: an incomplete bullpen, a rough situation at catcher, and a DH triumvirate of J.D. Davis, Dom Smith, and Robinson Canó which made for very awkward roster flexibility and a low floor of production for that DH spot.
Other than signing Adam Ottavino, Eppler chose to do nothing about any of those remaining holes and went into the season with an incomplete and inflexible roster. Unsurprisingly, the bullpen proved too shallow, none of the DHs hit up to par, and James McCann played baseball for the Mets. Thankfully, the rest of the team was good enough that those issues didn’t drag the team down in any meaningful way, but it did mean they had a lot of work to do at the trade deadline.
Apprehensive to part with any prospects of note, Eppler held firm on his prices and focused more on searching for high-upside bargains than acquiring real stars. He appeared optimistic his plan would work in mid-July, citing the reliever market being more robust than the position player market as the reason he traded Collin Holderman for Daniel Vogelbach. He sounded confident he would land multiple relievers by August 2nd to make up for the loss of Holderman and that sellers would come down to his price level for other players as well.
Well, they didn’t. Eppler wound up having to overpay for Darin Ruf—giving up fast-rising pitching prospect Carson Seymour and three other players for the right-handed DH—and settled for Mychal Givens as the only upgrade to the bullpen without addressing catcher at all. He also acquired Tyler Naquin, though not exactly at a bargain-like cost, as Jose Acuña was a very interesting prospect to give up for a role player like Naquin.
Meanwhile, the Braves found two tremendous bargains themselves that could’ve greatly helped the Mets: Raisel Iglesias and Robbie Grossman. The price for those two players combined was arguably lower than what the Mets paid for just Ruf alone. So after essentially making it his mission to find some bargains, Eppler wound up not actually finding any while his closest rival found two great ones right under his nose, and left his team with an incomplete roster once again.
The Braves also addressed their holes through aggressive promotions of top prospects Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom from Double-A. The Mets, by contrast, refused to call up Francisco Álvarez for months, claimed he wasn’t ready, then suddenly decided he was ready for the highest stress series possible for the final weekend in Atlanta, where Álvarez looked overmatched by the magnitude of the series. The Mets lacked any cohesive plan for promoting their top prospect and put the 20-year-old in a clear position to fail.
Eppler’s inability to fill the holes on the roster or effectively promote prospects may have at least partially cost the Mets the division to the Braves, who lapped them on both of those fronts, but that hasn’t stopped Eppler from defending his process anyway. He claimed on Friday that he still has “no regrets” about the trade deadline and that it was “hard to pinpoint anything” he could’ve done better, despite the Braves doing everything he wanted to do better and then beating his team for the division.
Eppler has also boasted about his commitment to “sustainability” by claiming he did not part with any of the Mets’ top-19 prospects at the deadline, though some evaluators disagree that Seymour was not a top-19 prospect in the system by the time he was traded, so Eppler might not have even accomplished that.
He also gave a now-famous explanation on deadline day about why he chose not to go for it as hard as he could’ve, and how he thinks he’s achieving this fabled sustainability:
Billy Eppler on Mets' World Series chances now and going forward in the context of trading prospects: "If you're subtracting a percent or 1.5% aggregate over a four- or five-year period to move up 1% now, I don't think that’s how sustainability (works)." pic.twitter.com/LtJCjp7EN6— Tim Healey (@timbhealey) August 3, 2022
Not only is that just a bad quote to give to a fanbase clamoring for a championship, but it is not at all how organizations that have actually mastered “sustainability” like the Dodgers, Astros, and Yankees actually behave at the trade deadline. All three of those teams have made massive deadline deals in recent seasons when championships were in reach. In fact, those teams are almost always trading meaningful prospects for difference-making MLB pieces at the deadline. So yes, the extra 1% now is always worth the theoretical 1.5% over the next few seasons, according to the smartest and best teams in the league. That Eppler seems to disagree with that is worrying.
Even more worrying is that Eppler’s handling of the deadline is being credited as part of the reason for his job security, when it should be doing the opposite. Nobody is arguing that Eppler should’ve ravaged the farm system or traded Álvarez or Brett Baty for a rental, but based on their quotes and behavior, Eppler and the Mets seem to think that their path to long-term sustainability would have been hindered without hogging their top “X” number of prospects, which is just not how it works.
Sustainability comes instead from building strong scouting, drafting, and development teams to ensure a constant pipeline of young talent to either trade or turn into MLB contributors. If you are confident in your drafting and player development, you should have no hesitancy to trade prospects for fair returns since you know you can develop more prospects behind them. The way the Mets handled the deadline, then, is either a tacit admission that they don’t believe they’ll be able to do that, or a fundamental misunderstanding of what sustainable success actually entails.
For the Mets to achieve sustainability, they will need to build an organization that can identify, develop, and promote major league talent consistently, and can reliably acquire talent and use their tools and knowledge to make bold and calculated moves to put the team over the top.
Eppler was held back by ownership in Anaheim, but he has never proven that he can build an organization like that. The Angels never had anything close to that under him, and even the Yankees did not develop that until after he left his role as Assistant GM there in 2014. Eppler’s ability to spend money and sign good free agents is great, but the goal of becoming “Dodgers East” will require far more than just throwing money around.
This year, Eppler was outmaneuvered by the team chasing his, displayed a clear misunderstanding of certain strategies, botched the promotion of the team’s most important prospect, and took shortcuts on the backend of the roster. He also has no proven track record that shows he can get the Mets where they want to be as an organization, and his quotes and actions don’t indicate that he knows how. They should find someone who does, either in a position above Eppler or in his stead, if they’re actually serious about this whole sustainability thing.