By: Brian Mangan
The Mets, and General Manager Sandy Alderson, have simply not done enough to make sure that the 2015 team, which is close, can make a serious run at the playoffs. Given the strong state of the franchise, the strong minor league system, and the team’s favorable position with regard to existing player contracts, to essentially stand pat isn’t acceptable.
As a fan, I am conflicted. On one hand, I believe that the Mets were a little better than their record last year, and that they didn’t need to do very much this offseason in order to improve themselves to the point where they might hang around the fringes of the playoff race. I also believe that it is better to stand pat than make a stupid signing or lose big in a trade simply to make one. However, it is very frustrating as a fan to feel like the organization is “on the cusp,” in Sandy’s words, yet be either unwilling or unable to make a move to make the team into something great.
The “window” of contention in MLB can be a small and capricious thing. Sometimes a team thinks that it is set up to contend for a decade, only to take a step back the next season — just look at the 2013 Washington Nationals. Sure, the Nationals returned to the playoffs in 2014, but you can’t just bank on things working out in the future. Therefore, when an opportunity presents itself, a team must be cautiously aggressive but must pursue it.
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The Mets Are On the Cusp
The 2014 Mets were 42-37 with 306 runs for and 292 runs against from July 1 to through the end of the season. That’s good for a .531 winning percentage or, if you prefer their 41-38 pythagorean record over that stretch, a .518 winning percentage. Taking the more conservative figure (the lower, pythagorean record), that extrapolates to an 84 win season.
If you believe that was the Mets true-talent level last year, and I do, then they would have been close to playoff contention without making even a single upgrade to the team. Instead, the Mets are fortunate to have two top-shelf players returning from injury in Matt Harvey and Bobby Parnell, and they added Michael Cuddyer to shore up their most obvious area of weakness. The rest of the roster provides plenty of upside and very little downside. Among the players who are returning, there are very few candidates for regression (perhaps Lucas Duda, Jacob DeGrom, or Juan Lagares will have a hard time replicating their 2014 success) while several players might see their production take a step forward in the upcoming year (I remain bullish on Travis D’Arnaud, Wilmer Flores, and David Wright).
Overall, there is plenty of reason to believe that the team can improve on last year’s final 79 games and be a team that wins 86 to 88 (or more) games as presently constituted.
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The Time for Ownership to Support the Team… Is Now.
Count me among those fans who were patient from 2010-2014, and never complained that the Mets weren’t spending. There was no point in throwing money away or getting stuck in bad contracts at that point. Get out from under Johan Santana’s monster deal, trade Carlos Beltran, let Jose Reyes walk — fine. In fact, when the Mets signed Chris Young prior to 2014, I asked on this very blog: “why?”
This signing [of Chris Young] smacks, like many Mets moves, of desperation. Of aspiration to mediocrity. Chris Young is likely to be a fine player next year — a fine player that will nudge the Mets meaninglessly toward 80 or 82 wins and make no impact on the next winning Mets team.
But that was then, and this is now. Now, with a team so well-positioned (after half a decade of rebuild and heartache) to finally make a run, now is the time for ownership to make an investment back into the team.
It has been easy for me to be patient, not only because of my personal philosophy on team-building, but based on direct promises from the Mets front office and from Sandy Alderson. Metsblog reported back in February that “Sandy Alderson expects the team’s payroll to increase with on-field success, but only if they’re supported by fans at the gate[.]” (Metsblog, Feb. 7, 2014). “I do believe the payroll will go up if we generate the type of revenue that supports that,” said Alderson in May 2014, “That’s why we have to win.”
The fan base didn’t like to hear that — that the team’s fortunes might be tied somehow to cold, hard realities — but I am actually okay with that as a business model and strategy. I wish my team would support a robust payroll either way, but having the payroll increase in tandem with the team’s success makes sense, because the only model I’m interested in is one where the Mets are a big-market club that constantly wins, that builds from within, and which makes hard decisions (including trading veterans and gutting payroll) when it has to.
But where — today — is the commitment from ownership to move in lock-step with winning and attendance? This team projects to have that on-field success — so where is the support? If you believe that the Mets are “on the cusp,” as Sandy and I do, and if you know that fans will come to watch a winning team, then the commitment to spend more to support that team begins now, not after the fans come.
Requiring attendance to go up first, at the expense of a potentially competitive season, can only be interpreted as a “fuck you” to the fans. It’s a message that we are not in this together, but rather, if you want a good product then you have to pay in advance. But the Mets organization cannot seriously believe that the fans should be obligated to come watch a team that the ownership does nothing to support, even when all objective signs point to the fact that the window of contention is opening now.
There is essentially little to no question that if the Mets invested an additional ~$20M in payroll the 2015 Mets would be a playoff team. A playoff team in New York could undoubtedly support a $120M payroll, a figure that would have ranked 11th in MLB last year. So how can they possibly justify, at this late date, being too cowardly to take that leap?
What happens if or when the 2015 Mets win 87 games, see a huge surge in attendance, but fall short of the playoffs because the ownership needed to see attendance surge before actually trying to help the team win? Should the fact that they be willing to spend in 2016 be any consolation to a lost year?
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The Opportunities Have Been There To Make Improvements
I am not advocating that the Mets spend wildly or mortgage the future for the present. Spending money stupidly (Jason Bay, Luis Castillo) or making a foolish trade (Scott Kazmir) is even worse than standing pat. But there have been many free agents who have signed this winter for less than I expected, and many trades which the Mets could have been players in. Andrew Miller signed for 4 years and $36 million, and Melky Cabrera signed for 3 years and $43.5 million. Michael Saunders, Matt Joyce, and Brandon Moss were all traded for parts. All would make the team better.
Similarly, there have been many opportunities for the team to shore up the position that many people think is the last remaining hole on the roster, at shortstop. Even if you are like me and think Wilmer Flores will be fine, a depth move like Jung-ho Kang would only cost money. If you prefer to think bigger, there comes a point where that Mike Piazza/Troy Tulowitzki transformative trade makes sense for a franchise.
I’m not saying that any one of these moves needed to be made – I am saying that even if you are willing, as I was, to buy into the plan that payroll would increase with attendance, that this is the offseason where you would have been right to expect the team to make some aggressive moves to improve the roster. And, outside of Michael Cuddyer, they have failed to do so.
Alderson has done a fine job rebuilding the organization, and he’s done a fine job within his payroll constraints. The team was not wrong to go through a period of austerity. But the Mets have finally positioned themselves in such a way that they can succeed for a decade. The farm system is as strong as I have ever seen it — and don’t take my word for it, take the word of John Sickels, the expert over at Minor League Ball:
“The big strength is pitching. Noah Syndergaard is one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Steven Matz is another Top 50 pitching prospect … Hitting looks good too. Dilson Herrera’s 2014 breakthrough appears genuine and Brandon Nimmo continues to develop steadily. Kevin Plawecki will be ready soon and 2014 first-rounder Michael Conforto should be a lineup mainstay within three years. That’s four regular bats right there … There are at least a dozen other players with big league potential at the rookie ball and summer league levels.”
The system is probably a top five system in the game. The Mets have cost-controlled players littering the roster from top to bottom, who will provide great value at pre- free agency prices in Matt Harvey, Jenrry Mejia, Zack Wheeler, Jacob DeGrom, Bobby Parnell, Juan Lagares, Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores and others. The time is now, and not a single season of this window should be wasted, because you never know what might happen.
Why were the Cubs in on Jon Lester and the Mets were not? Take a look at Jeff Sullivan’s take on the Lester signing and tell me that it doesn’t all apply in equal force to the Mets:
“And naturally, the Cubs’ arrow is pointing up … the Cubs don’t have many other big commitments. Lester’s salary can be offset by the young players getting paid next to nothing for their contributions. Anthony Rizzo‘s under contract forever at very reasonable prices. The same goes for Starlin Castro …”
The more you look at it, the more inexorably clear the picture becomes. The Mets aren’t “in it together” with the fans right now, waiting for a season where they may contend to open their wallets. They are demanding that the fans pay in advance, even if that means taking a perfectly good opportunity to win in 2015 and potentially sacrificing it. As a fan, you have every right to be angry about that.
The Mets are right there — and even a prudent business model of payroll following attendance is simply no excuse for Mets ownership not making a real investment this year.
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Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City.
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I try not to Monday Morning Quarterback on this blog, but it’s hard not to do that when you’re frustrated. Lets look at what it would look like if they wanted to make an investment into the team and trade for Troy Tulowitzki (let’s say Syndergaard, Nimmo, Plawecki, Gee does it). The real-life team has a payroll south of $100M, so even adding Tulowitzki at $20M keeps the team south of $120M in 2015. Then you can field a lineup against RHP that looks like this:
- LF Granderson
- 2B Murphy
- SS Tulowitzki (proj 5.8 WAR)
- 3B Wright
- 1B Duda
- RF Cuddyer
- C D’Arnaud
- CF Lagares
You can also go through this exercise without a trade for Tulowitzki and still make marked strides to improve the team. Perhaps the team could have been in on Jon Lester, who signed for an AAV of $25.8M but only six years, and then trade Zack Wheeler to the Cubs for Starlin Castro (ameliorating the Cubs infield logjam and saving them money to pursue Scherzer in addition to Wheeler). Then your team has a payroll of $120M and looks like this:
- SS Castro
- 2B Murphy
- 3B Wright
- 1B Duda
- RF Cuddyer
- LF Granderson
- C D’Arnaud
- CF Lagares
With a rotation of Lester, Harvey, Colon, DeGrom, and Niese, with Syndergaard in the wings and Gee in the bullpen. Wheeler for Castro makes a lot of sense, and it has not only been suggested by me. But the only way to do it without robbing Peter to pay Paul would be to open the wallet.
Both of these configurations are teams that project 4-5 wins better than the Mets as currently comprised (or more), target players that are no older than 30, leaves the farm system mostly in tact, and neither one pushes payroll past $120M. Both of these configurations 1) show a commitment to the fans, without being irresponsible, and do so without mortgaging the future, 2) keep the payroll low for a New York City team – allowing the Mets record and attendance to improve in lock-step with each other, and 3) give the team an opportunity to compete in 2015.