Uncertainty Looms in the New York Mets Plan

The Mets had a rough 2017, and a fire sale left a lot of questions ahead of a new season. Do they have the resources to address all their issues? Or is it time to start a rebuild in Flushing?

The New York Mets had a disastrous season. 2016 was anticipated to be a bit of a regression year given what was accomplished unexpectedly in 2015, but it still produced a trip to the Wild Card game. The average they might have predicted for 2017 would still be playoff contention. Mets fans knew the roster was thin, but the top-level talent was so good that if they stayed on the field, New York would contend. They didn’t.

RosterResource, who tracks DL time and its effect on a team’s roster, estimated the Mets’ disabled list had the greatest loss of value to their active roster over the course of the season. Spotrac, whose analysis is geared towards contract spending on disabled players, estimated the Mets paid the second-highest total to players on DL stints — although it should be noted that nearly half their total is David Wright. Of the top five players on the 2016 roster by baseball-reference WAR (bWAR) who returned for 2017, only Jacob deGrom and Addison Reed escaped DL time last season. Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes and Steven Matz all missed significant time. Reed didn’t finish the season in Flushing. Of the 2017 bWAR top-five (deGrom, Conforto, Jay Bruce, Cespedes and Reed), only deGrom avoided injury last season and/or still is on the team.

You could understand why the Mets might feel 2017 was a lost season. What do you learn about your talent when the best of it misses so much time? Too many contributors were hurt too often and the quality (or lack thereof) of the squad had more to do with health than on-field performance.

That was the belief when the trade deadline arrived. With the Mets all but mathematically out of playoff contention by mid-summer, the sale of surplus assets and expiring deals began. Lucas Duda and Reed went off to playoff hopefuls, and a couple pieces were moved to the Miami Marlins for AJ Ramos. Post-deadline, Bruce, Neil Walker and Curtis Granderson were also sent packing.

Many of the deals netted bullpen arms for 2018 and beyond, and with good reason: New York’s bullpen was bad last season. The pen finished in the top 10 in innings pitched, often pressed into action because of an underperforming (and heavily injured) starting rotation. Yet they were bottom-five in bullpen Win Probability Added (WPA). The continued use of Hansel Robles became a proverbial white flag, a signal of a couple more outs to trudge through before winter respite arrived.

Spending on relief pitching through free agency is a volatile prospect, and a team with a stringent budget would likely think a few times over before they paid big on bullpen arms. Reed is a good example: he served the club well in myriad late-inning roles, but the Mets were never likely to pay the $8-9 million a season it might take to retain him. They’ll have to spend a bit regardless; New York’s currently-rostered bullpen options aren’t completely inspiring in the immediate term. Still, they flipped players who didn’t factor into future plans to fix a weakness. It made sense.

Bruce, for all he does, was part of an outfield logjam that really needed space for Cespedes and Conforto. The same applies for Granderson. At least moving Reed was understandable and Duda had a replacement ready to make the leap from the minors. Walker was an interesting decision, but the Mets had little immediate need for his talent. Collectively, the deals revealed the organization’s summary of their lost season: bad-health luck needed a reload, not a rebuild.

But for everything the deals did to land near-future bullpen help, they also left the Mets in a precarious position that they’ve been in regularly since their NL pennant a few years back: betting on health, dangerously thin.

New York’s collection of arbitration-eligible arms has been a very risky organizational bet. On paper, a Syndergaard-deGrom-Matz-Matt HarveyZack Wheeler rotation gives the Mets a one-to-three level starter five days a week, and in the brief moments when the bet paid off, it paid off big. But Matz and Wheeler haven’t been able to stay healthy, and Harvey was so atrocious after his latest return from injury, his exit is closer to an inevitability that’s only been dragged out because his trade value cratered. deGrom took time to find his stride after injuries in 2016 delayed his progress, and ace Syndergaard will try to pick up where his blazing fastball left off this upcoming season. If they’re not all there (and the likelihood is they won’t be), and they’re not all right (again, unlikely), a team that pitched poorly over all nine innings last year will very likely struggle again. A lot of pressure will be heaped on the backup arms and the pen again.

Meanwhile, Walker’s trade, along with Jose Reyes‘ free agency, opens an infield divot on the other side of second base from top prospect Amed Rosario. As of now, second and third are going to be patrolled by some combination of Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilmer Flores, Matt Reynolds and Gavin Cecchini — a depth chart possibility that doesn’t inspire confidence. And all the potential holes will likely keep them from addressing other issues around the diamond, namely the lack of confidence in catcher productivity that the underwhelming combo of Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki bring.

The confusion around the Mets’ actual direction came to a head when Hot Stove season started with a curious rumor: that they were interested in free agent first basemen Carlos Santana.

Dominic Smith, Duda’s well-regarded replacement, wasn’t exactly stellar in his debut cameo. He hit nine home runs, but on a .198/.262/.395 traditional slash line. Young players can struggle early, but the Mets are apparently so perturbed by Smith’s poor performance, they’ve at least entertained addressing the first base spot all over again. It could end up being a play to get Smith to drop a few pounds, but considering New York traded two potential power-hitting first basemen (Duda and Bruce, whose near-future probably includes the first base role and who is rumored to be in consideration for a Flushing return), the Smith replacement rumors are confounding. Smart business meant to eke the most out of a rare era of homegrown talent also created gaps that the Mets don’t seem capable of filling in one offseason.

It’s hard to be negative on a team this far out from Opening Day, even if negativity is built into the DNA of the fan base (full disclosure: I’m a Mets fan). But if the bet really is on better health, the Mets will need a lot of it. Something close to the opposite extreme of the health bad luck they experienced last season would be a requirement. It’s unlikely the Mets can cover enough deficiencies in their roster if that’s not the case.

Understandably, uncertainty looms.

Khurram Kalim is a lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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