Last summer, the Mets faced up to the grim reality that their injury riddled team would not be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2017 and unloaded some veterans on expiring contracts. By season’s end the team resembled the 2015 White Sox. That is, they still had two frontline starting pitchers, a quality closer and half a lineup’s worth of solid bats, but a lot of holes around them.
Management could have folded as the Chicago South siders did, tearing down their roster and building up a strong farm system on the backs of painful trades of franchise players. Can you imagine the haul of minor league prospects we could have gotten for Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom? Alternatively, management and ownership could have doubled down and added top free agents from a group that included ace pitchers Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, franchise hitters like Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez, and topline closers like Wade Davis and Greg Holland. They also could have swung trades for dynamic leadoff-hitting second baseman like Dee Gordon, Jason Kipnis or Josh Harrison.
Or, they could do what the Mets typically do and neither fold nor raise, but rather check. For those of you who don’t play poker, this means the Mets effectively sat on their hands. They maintained status quo by bringing in a handful of second tier free agents to fill the obvious holes, but not really move the needle. Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas, Anthony Swarzak and Jose Reyes each filled a need and each signed a relatively modest deal, but none of these guys is going to carry a team to a pennant. The thinking was that the heavy lifting would be done by a talented, but underperforming pitching staff that was now healthy and receiving the support of new coaches and trainers. Meanwhile Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto surrounded by a few sturdy veterans would drive in enough runs to win.
Well, a month ago, when the Mets got off to an 11-1 start, this appeared to be a genius plan. Fast forward to a struggling team that has dropped to fourth place, and this plan appears to have been ill-conceived. What happened to the creative trades? Why was free agency the only route to improving this team? Considering we had a limited budget, did we spend our money as wisely as we could have? Let’s take a moment to second guess.
Bruce, Frazier, Vargas, Swarzak and Reyes cost us a combined $32.5 million this season (note that the first four have backloaded contracts and come cheaper this year). The Mets also spent $15.25 million for the options picked up for Asdrubal Cabrera and Jerry Blevins, but at the time, this was the right decision based on the information we had. And that notion brings us to Bruce.
At the time we signed Bruce, it was a no-brainer. We had enough uncertainty in the outfield and at first base and needed a big lefty to protect Cespedes, He checked every box and we got him on a reasonable contract. Yes, Brandon Nimmo and Juan Lagares have outperformed expectations and Conforto came back sooner than we thought, but it’s a long season. This move still checks out, as does the signing of Frazier, who has not only added strong defense to the hot corner and a nice OBP, but also a spark and some leadership to the dugout. Yes, Mike Moustakas wound up getting a one-year deal, but no one saw that coming and if the Mets were in on him, his price would have sky rocketed.
It’s not hard to argue that Reyes has come up well short so far, but he now has a chance to prove himself filling in for Frazier at third. Perhaps some regular playing time will help him get going. If not, his $2 million salary won’t be tough to write off. As for the choices we made on pitchers, this is where a little hindsight doesn’t look so good. Swarzak has missed most of the season thus far and Vargas, following a missed month to his own injury, has been struggling mightily. As of now, there are a whole lot of cheaper options out there that are far outperforming these guys.
Thankfully, it’s a long season and these new faces will have ample opportunity to prove their worth.