Mets face uphill battle to repeat last season’s second-half surge
- The Mets, who have been hit hard by injuries and a struggling offense, are unlikely to be able to make enough trade deadline moves to replicate last season’s second-half surge.
Almost exactly one year ago, the Mets were at rock bottom. On July 30, 2015, New York blew a ninth-inning lead to the Padres, as closer Jeurys Familia gave up a three-run home run to Justin Upton in the pouring rain, handing the Mets an 8–7 loss that dropped them to 52–50. At three games back of Washington in the National League East and several games out of the second wild-card spot, that brutal defeat seemed to suck all the hope out of a Mets team that had gotten off to a fantastic 15–5 start, only to stumble and fall into just-above-.500 mediocrity. Worse, with the trade deadline just one day away, there seemed to be little to no chance of New York acquiring the help needed to rally past the Nationals and win the division.
Fast forward to 2016. On Thursday, New York blew a ninth-inning lead to the Rockies, as Familia gave up two runs in the span of six batters to hand the Mets a 2–1 loss that dropped them to 53–48. Like last year, the team's situation is dire: six games behind the Nationals in the division and two games out of the second and final wild-card spot. Despite getting off to another hot start—a 21–12 mark through May 11, the last time the Mets held the outright lead in the NL East—New York has again lost its momentum. Thursday's loss makes the Mets 6–7 since the All-Star break, and they are playing just .481 ball (38–41) since the start of May. The trade deadline is only three days away, and once more, there seems to be little help on the horizon.
The forecast for last year, of course, changed dramatically on deadline day, when the Mets landed Yoenis Cespedes in a deal with the Tigers. Cespedes hit a scorching .287/.337/.604 with 17 home runs in 57 games as a Met to help New York to a 37–22 mark from Aug. 1 onward—a .627 winning percentage, or a 102-win pace for a full season. The Mets easily swept aside the Nationals, beating them six out of eight times over the rest of the season, to snatch their first NL East crown since 2006, then went on to win the franchise's first pennant in 15 years.
Any Mets fan hoping for a repeat of last season, however, should think twice. While there are still two months left in the regular season for New York to jockey its way back into playoff position, there is no Cespedes-like player who can lift the team out of its late summer malaise. Worse, this year's edition of the Mets seems to have more holes than possible for general manager Sandy Alderson to patch, as the roster continues to lose key contributors at the worst possible time.
Pick any part of the Mets right now, and things are going south in a hurry. Going into Thursday's action, New York was averaging just 3.71 runs per game, the third-worst figure in the majors and ahead of just rebuilding Philadelphia and Atlanta. Cespedes, rightfielder Curtis Granderson and fill-in first baseman James Loney are the only regulars at league average or better with the bat, and Cespedes has been hobbled with a right quad injury that may now keep him out for multiple games. Injuries to David Wright and Lucas Duda have left holes in the corner infield that the team has struggled mightily to fill. Outfielder Michael Conforto, who posted an .841 OPS and 129 OPS+ as a rookie in the second half last year, saw those numbers crash to .726 and 93, respectively, this season and has spent a large chunk of 2016 trying to find his swing in Triple A. Behind the plate, Travis d'Arnaud has managed just 37 games due to injury, and in that meager time, he's hit just .246/.299/.333.
Things aren't much better on the pitching side of things. Matt Harvey is done for the season. Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard are dealing with bone spurs in their right elbows. Bartolo Colon has a 4.88 ERA since the start of July. Familia, who has blown two straight save opportunities after converting 52 in a row, looks spent after a season in which he logged 78 innings and finished an MLB-high 65 games as a rookie closer, and manager Terry Collins seems to trust only him and setup man Addison Reed with leads. As a result, Familia once again leads the majors in games finished with 47 already on the season; Thursday marked his third straight appearance, less than 24 hours after he threw 26 pitches and gave up two runs against the Cardinals in a 5–4 loss. Reed, meanwhile, has already appeared in 49 games and thrown 48 innings just one season after he topped out at 55 and 56, respectively.
The list of needs, then, is long: Help at first base and third base and help in the outfield, ideally in the form of a bat who can also slot into the middle of the order and protect Cespedes; another starter to pick up Harvey's innings (which right now are going to 26-year-old righty Logan Verrett, who has a 4.12 ERA and 5.06 FIP in 74 1/3 innings); as many arms to add to the bullpen as possible to take the load off Familia and Reed. But this year's trade deadline offers little help to a team desperate for it. The impact bat on the market is the Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy, and while his offense and defense at catcher would be a step up from the current version of d’Arnaud, it would do little to address the team's gaping hole at third base, for example, or New York’s lack of a regular centerfielder. For the former, the Mets have cycled through anyone and everyone available in Wright's absence, even creating a reunion with Jose Reyes, who has hit just .239 in 67 at-bats for New York and is currently sidelined by an intercostal strain. In center, meanwhile, New York now tries its hand with Conforto, who had never played an inning at the position at any level before doing so against the Marlins on July 24.
Arms are more readily available at the deadline, but as recent trades for Drew Pomeranz and Aroldis Chapman have shown, impact starters and relievers are currently moving at exorbitant prices, particularly for a Mets team lacking in upper-level prospects to deal. While the likes of the Padres' Andrew Cashner or the Athletics' Rich Hill would be ideal for New York—which doesn't need an ace but merely a mid-level starter to bump Verrett out of the starting five and give a blow to Matz, Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom when needed—but the competition for even pitchers of that caliber is fierce in a shallow market. The same is true in the bullpen, where the Mets are reportedly fishing around for low-cost upgrades; a report from the New York Post's Mike Puma had the team looking at veterans Joe Smith and Jim Johnson, who would represent little more than warm bodies thrown into the mix in lieu of anyone else.
So what solutions are there available to the Mets? Hope that Duda can come back soon from the stress fracture in his back that has sidelined him since late May, and that Zack Wheeler can finally get untracked in his rehab from 2015 Tommy John surgery and provide some impact innings in the rotation in August or September. Add whatever is possible to the bullpen and see if perhaps a past-his-prime veteran can turn back the clock for a few weeks. Hope that Conforto and d'Arnaud can find their offense once more—though Conforto's inconsistent playing time is an obstacle there. Pray that Matz and Syndergaard can avoid the surgeon's knife, and that Familia's arm has enough left in it for another run at the division.
None of these are particularly good options. And while the Mets do their due diligence on the trade market—a report earlier Thursday from Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal had New York and Milwaukee discussing Lucroy—it's hard to imagine another Cespedes-sized move coming between now and Aug. 1. Last year's addition of the Cuban slugger was as unexpected as it was unlikely—a cash-strapped front office agreeing to make a bold move in support of a pitching staff it rightfully believed to be once-in-a-lifetime levels of special. The lack of talent on this year's market will make it harder for the Mets to justify taking on the money and giving up the prospects needed to bolster the roster, and given all the areas that need shoring up on the 2016 roster, one trade likely won't be enough to right the ship. And then there is the looming specter of the Nationals, who have gone 9–4 against the Mets this season and against whom New York has just six games left to try to erase a mounting division deficit.
One year ago, the Mets looked as far away from the postseason and a pennant as could be. They find themselves in the same position this season, but with a more difficult road toward the World Series than even last year's squad. The familiarity may be comforting, but the reality of the situation can't be.