Tonight the Knicks begin their 2019-20 season when they travel to San Antonio to take on the Spurs. The Knicks have been wandering in the desert for a while now. For too long, the Knicks chased guys who were good on another team three years ago, hoping they would revert to form and lead them on a deep playoff run. Didn’t work with Vin Baker, Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Zach Randolph, Tracy McGrady, Chauncey Billups, Amar’e Stoudemire and a host of others.
After winning one playoff series in 18 years, the Knicks saw the light and switched gears. Instead of hiring a big-name coach, they went out and hired a guy best known for being an assistant. Instead of collecting has-beens, they looked to stockpile draft picks and create cap room. And instead of aiming for 40 wins and a first-round playoff exit, they tanked to get the top pick in the draft.
They were going to sign two marquee free agents, get the number-one pick and vault to the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff teams. But then Kevin Durant got hurt and it all seemed to fall apart. The cream of the crop free agents went elsewhere and the Knicks fell to third in the lottery. The initial plan blew up. How would they react?
The Knicks pivoted in free agency, looking to add role players on short-term deals. The hope is that these guys would add professionalism (and competition) to the roster. And if they liked them, they could re-up with them. And if they didn’t, at least there were no long-term obligations. And with the third pick, they got R.J. Barrett, who is a pretty good consolation prize.
It won’t take much to improve upon last year’s 17-win team. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they ended up the eighth seed and getting swept in the playoffs. The thing they were actively trying to avoid last year. But this time it would be with a young roster and a team on the upswing. One that needs to experience the playoffs, regardless of how short the stay might be.
Last offseason the Mets were at a crossroads. They needed to hire a new GM and that hire would shape the future of the team. The Mets didn’t play it safe, as they hired an agent instead of someone who had previously been a GM or even one who had front office experience. Obviously, Brodie Van Wagenen won the job by selling the Wilpons on his vision for the future. And that vision was the opposite of what the Knicks did. The Mets weren’t going to get younger and undergo another rebuild. They were going all-in on the playoffs in the short run.
It was a defensible decision to go for it. The Mets had a strong core of players and injuries the year before certainly contributed to their below-.500 record. The NL East figured to be a competitive division and the hope was that without one dominating team that the Mets could make the playoffs with 87 or so wins.
Van Wagenen acted boldly to shore up the bullpen, one he watched continually blow games for his star client, Jacob deGrom. He signed Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson as free agents. And his signature move was to import Edwin Diaz, arguably the best reliever in the game in 2018. And the plan blew up. Diaz and Familia were horrible. Wilson missed considerable time early in the season, when the Mets fell way behind the other three contenders in the NL East.
The Braves distanced themselves from the rest of the division, winding up with 97 wins and killing any shot the Mets had at the East crown. After early struggles, the Nationals beat everyone they faced besides the Mets and Braves and took one of the Wild Card slots. The Brewers refused to lose down the stretch and they took the second Wild Card.
If you didn’t watch the season, you might think that the Mets’ plan worked. They hoped to finish with a high-80s win total and make the playoffs due to the competitive nature of the division. But the Braves were too good and the Phillies – and in a different way, the Marlins – weren’t as good as hoped. So, the Mets’ 86 wins fell short.
So now what?
The Mets went on a winning streak right after the All-Star break, one that eliminated any slight chance that they might have pivoted to selling and rebuilding. Even if the losing continued, it was unlikely there would have been major changes at the trade deadline. Yeah, maybe Zack Wheeler would have been dealt but it’s hard to imagine many more moves.
Now the Mets are faced with losing Wheeler for draft pick compensation. And on top of that, there’s not a lot of available budget to add to the team. So, the Mets need to replace Wheeler’s 195 innings, bolster the bullpen and bring on someone capable of playing a good defensive center field, whether as a starter or a reserve.
One can argue the best hope for the Mets next year is to receive 2018 production from Diaz and Familia. That certainly would go a long way in fixing the team’s biggest problem. But what are the chances that Van Wagenen will adhere to the advice of, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
And aside from that, are the Mets better off having decided to go for it this time last year than they would have been if they hired Chaim Bloom and underwent a rebuild? On the plus side, the Mets added nine wins to their total despite the injuries and the bullpen disaster. Is it really far-fetched to think they could add 4-5 wins this year and make the playoffs?
On the negative side, the payroll situation doesn’t seem good, either this year or next year. And while the 86-win season was an improvement, it still wasn’t good enough. And what are the chances they Mets will get the starting pitching results from a year ago, to say nothing about some of their hitters? They could just as easily lose 4-5 wins from last season, as they could add those victories.
The Mets right now are painted into a corner. They have too many big contracts to realistically rebuild. They have too little payroll room to make a major addition without touching their core. Meanwhile, the upper levels of the farm system aren’t exactly overflowing with can’t miss prospects. And we should all hope with everything we’ve got that Van Wagenen doesn’t repeat the mistake of giving away top-shelf talent in A-ball because they’re too far away to matter.
Mets fans are essentially hoping for the NBA equivalent of 40 wins and a first-round playoff exit.
Without a doubt, the 2019 Mets had a better year than the 2018-19 Knicks. And it won’t be a surprise if we can say the same thing about the upcoming season for the two squads. But after that? All we can say now is that we’ll see if the Knicks’ decision to rebuild was a better choice than the Mets’ choice to go for it.