Robinson Cano is coming back to New York, this time to Queens, and he’s bringing an all-star closer with him. There are a few ways to interpret this trade, but the central, divisive question is: should the New York Mets be in win-now mode?
The first way to interpret the Mets and Mariners trade that will bring Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, and $20 million to Queens for Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista is that this isn’t a move that’s concerned with years five, four and maybe even three of Cano’s massive deal. The albatross years, if you will. If you’ve been following along with this deal as it bounced around Baseball Twitter, this shouldn’t be news.
It’s why Kelenic, one of the two top prospects included in the deal–who one scout labeled as having “a chance to be a superstar” to New York-based columnist John Harper–could be added to a deal that, on the surface, looks like it would require sweeteners from the Mariners, not the Mets. Kelenic’s upside is notable. He’s also 19 and just completed a rookie ball season. His ETA is probably not sometime in the next two seasons. Freeport’s own Justin Dunn, who is closer to the bigs, doesn’t neatly fit the Kelenic logic.
But if this is a deal to pivot the Mets to a win-now model over the next season or two, you could argue a player with a (hopefully) softly declining production curve in the immediate future is a more valuable asset than a player with upside spread over a longer term. A young arm is a lot of splendid things wrapped in an elbow towel of uncertainty.
Are the Mets better immediately better with Robinson Cano? Yes. We know more than we ever did about the aging curve of players, and mid-30-something players aren’t a great bet unless they’re slanting down from a top-tier peak. Robinson Cano was once one of the best offensive players in baseball; he can also still hit. He slashed .317/.363/.497 post-PED suspension last season, and maybe he has an extended post-suspension boom a la 2015 Alex Rodriguez in him. Where he’ll play in the field is a different matter and a concerning one in the NL, but maybe not debilitating in the very near-term.
The second way to interpret this trade is that it’s the premium you pay for a late-inning reliever with elite ability who hasn’t even reached arbitration yet. How you feel about that depends on how you feel about relievers. Edwin Diaz was exceptional last season. He was also demoted from the closer role at the start of 2017. He also won that job at the end of the 2016 season. Relievers can be erratic. A young arm is a lot of splendid things, etc.
Diaz just completed his year-24 season, and he won’t be post-arbitration until 2023. Four to five seasons is the upper limit for reliever/closer contracts (though Craig Kimbrel is rumored to be testing the cutoff this winter). At what value will depend on what Diaz lands through arbitration starting in 2020. As of now, saves get you paid.
The third way to interpret this trade is that the trade is an opening volley, and not the Mets shooting their entire offseason shot. What makes this trade particularly hard to evaluate is that the success or failure of the trade is dependent on multiple factors stretched over time and not contained to this deal alone. If this deal signals New York’s intention to switch to win-now mode, it’s a solid start.
If it’s the entirety of their 2019 and 2020 plan? It’s not enough, and that seems fairly obvious. The Mets don’t profile as a team that can dip into the free agent market to plug numerous holes in meaningful ways. Teams like that generally address their weaknesses through trades or their system, depending on where they are in their contention plan. Free agency around the league is more of a spot-fix option nowadays, so it’s unreasonable to think the Mets would hit the open market across the board. You can judge this trade on an asset-to-asset basis, but you can’t start judging the transaction in the macro until after the winter.
Sending out prospects adds to the complexity of winning or losing trades. Though potential is informed, potential is hypothetical until it is actualized, if it is ever actualized. Whether the Mets were right or wrong to include Kelenic and Dunn may not be clear for a while. That doesn’t mean potential doesn’t have value—if anything, prospects are at their most valuable when they have possible upside, not probable upside. It’s not that you can’t evaluate a prospect trade when it happens, it’s just that doing so will almost always feel like the team that traded the prospects ended up on the short side.
At this point, parting with prospects feels like it’s likelier you’ll be worse down the road, while the returns hold no guarantees you’ll get the result in the immediate future that would deem the trade a success. That queasiness you might have felt while you kept up with Baseball Twitter over the weekend was a mix of buyer’s remorse and risk anxiety. The Mets didn’t swap out sure things, but they did accelerate their own timeline of going bust and being worse off. Gambles at this level make us all nervous.
Really, the question at the heart of this trade, and the one that’s making it so divisive, is: should the Mets even be going down the win-now path?
The truth is there are more ways that a win-now-for-prospects trade can ultimately be a bad deal rather than a good one, especially when it’s for mid-30s middle infielders on bloated multi-year contracts and a closer. Unless the ideal returns for thinning your future are clear and achievable, this kind of deal comes with an unflattering-retrospective-to-be-written-later.
The Mets are rarely in a position to switch to win-now, a status that needs reliability in a strategy that’s unreliable. That makes the trimming of the farm system feel a bit more like a scalping. I get it. I’m not sure they’re in a place to be a few moves from win-now. I’m also not sure they’re so far from it.
This version of the team is uniquely set in a post-peak valley that’s neither deep nor shallow. After consecutive postseason trips in 2015 and 2016, they limped through a 90-loss season before rebounding closer to .500, where many thought they would be. Both seasons included win-eating injuries to key components of the roster, which functions as an easy out: the Mets could maybe still be good if they were healthy. Only recently did fans and writers start wondering if health was an anomaly instead of expectation. Still, the Mets never appeared to be completely out of contention even if they haven’t really been anywhere near it since the 2016 Wild Card game. They had the talent; they needed the breaks.
Which is to say it’s neither sensical nor outlandish that the Mets, in GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s first weeks in charge, would take a chance at winning now.
Looking out at the postseason landscape (and assuming more deals are on the horizon), the NL East could be hyper-competitive for seasons to come. But none of the top-level teams strike me as fait accompli division winners in the same way the AL West looked before the start of last season. That’s not meant to take anything away from the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, or the Washington Nationals for that matter. Atlanta just reloaded with a brilliant prove-it deal for Josh Donaldson. And many expect Philadelphia to come away with one of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado this offseason, the type of player that makes significant contributions to the win column. I’m not quite ready to call time on Washington; they’re still talent-rich. Especially with Atlanta and Philadelphia, they’re contenders built like a lot of contenders in today’s game: young and skilled and team-controlled with a sprinkling of productive veterans and the promise of staying power. They’re also fallible.
I’m not sure that the Mets can make enough legitimately plausible deals to catch Atlanta straight up. Which means they’ll need help from other good-ish teams to bring win-loss records down to a reachable height (and some regression from the Braves, of course). In the NL, that’s possible.
The American League looks like a land of superteams where divisions are won in the triple digits, a 90-win team could miss the second wild card by seven games, and an 89-win team (albeit one that performed preposterously well in extra-inning games and won an MLB-best 36 one-run games) could decide to tear it down and start over. The NL feels decidedly classless by comparison. That’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a worse record could keep you in the postseason mix if everyone’s trading wins and losses around a division and two Wild Card slots. On the other, that means there’s over half a league to overcome to get to the playoffs with very few easy W’s on the schedule.
Even in the recent past, NL East leaders could beat up on three, sometimes four other tomato cans and pump up their records. Now the intra-division slate looks like it’ll leave some bruises, and there aren’t a lot of W’s to pencil in from intraleague contests either. That could lead to jumbled records where some of the teams that escape the scrum do so on the strength of outlier results. Like preposterously good records in extra-inning and one-run games.
Kind of like what Edwin Diaz just helped Seattle accomplish.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.