Ten out of 30 teams made the playoffs, and several others (Mariners, Rays, Cardinals) had good seasons and came pretty close. While some of those teams leaned on powerful lineups (Brewers, Yankees, Red Sox) and others on pitching (Astros, Indians), there are a few common threads that run through most if not all of them.
Bullpens are now as important as rotations and lineups
The game has evolved and the Mets need to evolve with it. No longer is a closer and setup man enough to compete; not in this era of specialization, strict pitch counts and 6-inning pitchers. Too many games are won and lost in the 6th and 7th innings, when bad teams must choose between leaving the game in the hands of a tiring starter or handing it over to a marginal middle reliever who was neither good enough to be a starter or closer. Good teams don’t sweat the 6th and 7th inning because they have stocked bullpens that feature more than one closer and a collection of effective arms to choose from. This season, no starting pitcher threw more than two complete games so it stands to reason that one closer is no longer enough, especially not for a team built around its rotation and that rarely blows other teams teams out.
With Jeurys Familia traded away, the Mets need to do more than just replace him; they need to double down and bring in two top line relievers capable of closing. Craig Kimbrel, the prize closer available in free agency, is as good as they get, but he can’t pitch every day. Often times the turning point in a game comes before the ninth inning. The next time it’s tied or we’re clinging to a 1-0 lead and the other team has the bases loaded in the 7th inning, wouldn’t it be nice to bring in Andrew Miller instead of Jerry Blevins? Or Kelvin Herrera instead of Robert Gsellman or Anthony Swarzak?
A reliable bullpen does more than save games. It keeps your team in close games and it keeps morale up. Blown saves are like last minute missed field goals. They end winning streaks, break fans’ hearts and are discouraging for young players. Familia’s blown saves early in the season were very costly, both to the team’s momentum and to Jacob deGrom‘s Cy Young campaign.
It’s a young man’s game and speed kills
As Brian pointed out earlier this week, baseball is trending younger. Younger players are faster on the bases and in the field. They have range at their positions, getting to balls older players (Jay Bruce, Asdrubal Cabrera) might not. They have the ability to not only steal bases, but aggressively take the extra base when the ball is in play. Every team in the playoffs has at least a few young speedsters who can manufacture runs and help prevent them. Two things we all grew tired of seeing as Mets fans this season – runners left stranded on base, and seeing eye ground balls through the right side of our infield. Another great thing about young players is that they’re cheap. Thanks to the odd free agency and arbitration rules currently in place, even the best players play for peanuts in their first three to five years. Meanwhile, fading veterans are clogging up payrolls and roster space.
Defense is important, a notion that seemed to be lost on Sandy Alderson. Continuing with the NFL analogy, defense is like special teams in that it’s the intangible that often explains why some teams overachieve with win totals that seem to defy their payrolls and talent level (Rays, A’s).Run prevention is about more than pitching. Imagine how good our starting pitchers could be with a few gold glovers behind them. Hopefully, the new front office leader will place more emphasis on gloves and team speed.
Good lineups are built around a feared hitter or two
Nobody wants to pitch to Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, Khris Davis, Nolan Arenado or Manny Machado with runners on base. To avoid this make-or-break showdown, pitchers will throw fat pitches to the batters ahead of these sluggers, desperate not to walk them. The lucky batter after these stars will often bat with at least one on base because the feared hitter was either intentionally walked or pitched around. Even in a game when the big bopper doesn’t do much, his presence bolsters the lineup around him. The best lineups, like the Yankees and Red Sox have two such players. The Mets have just one – Yoenis Cespedes – and he is not likely to play again until at least summer. Without Cespedes, the Mets have, at best, a lineup of good but not great hitters who will sometimes score just enough to win. But with streaky, high strikeout bats like Bruce, Todd Frazier and Michael Conforto mixed among developing youngsters and some injury prone players the Mets need to take a look at available sluggers this off-season.
One past mistake that Mets General Managers – Alderson and Omar Minaya alike – made was using free agency to plug holes in the field rather than in the lineup. Yes, the Mets have capable players at every position under contract and yes, the weakest are obviously catcher and center field. So, by Alderson/Minaya logic, the Mets would sign say AJ Pollock and Yasmani Grandal and consider the team complete (pitching aside, of course). But, neither of these guys are feared hitters and both will likely require overpays that will stretch contracts beyond their effectiveness. Instead, get the best darn hitter we can regardless of what position he plays. We can always shift or trade someone. As an example, Todd Frazier’s one remaining contract year should not prevent the Mets from looking at the three all stars available at third base.
This is all conjecture of course, but whoever takes over the reigns from Alderson would be wise to look at the composition of the Red Sox, Astros, et al, and note what separates them from the Mets.