Even with the addition of the second wild card, at some point a team has to look at their season and figure it’s not ending in a postseason trip, let alone a World Series. For everyone in the NL East but the Nationals, the sobering truth came early this year. Maybe even before Father’s Day, by which time the Nats led the rest of the division by 12.5 games. The number would come down, but never to less than a week’s worth of wins; by July 31st, the lead had ballooned to 14 games.
There’s no solace in the aforementioned wild card, either. In the NL West, second and third on the senior circuit left coast—the Rockies and the Diamondbacks (though the order fluctuates)—are winning at a Nationals-esque pace. Per FanGraphs, the four teams in the East that aren’t the Nats have a collective 5.4% chance of making the playoffs by any means.
When your season’s over early, it’s draining. A sense of “What’s the point?” descends over the rest of the year, and there’s a lot of rest-of-the-year to deal with. Futility is easy to come by in fandom, especially if it’s expected from the outset: The Marlins, Braves, and Phillies weren’t tipped to be .500 teams based on pre-season Vegas over/unders.
It’s something more than dejection when your season capitulates against expectation.
The Mets came into the season with an 89.5 O/U per Vegas Insider. FiveThirtyEight gave them the fifth-best odds to make the postseason in the NL, and the best odds of any non-division favorite to win their respective division. This after two consecutive playoff trips (depending on how you view the one-game wild card), plus the return of a core group that has seen a lot of collective success, led by frontline, affordable pitching.
The Mets spent the last two seasons buying at the all-star break, once as an assertion of arrival (Yoenis Céspedes), and then as an attempt to stay near lofty expectations (Jay Bruce).
By the 2017 all-star break, adrift in their division and their league, the Mets were selling. The white flag was out. The give-up was on.
But it’s not so much a teardown as it is a reload.
The immediate reaction to watching a team sell in baseball is that they’re in for a prospect-loaded long reboot. Punting a season and punting a half-decade are two different things, but in the moment of deals and flips, it feels about the same.
The deals the Mets made appear to be geared towards strengthening a bullpen that’s been bottom-half across most major performance stats in the Majors this year. They’ve contributed to seven walk-off losses and have, for the most part, been underwhelming on a team whose starting rotation is constructed in a way that requires a lot of relief pitching.
The four pitching prospects New York received in the Lucas Duda and Addison Reed deals all project to be bullpen arms if they make it to the Bigs. And AJ Ramos is a capable relief arm with team control for another season. General Manager Sandy Alderson clearly identified an area of the roster that needed to be addressed, but one he didn’t want to spend a lot on (which would explain why Reed was flipped before free agency). If the pen is an area of the team that the Mets front office believes can contribute to a quick resurgence (like the Royals, Yankees, Cubs, and Indians in recent years), they’ve done a great job putting a quick-fix, low-cost solution in play.
Still, the baseball nomenclature of “seller” intones defeatism, especially so when success was so recent. The 2015 deal for Céspedes was a declaration that the Mets believed they weren’t ahead of schedule; they were right on time. But with so many young pre-arbitration/arbitration players on the roster, losing the World Series carried some cautious optimism with it. Optimism because youth—and the economics of arbitration—inherently suggests there’s still time to accomplish great things. Cautious because New York’s own recent history suggests “We’ll be back” is both breezily possible (see: Royals, Kansas City) and wishful thinking (see: curveball, Wainwright).
The “arbitration window” (where talented young players are severely underpaid for their production—an article for another day) is something like six years. The clock on young talent that runs from their official debut to unrestricted free agency just about fits in that window.
Since the first wild cards were awarded in 1995, teams who’ve lost the World Series have gone back to the Fall Classic within their arbitration window eight times. If adjusted for runners-up who haven’t exhausted their window yet, teams have returned within that window at about a 38% rate.
Years for return
It’s important to note that not every team relies heavily on arbitration talent to succeed, and the fundamental construction of teams has changed so much pre- and post-Moneyballthat rosters can’t really be compared financially (for example, the 2009 Yankees weren’t the grown-up version of the 2003 Yankees). But it’s a decent upper-limit timeline restriction for the window of opportunity after a team loses the World Series, if for no other reason than the rosters that took them there the first time are probably down to a handful of “originals” by the year six mark.
For a team like the modern-day Mets, who have benefited greatly by paying cut rates for starting pitching, the window is telling. It’s really hard to win a ring, and when you’re thinning out instead of bulking up, it at least appears like an unlikely possibility is becoming just unlikely. As post-arbitration approaches for their live arms, any concession speeds up foreboding urgency.
Baseball colloquialisms aside however, the Mets have a vision to stay in contention. They’ve punted 2017, a disaster of a year through and through. Young talent will get a chance to get Major League exposure on a relatively low-key playing field, and the money saved on bullpen reinforcement could theoretically be used on a starting eight that will see four everyday players hit free agency. Get beyond the stigma of concession and selling, and the re-up is on.
The window hasn’t been shuttered for good. But it has been closed for 2017.
All stats current as of August 2nd, 2017Next post: We’re Overlooking Andrelton Simmons
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