A decade or so ago, one of the popular terms around baseball was “the success cycle.” It was a pretty easy concept, basically asking if you were at the top of the food chain (serious playoff contenders), or working your way up or heading down. Perhaps spinning your wheels should be in there, too. The Pirates once had a long stretch of mediocre play and they would sign or trade for some name players in their annual “Drive for 75” wins.
If we look at the Mets since 1980, where would they fall on the success cycle? Here’s my opinion:
1980-83 – On the bottom and working way up
1984 – Finally seeing dividends
1985-1989 – Top of the food chain
1990-1991 – Thought they were still on top but actually on the way down
1992-1994 – On the bottom
1995-1996 – Working way up
1997-2000 – Top of the food chain
2001-2002 – Thought they were still on top but actually on the way down
2003-2004 – On the bottom
2005 – Working way up
2006-2008 – Top of food chain
2009-2010 – Thought they were still on top but massive injuries forced them down
2011-2013 – Maybe not rock bottom but certainly low, low, low
2014 – On the way up
2015-2019 – Top of food chain
Five different people could describe this and you could get five different results. Some may find the last grouping odd but the 2017-18 injury-plagued years were followed by a team that made a late playoff push. The Mets went 27-9 before a disastrous six-game losing streak. But they rebounded after that to go 19-10 the rest of the way, including 13-6 against teams .500 and above. That’s pretty different from what happened after the injury-plagued years of 2009-2010.
The Mets find themselves with a good team but in a tough division in 2020. Any position in the standings between first and fourth at the end of the year wouldn’t be a surprise. Two of the other teams they’ll be battling it out for – Atlanta and Washington – are clearly top of the food chain. But where would you put the Phillies?
They were clearly at the top of the food chain from 2007-2011 and possibly earlier than that. They probably felt they were still in that category for 2012 but injuries hit them hard. They finished with 81 wins that season and have not passed that total any year since.
But in 2018, they were leading the division in the middle of August before they faded and prior to last season, they were major players in free agency and certainly expectations were high. Would you count them at the top of the food chain the past two years? That’s not unreasonable. And they’ve made moves this year that indicated they believe they’re contenders.
Yet just like fans can have unreasonable expectations, organizations can think with their hearts and not their heads.
The ace of the Phillies’ staff is Aaron Nola. He drew serious CY Award consideration in 2018, when he won 17 games and had a 2.37 ERA. But the year before that he had a 3.54 ERA and last year it was a 3.87 mark. Those are certainly good numbers. But they’re not ace material. In two of the last three years, Marcus Stroman has put up ERAs of 3.09 and 3.22 yet no one is considering him an SP1. The Phillies add Zack Wheeler, who’s put up good peripherals but hasn’t exactly been great in the ERA category, either. Will an improved defense behind Wheeler make a difference in 2020? That’s certainly a possibility. But the pitchers who come after Nola and Wheeler are not exactly playoff-caliber.
The Phillies’ offense is really good. But is it enough to consider them legitimate playoff contenders given their pitching? We’ve been so accustomed to calling the NL East a four-team race. Maybe it is. But it seems that’s far from a given. The Phillies were under .500 in the second half of the year and only a good head-to-head record against the Mets kept them as close to contention as they were. Philadelphia was 12-7 against New York. They were 69-74 against everyone else, including 24-33 against the rest of the NL East.
And that was the first time since 2011 the Phillies had a winning record against the Mets.
The Mets played the Phillies seven times right before the All-Star break, when they were playing their worst ball of the season. Philadelphia went 6-1 in that stretch, including a win in extra innings and two games where they earned ninth-inning comeback wins against Edwin Diaz. A tip of the hat to them for coming through and winning those games in real life. But it’s easy to see them losing all three of those games, finishing 9-10 against the Mets and being under .500 for the season.
But that’s the take from a guy who has no love for the Phillies. What will the neutral observers think of their chances in 2020? Will any of them have Philadelphia making the playoffs? Will any of them have the team finishing higher than third in the division? It’s certainly possible. However, it’s not a wager you’ll see me making.
However, the preseason picks of neutral observers are not the final word on anything. They’re an important barometer, for sure. But the only thing that matters is what are the teams’ records at the end of the year. Will this be the year the Mets or Phillies make it back to the playoffs? It seems likely that at least one of those two fanbases will be disappointed.