George Springer and the new Mets

George Springer is a name that has been connected to the Mets since the offseason began. As of January 1st, he’s still not a Met and all reports seem to indicate that Springer and the team are pretty far apart in negotiations. Recent reporting has the Mets holding fast at four years and Springer asking for six and an excess of 150 million dollars. That seems to indicate he’s asking for at least 25 million a year, which is probably a fairly reasonable salary for the veteran considering how talented he is. The problem with the Springer situation is that it seems to have put the Mets offseason temporarily on hold. Outside of rumors that the Mets might be closing in on signing top Japanese pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, all other rumors seem to be pending what happens with Springer, possibly even extension talks with Michael Conforto.

Why is this? It appears to be that Steve Cohen, the extremely wealthy new Mets owner, has put a bit of a salary cap on spending. The luxury tax in professional baseball kicks in after a team exceeds 210 million on player salaries. The tax rate is 20% for up to the first 20 million dollars and then increases from there. That doesn’t seem like a huge amount in the grand scheme of baseball salaries. For instance, if the Mets salaries added up to 220 million, Cohen would pay 2 million to Major League Baseball, where it would be evenly distributed to player benefits and lower salary organizations.

The issue is less about 2021 and more about future seasons. If the Mets go over the tax this year it is extremely likely that they will be over the tax next year, when you consider player additions, increased salaries to current arbitration players and first time eligible players like Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil. With each consecutive occurrence, the percentage increases, maxing out at a 50% rate after a third consecutive year. Cohen has said he would “probably go over the tax” at some point, but also wanted to maintain “payroll flexibility” for the future. That seems to indicate that Cohen isn’t ready to start paying any level of tax this year and wants to see how the team performs before crossing that threshold in the future.

This is why the Springer situation is so important. Signing Springer to an annual salary of 25 to 27 million would put the Mets at about 25 million below the tax line. If they sign Sugano, that would probably dip that figure to 12 or 13 million. That makes it difficult to sign a second starting pitcher or a high end bullpen arm like Liam Hendricks or Brad Hand. However, at least the Mets would then know how close they were to the tax line. It would also open the door for other moves, like trades. Without Springer though, the centerfield situation is still very much up in the air, with everyone agreeing that Brandon Nimmo isn’t the answer there moving forward, but is the current starter. Other options exist on both the trade market and in free agency, but they are a significant step down from Springer.

Luckily for the Mets the offseason has been exceedingly slow in developing. All of the big name free agents are still available and trade targets like Francisco Lindor could still be reachable since it seems their markets aren’t very robust. This puts the Mets in the driver’s seat for a lot of possible moves and allows them to wait out Springer. It would be nice to have some finality in this long back and forth with the centerfielder, but it also doesn’t make sense for the Mets to bid against themselves just to move forward with other moves.

Despite all of this, 2021 still appears to be a year in which Mets fans can finally feel good about the organization. It has money. It’s involved with nearly every major player that hits the market, whether via trade rumors or free agency. It has a new front office that not only is committed to modern baseball, like analytics, but is also actually built from baseball minds, as opposed to a big name or a random outsider like Brodie Van Wanegan. So yes, we are all waiting on a move. We are all sitting back and, as Mets fans, can’t help but think “same old Mets, always rumored to but never actually getting the big name”. You know, like Vladimir Guerrero, Alex Rodriguez and many others. But it’s not the same. This is what good teams in the Mets position do and goes to show what Sandy Alderson might have been able to do in his first tenure with the Mets if he wasn’t working under the frugality of the Wilpon family.

Hold tight in this new year, Mets fans. This front office is going to make this team better. It already has and will continue to do so. It will do it without sacrificing the team’s future, both in prospects and in long term salary. Hopefully, this new year will also be a beginning, not just of a new season, but also of an extended time of success and relevancy. Happy New Year all! Looking forward to it.

Spending Steve Cohen’s money

Steve Cohen is a breath of fresh air. He also has a lot of money. Since officially becoming the Mets new owner, Cohen has made statements about how he’s “doing this for the fans”, “makes my money elsewhere” and “we’ll spend like a big market team”. It’s refreshing after years and years of the Wilpon Family’s at best frugal, at worst unbearably cheap treatment of a team in the largest sports market in the world. For the Wilpons, the Mets were not a team. The Mets were a significant part of their investment portfolio, one that needed to be protected for the day that the family could sell it for top dollar and slink back with the profits to their Sterling Equities offices in Great Neck.

Replacing the Wilpons thrifty ways with Cohen’s multi-billion dollar bank account has made Mets fans into giddy children again, pulling out our baseball cards, looking at the stats on the back and putting them all on our team. We’re getting J.T. Realmuto, Brad Hand, Trevor Bauer, George Springer, Marcel Ozuna and trading for Francisco Lindor. It’s in the bank!

Look, it’s great to be excited and Mets fans deserve it. Except for a short time in the mid-eighties and that one magical season in 1969, the Mets have always been the second team in town and part of that has been about ownership. The Wilpons weren’t the first cheap owners in Mets history. M. Donald Grant, who was named chairman of the team after The Mets first owner Joan Payson’s death, didn’t want to pay Tom Seaver, leading to one of the worst trades in Mets history. He also actively opposed free agency and refused to engage in acquiring players that way, all while George Steinbrenner and the Yankees created a super team in the late 1970’s in the Bronx. This team’s inability to maintain long term viability created an environment in which a man like Cohen, who is doing this as a fan, has created a level of excitement in this team that has so rarely happened in it’s nearly 60 year history.

Yet let’s also be realistic. This is still about building a team and Cohen is a smart businessman. He might be doing this because he loves the Mets and has been a fan since the team’s inception, but if we think he’s going to spend money without regard for the resulting product, we’re letting our exuberance get the best of us.

Currently the Mets are pursuing James McCann instead of Realmuto. That’s an example of a smart decision. McCann was a backup catcher early in his career and doesn’t have Realmuto’s injury history. With less injuries and less mileage on his body, McCann, who might cost half as much as Realmuto, makes a lot more sense, from an on the field, team building and financial perspective.

On the other side of that coin is Hand. Hand is a terrific left handed reliever. The Mets need a lefty in the bullpen, but this really isn’t a viable plan. The Mets just signed Trevor May, a flame throwing righty who seems to slot perfectly into the 7th or 8th inning and could potentially put together an intimidating back end of the bullpen alongside closer Edwin Diaz and Seth Lugo. Hand is not coming to the Mets to be the eighth inning guy that gives the glory to Diaz in the 9th and Cohen’s money isn’t going to change that. Additionally, just how much money are we expecting the Mets to spend in the bullpen, a place where dollars notoriously do not always generate productivity. Jeurys Familia anyone? With May on board, the Mets really just need to resign someone like Justin Wilson, who can probably be had for something akin to the 5 million a year he’s made with the club the last two years. Such a move would again be both smart short term and long term, while allowing the Mets to maintain liquidity.

This concept also feeds into the idea of Springer and Bauer. Springer is probably going to make around 27 million a year. Bauer could make 30 million a year. The luxury tax threshold this year is 210 million and Cohen has never committed to spending money in a way that would incur penalties. That means the Mets have roughly 84 million dollars left to spend, after May’s contract and taking into account the suspension of Robinson Cano. If you assume a catcher like McCann is going to make around 10 to 12 million a year, that leaves around 70 million to spend before crossing the threshold and paying luxury tax penalties. That seems to point to the fact that the Mets should probably only sign one of these players. Remember, Noah Syndergaard is going to be a free agent next year. So is Michael Conforto. Conforto deserves a significant extension and if Syndergaard returns to form after his return from Tommy John surgery, he’ll need one too. Let’s not forget that Cano will come back, and be owed 20 million in 2022 and 2023. Committing 57 million annually to Springer and Bauer, both over 30, could preclude the Mets from extending two key, homegrown, much younger stars.

Also, the Mets need more than just one starting pitcher since they can’t rely on Steven Matz and David Peterson, despite plenty of promise, has only thrown 49.2 innings in the major leagues. How would Mets fans feel if they committed less dollars and years to Jackie Bradley Jr., a plus fielder in center who is going to cost half of what Springer does and would allow Brandon Nimmo to move to leftfield, his best defensive position. Or how about Ozuna, a plus defender in leftfield that would help make up for Nimmo’s lack of range in centerfield. Either would allow the Mets to sign Bauer and a bounce back starting pitching candidate like Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer, or Anthony DeScaflani on a shorter term deal. All together, that kind of combination makes more sense for the future of the roster, leaving money available to sign the Mets own players and manage the return of Cano’s contract.

The ultimate frenzied fan response involves a trade with the Indians for Lindor. Lindor is a generational talent, but there are a lot of factors that make this move extremely unlikely. Money is a big part. If you trade for Lindor, you have to extend Lindor. That’s going to be a 30 million a year deal. He’s worth the money, but it means gutting an already weak farm system and limiting moves at other positions. The thing is, the Mets have two major league shortstops right now in Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario, as well as top prospect Ronny Mauricio, who is probably two years away. Lindor is just a luxury. He’s a terrific one, but he’s not one the Mets need.

Look Mets fans should be excited, but we still need to be realistic in our elation. As much as we all want this to be the old school strat-o-matic board game, where we could make whatever super team we wanted, Cohen’s money isn’t going to create that. Used wisely and with expediency, the Mets could use that money to create a team that could win a division and march to the World Series. It’s something that is very real and exciting, even if a super team is not.

Dominic Smith has arrived

On September 17th, the Mets were in a dire position. The game with the Phillies had been a back and forth affair. The Mets had jumped out to a three to nothing lead in the top of the first inning, but had not only lost the lead, but were down six to three after the Phillies finished batting in the bottom of the second inning. The Mets had battled back to tie the game at six in the top of the sixth inning and the bullpen had kept things tied through the next two innings. Then came the bottom of the eighth inning. With the game still tied and two out, Luis Rojas put Justin Wilson into the game to pitch to Bryce Harper. Wilson was erratic immediately and became visibly frustrated on the mound. He walked Harper and then walked the batter after Harper to load the bases. With Didi Gregorius at the plate, Wilson immediately fell behind two balls to no strikes. It was a moment where someone needed to step up, to talk to Wilson, to do something to stem the tide. That person was Dominic Smith. The young first baseman walked over to Wilson, said a few words and walked back. On the next pitch, Wilson threw a ball that had just enough plate to get the aggressive Gregorius to swing, resulting in an easy fly ball to center field. The Mets got out of the inning and took the lead ten to six in the bottom of the frame. Smith also went three for five in the game with two runs scored and two RBI, falling a home run short of the cycle.

Dominic Smith came into his own in 2020. His bat and place amongst his teammates are part of that emergence, as is a social conscience that lead to a personal protest of social injustice on August 26th followed by a team supported protest on August 27th. At 25, Mets fans can’t ask much more from this young man.

Dominic Smith was supposed to be a star. That’s what the draft pundits said when the Mets selected him 11th overall in the 2013 draft. Great glove, smooth stroke, best pure hitter in the high school ranks, were all statements thrown around by the likes of Keith Law, Jonathan Mayo, and other top draft evaluators of Major League Baseball talent. His minor league career showed promise immediately, with an .837 OPS in his first 206 plate appearances after signing his contract in 2013. His progress seemed to stall a bit over the next two years though. He showed very little power, only hitting seven home runs in over 1000 plate appearances combined in 2014 and 2015. It was a case in which evaluators began to wonder if he would hit enough and for enough power to become a major league first baseman or whether he was on his way towards first round bust status. There were also questions about his motivation and physical fitness. In 2016 and 2017 though, he seemed to finally build on his promising debut with an .824 OPS in 2016 and .905 OPS in 2017 before being called up to the major leagues.

His major league debut was mixed. He showed more power than he had in the minors, hitting nine home runs in his first 180 plate appearances but also struck out more than expected. He was 22 years old though and the hope was that Smith would continue to show progress in 2018.

He had competition though.  In 2016 the Mets had drafted another first baseman, Pete Alonso, in the 2nd round. Alonso came on with a bang, posting a .969 OPS after being drafted, followed up by an .889 OPS and 18 homeruns in 393 plate appearances in 2017. It was clear that these two players were closing in on each other. They were the same age (Smith is 6 months older) and would most likely play at the same level in 2018. How would that work? What would both players do?

2018 seemed to answer that question and not to the benefit of Smith. Alonso played at both Double-A and Triple-A and posted a .975 OPS with 36 home runs while Smith floundered at both the major and minor league level. Due to Alonso’s emergence, the Mets had Smith play games at both the major league and minor league level in left field, a position he had played in high school but didn’t appear to have the body type to play successfully. Smith’s strike out rate at the major league level in 2018 went up alarmingly as his walk rate decreased significantly, creating questions about his plate discipline. Five years into his professional baseball career, Smith was now being labelled a bust.

When spring training commenced prior to the 2019 season, the Mets first round pick from 2013 didn’t appear to have a place on the team. Alonso was the rising star now and Smith was just viewed as one more failure of the Mets minor league system. It appeared that Smith had faltered with the competition from Alonso and the lingering questions about his motivation appeared to have been proven correct.

However, that was just the perception of the fans and media following the team. What we all didn’t know was that Smith didn’t feel intimidated by Alonso’s rise. He instead focused on his physical fitness and spent time in the offseason working on playing left field. Instead of feeling slighted by a second-round pick who had been with the Mets for three fewer years than he had been, Smith supported Alonso and they became friends. Smith became well liked in the clubhouse for his fun personality and intelligence. He engaged in appropriate after hours bonding with his teammates, like dinners and playing video games in hotel rooms. He worked hard and made the team out of spring training as mostly a bench bat with Alonso penciled in as the starter at first base. Smith played sparingly as the season commenced, but he didn’t gripe. He continued to be a good clubhouse presence and the same fun and energetic person that he had been during the spring. He focused on maximizing his time when in the lineup. Smith became an adept pinch hitter, posting a 1.031 OPS and hitting two home runs in 37 such plate appearances and hit when given time to start, whether that was at first base or in left field. Despite Alonso having an historic rookie season, Smith forced his way into the lineup, posting a .939 OPS prior to the all-star break before injuries effected his play in the second half of the year.

In 2020, Smith walked into this Covid-19 shortened season with the same issue. He had to play his way into the lineup and did so in spectacular fashion. By season’s end, Smith lead the team in Doubles, OPS, SLG and RBI. He finished the season tied for sixth in the National League in RBI, second in Doubles, seventh in Batting Average, third in SLG, and third in OPS. In fact, if you look at his statistics, his season compares very favorably with Freddie Freeman, the star first baseman of the Atlanta Braves for the past decade and a significant MVP candidate for 2020. That’s a pretty high comparison.

His stats and locker room presence are just part of it though. In 2016, Smith founded Baseball Generations, a nonprofit organization that helps inner city children. It’s a program that offers free daily practices for kids, as well as assistance with youth who want to join a travel team yet can’t afford the cost. It also runs large camps during the offseason where Smith and other major leaguers come to run drills and spend time with the children. Yes, it’s all focused on baseball, but Smith see’s it as more than that. As he said once when discussing his foundation, Smith said, referencing the kids he works with, “They’re not worth anything less than any other kid”.

These feelings and his observations of what was going on in the world around him lead to his own form of personal protest. On August 26th, Smith took a knee during the national anthem. He explained in his post-game press conference that it was related to both the Jacob Blake situation in Wisconsin and his own experiences as a black man in the United States, including being refused service at a dining establishment in March after he and J.D. Davis left spring training to get some food. Smith cried during these statements and expressed how difficult the day leading up to the game on 8/26 had been for him. His feelings can be summarized in two quotes he made during the presser, “the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care” and “kneeling just isn’t enough.”

On August 27th, his teammates backed him up. With the support of the Marlins, the team they were playing, Smith, his teammates and the Marlins entered the field. They stood quietly for 42 seconds with Lewis Brinson, the only black player on the Marlins, standing in the batter’s box. The two teams then walked off the field, with Smith laying a Black Lives Matter tee-shirt over home plate. Smith and three of his teammates, Michael Conforto, Robinson Cano and Dellin Betances then did a video conference together, showing solidarity in the situation. Considering the political and social climate at the time, the fact that this happened just showed how much Smith mattered in the eyes of his teammates.

Smith might get traded this offseason. His fit on the team is awkward, especially if the designated hitter is not a part of that National League moving forward as it was in 2020. Smith has worked hard at becoming a left fielder, but as the season progressed in 2020, he inevitably ended up at his natural position of first base while Alonso became the teams primary designated hitter. If Smith were to play left field for the Mets in the future, an upgrade in center field would be necessary. He’s also young, has shown that he wants to be a part of the organization in any way possible and is under team control until 2025. His trade value is exceptionally high right now and the Mets do need to make a lot of tough choices regarding roster construction this offseason if the organization is finally to get back to being a consistently successful franchise.

A winning organization is built on talent, character and leadership and Smith has all three of those attributes. Whatever people feel about Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, the divisions in this country and the politics of the moment, having a young man on this team who is confident enough to lead both on the field with his play and off the field with his charisma and character is of vital importance. Dominic Smith has arrived, and Mets fans should hope he is a part of the future.