Like a gambler who walked into the casino and embarked on a searing hot streak in which he accrued a significant bankroll and then remained at the table repeatedly doubling and tripling down when it was clear that the early luck had deserted him, the Mets have squandered an 11-1 start to the season and are now under water at 27-28. To make matters worse, the cracks in the club’s foundation and worst case scenarios have become a reality. Had the season started like this with the catastrophic bullpen woes, a startling number of injuries, managerial gaffes, player underperformance and the same rampant dysfunction that has been a hallmark of the organization for much of its existence, then it might have been easier to accept it and move on. However, after tearing out of the gate and stirring hope in even the most pessimistic Mets observer, they have settled into the mediocrity most have come to expect.
It can be fixed if they accept what has gone wrong and finally – finally – take the necessary steps to make it right.
In the 2017-2018 offseason, the objective reality is that the Mets were one of the higher spending teams in terms of free agents. That’s if the acquisitions are assessed based on the money spent. Still, the signings were economical and market-related. Due to the barren free agent landscape in which so few teams were willing to spend big money and the heaviest hitters – the Yankees and Dodgers – staying predominately out of the fray to get below the luxury tax for 2019, the Mets got discounts on players who otherwise would have been out of their price range.
Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Anthony Swarzak, Jason Vargas – all were imported to fill holes. On paper, it made sense. Early in the season, it appeared that the club had spent wisely. As the season wore on and the injuries began, the same symptoms of the condition that has afflicted the club for that past decade recurred and they retreated to the “if this, then that” malaise with no margin for error. Until they tacitly decide to treat the condition rather than briefly arrest it so they can function for a day or two, nothing will change over the long term.
Manager Mickey Callaway was hired for multiple reasons – all of them solid. A respected pitching coach, he could work with the Mets pitchers and maximize them; having spent his career with experienced and well-regarded managers as a player (Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter) and as a pitching coach (Terry Francona), he could not help but absorb the lessons they taught practically and theoretically; and as a younger man, he would more adept at understanding and implementing available advanced information than his predecessor Terry Collins was.
After that great start, the pitfalls of hiring a manager who has never managed before are showing. His inexperience has led to numerous strategic and verbal gaffes. He’s done things that are legitimately bizarre with the latest being the dueling press conferences where general manager Sandy Alderson focused on the positive and Callaway lamented the negative with each seemingly saying the opposite of what the other said. Not long after expressing his belief that team meetings were unnecessary, he called a team meeting. He appears frustrated and at times lost, haphazardly jumping from one tactic to the other hoping that he hits on one that works. If the Mets had a greater margin for error or a more proactive response to fixing issues, then they might be able to gloss over any flaws their new manager might have and needs to correct. But again, as has become customary, they don’t.
Mets fans do not want to hear about the Yankees. They do not want to be compared to them and they certainly don’t want to be told, “Well, the Yankees wouldn’t do it that way.” But there are times when the Mets should look at the way they Yankees operate, take notes and copy it. A prime example is how the Mets have defended and retained Mike Barwis as the senior advisor for strength and conditioning despite the litany of injuries from which the players continue to suffer.
No outsider can know how much Barwis’s methods have contributed to the Mets’ injuries. Every player has his own team of trainers and gurus, so to place the onus on one person is profoundly unfair. Regardless of fault, the overriding feeling that the Barwis program is problematic will not go away. The number of injuries – especially to players’ backs – that keep happening is a clear signal that the ongoing narrative must be interrupted. In 2007, when the Yankees were dealing with back and hamstring problems for their veteran players and they seemed to coincide with general manager Brian Cashman’s bizarre decision to hire a new strength and conditioning coordinator Marty Miller, a guy he’d found at a country club and had not worked in baseball for a decade, no one in power was overtly blaming Miller, but the Yankees acted anyway by firing him, swallowing his contract.
Whether the Mets think that Barwis is a problem or not, making a change for its own sake is neither capricious nor unfair.
The Mets have seemed satisfied with what they have and fail to go all-in to improve and ensure that they can at least contend should injuries and other stumbling blocks come up as they always do. The Astros gutted their team and accrued a litany of young, high-end talent. Once they felt they were ready to win, they started spending money and resources to buttress that young talent. The Mets have not done that to the nth degree as they could and should have.
This is not to imply that the Yankees and Astros never get it wrong, but they give themselves better coverage for being wrong because they’re willing to acknowledge those mistakes and move on from them while having the depth to handle it. It was the Astros who rushed to trade for Carlos Gomez when the Mets saw issues with his medicals as they backed out of a trade near the 2015 deadline. That trade cost the Astros Josh Hader, Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips. It was also the Astros who decided, just over a year later, that it was not going to get any better with Gomez and addition by subtraction was the best course of action. They released him.
Would the Mets have done that? Or would they have tried to squeeze every single ounce of whatever Gomez could have provided them to shun accepting that they screwed up and it was best to move on?
On May 22 of this year, the Mets marked the twenty-year anniversary of acquiring Mike Piazza from the Florida Marlins shortly after he was traded there from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Initially, when Piazza was on the trade block and it was only a matter of time before the Marlins moved him, the Mets declared that they were not interested before even getting involved with the negotiations. Then-general manager Steve Phillips went into a long diatribe about “chips,” how the Mets already had a catcher in Todd Hundley, and if they spent those chips to fill a hole they did not have, they would not have them available to fill a hole they did have.
Technically, he was correct. Those Mets, though, were dull and lacked an identity. They were good enough to contend with the caveat that everything – including Hundley returning from reconstructive elbow surgery – was predicated on hitting the bullseye with their eyes closed. When they caved to public pressure and acquired Piazza, everything changed and the Mets became a legitimate player for all the big names – all from that one deal they didn’t really want to make. Not only that, after the 1998 season, Hundley the “chip” netted them Charles Johnson and Roger Cedeno from the Dodgers. Cedeno was a key component to the Mets 1999 NLCS club and was eventually traded as part of the package to get Mike Hampton which led to the 2000 pennant; Johnson was spun immediately to the Orioles for Armando Benitez, who was predominately very good for them as a setup man and closer.
Would the Alderson Mets do these things?
Alderson was hired for his deliberate nature and that he would not behave reactively or panic as other New York general managers have. That sensibility can also be problematic. Alderson is risk averse to the point of paralysis. The hedging nature stifles creativity and has prevented the Mets from rolling the dice on players who might be superfluous and create a logjam despite the knowledge that logjams can be worked out just as the 1998 Mets did with Piazza and Hundley.
Should it be that a New York-based team is never, ever in on the big names in free agency? The Mets are never considered as an option for the brightest stars because they will not go as far as they need to go to get them. We’re not talking about Bryce Harper here. But is there a reason that the Mets should not be in on Manny Machado? Machado was mentioned as an all-but guaranteed Yankee, but the Yankees do not really need Machado now or in 2019 and beyond. As they are already having buyer’s remorse on another player they did not need, Giancarlo Stanton, are they prepared to spend money just to spend it and it could be better utilized to fill their starting pitching holes?
Even if the Yankees do get in on Machado, so what? Should the Mets recede into the background because of competition for a date to the prom from the big, bullying brother? If they make themselves attractive and offer as much if not more, there’s zero justification for them to steer clear apart from conscious choice.
And if they want to push the shaky excuse of having a shortstop in Amed Rosario and a third baseman in Todd Frazier, no one wants to hear it. Like with Piazza and Hundley, they can figure it out. If Machado is willing to go shift back to third base, Frazier can be moved to first base or traded. If Machado wants to stay at shortstop, Rosario can be moved to second base or traded. These are sticking points only because the Mets make them sticking points.
On the trade front, it’s somewhat understandable that the Mets do not get involved in the biggest names simply because they do not have the cache of prospects to allow them to trade the few marketable ones they do have. But spending money? That should not be an issue.
Yet it still is. It’s irrelevant whether that is due to the residue of the Wilpons’ financial problems post-Bernie Madoff, because Alderson does not want to spend the money, or a combination of the two.
The only time the Mets have fully invested in pursuing the top notch free agents under the Wilpon ownership was when Omar Minaya convinced them that it was necessary to do so. Not only did he pursue the likes of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, he proved it was not for show with Mets trying and failing, happy to come in second as if they deserved credit for it. Minaya pursued those players with a vengeance and got them. In doing so changed the image of the Mets as bystanders in the free agent market to an organization the best players would consider because they knew the Mets were serious.
The time for longwinded explanations and shrugging of the shoulders is over. It’s enough. Everyone seems to know it but them. Until that light comes on and they awaken from their slumber, they will be mocked for flaws of their own making not just because of their actions, but because of their inaction. The result is what we are seeing now. It’s not going to change unless they too say enough’s enough.