The new blueprint for the Mets, defined
The Mets are making a massive investment to quickly turn their organization around from what has amounted to an utter failure in performance and process
So, what is going on with the Mets right now?
Obviously, they’re selling off all of their pending free agents and anyone in their bullpen who has value to a contender right now. Eduardo Escobar and David Robertson were the first significant pieces to go, Mark Canha is now a goner too. They’re looking to move Omar Narváez, Tommy Pham, they’re shopping Brooks Raley, and probably Adam Ottavino and it’s no secret now Justin Verlander is on the block.
But the Mets have a bigger picture they’re looking at. A, “repurposing,” as Billy Eppler put it on Sunday at Citi Field.
The Mets right now are dead in the water, and not just so for 2023. The Mets as an organization have been taking on water at multiple levels. They were lost in the standings, so far out of first place by the end of June (18 games) that it took them out of the discussion for even the hope of a run back into the race many expected them to win in 2023. They were closer to the bottom of the Wild Card race than they were the top as well. Their highly paid veterans - top to bottom on this roster - were all generally underperforming due to injury, age, expected and unexpected regression, or a combination of all three. And all of those problems seem to feed each other.
Fast forward a month to today, and yes the Mets had a solid 14-9 record in July. But still, there’s more than meets the eye in that record as a lot generally went unchanged for the Mets despite the positive result. They still had massive issues in their starting rotation despite an uptick in performance overall. They had only two or three relievers to rely on in an endless cycle of needing more than nine outs from their bullpen. Their offense was non-competitive more often than it wasn’t as well.
The issues are bigger than that, which once again led to such repurposing.
The Mets are an old, unathletic, disconnected team at the big league level which is incompatible with the modern game, that which requires the opposite of all of the above attributes. They’re sloppy and slow, lethargic while lacking agility. Yes, they steal bases, but so does everyone else now. But the agility issues were apparent right out of the gate with this team, specifically in the starting rotation and so much so that Max Scherzer made it a regular habit of complaining about the pitch clock almost from the jump in Spring Training.
To make matters worse, none of those athleticism, agility and major league skill are immediately resolvable for them in their farm system (and by immediate I mean for 2024). Outside of Ronny Mauricio (get him here already!) It’s just more of the same at Triple-A Syracuse.
Sure, the names might be different with Luke Voit, Jeff Brigham, Tylor Megill among those available for them to switch out with the likes of Danny Mendick and DJ Stewart and David Peterson. But they’re generally like-for-like switches with nothing to really like.
Mistakes were made. Their vision was short sighted. Their processes were obviously poor. They took calculated risks, they took risks which had never been before taken. They were willing to take on more risk when they agreed to sign Carlos Correa in December.
I bet they’re thanking their lucky stars that didn’t work out now.
As I always say, you’re as smart as the record says you are, as that is the most important stat in the game. More so than any other metric their multi-million dollar braintrust can try to sell the public on. That’s on the front office and the owner as well.
I don’t think Steve Cohen would ever deny that, either.
So, ok, what are the Mets trying to do? Well, it’s actually quite clear with the Scherzer deal, perhaps less so in their other deals.
In each of the deals the Mets have made so far for Escobar, Robertson, Scherzer and Canha, the Mets have significantly, if not entirely paid down the salaries of each of these players to improve the prospect return. It’s not an unprecedented strategy, although the dollars we are talking about with Scherzer in particular (approximately $36 million of the final $57 million owed) is creative and perhaps unprecedented.
In other words, the Mets paid $36 million for the Rangers third-best prospect in Luisangel Acuña, who will likely become the Mets best overall prospect unless they make another deal for a better prospect.
The same can be said in their deal for Robertson. The Mets paid around $4 million to get what they consider two young, top-shelf, athletic players out of the Marlins farm system in Ronald Hernandez and Marco Vargas for a 38-year-old closer, one of which is now considered one of their top ten prospects.
In a way, this could be viewed as a bargain for the Mets over time.
In the case with Canha, the Mets will be paying all of his remaining 2023 salary (which is around $5 million) to get the Brewers 30th best prospect in Justin Jarvis, that which just became a top 20 prospect in their system. The deal is a little watered down thanks to Canha’s $2 million buyout at the end of the year, that which Milwaukee is taking care of.
For Escobar, they traded him but are paying out his salary (about $5 million or 50 percent of what he was owed, given the timing of the deal) for minor leaguers Coleman Crow and Landon Marceaux, now the 14th and 22nd ranked prospect in the Mets system, according to MLB.com. Like Canha, Escobar has a $500,000 buyout at the end of the year which probably watered down the return to an extent.
The funny math in all of this is that the Mets are actually saving around $22 million by avoiding the buyouts on Canha and Escobar and paying $22 million of the $43 million for Scherzer’s player option, something he was certain to exercise with the Mets anyway.
Anyway, how much the Mets or are willing to absorb in a potential deal for Verlander (assuming he is moved at all) remains to be seen, but it’s pretty clear what the Mets are trying to do and demonstrating a financial capability (and creativeness) of doing.
Eppler’s definition of repurposing is taking the money already invested and considered a sunk cost by Mr. Cohen and putting that money towards an attempt to accelerate the rebuild of their farm system. It’s a system that generally lacks a quality base of talent in their upper minors, a system which is proving to lack an ability to develop players at the top of the minor league system, and therefore a struggle to graduate players to the big leagues from their own minor league system.
All of that is proven by what has transpired here. They are paying - or as Eppler said, repurposing - a total of around $50 million to pay these aging and regressing players (Robertson excepted from the “regressing” category of course) to play elsewhere and at times against them in exchange for six prospects in an attempt to solve their age, agility, and athleticism problems long-term.
But see, here’s the problem, and the one the Mets are now finally dedicated to fixing.
All of these prospects were ranked lower in their original farm systems, in some cases significantly lower than they are now with the Mets. That’s not to say these aren’t good prospects as much as it’s a demonstration of how poor the Mets farm system has been overall. Sure, the Mets have a number of very good prospects, many of which are top-100 prospects before the season started, they graduated Francisco Álvarez to the big leagues and he looks like the real deal (the jury is still out on Brett Baty and Mark Vientos, obviously) but there were and still are too many major gaps in between those players.
That’s a product of both the quality of their prospects overall and their player development process, the latter of which simply must get better. They’re working on it, a lot of which is behind the scenes in Port St. Lucie, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
And to me, that’s the biggest indictment on the Mets of all, both in this regime and in prior regimes. Not the draft or the players they’ve selected and signed through international free agency, but the player development process itself.
So, what does this all mean for 2024?
Well, probably not a whole lot, to be honest.
Acuña may be able to start contributing at the big league level sometime next year. But to think he is going to come here and be like his brother right out of the gate would be both silly and unfair to the player. He’s obviously a top-shelf prospect, something the Mets need more of but need to cultivate and develop more of on their own as opposed to paying $36 million to get. I’d expect Jarvis to factor in somewhere as well (he looks a lot like Chris Bassitt, btw), although he projects as a back-end starter at best. The other two players the Mets received are toolsy and athletic, all of the things the Mets want and need, but they’re years away right now. And who knows how many of these prospects - or how many of the prospects they’re about to get with more trades likely coming - will ever get here.
Yeah, that doesn’t answer the question about 2024 very much, does it?
On Sunday, Eppler made this strategy clear, but also said the Mets won’t be as aggressive in free agency as they have been in the past, as it’s a market they want to begin to use to supplement their roster and not depend on to fill core needs routinely. That’s a little vague considering he also said they’re going to have to live in free agency this coming winter in order to field what he termed as a, “competitive” team in 2024.
Funny - we’ve gone from using words like, “championship” to, “competitive” in a matter of three months.
Anyway, the Mets need at least two starters for their opening day roster as well as depth they can count on. If they trade Verlander, they need three starters for their opening day rotation. They need a left fielder. They need to resolve this never-ending hole with their designated hitter. They need to figure out what Starling Marte will be in the second half of his contract and potentially get another corner outfielder as well.
Then there is the bullpen which, even when the Mets are contenders, never seem to get right. They have the closer, although to think Edwin Díaz will be invincible again is probably going to make you choke on your kool-aid. From there, well, I don’t have to tell you anymore.
So, I guess this boils down to what competitive means with respect to risk assessment in the free agent market.
I’m thinking the one-to-two year starting pitching market, and guys who are looking at bounce-back type contracts who, if successful, would re-enter the free agent market in 2025. We’ve seen this movie before back in 2020 with guys like Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello at the time. So, I’m thinking about guys like James Paxton, maybe someone like Jack Flaherty assuming he continues his pedestrian-like season, Kyle Gibson or Kyle Hendricks, among others of course. Nobody I listed or anyone who fits the criteria is really going to transform this rotation, but should meet the “competitive” criteria with an ability to parlay into more prospects at next year’s trade deadline should the team go south again.
There are certainly more opportunities for quality, shorter-term contracts in the position player and DH markets, such as Adam Duvall, JD Martínez, Joc Pederson, among others that can be had on shorter-term deals.
But we aren’t talking about the top of the free agent class, at least not for 2024. We will see if Shohei Ohtani is an exception to the plan, as he should be (and will he want to come to a team in transition?).
This is all why I say the Mets may have now have their real sights on 2025 and beyond, regardless of Eppler’s insistence this isn’t a rebuild. I’d agree to an extent - looking towards 2025 isn’t necessarily a rebuild, but it doesn’t bode well for a championship in 2024, either, and I think Eppler was trying to set those expectations through the media on Sunday too. He said their revised plan will take time. Repurposing resources earmarked for a failed big league roster in 2023 into the organization and stating they’re not going to be as aggressive as they recently have been in free agency, as he put it, is not indicative of a front office with championship expectations the following season.
That’s just the reality, as sobering as that might sound.
I also don’t think this is going to amount to 5-6 years of utter misery like the one the organization endured between 2009-2014, which was a long, painful, frustrating rebuild process marred by financial challenges with the previous owner. I do believe this owner recognizes there is no stomach for an extensive rebuild process, it’s been long enough and they’re going to dedicate the resources necessary to turning this ship around with enough fuel to get past the first buoy this time.
But as Eppler said, it is going to take a little time, and not just a restocking of their farm system, but also recalibration of their player development process to ensure this massive investment from ownership actually gets to the big leagues and can perform.
So, it’s going to about properly balancing the present-day product at the big league level while developing the future of the product. That may not be so easy over the next 12 months, but at least the owner has the resources and willingness to try.
And will Eppler and his staff get to oversee the process? That’s a story for another day.