The Mets won 86 games in 2019 and were in the playoff hunt for the second wild card spot until nearly the end. The team gave the fan base exciting baseball for the first time since 2016 and actually have a group of young players that give hope that this team won’t fall back into the doldrums as it so easily did in 2017 and 2018.
Yet behind that hope is a feeling of uncertainty that shouldn’t be present considering the talent that is on this team. The Wilpons are always a source of contention, but this feeling isn’t really coming from them. It’s coming from the presence of Brodie Van Wagenen as general manager.
Let’s just make something very clear. The Mets won 86 games despite its GM. If you look at the players that Van Wagenen added to the team, the benefits of guys like J.D. Davis, Justin Wilson, Luis Avilan and Wilson Ramos were balanced out by the negative impacts of Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Jeurys Familia and others. Basically, all of the moves that Van Wagenen made in the offseason and at the trade deadline had nearly no impact on how the season progressed. One could argue that the Mets didn’t make the playoffs because of the moves Van Wagenen made, contrary to the concept that our GM has floated out there that winning 86 games was a bi-product of his productivity.
The reality is that the Mets have a promising young team. Pete Alonso is a legitimate star and is the type of hard worker and leader a franchise can be built around. Michael Conforto keeps getting better and Jeff McNeil is a revelation. Amed Rosario had a tough start to the year but showed in the second half that he might be growing into the star player that was envisioned for him when he was one of the top 10 prospects in baseball. Jacob deGrom is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. That’s a lot to feel good about. Saying that, none of those players are people Van Wagenen brought in.
The question becomes, can he be the one that builds upon that core? We have to hope so, because this is now Van Wagenen’s show. His new manager, Carlos Beltran, has never even coached in the major leagues and Van Wagenen has already begun to put a stamp on the minor league system with his recent draft and the prospects he’s traded. He’s made it obvious that he’s not going to re-build the franchise, even if the team is struggling, which he proved by trading for Marcus Stroman when the team was below .500.
In truth, the Mets are not far from being a contending team. They have a strong offense. Right now the team has 10 players under contract for next year that are deserving of regular at bats for a variety of reasons: Alonso, Conforto, McNeil, Rosario, Davis, Cano, Ramos, Dominic Smith, Brandon Nimmo, and Jed Lowrie. That’s a nice base of players to build an offense around.
They have a strong starting rotation. deGrom is as good as it gets. Stroman is a nice two or three starter. Steven Matz is a terrific four or five starter and Noah Syndergaard is at worst a number two starter and at his best a 1A to deGrom. They will definitely put a qualifying offer on Zack Wheeler and should make every effort to sign him. Wheeler has been a workhorse the last two years and wants to play here. If the Mets retain Wheeler, this is the best one to five rotation in baseball.
However, the Mets have several issues that need to be worked on. So, here is the Mets offseason blueprint for success:
Defense and Roster Construction
Many will argue that the bullpen is the number one priority this offseason and that’s short sighted. It needs to be a priority, but fixing this team defensively, which entails a better concept of roster construction, is even more important.
The Mets have been one of the worst defensive teams in baseball for several years now, but last year was nearly historically bad. The reason for this is simple: the Mets were a poorly constructed roster playing people out of position.
The most egregious instance of this was the Mets outfield. There were times last year where the Mets were playing corner outfielders in centerfield surrounded by two infielders playing the corner outfield spots. That can’t happen.
The first step in fixing that is making sure that Conforto only plays a corner position. Conforto is not a center fielder. That’s no knock on him, it’s just not where his defensive skillset is best utilized. Conforto is a plus corner outfielder by any metric you can look at. It’s an awkward fit due to him being left handed, but he has the arm to play right field and should probably just be put there all year next year. That will improve the defense by itself as the Mets were a net negative defensively at all three outfield positions.
The next step is to add either a full-time left fielder or center fielder. This is where roster construction comes into play. The Mets need to trade someone from the group of Smith, Nimmo and Davis. Possibly two of those players. That seems like addition by subtraction, but the roster doesn’t work with them on it.
For instance, Davis is a terrific hitter, but he’s a poor fielder. If the Mets are really committed to improving defensively, then Davis needs to go. It’s going to be terrible to watch him hit .310 with 35 home runs on another roster, but there isn’t a place to play him here unless you sacrifice something else. The Mets could sign someone like Billy Hamilton, who has unbelievable range in center field, and hide a Davis/Smith platoon in left field, but that sacrifices Nimmo, who is a far better offensive player than Hamilton. That probably means that the best avenue in this case is to find a left fielder, like a Marcel Ozuna, who is a plus defender who can still hit. That would allow Nimmo to play center field, but still improve the team outfield defense because Ozuna and Conforto are both plus fielders in the corners. The Mets could then sign Hamilton as a fourth outfielder, pinch runner and defensive replacement, which was the role he thrived in when he was signed by the Braves towards the end of last year.
What then happens to Davis, Smith and McNeil? Again, this boils down to the poor roster construction of Van Wagenen. McNeil needs to play every day, so if a player like Ozuna is in left field, McNeil probably needs to play third base which is his best position. This again leaves no space for Davis or Smith to play regularly. In looking at those two players, Smith makes the most sense to keep. He thrived off of the bench last year and also has the least trade value of the two. Additionally, Smith can back up Alonso and showed some potential in left field. It also never hurts to have a power hitting lefty option off of the bench.
Fixing the outfield helps the infield defensively as well. In a small sample size, McNeil has shown to be a positive metric defender at third base. Due to Todd Frazier’s presence, third base was one of the few positions in which the metrics were positive for the Mets and McNeil playing there full time should keep that status quo. Lowrie is also a plus defender at second base and third base. It’s also pretty clear that Cano is going to need time off to be effective, so sliding Lowrie into that position relatively regularly would benefit all since Lowrie is the better defender. Luis Guillorme proved to be a solid back up infielder and should remain in that position next year as the primary back up shortstop. Alonso showed tremendous improvement as the season progressed and just seems like one of those players whose hard work and effort will overcome whatever athletic shortcomings he might have as a defender. Additionally, Rosario showed marked improvement as a defender and an offensive player. With Rosario, it’s just been about putting the tools together, as he has all of them to be a plus defender in this league.
Again though, this puts the Mets in a position where they need to move on from a player like Davis, who’s hard work, energy and strong right handed bat are going to be a bitter pill to move on from. But baseball is one of those sports where a team can’t force round pegs into square holes. Only under the perfect circumstances does something like that work and the way the Mets are constructed doesn’t fall into that category.
Blueprint number one boils down to this: Sign Ozuna (or someone like him), Sign Hamilton (or someone like him), trade Davis and make McNeil your full time third baseman with Lowrie and Smith as top bench bats that can fill in at times. That keeps your lineup eight deep and improves the team defensively.
The Mets bullpen was bad last year, but it was also a bit of an anomaly. Diaz is a perfect example. He was terrible, but some of his numbers were right along the line with what his career has shown in his short time in the major leagues.
Diaz was killed by the home run ball. Yes, he allowed more hits per 9 innings this year than he has in the past, but that was only because of the home run. If he had just followed his career averages to this point, he would have probably allowed seven or eight fewer home runs. He still would have allowed more hits per nine than he did his last two seasons, but it would have been a far different season for him. He seemed to be killed by walks, but his per nine inning stat in that category was actually right in the middle of his career numbers, while his strikeouts per nine was the highest in his career (albeit by a very small amount). All of that seems to say that if Diaz can figure out how to stop allowing home runs, he’ll be fine.
Familia showed definite improvement in the second half. Even with that, he wasn’t the reliever the Mets traded to Oakland at the trade deadline in 2018, but if the numbers he generated for the Mets in the second half are what the team gets out of him for a full season in 2020, the Mets will be markedly better.
Basically, just getting decent improvement from Diaz and Familia changes this bullpen. However, that doesn’t mean Van Wagenen doesn’t need to add to this group. None of the young pitchers from the minor league system made any discernible impact on the big league roster. Seth Lugo is terrific in that role and all notions of making him a starter need to be ignored. Robert Gsellman is up and down, but if you add another high leverage reliever, Gsellman can be put into the role he’s probably best at, a sixth or seventh inning guy who can pitch nearly every day. A lefthander needs to be added to the group, but maybe that’s just bringing Avilan back. There is no definitive answer to whom the Mets should bring in, but it should be a proven commodity who can pitch in high-leverage situations.
Look, relief pitchers are a dime a dozen. Consider the case of Kirby Yates, a guy the Padres picked up off of waivers in 2017 as a 30 year old. Yates started his career as an amateur free agent, bounced around the league, was picked up on waivers twice and was the best closer in baseball last year at the age of 32. Maybe Yates will continue to be great. Maybe he’ll fall back to the norm, but would anyone really be surprised if he was a total disaster next year? It’s the nature of relief pitchers. The reality is that bullpen pitchers are always failed starters. They either failed as amateurs or failed once they became professional baseball players (minors or majors). It’s what makes them so inconsistent. Relievers are, by nature, a notch below other pitchers. That makes the creation of a bullpen a bit of a crapshoot, which is why adding veterans who have shown capacity over the long term is important.
Saying all of that, the Mets need to get better at developing relievers. Familia is the last one that the Mets brought through the farm system that actually stuck with them to be a positive big league contributor. Remember, Lugo and Gsellman were starters at the major league level before being converted. They were starters throughout their minor league careers, so they can’t be included in relief pitchers that were developed by the team at the minor league level.
Blueprint for the bullpen: Find a way to make sure Diaz and Familia get back to some of their career norms, bring in another left hander to support Wilson in the bullpen, add one more high impact reliever via free agency or trade.
The bottom line is, we don’t need another mind blowing trade a la the Cano/Diaz deal from last year. The only player that the Mets should empty the house for would be Mookie Betts, but that’s not a necessity. All Van Wagenen needs to do is make some adjustments to what’s here. That will entail spending some money and not dispensing with much. The Mets don’t have tradeable contracts and if the team is serious about contending, its best trade chip, Syndergaard, needs to remain on the roster. That means that the payroll should go up, but it doesn’t have to be to extravagant levels like signing Anthony Rendon or Gerrit Cole. Whatever assets the Mets use to improve, whether it be cash or trade chips like Davis, Van Wagenen just needs to be better at bringing in players that complement each other and don’t force people to play out of position.
Can Van Wagenen do that? Does he have the skill set? Is he capable enough?
Those questions don’t lead to answers that so far are promising, which is where that nagging feeling of “same ole” Mets” is coming from, even after such a promising end to the season. Hopefully Mr. Van Wagenen’s actions will help that pass. We shall see.