Steve Cohen puts his stamp on the latest “new Mets”

“The New Mets. The Magic is Back.” – Della Femina Travisano & Partners ad campaign, 1980

“I’m proud to be a part of the new Mets. I call it the new Mets because this organization is going in the right direction, the direction of winning.” – Carlos Beltran, 2005

Mets fans of a certain vintage can claim they’ve seen it all. I actually have living relatives who attended games at the Polo Grounds, can you believe it? We’ve seen this team struggle – far too often for most of our liking, for sure – and when the depths of despair are plumbed to the bottom, when it becomes too much to bear, something marvelous and unexpected happens to restore our enthusiasm and joy. Trust me when I tell you that there are few more enthusiastic or joyous fans than Mets fans. We saw that in 1969 after seven years of initial futility. We saw it in 1980, when the Nelson Doubleday – and yes, Fred Wilpon, to be fair – ownership group brought in intelligent baseball people. We saw it in 1998 when manager Bobby Valentine and Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza willed a rag-tag band of castoffs and culls into a playoff team. And finally, we saw it in 2005, when general manager Omar Minaya started spending Fred Wilpon’s money like a Mardi Gras drunk, starting with Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. In each instance, this fan base got revved up by one thing: hope.

That hope is palpable right now. Here in 2021 – Happy New Year, everybody! – most of the elements of those earlier catharses would seem to be present. New ownership? Steve Cohen. More resources to infuse into the team? Steve Cohen is a multi-billionaire. Smart baseball people on board? The Team President is Sandy Alderson. Jared Porter is the new GM, a young man who spent an awful lot of time with Theo Epstein with both the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, so you’d think he knows a bit about reviving ballclubs that haven’t won in awhile. That’s enough to bring hope to any fan, even before a single move was made. And now, one has been made.

The other day, in the midst of an absolutely terrible afternoon for other aspects of American life, Alderson and Porter pulled off a deal that would have been unthinkable six months ago. They sent two shortstops, a minor league pitching prospect and an extremely young outfielder over to the Cleveland Indians for a megawatt talent, shortstop Francisco Lindor and courageous fan-favorite pitcher Carlos Carrasco. It is incalculable how much this move means to this franchise. This could be bigger than picking up Piazza in ’98 or signing Beltran in ’05. This is seismic. Now, there is talk about signing free agent All-Star outfielder George Springer or swinging a trade with the Cubs for Kris Bryant. Heady stuff, this.

See, we fans have gotten used to coming up just a tad short. The prior ownership was crippled by a lethal combination of having little cash with which to work – through no one’s fault but their own, let’s be honest – and being deathly afraid of bad PR. Of course, as so often happens, that fear almost guaranteed that they would be plagued by nothing else. So, the Wilpons would make a public overture to a huge free agent, only to see him sign elsewhere, or they’d take themselves out of the running early and completely, on some ridiculous sounding pretext. It certainly looks like those days are done. Cohen is just brash enough to not give a flying you-know-what about bad PR. He is a fan, much like we are, but he is also intelligent enough to realize that just because he’s been watching baseball his whole life, he won’t say he “knows” baseball – one of the many failings of the team’s original Chairman of the Board, M. Donald Grant. No. Steve Cohen appears to be content with approving the big-ticket acquisitions, signing the checks and enjoying the perks of the owner’s box without trying to get his fingers in the pie or take credit for other people’s hard work. He’s a fan who wants his team to win and will give them every possible resource to do just that.

Ya gotta have hope.

The Steve Cohen/Sandy Alderson era of good feeling

We are Mets fans. We aren’t used to this.

No, this isn’t yet another “Woe is us, we can’t ever get a break” article. This isn’t yet another lament about the hardships of being a Mets fan. This is not about being snakebit, baby. The Mets currently sit near the top of the shabby chic of Major League Baseball, filling the void that used to be occupied perennially by the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians – though in this last case, they keep hanging onto the top spot, not having won a title since 1948. No, this is a look to the future, minus a lot of the apprehension that would accompany such a foresight in years past. The Mets officially have a new owner and almost immediately, there is a different feeling around this ballclub: it feels pretty damn good.

Earlier this week, new Mets’ owner Steve Cohen introduced himself to the fans and media in a Zoom press conference that blew the dust off this stodgy franchise and vivified the fan base – not only the fan base, but some of the players, as well. Pitcher Marcus Stroman was extended a qualifying offer during the interregnum between the exit of former owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz and the approval of Cohen by the other owners. It was widely believed that Stroman would certainly test the waters of free agency and get a larger deal than the $18.9 million qualifying offer would afford. The day after Cohen’s inspiring presser, Stroman accepted the qualifier, noting that he was looking forward to playing for the new ownership and that what Cohen had to say played a big part in his decision.

Meanwhile, we also have a new team President, a familiar face who needed no introduction – or should I say re-introduction? Sandy Alderson let us see that he is healthy and eager to finish the job he started as GM back in 2010. He looks ten years younger. Freed from the financial shackles imposed by the cash-starved Wilpons, Alderson appeared to glow in the prospect of finally being able to run the team the way he wanted. Besides just the baseball side, he will now be able to fill empty offices with a robust analytics staff – basically an R & D department which most other clubs employ to the max and an area in which the Mets have historically lagged. He will also beef up the scouting and development arm of the operation to his liking, without having to go begging for a few extra pennies in the budget.

Cohen got instant street cred with the baseball geeks when he stated “Champions are built, not bought.” While it might not be sexy, it is sound. We need look no further than across town, at the fifth Yankee dynasty. The Yankees of the late-‘90s/early-‘00s were constructed during the time when owner George Steinbrenner was under suspension and thus, no longer allowed to throw money at a problem or trade a promising youngster for an aging big name. Team President Gene Michael had free reign to shape the roster into the dynamo that won three consecutive titles – the third of which shall not be mentioned. Alderson would seemingly have similar carte blanche, with Cohen’s blessing and oversight. One of the great things to hear from Cohen was that he would leave personnel decisions to the baseball department – music to Mets fans ears after the epoch defined by Jeff Wilpon’s meddling.

Obviously, right now, this is all theoretical. With a brand new regime, there is always a honeymoon period until the action starts. We still don’t know who Cohen/Alderson will hire as GM yet, for example. That decision will be crucial – one fine candidate was taken off the board as it was announced yesterday that Kim Ng has been hired by the rival Miami Marlins to run their operation. As regular readers of this space might note, I have been calling for the Mets to hire her for roughly ten years now. Of course, there are other candidates out there and there is more trust in Alderson to find the right one than there was when Jeff Wilpon foisted Brodie van Wagenen on us. In any case, we are finally rooting for a team where it feels like the owner has our back – much as Yankee fans felt when the senior Steinbrenner was in charge. That is definitely new and different.

We are Mets fans. We aren’t used to this. But we could be in a hurry.

Spending Steve Cohen’s money wisely

It’s 2020. We are well into the playoffs of the abbreviated season, or, as I like to call it “the year that never was.” The League Championship Series are about to start as we speak with the embattled – some would say reviled — Houston Astros taking on the perennially surprising Tampa Bay Rays in the American League and the Los Angeles Dodgers taking yet another crack at the National League pennant against the impressive Atlanta Braves. From some informal polling in my immediate vicinity, I can safely say that outside those respective metropoli, very few people care. For those looking toward 2021 and a much-desired return to normalcy, the off-season has begun and the speculation on how to affect repairs of broken 2020 teams is on, full-tilt boogie. Not the least of these is our very own New York Mets, who will suddenly have many eyes upon them.

Now that it looks like the peaceful transition of power – hey, it’s gotta happen somewhere, right? – from the Wilpon/Katz family over to Wall Street magnate and Met fan number one Steve Cohen is all but a done deal, the media is rife with various and sundry prognostications as to how the winter in Queens will proceed. Most predict that as soon as free agency hits, Cohen will come out blazing, firing from both barrels. They expect a Steinbrennerian shower of gold on the top free agents to be: catcher J.T. Realmuto, late of the Phillies, starting pitcher Trevor Bauer from Cincinnati and centerfielder George Springer of the Astros. All three are talented, of course. All three are accomplished. All three are at least close to being worthy of those big bucks. But all three also come toting red flags. For Realmuto, he’s a catcher turning 30; his shelf-life may be limited, considering he is reportedly seeking a record-shattering new deal. For Springer, his stats were down – admittedly in a miniscule sample size – and one can’t help but wonder how much he benefitted from Houston’s egregious sign-stealing scheme. Bauer would be the most attractive of this trio – one can picture a one-two punch of Cy Young Award winners Jacob deGrom and Bauer at the top of the Mets’ rotation, with a returning Noah Syndergaard, to boot — but rumor has it he is seeking a deal in the neighborhood of five-to-seven years when the current trend is to give pitchers no more than three-to -five. Could Cohen throw a whole bunch of cash/years at all three? Of course, he could. Could all three be had for all that lucre? Of course, they could. Is it the right thing to do? Well…

See, from over here, the first thing, the very first thing Cohen needs to do is rely on the people he brings in. He’s already off to a good start, pledging the return of Sandy Alderson as team president and CEO of baseball operations. Alderson still has his finger on the pulse of the game, still in touch with who the up-and-comers squirreled away in MLB front offices are, who are the best available baseball minds. Alderson will, no doubt, put his faith in data, will hire with his head, rather than his heart. Alderson’s new position also means that, rather than acting as General Manager as he had before, with the execrable Jeff Wilpon above him, he will get to pick the new GM, assuming he has no use for the incumbent, Brodie Van Waganen. If Cohen and Alderson’s reputations are to be trusted, they will go after the best and the brightest. You can just bet that Alderson would love nothing more than to tag a sabermetrically inclined, young candidate and let him or her mold the Mets into an East Coast version of his successful Oakland A’s, but with more resources at hand. Before one dime is spent on player acquisitions or free agent signings, the administrative, scouting and development tiers must be built from the bottom up and built smart. I know I sound like a broken record about this – I’ve been saying it since the days before Omar Minaya – but without that foundation, you’re the Miami Marlins: a house built on sand which will look good for a short bit, but won’t have staying power and no matter how much money Cohen throws at an issue, that lack of foundation will undoubtedly sink everyone’s best efforts.

Let’s face it: Steve Cohen’s best free-agent signing might just turn out to be Sandy Alderson.

Michael Conforto and Jacob deGrom can turn this season from strange to special

2020 is definitely a weird neighborhood to find yourself in. When you’re talking about this year, everything is in question and anything you thought you’d believed in is up for grabs, be it politics, health, societal norms and yes, even sports. To wit: we are in the home stretch of the 2020 baseball season, but only 45 games into it – 15 games left, rather than 117. It makes one wonder if it counts, or if it even should. And because of the brevity of the schedule, the season long shakeout of playoff contenders is obviously curtailed. To combat this, the deep thinkers at the MLB office decided to turn the MLB playoffs into hockey: 16 teams will make the post season, twice the norm and more than half of the League’s population. So right now, three quarters of the way to the end, the math is pretty simple. .500 is the demarcation line for contenders. There are eight teams in each League with at least as many wins as losses. Right now, it looks like if you play break-even ball or better, you’re going to the dance.

As this is written, the Mets are on the other side of that line. At 21-24, they find themselves two games out of a playoff spot. They are in a mishmash in the middle of the pack of have-nots, scrumming with Milwaukee, Colorado and Cincinnati to try and unseat surprising San Francisco from the number eight seed. This team has played schizophrenically all year, sweeping the Yankees in a doubleheader, getting swept by the Marlins in a similar set, Toronto — the hottest team in the AL – hosted the Mets last night and were dismantled to the tune of 18-1. Jacob deGrom was the stingy starter and Michael Conforto contributed one of the two homers by the New Yorkers. In his six innings, deGrom walked two, struck out nine. In his five plate appearances, Conforto had two hits, walked once and drove in four runs. I serve up these details from last night’s game as a typical example of the season each is having. They are both drawing strong consideration for some postseason hardware, as unprecedented at this whack-o season itself. There is some more than serious talk about deGrom walking away with his third consecutive Cy Young Award, something no Met has ever done – not even the late, great Tom Seaver – and only two other souls have achieved: Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson, two other Hall-of-Famers who took home four trophies apiece. Conforto has grown into the slugger a lot of us knew he could be, and it looks like his defense has caught up with his bat. He is garnering some strong notice for his play, perhaps with an outside shot at becoming the first ever Mets MVP – only 59 seasons into the team’s existence.

They’ll get help from the likes of Dom Smith, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis, for sure, and hopefully more consistent performances from the rest of the pitching staff, but if the Mets are to make some noise in October, it will be on the backs of deGrom and Conforto. If the two of them can continue their spectacular work over the next two weeks, the Mets can find themselves right in the middle of the messy round-robin the playoffs are likely to be. And who knows? Anything can happen at that point.

Flags do fly forever, even if the season carries an asterisk.

Sorting out this Mets season isn’t easy

I’m trying. I really am, but I’m having a hard time. What with everything else going on in the world, it’s been tough to focus on baseball – or sports in general, really. Anyone who knows me at all will be flabbergasted by that statement, but that’s how it is right now. I mean, y’know, a fella gets older and his perspectives and priorities shift and I guess that’s what’s happening here.

As with so much else that isn’t “normal” right now, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown off the gears of MLB. First, there was the truncated spring training. Then came the announcement that the games would go on, if the owners and the Players Association could agree on a structure and format to compete. Then came the hard truth that if there were to be any games, they would take place in empty stadiums. Next came the wrangling over how many games would be played, ballpark health safety, pro-rated pay scales, service time and the like – all of which may simply be a prelude to the unspeakable: another work stoppage in 2021, upon the expiration of the latest Basic Agreement.

It was barely noticed that this abridged season had started: there was a first game of 60, but there wasn’t an Opening Day. It has taken this long to get our heads wrapped around the fact that these games actually do count and results will be put in the books. None of it seems real, as if the exhibition season had stretched itself into mid-August somehow. The games are barely registering, played on unattended fields by teams of strangers. Melky Cabrera? When did he get here? Oh, Juan Lagares is back? When did that happen? And who are all these pitchers all of a sudden? Yoenis Cespedes made an all-too-brief return, before disappearing mysteriously, yet again. We’d hardly gotten to know Marcus Stroman before he, too, removed himself over COVID concerns. It made one yearn for the fun that was 2019, if you remembered it.

Yes, there’s Pete Alonso and his goofy grin, Jim Gaffigan in baseball mufti. And there’s Jeff McNeil looking characteristically intense and eager. There goes Edwin Diaz again. And always Jacob deGrom, the carrier of all our hopes, looking fully capable of pulling off a Cy Young threepeat. These are things we can cling to, simple pleasures that keep us interested. But still…

If the Mets somehow do manage to make noise into October, will it even matter? Can a championship run be legitimized after only 60 regular season games and do the words “playoff team” have any meaning when more than half the teams in MLB will be able to call themselves that? Baseball has always prided itself on being the most difficult to reach the post-season: this year it will be like hockey. Every statistical record will come with a small army of asterisks. And of course, all this is assuming that we even get to 60 games. This flu definitely has a mind of its own and has no compunction about what plans get disrupted. I am not at all confident that the promised 60 games and following marathon playoffs will actually come to fruition. Murphy’s Law will come into play and what possibly can go wrong probably will. So right now, I give this season the side-eye. It’s hard to get excited and focus on a “pennant race” when it could all come crashing down at any moment, or even if it doesn’t, have it not be legitimate: it wouldn’t be real.

I wish I could just buy in, but I can’t.

Out of Position: From Keith Miller to Dominic Smith

NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 19: Wilmer Flores #4 and Dominic Smith #22 of the New York Mets celebrate the 8-1 win over the Miami Marlins on August 19, 2017 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
The off season is chugging along at a pace. Here we are post-Holidays, still the first week of January, spring training a little more than a month away already. Heck, the Nationals’ victory champagne is barely dried on the carpet. The Mets, as we know, have made a few moves, mainly revamping their beleaguered bullpen. There are still adjustments to be made – very little has been done to shore up their porous defense, for instance. It is somewhat ironic, considering that catching the ball and throwing it properly used to be as much a hallmark of this franchise as starting pitching; the two go pretty much hand-in-hand, anyway. Yes, the contending Mets of 1969-76 boasted pitchers like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Jon Matlack and Gary Gentry. But they were helped out – and their stats burnished accordingly – by the likes of Bud Harrelson, Al Weis, Tommy Agee, Wayne Garrett, Jerry Grote and Felix Millan, staunch defenders, all. As the fortunes of the team plummeted in the late-‘70s, the first thing to go was that proud, famous defense.

It’s no coincidence that when the team revived itself in the ‘80s, it was again on the back of pitching and defense. Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra, Rafael Santana, Kevin Elster, Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson ably supported Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Frank Viola and the rest of the vaunted staff of 1984-90. These guys knew their roles, knew their positions inside and out and played them nearly flawlessly. After that, though, the team decided to get…umm… “creative” when it came to the defense. It started to become less and less a priority, even as the team was winning. And so, in that 1990 season, the Mets decided to go full-on experimental. In fact, since the early-‘90s, the Mets have had a dubious history of playing people out of position.

Keith Miller was signed by the Mets as an amateur free agent in September, 1984. He rose quickly through the farm system, a mere two seasons, and reached the majors in 1987, making his debut in mid-June. He was a lifelong infielder, a second baseman, specifically. In 404 games in the majors and minors between 1985 and 1989, he played 310 games at second, 25 in the outfield. So naturally, he opened the 1990 season as the starting centerfielder. For an organization that prided itself on its intelligence – the brain trust was still Frank Cashen and Davey Johnson, even at this late stage — a move like this was a head-scratcher. The folly of the play was exposed right away, on Opening Day at Shea against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Trailing 5-3 in the top of the sixth, Miller committed absolute butchery on a fly ball by Wally Backman – of the Pirates!!! – that was scored a triple and led to another run in an eventual 12-3 loss. The experiment ultimately lasted all of 13 games before Miller was replaced.

Undaunted, the Mets tried it again two years later, with Johnson the centerfield guinea pig this time. He made it through half a season before the odious Vince Coleman returned from injury. Fast-forwarding to 1998, the Mets tried to play erstwhile catcher Todd Hundley in left field upon the arrival of Mike Piazza. That attempt to squeeze two potent bats into the lineup was comically unsuccessful and mercifully brief. Then there was the trial of Piazza himself at first base in the latter stages of his tenure.

Some fresher memories include left fielder Daniel Murphy, right fielder Lucas Duda and shortstop Wilmer Flores. All of which leads us right back to this offseason and the neglect of defense. Despite the acquisition of outfielder Jake Marisnick, there isn’t really a true centerfielder on this team, Juan Lagares having previously been jettisoned. There is brave talk of the return of Yoenis Cespedes, who – it was proven spectacularly in the 2015 World Series – is no centerfielder. Neither is Michael Conforto, neither is Brandon Nimmo. J.D. Davis is a next-gen Murphy, a solid/could-be-great bat with no position to play and nowhere to hide. And then there’s Dominic Smith, a slick fielding first baseman, in the Hernandez or George Scott mold, who played a lot of games in left field, due to the emergence of the slugging Pete Alonso at first. Smith’s name has been bandied about as a trade candidate, perhaps piggy-backed with a Jed Lowrie salary dump.

Maybe, sometime in the next month, GM Brodie Van Wagenen will get around to addressing this kind of stuff. But I doubt it.

Close to the vest: Brodie Van Wagenen reveals little

The other day, the Mets had an official conference call with the press, formally announcing the signing of pitcher Rick Porcello. Porcello was snapped up at the tail end of the Winter Meetings, a surprisingly productive week for the club. The Mets also came away from the San Diego conclave with another starter, Michael Wacha, in tow. Previously they were able to swing a deal to pry glove-first centerfielder Jake Marisnick from the AL champion Houston Astros – essentially a carbon copy replacement for the non-renewed Juan Lagares. We are still in the early tenure of GM Brodie Van Wagenen, and even after a year-plus with him at the helm, we are still discovering his tendencies. One is a propensity for signing his former clients – Van Wagenen used to be a player agent, you may have heard. Another is a desire to provide major league depth at most positions, a sensible mind set shared by most general managers, but never simple to execute. But this year, the trait that really jumps out is Van Wagenen’s ability to keep a secret.

Takeaways
1. The Mets added some starting pitching depth at the Winter meetings.
2. Brodie Van Wagenen made some surprise moves.
3. The bullpen still needs improvement, but moves might be afoot.

So far, we’ve seen some of the Mets’ biggest moves just sort of…happen. The Porcello deal was speculated on for a couple of weeks prior to the annual December trade show, but this was the rare transaction that anybody saw coming. In fact, the rule of thumb seems to be the louder, more persistent the speculation, the less likely a move is to happen. As we speak, there is loud, long bleating from the media that relief pitcher Dellin Betances, late of the crosstown New York Yankees, will be the next to join the fold in Queens. At one point very recently, it was reported that the Mets were one of the frontrunners to secure Betances’s services, then within hours, the word was that the Mets were dropping out. Last year, same thing. Catcher Wilson Ramos was a surprise – most assumed Yasmani Grandal would accept the Mets’ lucrative offer – as was reliever Justin Wilson, who turned into a most valuable part of the bullpen. At the trade deadline, Van Wagenen held onto Zack Wheeler and instead of selling, the Mets ended up buying, sending pitching prospect Anthony Kay over to Toronto for the darling of the deadline, pitcher Marcus Stroman. Van Wagenen seemed to make all this happen out of the blue.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the quintessential deal-out-of-nowhere, the franchise changer that Van Wagenen pulled off last year and after which, the ground around Citi Field is still shaking. I speak, of course of the trade that netted second baseman Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz. That trade unburdened the Mets of the contracts of Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, yes, but also cost them mega-prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, not to mention a sizeable chunk of Cano’s odious contract – a dicey proposition for this infamously cash-strapped franchise. Van Wagenen slow-played that one, too. This approach makes the Mets kind of shadowy, a kind of eminence gris in orange and blue. They are impossible to pin down in the offseason, impossible to get a read on. From all appearances, that’s fine with ownership. COO Jeff Wilpon likes nothing more than to have the Mets talked about: winning is nice and all, but it’s more valuable that we’re in the papers. It’s a fun paradox that the less Van Wagenen talks, the more the papers talk about the team. As a result, some speculation turns pretty wild. There was a rumor that a trade for All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa was in the works. Now, you, me, Van Wagenen, Wilpon and the odd peanut vendor all knew that Correa was never coming here, but the speculation ran rampant anyway. Some of that might be simply a product of a long offseason, a dearth of conversation and a slow news cycle, but some can be attributed to the fact that we rarely know what Van Wagenen is doing until he’s doing it. Meanwhile, we’re fifty-odd days away from pitchers and catchers and the bullpen still needs to be fixed. Again, we all know this and for all the bleating and moaning that Van Wagenen needs to do something, we can rest assured that something is being done; we just don’t know what yet.

And when Van Wagenen pulls off a surprise move, to some of us, it won’t be a surprise at all.

Brodie Van Wagenen does not get the benefit of the doubt…yet

It’s been the off-season for a little less than two weeks, now. The Washington Nationals (!!!) have been crowned as Champs, winning the World Series on their first shot. The Houston Astros were denied their second title in three tries, amid mysterious pitching blunders and vapid hitting. The awards are starting to roll in, with hardware heading to Queens — some surprising (Jacob deGrom’s second consecutive Cy Young Award, that news coming through as this is being written) and some not surprising at all (Pete Alonso’s near unanimous Rookie of the Year trophy). Oh, and the Mets have a new manager, as you might have heard.

Carlos Beltran is coming home to the stadium that was built with his particular skill set in mind – if you recall the cavernous dimensions of Citi Field from 2009 through 2012, it was made to avoid a surfeit of home runs and invite a slew of doubles and triples, a perfect setting for the likes of Beltran and Jose Reyes, but lethal to David Wright’s kind of game. Beltran won’t be getting a crack at the closer fences this go ‘round – barring disastrous injuries to key outfielders – but he will be prowling the dugout, handling the intricacies of the double-switch and other such National League niceties. As has been noted, this is Beltran’s first opportunity at managing on any level and as much as Beltran was loved when he played here, there has been some trepidation about his lack of experience. Having just come off a similar two-year experiment with departed neophyte Mickey Callaway, this caution is certainly justified. However it all turns out, one thing is certain: for better or worse, this is now GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s team. From a fans/media standpoint, it appears he will be on a very tight leash.

Takeaways
1. Brodie Van Wagenen made some head-scratching moves last off-season.
2. He hired an inexperienced manager to replace an inexperienced manager.
3. He might not have the financial wherewithal to make the necessary moves to put the Mets in the playoffs.

As we all know, Van Wagenen is still wet behind the ears, himself. He came out of the ranks of player agents – out of nowhere, then, really – as the surprise choice of owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon. If one were to ask the fan base at the time, the choice was no surprise at all. The immediate assumption is that the Mets’ ownership family chose a man over whom they could exert more than a measure of control. His main competition for the job, Chaim Bloom, has just been handed the reins of the formidable Boston Red Sox, World Series champs only a year ago. And really, what else are we fans to think? Here’s Bloom, not good enough to guide the 77-85 Mets of 2018, but wonderfully suited to steer the erstwhile defending champion BoSox. OK, we can move on from that, though: it’s water under the Hellgate now. Van Wagenen tried to make his mark immediately. Hoo, boy did he ever! He made that trade.

At the Winter Meetings last December, Van Wagenen strode to the podium an announced that he had sent outfielder Jay Bruce, pitcher Anthony Swarzak and three prized prospects – outfielder Jarred Kelenic, and pitchers Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista – for second baseman Robinson Cano and bullpen ace Edwin Diaz. At the time, you could hear the howls from here to Montauk. Bruce and Swarzak aside, how can the Mets, historically hurting in the farm system, deal three of their top AAA players for an admitted steroid cheat with a famously bloated contract and a relief pitcher? OK, Diaz led the universe in saves in 2018 and the Mets entered the off-season with no closer to speak of, but still… Van Wagenen then doubled down on the bullpen rebuild, bringing back Jeurys Familia on a three-year, $30 million free agent contract. After signing veteran catcher Wilson Ramos, he then swung a couple of under-the-radar deals for reliever Justin Wilson and all-around player J.D. Davis. With the talent already on hand when he got here, Van Wagenen thus proclaimed the Mets the team to beat. “Come get us!” he famously crowed on the eve of spring training.

There’s a fine line, of course, between being bold and foolhardy. Had they worked, Van Wagenen’s moves – all of them – would have been hailed as visionary and brave. He would become known as a general manager who’s not afraid to take big chances and blow some fresh air into a somewhat staid industry. But as we know, all the moves didn’t work. Cano, at age 36, continued his accelerated aging process – aided and abetted by his past use of illegal chemicals. Ramos took awhile to start hitting. Wilson was beset by injuries. Familia was an unmitigated disaster as a set-up man. And perhaps cruelest of all, Diaz suddenly forgot how to finish ballgames. “Come get us?” Well, the rest of the NL certainly did. After their now-customary hot start, the Mets stumbled to a 40-51 record one game after the All-Star break. We all know what happened next, a fortuitous combination of a weak schedule, a shuffling of the bullpen which ended up with Seth Lugo becoming its most trusted arm and frankly, some blind luck catapulted the Mets squarely into the middle of the Wild Card race. At the trading deadline, Van Wagenen confounded everybody again, by A – not trading the infinitely marketable free agent to-be, starting pitcher Zack Wheeler and B – trading for the prize arm of the deadline, Marcus Stroman. The theory, supposedly, was kind of, “Well, we got this far; we may as well go for it.” And it very nearly worked! It was only an insane run by the Milwaukee Brewers over the same time period that kept the Mets from playing a game number 163, at least.

We always remember the endings, but unless it’s as stark as the 2019 Mets, we often forget the leadup to it. We remember the run-up to the post All-Star surge. We remember the shaky relief pitching. We remember the hitting lulls. Van Wagenen’s job, now, is to finish putting together a team built for both halves. There is a sighing assumption out there that the usual Wilpon-imposed salary restrictions will remain in full force, thus keeping Van Wagenen from pursuing players like Anthony Rendon or hanging onto Wheeler. The off-season has just begun; we have no idea how it will play out. Van Wagenen could surprise us again. He could make moves more bold than foolhardy. It is possible.

We’re just not sure it’s probable.

The Mets’ 2019 season was uniquely fun

When you’ve been a Mets fan for a certain length of time and are of a certain age, individual seasons take on a personality. Some are simply dreadful, like the first fitful years of the team’s existence – save the inaugural 1962 season, which was historically bad, record-wise, of course, but too much fun for anybody to really care about that: folks were just glad to have them around. Some years are that deadly combination of bad and dull, like 1979, 1993 or 2010. Some are mediocre, but hopeful; seasons where you can glimpse a good time over the horizon. 1983, 1997 and 2005 spring to mind.

Of course, then, there were the Gold Standard years, the seasons of the two Mets’ championships, each unique in its own way. 1969 came out of nowhere, a bolt from the blue, gifted by the baseball gods to a hungry fanbase in a city soon to be beset by many economic and societal woes. It was a year of pure joy and countless surprises, culminating in the least surprising outcome, a victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. 1986 on the other hand, was more like a coronation. Coming on the heels of 2 outstanding run-up seasons – more on them in a bit – it was all very matter-of-fact. On the first day of spring training, manager Davey Johnson told the team that they were going to dominate that year, and damned if they didn’t. They steamrolled to 108 wins and never felt any pressure until they were deep into both the League Championship Series and World Series, where any type of failure to seal the deal would have been nothing less than catastrophic. That season was great, it was glorious, but it wasn’t particularly fun.

Now, if you want to talk fun, you’re talking about 1984 and – especially, in my opinion – 1985. ’84 had an element of the “bolt-from-the-blue” to it, yeah, but the ’83 team had finished strong and had some personnel in place that gave us hope – the emergences of Darryl Strawberry and Jesse Orosco, the acquisition of Keith Hernandez – so it wasn’t quite as unexpected as the ’69 Miracle. The additions of rookie pitcher Dwight Gooden and manager Johnson propelled this squad into immediate contention and oh, what a ride we had! They went stride-for-stride with the Chicago Cubs, then in the National League East, and were eliminated with five games to go on September 24. A 5-14 stretch from July 29 through August 13, coupled with a distinct lack of power proved their undoing. General Manager Frank Cashen addressed that second issue when he acquired All-Star catcher Gary Carter from the Montreal Expos. Carter was widely regarded as the best in the game at his position and it was thought that he would be the final component of a World Series champ. This time, the Mets took it all the way to October 5 before losing out to the St. Louis Cardinals on the next-to-last day. Carter lived up to his billing and Gooden had a season for the ages, but Strawberry injured his thumb in mid-May. He sat on the shelf for six weeks, putting the Mets in a hole out of which they could never really climb. But a pennant race, right up to the last day? A lot of us had never seen one of those up close before. The whole city was enthralled with this team and it was because of this performance that Johnson could make his famous proclamation the following spring.

So, now, here we find ourselves in October 2019, as the playoffs occur around us. The Mets won 86 games, not quite good enough to make the NL postseason field of five, but a nine-game improvement over their dismal 2018 campaign and a 16-game bettering of the even-worse 2017. This year just past was loads of fun and full of anguish. This team was faced with much adversity, most of it of their own doing. Their prized off-season acquisition – closer Edwin Diaz – severely underperformed, to put it mildly. Their reunion with relief pitcher Jeurys Familia was also not a happy one. They had terrible shortcomings on defense, especially at catcher and in center field. They found themselves saddled with the albatross contracts of Robinson Cano and Yoenis Cespedes. And yet… They got transcendent seasons from rookie first baseman Pete Alonso and all-around talent Jeff McNeil – Alonso broke records. They got another Cy Young caliber performance out of Jacob deGrom and the pitching staff’s overall health was surprisingly robust. With Diaz and Familia repeatedly failing, Seth Lugo emerged as the bullpen’s most valuable arm. They were eliminated on September 26, with four games to go. There are some large elements of the fan base that are as anxious to get on to the 2020 season as they were to move forward from ‘85 to ’86.

Speaking personally, I’m one of them.

Takeaways
1. 2019 was fun!
2. It was a lot like 1985.
3. Anticipation has built up for 2020 already.

Gut Reaction: Mets 3, Twins 2 (7/16/19)

The Mets traveled to Minneapolis feeling a little bit better about themselves, having taken two of three from the lowly Miami Marlins. They would face a much sterner test against the powerful Twins, sporting baseball’s third best record. They’d send Steven Matz to the mound in an attempt to subdue the Twins’ potent offense.

They got off to a promising start, with Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto clubbing base hits off Michael Pineda to begin the game. Pete Alonso struck out, but Pineda unfurled a wild pitch with Robinson Cano batting, which moved the runners to second and third. Cano brought McNeil in with a sacrifice fly to center, helped out by a horrible throw by Max Kepler. Another wild pitch, this one to Wilson Ramos, sent Conforto to third. Ramos hit a slow grounder to second baseman Jonathan Schoop that clanked off the glove as Conforto came home. But it’s tough to keep a solid hitting team like the Twins down for very long. Schoop homered over the left field wall in the third and Minnesota drew even in the fourth when Eddie Rosario singled, C.J. Cron doubled and Kepler grounded out. Matz then bore down to strike out Miguel Sano. Schoop got the free pass, but ended the inning on a misbegotten steal attempt. That would become significant in the top of the fifth.

With one out, Amed Rosario shot a double down the left field line and moved over to third on another wild pitch from Pineda. After a rare McNeil strikeout, Conforto broke the tie with his third single of the night. Amazingly, given the Mets’ season-long bullpen woes, manager Mickey Callaway decided four innings was enough for Matz, turning the ball over to Robert Gsellman in the bottom of the inning. He got off to an inauspicious start, walking beleaguered catcher Jason Castro and hitting Jorge Polanco in the foot. He was bailed out when Marwin Gonzalez hit a bullet to Alonso, who snagged it and stepped on first for a big double play. After Nelson Cruz walked, Callaway waved in the lefty Luis Avilan to face Eddie Rosario, who rolled out to Cano. After the Mets went out in order in the top of the sixth, Avilan started the bottom half getting Cron to pop out and inducing a ground out by Kepler. Avilan walked Sano, though, prompting Callaway to wave in — gulp! — Jeurys Familia to face Schoop. Schoop grounded weakly to short and Familia had escaped.

The Mets could do nothing against Twin’s reliever Zach Littell in the top of the seventh and Justin Wilson shut down the Twins in the bottom of the inning. Conforto broke the string with another base hit off Blake Parker in the eighth. Alonso walked, bringing up Cano in a critical spot. Parker threw one away, moving both runners up. Cano then hit a high bouncer back to the mound. Parker trapped Conforto in a rundown and new catcher Mitch Garver threw out Alonso trying to go to third, a 1-5-2-5 double play. Seth Lugo came on for the eighth and gave up only a one-out single to Eddie Rosario. Parker stayed in for the ninth and got the first two outs, but walked Todd Frazier. With that, he was replaced by Matt Magill, who struck out J.D. Davis. Edwin Diaz — gulp! again — came in for the bottom of the ninth. He struck out Sano. He got two strikes on Schoop before Schoop had to leave the game with a rib muscle strain. Luis Arraez ran the count up to 3-2, hit a bushel of foul balls and ended up drawing a walk. Garver — who hit a crushing homer off Diaz at Citi Field back in April — hit a solid single to left. Polanco lifted a fly to center. That brought up Gonzalez, who hit a bleeding grounder to Frazier at third — no play anywhere. Nelson Cruz now came up with the bases loaded. On 3-2, after a foul into the seats, Cruz popped up another foul which Frazier cradled, just in front of the visiting dugout. An exciting satisfying win.

It’s Jason Vargas vs, Martin Perez tomorrow afternoon in the finale of this abbreviated series.

Gut Reaction: Mets 6, Marlins 2 (7/14/19)

The Mets came into this game looking to win their first road series since mid-April. Remember mid-April? When we thought the Mets might still be good? Seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? They would send Jacob deGrom to the mound to recall that era of good feeling.

In any case, the Mets started off on their task right away. Jeff McNeil launched the first pitch of the game over the right field cutout and into the bleachers for an instant 1-0 New York lead. They would have had a 2-0 lead, if old buddy Curtis Granderson hadn’t scaled the left wall to rob Pete Alonso of his 31st home run. That would prove large as the Marlins tied the game in the bottom of the second. Starlin Castro led off with a bloop single to right. Granderson drew a walk. After Cesar Puello struck out, Bryan Holaday walked to load the bases. deGrom whiffed pitcher Sandy Alcantara on three pitches, but Miguel Rojas hit a liner to McNeil in right for a base hit, bringing in Castro. Granderson also tried to score, but McNeil’s one-hop throw to the plate thwarted his attempt at a stand-up slide. The Mets would pull ahead in the fourth. Robinson Cano led off with a base hit, Wilson Ramos walked and Todd Frazier hit an infield single to load the bases. Adeiny Hechavarria hit a slow roller to short to score Cano. deGrom walked to reload the bases and McNeil forced Ramos at home. Michael Conforto hit an infield single to second to score the Mets’ third run.

Their fourth run scored in the sixth, courtesy of some comic Miami fielding. I mean, Casey Stengel, Polo Grounds, 1962 Mets-style comic. Hechavarria led off with a grounder to short that Rojas butchered. Somehow it was scored a base hit. Luis Guillorme pinch hit for deGrom and hit a solid single to right — deGrom having an abnormally high pitch count over five innings. McNeil then hit a double-play grounder to first, which Garrett Cooper scaled way over Rojas’s head and into left field, allowing Hechavarria to come home. Justin Wilson pitched around a leadoff single by Castro to notch a scoreless sixth. Elieser Hernandez relieved Alcantara and was greeted by a long homer to right off Cano’s bat. Jeurys Familia started the seventh, got one out, then gave up a single to Rojas and walks to Neil Walker and Cooper. That was all manager Mickey Callaway needed to see, waving in Seth Lugo to avert further damage. Lugo struck out Brian Anderson looking and got Castro on a grounder to short. Amed Rosario — in, with Lugo on a double switch — roped a double to left center leading off the eighth. McNeil got clipped by a fastball from Wei-Yin Chen and Conforto flew out to right center, moving Rosario over to third. Alonso drilled one to dead center, well deep enough to plate Rosario.

Robert Gsellman was handed the eighth, with a five-run lead and allowed only a Puello single. Cano led off the ninth with single — his fourth hit of the day — but was erased when Ramos hit into a nifty double-play started by Rojas. Gsellman came back out for the bottom of the ninth and got Rojas on a flyball leading off and Walker on a pop to short. Cooper hit a hanging slider just over the right field fence for a homer. Anderson scalded a double into the right field corner. Castro finally grounded out to Frazier to end it.

The Mets head to Minnesota next to face the red-hot Twins. It’ll be Zack Wheeler vs. Michael Pineda Tuesday night at Target Field.

Gut Reaction: Phillies 8, Mets 3 (7/7/19)

I’d like to think the Mets really wanted to end the first half on an up note. That they’d want to go out with their heads held high, ready to take on all comers in the second half; to make that second half more than garbage time. After all that had gone on this weekend — GM Brodie Van Waganen’s furniture-tossing histrionics, manager Mickey Callaway’s fiery ejection in the wake of Saturday’s mini-beanball war and the subsequent rousing comeback victory over Philadelphia — that today’s starter, Zack Wheeler, would come out smoking. I’d like to think that. After today’s pitiful performance, I can’t say for sure that they did want any of that at all.

Wheeler gave the Phillies a great boost right away. Leadoff man Scott Kingery hit the second pitch of the day, a broken-bat looper on which second baseman Robinson Cano tried and failed to make an over-the-shoulder basket catch. Jean Segura drove a ball to deep left that was run down by Dominic Smith. Bryce Harper then scaled a hard single to right center, Kingery crossing to third. Rhys Hoskins boomed a double to the right-center gap to bring him home. J. T. Realmuto followed with a mirror image of that, doubling to left center to score both Harper and Hoskins. Jay Bruce made it 4-0 with hard single to right. He’d advance to second on a terrible throw by Jeff McNeil on the play. That was all the Phils would need, as the Mets went out in order in the first, third, fourth and fifth — they garnered two walks in the second, to no avail. In fact, Philadelphia starter Aaron Nola took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. By that time, the lead had grown to 6-0. Relmuto walked leading off the sixth and Bruce continued the torture of his former mates, homering to center. That was it for Wheeler, having thrown five mainly desultory innings and probably lowering his trade value.

Nola got the first out in the sixth, but McNeil reached on an error by Hoskins and Pete Alonso finally got the Mets’ first hit, clubbing his 30th home run of the season. No wonder he was an obvious choice for the Home Run Derby tomorrow night! In any case, that closed the Mets’ offense for the inning, save a meaningless single by Cano. Bruce continued the toment in the eighth, homering again, this time to right center. For good measure, Hoskins homered in the top of the ninth. The Mets got that one back when Adeiny Hechavarria homered, pinch-hitting.

All-in-all, a fitting end to a miserable first half. Now we can enjoy Alonso, McNeil and Jacob deGrom in the All-Star game and rest assured the Mets absolutely will not lose until Friday, at the earliest.