- A wild-card game loss to the Giants and the potential departure of their only elite hitter are dampening the enthusiasm for New York's once promising forecast.
It's hard to imagine—even by Mets fan standards—that a gut-wrenching, ninth-inning loss at home in the wild-card game would be the high point after a topsy-turvy regular season. But with the team's once beloved All-Star closer, Jeurys Familia, charged with assault after a domestic violence arrest last month (he pleaded no contest at a hearing on Thursday) and its only star hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, a free agent, things were already looking worse this month than they did on that grim night at Citi Field. And that was before folk hero and rotation stalwart Bartolo Colon fled on Friday for a contract with the hated Braves.
Recall, with six weeks to go, the season had been a whiff of Jay Bruce-ian proportions. At their low point in late August, New York had been deservedly left for dead by the baseball cognoscenti, with the team a 60–62 MASH unit, 5 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot.
From then on the Mets posted the best record in baseball at 27–13 and had the majors’ best run differential, too, mostly on the backs of gimpy veterans and non-prospects. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera hit .345 with 10 homers in 41 games after only a partial recovery from a tweaked knee; Jose Reyes had a .343 on-base percentage, mostly out of the leadoff spot, after his return from a disabled list stint for a rib cage injury. Rookie pitchers Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman—who and who?—combined for a 2.69 ERA in 15 starts. Even the scrubs could do no wrong. On one representatively unusual September Saturday against a wretched Phillies team, the Mets fell in a 10–0 hole and pulled their veteran starters. No-names like T.J. Rivera and Gavin Cecchini led a charge that would fall just short of the biggest comeback in franchise history, losing 10–8. The next day, the Mets clocked Philadelphia, 17–0.
That the Mets would fall to the Giants in October—well, of course they would fall to the Giants, what with their wealth of postseason experience and infallible Madison Bumgarner. And heck, even if they won, there’s not much the “starting at first base and batting eighth, James Loney” Mets could have been expected to do.
The disappointing end to the season does not make New York's final month-plus any less charmed. But it does call attention to the team’s future, cloudy even beyond Cespedes, whom the Mets should want to keep but may not be able to, and Familia, whom they probably should not keep but likely will. But with the departure already of their most dependable starter (Colon), the possible loss of their best hitter (Cespedes) and a potential suspension or trade of their best relief pitcher (Familia, who could face discipline under the domestic violence policy that MLB debuted last off-season, one which resulted in a 30-game suspension for a different star closer, Aroldis Chapman), this has not been the best month in Queens.
One might have assumed an injury-wracked team that wound up 12 games over .500—and could have landed in the Division Series against the eventual champion Cubs if not for Familia allowing a three-run homer to a utility infielder named Connor Gillaspie—would be destined for a superb ensuing season. And there is certainly a version of 2017 where the Mets’ young pitchers return to health, succeed beyond Kevin James’s wildest dreams and make it to the postseason in a third straight year for the first time in club history.
Yet how much better, realistically, can the Mets’ pitching be? The loss of Colon robs the club of one of its few reliable options, as even at age 43 he led the team in starts (33), innings pitched (191 2/3), wins (15), winning percentage (.652) and GIF-worthy moments. Most hard throwers get hurt, as New York found out, with Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom both ending the year on the disabled list and Zack Wheeler's return from Tommy John surgery still uncertain. Even comparatively soft-tossing Steven Matz got hurt last year, missing the closing stretch before undergoing elbow surgery after the season ended.
Despite all those injuries, the Mets’ staff had the league’s third-best ERA and the third-highest Wins Above Replacement in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference. By most any run-environment-adjusted metric, the Mets pitched better in 2016 than they did in '15, when they won the National League pennant. It’s hard to call the pitching outcome of 2016 a worst-case scenario.
Where the team really regressed from last year was at the plate. (The defense got worse too, but not by all that much.) The Mets went from being the NL’s seventh-best run-scoring squad to its 12th-best. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who each year reliably misses two-plus months to injury, had an abysmal half-season rather than a titillating one. Curtis Granderson followed a stellar 2015 with a pedestrian ’16. David Wright and Lucas Duda were toast by late May. Neil Walker’s back gave out four months after Duda’s. The organization ping-ponged 2015 wünderkind Michael Conforto between Triple A and the majors. Alejandro de Aza hit poorly enough to deserve a demotion to the minors that never came, and even Bruce was little help after arriving from the Reds at the trade deadline.
The Mets struggled not only as individuals but as a group. This particular team was so bad at getting men on base in front of its best hitters that it produced three of the 63 batter seasons in all of MLB history with more than 23 homers and 62 or fewer runs batted in (Cabrera, Granderson and Walker). New York’s .225 average with runners in scoring position was the worst in the league; its .187 mark with RISP and two outs was the worst of any team in three years and the worst of any team ever to make the playoffs.
Those splits should stabilize in 2017, but there’s no reason to expect any similar rebound from the offense writ large. There are the straightforward problems, such as Wright’s spinal stenosis that limited him to just 37 games in 2016. If he returns, the Mets will have $20 million tied up in a third baseman whose power and arm strength will most likely be sapped and who will need every third or fourth game off. If he doesn’t, the Mets will be stuck at the position with some combination of Reyes, entering his age-34 season, and Wilmer Flores. Never mind that this pair may also be tasked with playing second base if the team doesn’t re-sign Walker. First base is a hole, too. Loney posted a .656 OPS after the All-Star break; he’s a goner. What to do with Duda? He should cost the team something like $8 million in arbitration (he's been tendered a contract), turns 31 before next season and played just 47 games himself this past season. In the two prior seasons, though, among hitters with 1,000 plate appearances, he had the 19th-highest OPS.
Then there are the problems with all sorts of moving parts. Getting Bruce from the Reds created an outfield logjam for the short- and longer-term. The team already had two lefty-hitting corner outfielders in Granderson and Conforto (who was in the minors at the time of the deal). From the right side there was Cespedes (a subpar centerfielder who should really be playing in a corner spot and, owing to injury at the time, was) and light-hitting defensive whiz Juan Lagares (who was also injured). The 2016 solution was to leave Conforto in Las Vegas, further punting on his development, and sacrifice defense by sticking Granderson in center.
What will the 2017 solution be? The Mets have a $13 million option on Bruce that they picked up. They’re also trying, conditional as ever on the strength of their financial constraints, to keep Cespedes. His departure would simplify the playing-time puzzle but would cost the Mets their better hitter and would still result in corner outfielders (including a 36-year-old Granderson) playing all three outfield spots. This punchless team can hardly afford to lose the hitter who topped them in home runs, RBIs and OPS, but if he stays he’ll cost an island nation’s GDP. New York would also still be stuck shopping Bruce, Conforto or Granderson, with each worth less in trade conversations than he would have been a year ago. The Mets could also stick one at first base, leaving them vulnerable to lefties, and still with three corner men playing the outfield.
New York can’t even be certain that Bruce is any good. He hit .219 with eight home runs after the trade, suggesting that his strong play in Cincinnati before the deal—an .875 OPS that was on track to be the best mark of his nine-year career—was a mirage. His OBP over the last three seasons is just .295. And he turns 30 on Opening Day. (Relatedly, the Mets’ average hitter age in 2016 adjusted for playing time was the oldest in the National League, per Baseball-Reference.)
Neither of the two best organizational strategies for the Mets—let the pitchers get healthy, and because of their strikeout skills abandon defense in favor of slugging, hoping to win every game 6–4; or build a run-prevention superstar along the lines of the Cubs and win that way—seems likely to be pursued. They're saddled already with sluggers who can't really field, so it would require selling those players at a discount to find room in the lineup for a free agent along the lines of Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista. The problem is that the Mets' no-glove sluggers can't really hit, either. A defensive juggernaut might be cheaper, but where would you even begin?
So the off-season upgrades will likely be incremental. Where could they be? At catcher with Matt Wieters? In the infield with Justin Turner? In the outfield with Ian Desmond? Or do they fill whatever holes arise with Reyes, Flores, Rivera and Cecchini? Woof.
Those improbably victorious lineups that spurred the Mets’ late comeback in 2016 have become, equally improbably, a window looking out on what's next. It's bleaker than it once looked.