The Mets and the importance of smart spending

The Mets, rumored to be one of a handful of teams seriously in the mix for him, lost the George Springer sweepstakes when the slugging center fielder struck a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this week. Reports suggest that the team was unwilling to meet the total sum of the six-year, $150 million pact he ultimately secured and instead maxed out at six years and $125 million.

Despite the fact that there was only a roughly $5 million difference per year between where the Mets set their ceiling and what Springer ultimately received, we’d do well to remember that roster and payroll management is a complicated dance when considering current and future needs and commitments. This is especially true for a team like the Mets, where life (presumably) at or near the soft payroll cap has to be balanced with their core players exiting their arbitration years.

Steve Cohen and Sandy Alderson seem to have a clear vision for the franchise, but they’ve certainly inherited a mess that spending irresponsibly would only exacerbate. Not only did the previous regime (both management and ownership) fail to capitalize on the team’s window of contention while their core pieces were still relatively inexpensive, they made poor roster decisions that led to both mediocre results on the field and hindered payroll flexibility for the new regime moving forward.

The player’s that make up much of the team’s core will soon be exiting their arbitration years, which of course impacts the decisions the team makes as they consider both free agents and trade opportunities. Michael Conforto, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, and Francisco Lindor are all set to hit free agency after the 2021 season, with players like Brandon Nimmo and Seth Lugo following shortly thereafter. Arguments can be made regarding the wisdom in extending players like Conforto, Stroman, and Syndergaard, but the moves the Mets make over the next couple of offseasons may speak to their overarching intentions and internal player valuations.

For instance, their unwillingness to outbid the Blue Jays for Springer likely signals their openness to extending Conforto. It may also give us a peak at how they compare both players in terms of performance expectations over the life of a contract versus what they will cost in dollars and years. Essentially, they may have deemed that a projected contract for Conforto was a better value proposition than what it took to sign Springer. Likewise, if the team does surprisingly sign someone like Trevor Bauer it may mean we’ll be waving goodbye to Syndergaard, Stroman, or both because they decided that Bauer was the better value.

What’s abundantly clear so far during the Cohen era is that, though the team will be players at the top of the market year-in and year-out, the Mets won’t simply spend for the sake of spending. It’s also clear that they’ll leverage their financial resources to benefit from other teams’ financial restrictions. A case in point is the recent acquisition of Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. Cleveland was in a position where they needed to cut payroll and knew they couldn’t extend Lindor. While the Mets did give up value in the trade, they paid pennies on the dollar because they’re in the opposite position financially and could (pending a Lindor extension) cover the cost. As the Dodgers have recently shown, flexing your financial might doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of splashy free-agent contracts. The Mets, it seems, are wisely following suit.

Smart spending is also important at the fringes of the roster. One notable weakness during Alderson’s first stint with the organization was his continued failure to build a formidable bullpen. Bullpens and relief pitchers in general are finicky and unpredictable, of course, but this area of the roster was where he tended to dumpster dive and sign reclamation projects. An extra $5 million not spent on a high-profile center fielder could, theoretically, mean the difference between a cheap lottery ticket and a known quantity solidifying the team’s relief corps. This same logic applies to the end of the bench and 40-man roster depth as well.

It seems like ages ago, but Omar Minaya and the pre-Madoff Mets made a habit of winning the back pages while shorting the roster fringes. The result was a top-heavy roster that collapsed under injury and a dearth of quality depth. I, for one, am tired of the Mets’ typical competitiveness cycle wherein one or two years of success is followed by lengthy stretches of mediocrity. The new era of Mets baseball seems poised to move toward a model of sustained success, and spending money smartly (if at times aggressively) while leveraging resources other teams do not have is the way to go about it.

It’d be disingenuous of me to say that I’m not at least a little disappointed that we won’t be seeing Springer mashing in Queens for the next six years. It’d be equally insincere to not acknowledge that part of the disappointment may stem from the perhaps subconscious concern that the “new Mets” are still hesitant to operate like a proper big market team. Mets fans are a cynical and wounded bunch, of course, but we shouldn’t let the fecklessness of the team’s previous ownership color our expectations for its future.

Sandy Alderson and the remnants of austerity

One of the first moves that new Mets owner Steve Cohen announced as he worked through the sale approval process was the return of former General Manager Sandy Alderson as the team’s president. This move was generally met with praise, and to some a sign that Cohen wasn’t simply going to storm in with his Scrooge McDuck money and recklessly flood a free agent market impacted by revenue losses incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you were a Mets fan, the thought of the team being one of only a handful with the ability to spend big was seemingly a dream come true. If you were an opposing owner tasked with approving Cohen’s purchase, that thought was most assuredly a less appealing scenario.

Much to the delight of Mets fans, Cohen appears to be wasting little time in shoring up the organizational shortcomings that were a perverse mainstay of the Wilpon era. Cutting corners across organizational operations, refusing to go all in on building a robust advanced analytics department, and ownership meddling in roster management and day-to-day baseball operations represented just a sliver of the underlying dysfunction that all too often justified the “LOLMets” moniker that haunts the franchise. With Cohen that all seems apt to change, and his first order of business appears to be putting the adults back in charge.

Restoring a bit of order, however, likely means the freewheeling spending of Cohen’s coffers some fans dreamed of might not come to fruition. The Mets had some work to do on their roster heading into the offseason, and it just so happens that three of their biggest needs were tied to three of the biggest free agents available: catcher (J.T. Realmuto), center field (George Springer), and starting pitcher (Trevor Bauer). Was it likely that the team was going to sign all three of these big-ticket players in one offseason? No, obviously, but the team’s signing of James McCann to a four-year $40 million deal so early in another painfully slow hot stove season may portend an unforeseen consequence that may come with bringing back the overseer of the Mets’ lowest period of austerity: attempting to outsmart everyone while spending less.

To be fair, the Mets’ stated intent was to hire both a President of Baseball Operations as well as a General Manager. Having failed to hire the former (mostly due to the best candidates’ current employers denying them interviews) and only just hiring the latter (Jared Porter), Alderson is once again in the driver’s seat for the team’s offseason roster-tweaking for 2021. On the surface that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as Alderson is clearly a measured and calculating individual that doesn’t tend to act on impulse. In a vacuum, that’s the type of management you want in place to ensure the new owner’s significant funds aren’t spent so recklessly that it actually hamstrings the team in the future. The potential downside is that Alderson might not be able to shake the miserly nature in which he was forced to operate the last time he had his hands on the wheel in New York.

The general consensus seemed to be that McCann would sign for two or three years at roughly the average annual salary to which the Mets inked him. The fourth year he received from the Mets, it would seem, was the cost for the team to secure his services so early in the offseason.

The obvious first question after the signing concerns why the team jumped on McCann when Realmuto was (and is) still available. The answer is just as obvious: his exorbitant price tag and his rumored lack of desire to play in New York. Both of those points play on each other, as an already high price would theoretically be higher for a team for which he would rather not play.

The second question is, of course, how to square the concept of the team (potentially) not wanting to meet Realmuto’s price while also overpaying for McCann. The most palatable answer is that the team plans on being aggressive players in the Springer and Bauer sweepstakes and were not inclined to pay big for Realmuto’s twilight years. In this scenario, the team was being aggressive on McCann to avoid having another team snatch him up while everyone’s focus was on Realmuto. If this is the case, it’s a great example of Alderson strategically leveraging the financial resources now at his disposal and a good sign that the team will start acting as the large-market team its fans and new owner demand.

What if the Mets sign no other big-ticket free agents, though? What if their biggest acquisition this offseason ends up being McCann based solely on monetary reasons? It certainly wouldn’t be for a lack of funds, and as far as Cohen has conveyed publicly it wouldn’t be for a lack of desire to win. In this scenario, we have to question whether or not Alderson has the stomach to spend like a large-market club rather than continuing to attempt to outsmart the rest of baseball with ostensibly shrewd roster decisions.

There’s a long way to go before we can fully assess the Mets’ first offseason under new ownership, and there are several big fish still out there that would dramatically improve the team’s roster should they so choose to dole out the funds. We should obviously exercise caution in reading too deeply into the team’s early moves when there is still so much to be done before the 2021 season. Still, it’s not unreasonable to wonder just how far Alderson will go in what are essentially uncharted waters for the old school moneyballer.

Sports agent caricature Scott Boras once chastised the Mets for shopping in the “fruits-and-nuts category” in the free-agent marketplace. It was a harsh but fair assessment of the state that the franchise was put into by the bumbling Wilpons. That iteration of the team was also run by Alderson, though under drastically different circumstances. We’re just two months away from the official start of Spring Training, but that’s plenty of time for Cohen and Alderson to show fans and the sport whether or not we’ve truly entered a new era of Mets baseball that no longer justifies regular “LOLMets” quips.

Pete Alonso and the notorious sophomore slump

There was a time, long ago, when yours truly was so aboard the hype train for a certain young Mets slugger that he preposterously suggested that said slugger could become the franchise’s future home run king. To be fair, the Mets aren’t exactly known for having an illustrious history of mashers. Darryl Strawberry, the franchise leader, heads the pack with just 252 homers after all. Still, we all know how things turned out professionally for poor Ike Davis. The “Future Mets HR King” ended his MLB career *pitching* in 2017 for a Dodgers rookie level affiliate.

By now most of us have learned that you shouldn’t fall in love with prospects because they’ll usually break your heart. We also know that early success doesn’t necessarily portend sustained success, even if it happens at the major league level. We should, perhaps, pump the breaks just a bit to see how the player adjusts to the league adjusting to them before anointing them the franchise savior. It’s through this lens that we briefly examine the sophomore season of one Pete Alonso, future…well, let’s keep that hype train in check for the time being.

Alonso burst onto the scene in 2019, earning the starting job at first base as a rookie and top-rated prospect at the position. Given this rare opportunity (at least for the Mets), all he did was break the rookie single-season home run record and set the high-water mark for the franchise with 53 dingers en route to winning National League Rookie of the Year. Not too shabby.

The natural question following a dominant rookie campaign relates to an ability to continue that performance into the next season. Would Alonso continue to dominate, or would he succumb to the precipitous second-year drop in performance colloquially known as the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Spoiler: he did see a drop in performance, but he was still pretty good during a pandemic-shortened season. Below is a selection of his stats for 2019 and 2020.

Season G HR RBI BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
2019 161 53 120 10.4% 26.4% .323 .280 .260 .358 .583 .384 143 4.8
2020 57 16 35 10.0% 25.5% .260 .242 .231 .326 .490 .342 119 0.4

Counting stats like HR and RBI are obviously going to be suppressed during an abbreviated season, but the nearly identical BB and K percentages are good indicators that Alonso maintained a consistent approach across seasons. There is a noted drop in his triple slash that should be a bit concerning on the surface, but the drop in BABIP and a smaller sample size may go a long way in explaining that reduction in results.

An interpretation of the sophomore slump that I’m inclined to agree with, at least in theory, involves a regression to the mean with a particular focus on luck. A player that performs so well that they garner Rookie of the Year honors (and break several records along the way) is likely benefiting from some well-timed luck in combination with their elite skill set. As we can see with the significant drop in Alonso’s BABIP rate (which was already below league-average), it’s likely that luck played as much of a role in his less impressive 2020 performance as it did during his amazing rookie year.

There are other statistics we can analyze in an attempt to piece together a narrative for Alonso’s sophomore performance, of course. His HR/FB ratio went from 30.6% in 2019 to 24.6% in 2020 at the same time his hard hit and line drive rates dropped. He appeared to miss more on pitches outside of the strike zone in 2020, though he didn’t swing at them much more often. Pitchers also appeared to bust him inside with cutters more often in 2020, a pitch he had less success with than in his 2019 breakout. These all appear to be signs of a player making adjustments to adjustments, though, and none of them signal that Alonso was overmatched during his second tour through the league.

We also have to keep in mind that these percentages map to relatively small raw numbers over 57 games and 239 plate appearances, and it’s unfortunate that the environment didn’t allow Alonso the reps to normalize the rates that under normal circumstances may be potential warning signs. It’s certainly possible, even likely, that his record-breaking performance was the well-timed culmination of ability, good luck, and the effects of what may be a modern live-ball era that can’t be replicated.

Alonso will likely never again be quite as good as he was in 2019, but the Mets don’t need him to continuously break records for him to be a core component of their next winning team. In the midst of a uniquely challenging season, he did not succumb to the trappings of what we know as the sophomore slump. Outside of reproducing his 2019, that’s probably the best possible outcome of the 2020 season for both him and the team.

Is Alonso the next Mets legend or, dare I say, home run king? In the spirit of baseball’s time-honored tradition of being cognizant and respectful of superstition, perhaps we shouldn’t poke that polar bear just yet.

The Mets should decline Wilson Ramos’ team option

One of the first roster decisions Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen, or whoever is running the show in the Steve Cohen era, will need to make as the team retools for 2021 is whether or not to pick up the $10 million team option on catcher Wilson Ramos. Ramos was one of the first signings during what may be a particularly short front office career for Van Wagenen, and the results weren’t quite as hoped when the backstop was inked to a two-year deal with that team option before the 2019 season.

Ramos’ first season with the team in 2019 was a bit of a bumpy ride. His satisfactory, if underwhelming and streaky, offensive performance was undermined by defense and game calling that compelled pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard to push for alternative backstops by mid-season. The situation with the Mets’ top two starters seemed to resolve itself, however, and Ramos’ bat more or less justified his signing by the end of the season.

To Ramos’ credit, he made a concerted effort to improve his defensive game for 2020 by modifying his approach behind the plate. Those changes did appear to pay dividends, at least in terms of a modest improvement of his pitch framing. Still, when compared to the rest of the league he was still middling in both framing and pop time this past season. He should be commended for his professionalism and his effort to improve on the shortcomings in his game, but his improvements still fell short of making any kind of meaningful impact on the team’s overall performance.

Ramos wasn’t signed for his defense, though, and if his 2019 with the bat at least somewhat justified his acquisition then his 2020 may be reason enough to buy out that team option for $1.5 million. He saw declines in almost every offensive metric, including average, OBP, and slugging. He walked less, struck out significantly more, and was somehow even slower on the basepaths. In short, his wRC+ of 89 in 2020, lack of defense, and his likely continued decline do not justify a $10 million price tag for his age 33 season.

Before the 2019 season, Van Wagenen rightly refused to pay a king’s ransom in a trade for J.T. Realmuto, but refusing to pay Yasmani Grandal may have turned out to be another of the multiple mistakes and miscalculations he made during his first offseason in charge. As a result, and as we head into the 2020-2021 offseason, the team is once again looking for answers behind the dish.

The options in free agency aren’t particularly appetizing, though the catcher position isn’t exactly booming with elite talent at the moment. The choices appear to be Realmuto, a target Mets fans will continue to dream on over the winter, followed by a plethora of 30-somethings with varying degrees of success and pedigree. Unless Cohen truly does throw open the purse strings, the Mets would likely benefit most from zeroing in on someone with defensive chops and allocating the bulk of their funds to rehabilitating a rotation that was the envy of the baseball world not long ago. Additionally, the continued development of the Mets’ young offensive core render the need for a bat behind the plate less necessary.

There’s very little about the 2020 season that could be considered normal, but the steady decline in performance of a catcher moving further into his 30’s was unsurprising and frustrating in a comfortably predicable way. Unfortunately for the Mets, Ramos sticking to the script for aging, fading backstops was detrimental to the team’s overall success. While he certainly wasn’t the main reason for the team’s fantastic failure in 2020, there’s no reason to believe he’s primed for any kind of resurgence in 2021. With more pressing needs on other parts of the roster, he certainly doesn’t appear to be part of the solution as the organization as a whole turns the page to a new chapter. Not at $10 million, anyway.