The Mets dodged a bullet with George Springer

Noah Syndergaard and Michael ConfortoGeorge Springer is a terrific player and as a playoff-tested, right-handed slugger who plays a solid centerfield, he seemed to be the most coveted free agent for Mets fans. Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Blue Jays swooped in and snagged the former Astro All-Star for six years and $150 million.

The $25 million AAV is not far off what Springer was projected to get, but that extra year is tough to swallow. As this blogger has pointed out many times, centerfielders don’t age well. Sure, he’ll probably be good for another three years, but the back end of that contract could be ugly. At best, he’ll transition to a corner outfield position and still be able to slug 30 home runs per year. At worst? Well, remember Jacoby Ellsbury? How about Dexter Fowler? AJ Pollock? Lorenzo Cain? The list is long.

Back when the Mets signed Carlos Beltran to a then whopping seven-year, $119 million contract, he was just 27 years old. Springer turned 31 in September. There’s little question he will boost the Blue Jays offense for the next few years, but after that, his contract could be a problem. However, with most of their key players still in pre-arbitration years, the Blue Jays can afford to take on this gamble. The Mets cannot.

As Sandy Alderson and Steve Cohen have made clear, they want to build a sustainable winner. You simply don’t accomplish that by stockpiling expensive free agents.

The Mets have a nice core of young talent and some, like Pete Alonso, Dominic Smith, and Jeff McNeil, are still earning well below their market value as pre-arbitration players. However, many of our other key players, like Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, and Seth Lugo, are seeing steady pay increases through arbitration. The biggest concern of course is that four of the main cogs on this team will hit free agency when this coming season ends – Francisco Lindor, Michael Conforto, Noah Syndergaard, and Marcus Stroman. That list also includes Steven Matz, Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances, but these guys are obviously less of a concern.

Now, if we were still owned by the Wilpons, we’d be bracing ourselves to lose three out of four of those players. But those cheapskates who let us wave good-bye to homegrown favorites like Jose Reyes and Zack Wheeler are thankfully out of the picture. A certain avuncular billionaire owner wants his fans to be happy. Now, realistically, we won’t be able to keep Lindor, Conforto, Syndergaard and Stroman. But in order to have a chance to bring back two or hopefully three of them and keep the band together for sustained winning, we’re going to have to keep our 2021 spending in check.

The trade for Lindor and Carlos Carrasco was our big move and it was enormous. That move alone puts us firmly in the playoff discussion. Bringing back Stroman and signing Brian McCann, Trevor May and Jose Martinez, plus trading for Joey Lucchesi, helps solidify the roster for the coming season. By most accounts, the Mets are still nearly $30 million below the soft salary cap. And, by most accounts, the Mets still have a few remaining roster holes that need plugging.

Without Springer, and hopefully not Trevor Bauer, the Mets don’t need to eat up that remaining space with one contract. Although Brad Hand is currently being courted by multiple teams, a lefty reliever who can close would give us the best bullpen we’ve had in many years. A gold glove centerfielder like Jackie Bradley Jr. would give us a really strong up-the-middle defense. And a gold glove second baseman like Kolton Wong would give us a fantastic infield with McNeil moving over to third. These three combined might make less than what Bauer is seeking.

A cheaper version of this – Justin Wilson, Kevin Pillar, and Jonathan Villar – would still round out the roster and leave wiggle room for a mid-season acquisition, not to mention the possibility of extending one or more of the walk year players. Flexibility is key, as keeping a good team intact.

Look at the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals as cautionary tales. Yes, they won World Series, but these teams were talked about as a sustained winners, if not potential dynasties. Fans in Boston and San Francisco can more easily swallow the downturn as they have three rings to show for it.

These days, the top players are seeking $30 million AAV contracts. Even if you can support a $200 million payroll, you really can’t have more than two or three of those guys on your team and hope to fill out a roster. This isn’t the NBA where two superstars can win you a title. You could literally have the three best players in baseball on your team – say Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jacob deGrom – and still finish in last place if the rest of your team stinks. The Nationals have $100 million spoken for by the front of their rotation and had to bid adieu to Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon in successive off-seasons. Now their team consists of the three pitchers, a few young stars, and a whole lot of marginal players.

Of course MattyMets wants to see his team win it all for the first time since he was 14, but what he really wants is for the Mets to be like the Cardinals or Dodgers, who seem to be in the playoffs every year. Locking up guys like Conforto and Syndergaard is the best way to make that happen.

Noah Syndergaard’s injury raises a lot of questions

That the hard-throwing, weight lifting Noah Syndergaard finally succumbed to Tommy John surgery wasn’t that big of a surprise. After all, the list of triple digit fastball throwers who haven’t torn their ulnar collateral ligament is a lot shorter than the list of pitchers with that tell-tale ugly scar on the inside of their arm. Whether this is due to modern training regimens, strict pitch counts, hard sliders, or other factors is beside the point. The inevitable happened and now we’re left to wonder how to overcome this loss, should the 2020 baseball season ever resume as scheduled. The injury raises several other questions as well.

Did the Mets organization see this coming?
It seems that way given that they’d made several attempts to trade Syndergaard over the past two years. There had been a lot of speculation, including from this blogger, that the Mets might be better served locking up Zack Wheeler and using Syndergaard as a valuable trade chip. Wheeler already has Tommy John surgery in the rear view and would likely come a little cheaper (though that remains to be seen in light of the monster contract Philadelphia gave him), plus the younger and more controllable Syndergaard was a more valuable in trade. Suspecting this injury was coming certainly would have helped instigate this push.

If the Mets thought this was inevitable, what was the main reason?
Is it really just that it seems to happen to all hard-throwing pitchers these days or was there more to the presumed speculation? Was the front office concerned about his weight lifting? Maybe they saw something in his mechanics that might make him more susceptible to an elbow injury? Or perhaps, more nefariously, their medical staff noted the hint of something during a physical exam? Purely conspiratorial speculation, but it’s no different than astute fans on Twitter and Reddit connecting the dots between Brodie Van Wagenen, A.J. Hinch, Jessica Mendoza, Carlos Beltran and Jake Marisnick.

How long will Syndergaard be out of service?
Obviously, he won’t step on a pitcher’s mound in 2020, though he will still collect every penny of his $9.7 million salary, so don’t feel too badly for him. If Syndergaard is able to have the surgery now, which is no given in this environment, it typically takes about 15 months for recovery which would put him into June 2021 and that’s optimistic. Wheeler needed two years. Matt Harvey and many others came back relatively quickly only to suffer a second, more serious injury.

Will he ever be the same pitcher?
Optimistically, he could be better. One of the issues with Syndergaard is that he seems to forget that he can’t just overpower Major Leaguers. This isn’t AAA where a 100 mph will blow most hitters away. At the highest level, no fastball is too fast, especially when it’s relatively flat. With a low-spin rate and an inability to pitch up in the zone, Syndergaard is surprisingly hittable for a pitcher with his power. If he loses a tick off his fastball, he might learn to rely on it less and get batters out with a better mix of secondary pitches and location.

Who will replace him in the rotation?
Well, at least we can knock off that stupid chatter about having six starters, as if that presented a problem. If and when this season starts, we can expect a rotation of Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz, Rick Porcello, and Michael Wacha. That’s not the best group of starters we’ve ever had in Queens, but it’s potentially strong enough to get us into the playoffs, particularly with a powerful lineup providing run support.

Who is next in line?
This is where it gets a little thorny. Given the injury histories of Wacha and Matz, and the lack of available free agents at this moment, the Mets would be wise to stretch out either Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman to be ready to jump into the rotation. One could argue Lugo is already their third best starter. Meanwhile, if Gsellman can recapture his slider/sinker combo with a better baseball (i.e., higher seams) this year, he can certainly be effective as a starter, as he showed a few years ago. David Peterson, who is slated to begin the year in Syracuse, showed a lot of promise in spring training. The AAA rotation was also expected to include Corey Oswalt, Stephen Gonsalves, Walker Lockett and Erasmo Ramirez. Any of those arms could wind up in Flushing at some point in the season.

Does this foil our chances at a 2020 playoff run?
No. Syndergaard is an important part of the team, but we can win without him. This is not deGrom we’re talking about. Stroman is a very capable number two and the rest of the rotation is good enough. This looks to be the best offense we’ve had since 2006 and the bullpen, with a few bounce back years and the addition of Dellin Betances, should be at least good, if not great. At the mid-season trade deadline, whenever that turns out to be, the Mets could always look to make an addition, but for now, this rotation is good enough to begin the season with, and potentially good enough to lead us atop the NL East.

Ya Gotta Believe?!

Against all odds and reason, the Mets are now within spitting distance of the second wild card with a real chance to fight for the playoffs. These are the same Mets who were left for dead at the All-Star break a month ago, after a brutal month of June all but sunk their season. But something clicked and the team has gone on a miraculous 19-6 since then, to climb back in the hunt.

They’ve been feasting on a weak schedule. They’ve been riding a healthy rotation that’s hitting it’s stride. And the bullpen and defense haven’t been as disastrous as they were earlier in the season. Other NL teams went cold. Maybe Pete Alonso‘s rally cry of #LFGM got them going. Maybe it was the decision to not trade a starting pitcher and instead add one at the trade deadline. Maybe their new pitching coach has helped straighten out issues with some of the hurlers. Whatever the case is, this team has been more fun to root for since 2016.

The team now sits three games over .500 at 59-56 with a lot of baseball left to play – 47 games to be exact. Or, looking at it another way, 15 series. Of those 15, just five are against teams under .500 and eight are against NL East rivals. To “play meaningful games in September,” the Mets will need to win more than half of their remaining games, nine of which are against the division-leading Braves. Fifteen games will be against the Phillies, Nationals and Cubs, who all currently sit between the Mets and a wild card spot. The Mets will also play three against likely playoff-bound Cleveland. Simply beating up on the bad teams – Kansas City, Arizona, Colorado, Cincinnati and Miami – might not be enough to land a wild card. It will likely take at least 87 wins, which requires the Mets go 28-19 the rest of the way.

It’s not impossible. Especially with our rotation and the momentum we have going. Plus, we have more remaining games at home than on the road. But the remaining schedule makes it a real challenge. We may not have a chance to catch the Braves in the division, but we’d better stand up to them in three upcoming series if we’re to have a shot at the post-season. And let’s not forget, we’re in fourth place. The Phillies and Nationals won’t make it easy for us to leap frog them in the standings.

Savor this moment, fellow Mets fans. Wear your blue and orange hats and shirts proudly. For a few days, the sun is shining on us and we’re happily licking at our ice cream cones. It could be gone my Monday as the Nationals are coming to town this weekend with their three top pitchers looking to knock our cones splat on the sidewalk.