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The three areas the Mets have to address at the trade deadline
The Mets need to acquire competence against LHP both at the plate and in the bullpen, and decide how to address their catching situation
The Mets open a pivotal three-game series with the World Champion Braves in Atlanta tonight.
Once upon a time, about 5-and-a-half weeks ago, the Mets led these Braves by 10.5 games in the National League East.
That lead has been mostly wiped out.
Since then, the Mets have gone 18-16 (during the hardest part of their schedule, mind you) while the Braves have stormed back thanks to a 28-8 pace (mostly during an easier part of their schedule) to pull to within 1.5 games of New York in the National League East.
All-in-all, it was unrealistic to expect anyone to cruise away with the division. In other words, we are right where we expected to be, in a tight divisional race at the top with 1-2 other teams (Phillies and the Marlins) on the periphery, breathing down the necks of both the Braves and the Mets.
Fortunately for the Mets, Max Scherzer has returned to the fold and will make perhaps his most important start of the year to-date for the Mets tonight when he faces off against Max Fried.
But Fried himself is representative of one of the problems the Mets need to address in the next three weeks ahead of the August 2 trade deadline.
It’s been a profound struggle for the Mets against southpaws over the first half of the season, which is why many teams have thrown an army of left-handed pitchers against them all year long. As a team, the Mets have hit .242 (18th in MLB) and produced a .701 OPS (20th in MLB) against left-handed pitching this season. And, the imbalance the Mets currently have on their roster - especially with the absence of Starling Marte who has been their best hitter against lefties by far - has left them even more vulnerable specifically late in games.
And the re-addition of Patrick Mazeika - who is replacing James McCann who is now out again thanks to an oblique injury - only makes their second tier that much more left-handed.
Look no further than their issues against the Marlins left-handed pitchers in their most recent series, during which they went 2-2 and particularly struggled against the likes of Tanner Scott, Richard Bleir, and Steven Okert. They are up against a far superior left-handed pitching corps in Atlanta starting tonight with Fried in the rotation and both AJ Minter and Will Smith out of their bullpen.
Here are the lines for notable Mets against left-handed pitching:
Starling Marte: .337/.384/.543
Brandon Nimmo: .257/.354/.431
Eduardo Escobar: .261/.300/.511
Pete Alonso: .208/.323/.455
Francisco Lindor: .235/.319/.408
Jeff McNeil: .288/.360/.338
Mark Canha: .233/.317/.356
JD Davis: .225/.340/.313
Tomás Nido: .226/.284/.258
The funny thing is, six of these nine hitters hit right-handed against left-handed pitching. Still, they’re generally neutralized at the moment late in games against the left side.
So, box number one at the trade deadline should be a right-handed, contact-centric bat with a particular strength against left-handed pitching.
A short time ago, Trey Mancini seemed like an obvious fit for the Mets to fill this particular need. He has hit .278/.340/.731 against left-handed pitching and while his power numbers are a little off in the first half, he’s a quality veteran who would help lengthen this lineup on a daily basis (he’s also a great story given what he’s been through in recent years). He would be a rental - he will be a free agent at the end of the year, but that should at least serve as protection for the Mets as they look to retain their top prospects this summer.
However, the Orioles have won eight in a row and for the moment are just two games out of a wild card spot in the American League. So it’s a little less certain Mancini will become available ahead of the August 2 trade deadline.
The Mets could also consider a trade for Josh Bell who seems certain to be dealt by the Nationals at the trade deadline, who are going nowhere as expected in 2022. He is having a career year in Washington, can be a free agent at the end of the season, fits the profile for the designated hitter the Mets need, and has posted an .868 OPS against left-handed pitching. What the cost might be for Bell remains to be seen - he’s arguably one of the best players perceived to be available ahead of the trade deadline, which will unquestionably boost his cost despite being a free agent at the end of the season.
They’ve also reportedly shown interest in playoff-tested DH Nelson Cruz, but he has struggled overall and in particular against left-handed pitching (.217/.321/.340 against southpaws), so he shouldn’t be considered a primary option to resolve their issue, although if the Mets would be willing to take his entire salary, he can probably be had at a minimal cost.
A lot has been made of the Mets lack of production from behind the plate, and for good reason - Tomás Nido, James McCann and Patrick Mazeika have combined to produce a .507 OPS at the catcher position this season. That is the third-worst mark in the game, with only the Guardians (.503) and Cardinals (.491) producing lower OPS’ from behind the plate.
Still, this may not be an area the Mets should be considering to upgrade ahead of the trade deadline.
Given their other needs in the lineup and bench, the likelihood a catcher such as Willson Contreras will result in an overpay in prospects, and the best catching prospect in Francisco Álvarez knocking on their door at Triple-A, the Mets might be wise to go with Nido and his elite defense while looking to procure bats for other roster spots.
Historically, the Mets have left the development of their prospects parallel to the needs of the major league roster and for good reason. One of the rare times they didn’t do that was in in 2017 when the Mets may have prematurely called up Amed Rosario. He was deemed as the best overall prospect in the game at that time, but his premature call-up potentially stunted the rest of his development and derailed his career as a result.
In Alvarez’s case, he is currently the second-best prospect in the game (per MLB.com) and he should enjoy some success at Triple-A before being added into this pressure cooker in Queens. His time will come - if the Mets felt that was now, he would’ve been called up over Patrick Mazeika on Sunday to replace James McCann on the roster.
And that’s perfectly ok too. There is plenty of time to consider Álvarez before the year is out and no reason to put the weight of a pennant race on his shoulders at this time.
As for a trade, if the Mets had just this one hole in the lineup, then maybe they would be wise to consider a catching rental. Then again, if they had just the one hole, they would likely opt to deal with it and take Nido’s defense over his issues at the plate anyway rather than overpay in the trade market for this position.
The bullpen is always the easiest area of the roster to address at the trade deadline, but something the Mets struggle to do consistently, for whatever reason. Typically, a non-contender looks to sell high on late-game relievers and closers - after all, there is almost no reason for a team punting the season to hoard valuable trade assets which ultimately win playoff games.
Despite the club’s history with the bullpen, the Mets currently own the 10th best bullpen ERA in the game at 3.54, and they’ve been without Trevor May for the bulk of the season. They’ve gotten huge lifts from Drew Smith, Adam Ottavino, Adonis Medina at times, and of course Edwin Díaz has been lights out for them (even in non-save situations, which is an under discussed huge step forward for him).
Still, the Mets need to find another reliable arm to neutralize left-handed hitters, and Ottavino isn’t that guy (lefties have hit .297/.341/.459 against him this season), nor is Smith (.239/.327/.435 against left-handed pitching).
Left-handed hitters are hitting .244/.318/.427 against the Mets bullpen overall, the 22nd best mark in baseball. They recently parted ways with Chasen Shreve who was ineffective against left-handed hitters and Joely Rodriguez has been up and down against lefties, although they have hit just .204/.316/.265 against him overall. One simply is not enough when depending so much on the bullpen in this game.
From my seat, the Mets shouldn’t simply look to check this one box. They should find an arm that neutralizes the big lefty bats, but also need to find a swing-and-miss arm who can be competent not just against the Kyle Schwarber’s, Matt Olson’s and Juan Soto’s of the world but also be able to withstand the three batter rule consistently and effectively. It’s the, “shortening the game” strategy which makes them less dependent on longer outings from the starter, something that will unquestionably come into play come playoff time as more and more clubs are using their starting pitchers less and less for playoff innings.
Can this come in the form of a shutdown right-handed reliever? Absolutely.
One of the many problems the Mets and other contenders will have with the trade deadline is the extra playoff spot in both leagues leaving more teams on the edge of buying or selling, with some pretenders out there as well. That will create a sellers market which in-turn will undoubtedly inflate prices in trade. Add in the lack of August trade waivers and that will only enhance the value of attractive trade pieces among the sellers.
At the moment, there are six teams in the American League within eight games of a Wild Card spot, five in the National League. That plus the 13 teams currently occupying a playoff position makes for 20-24 teams in legitimate contention right now.
That’s a very small menu of teams and players to choose from among the indisputable sellers.
The other problem is, giving the smaller than usual sellers market, there aren’t a lot of quality assets to choose from. As we always say, there’s a reason a team is 10-20 games under .500 at the start of July, and it’s not because they have a lot of good players.
Of course, there are some jewels out there to be had and as the Braves showed last year, the trade game isn’t necessarily won with the procurement of one big piece, rather multiple smaller pieces that address each hole in their own way.
As for the Mets, they’re close. They’re on pace as-constructed to win 100 games. That’s really good. The sky isn’t falling by any means despite the frustrating look of their offense these days. This is a different club than last year which is stronger both in the clubhouse and on the field in the areas they need to be strong in (and soon to be getting stronger with the return of Jacob deGrom in the next couple of weeks).
Besides, no matter what they do at the trade deadline, they’re going to need more from Escobar, more from Canha, more from Dominic Smith and JD Davis too.
Perhaps the solution can be found not just in the biggest names or the brightest stars at that.