Sandy Alderson became general manager of the New York Mets in October 2010. The team had just completed a 79-83 season, and the shine was very much off their 2006 team’s apple. Whispers of financial trouble encircled the team, and the Phillies ruled the National League East.
It’s been a shade over three years, and while the Phillies are no longer the beasts of the division—the Mets actually finished ahead of them in 2013—the Alderson Era has been a fairly bleak stretch. The team has won 77, 74 and 74 games in the three years comprising Alderson’s term. Trades have brought in some elite prospects, including what should be the team’s starting catcher and top two starting pitchers by the second half of 2014, but the depth and caliber of talent throughout the roster that would be required in order to win is not in place.
Money has turned out to be a very real problem, and that partially excuses the front office’s struggles. Still, it’s hard to excuse the fact that the Mets sat on Jose Reyes, then let him walk with no more than a whimper, back in 2011. That was a missed opportunity. Trading R.A. Dickey, while ultimately worthwhile given the return they secured, was a bizarre decision, especially because it came within three weeks of the team extending David Wright for eight seasons. There has been no clear direction to the Mets’ maneuvers, and for that reason, they still feel far from contention.
What makes them so interesting right now—what might make them the most interesting team in baseball this winter, at least early on—is that the patience for rebuilding seems to be exhausted, from the fans up to the GM’s office. There are whispers about the Mets and Shin-Soo Choo, the Mets and Curtis Granderson, the Mets and Carlos Gonzalez. The industry chatter has the team taking an aggressive stance in both the trade and free-agent markets.
That seems ill-timed to me. Now is exactly when holding the rebuilding line becomes most important. Having the courage to finish the job is the hardest part of any rebuild, because the patience wears thin, the light seems to dim and the seat on which the GM (or manager, or whoever) sits gets warm. Expending young talent and/or draft picks before the roster can bear it is a good way to lengthen the term of rebuilding to excruciating, seemingly interminable proportion. The Pirates fell into this trap in the mid-2000s. The Royals might have fallen into it last winter. The Mets should strive not to place themselves in those teams’ company.
I’m not a fan of this roster. I’m not a huge fan of this farm system. Were I Alderson, given the great season David Wright just had and the likely market for great positional talent in free agency, I would look to trade Wright, and finish the rebuild by leaping headlong into one last terrible season. It doesn’t sound like that’s on the menu, but that’s the choice I would make.
The Shadow Man
The name on every Mets fan’s tongue throughout 2013 belongs to the one man we already know will not take the field for the Mets in 2014. It’s Matt Harvey. After a bursting, breakout, near-Cy Young-worthy first full season, Harvey suffered a torn elbow ligament, and after six or seven weeks of needless waffling, he then underwent Tommy John surgery to repair it.
Harvey became the talk and toast of the town, the first Met to be New York’s favorite baseball player since, I don’t know, Doc Gooden or Darryl Strawberry. Hell, even those guys had their best years just during Don Mattingly’s peak. It might be that no Met has captivated the city like Harvey since Tom Seaver. Harvey throws (or threw; we’ll see what comes out the other side of the Tommy John machine) nearly 100 miles per hour, with his fastball, and hit 92 more than once with a vicious slider. He seemed poised to be the leading man in the Mets’ return to prominence. Now, all of that is at least a bit in doubt.
I don’t want to oversell what Harvey’s absence does to the 2014 roster. It stings, to be sure, but another team could overcome it. In fact, if you told me in October that I had to plan for the absence of one star from my roster, I would choose my ace starter, not any of my three best position players. It’s just easier to paper over a drop in production once every five days, with a little bit of bullpen stretching, or a stopgap free-agent signing—pitchers on one-year contracts always seem to work out much better than position players.
No, what makes Harvey’s absence so glaring is the shape of the Mets’ roster, the fact that, given their offensive and defensive talent, they really need dominant pitching in order to put up a fight on any given day. That, plus the emotional despair, the team’s best player being unavailable for the season in which they might otherwise have hoped to return to contention. At any rate, that’s going to be one of the major narratives of the 2014 Mets, no matter what.
Four Guys Short
The Mets have Wright in the fold, at least for now. He’s a star, even if his defense at third base gets a little too much love. He’s not the problem, in any way, shape or form. It’s what surrounds him that, for my money, precludes their contending in the near future.
Wright is on one level. Distinctly below him, but still at the level of solid big-leaguers, are Daniel Murphy (a great pure hitter, but with no patience at the plate and no right to be playing second base in the big leagues), Lucas Duda (patience, and power, aplenty, but many strikeouts, and no defensive home whatsoever) and Travis d’Arnaud (their rookie catcher, a top prospect for whom injuries have made escaping prospect status a protracted nightmare.) That’s a fine trio of players to have around, provided they’re the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-best regular players you have, but they’re not a good group to depend upon as heavily as the Mets must.
After that, it gets even worse. Ruben Tejada could bounce back and be a poor man’s Everth Cabrera again in 2014, but 2013 was a troubling digression. Juan Lagares put up some silly small-sample defensive stats in center field, but those had better be real, because he can’t hit. Hey, and speaking of can’t hit, Eric Young and Justin Turner highlight a whole collection of Mets in their late 20s who just lack the offensive upside of regulars on a good MLB team.
Only an aggressive addition—preferably two, ideally three—could make this offense viable. For right now, they’re a bad team that won’t score enough runs, and whose gloves don’t support their pitchers’ arms very well.
The Great Unknown
The last half-decade of Mets off-season activity has been a string of mixed signals about how much money the club has to spend, with the answer usually making itself apparent by the time Opening Day comes: none, really.
That appears to be changing, but until the Mets actually win a bidding war for a fairly major free agent—Francisco Rodriguez was the last fish bigger than a perch that they successfully reeled in—there will be no way to verify that the dark days are behind them. In the meantime, it’s worth continuing to weigh the available options, which include a more aggressive form of rebuilding that might frustrate fans in the short term, but could make for a very exciting 2015.
Eerie similarities link the Mets right now to the Nationals during the winter of 2010-11. Despite the specter of a season without their phenomenal starter, the Nats spent big on a free-agent outfielder, whom they paired with their locked-in star third baseman, ensuring that the core of a dynasty would be waiting when the ace got back the following year. That could be the Mets this winter. They could sign Choo or Ellsbury, just as Washington signed Jayson Werth, and look to trade ancillary parts like Murphy, Jon Niese or Bobby Parnell during the season. That would help them build a roster that could more realistically compete once Harvey returns, while mollifying the fan base in the short term, even with another tough year ahead.
It’s going to be harder for the Mets to do what the 2012 Nationals did. The Nationals had only to overcome a transitioning Braves team and a crumbling, aging Phillies squad. The Mets will have a younger, more consolidated Atlanta club to edge out, and then the Nationals—with Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann keeping thew roster young—to deal with. It’s a tall order, but if they lay the groundwork for it with one more season of rebuilding efforts, they might be able to fill it—and Alderson might deserve to keep his job beyond the end of this year.Next post: MLB Free Agency Profile: Robinson Cano
Previous post: A Balanced Schedule: Seattle Mariners – November 7