Some fanbases regard themselves as the best in baseball. Others pride themselves on their ability to hate anything, including Santa Claus. Still others are just a group of eight people cowering in the shadows of a creaky, nightmare-inducing home-run feature. But no fanbase does self-immolation like Mets fans, whose experience is one mostly of mind-numbing frustration peppered by only the occasional highlight.
That staring-into-middle-distance sadness is, of course, justified given the team’s history — and, more relevant to this post, the ups and downs and ups of 2018.
New York’s 70-92 record in 2017, during which almost everything went wrong, was bleak enough to obscure the club’s recent success, including a World Series appearance in 2015 and return to playoffs in 2016.
As easy as it might be to forget, the 2014-16 Mets were actually a team of significant strengths, led by a group of young pitchers including Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard, and Zack Wheeler. While all five of those arms were never all present at once, the club managed to benefit from a majority of that group in 2015 and 2016 at various times. Plus Bartolo Colon. And who, besides belts, doesn’t love Bartolo Colon?
In 2017, the Mets got the typical deGrom season, but Thor only got into seven games, and the remaining trio went 10-21 with a 6.01 ERA in 245.2 combined innings. With the rotation no longer representing a significant plus, the club’s very average offense was exposed, and the team was sent spinning out of contention.
The Mets traded off a few of their veterans in 2017 but showed no indication that it was part of a larger-scale rebuild or even change in approach. In fact, they vehemently claimed the opposite. The problem is, in the winter, instead of an actual retool, they just papered over the holes with a bunch of 2015-relevant veterans.
Jay Bruce, traded to the Indians, was back on a three-year guarantee despite the team lacking an obvious way to get Bruce, Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto into the lineup simultaneously without having to use one as a center fielder.
Also returning was Jose Reyes, a controversial player off the field without even having the excuse of being good on the field. To that group, the club added Adrian Gonzalez, because 36-year-old first basemen coming off 70 OPS+ seasons should absolutely be given jobs on silver platters in the spring.
So the Mets took the 2017 roster, slapped some old-timey paint on the sides, and hoped that with some good luck on the injury side, they could sneak back into 85- to 90-win territory and claim a playoff berth.
The ZiPS projections were not terribly impressed with the team’s quarter-assed offseason makeover, projecting the team at 80-82 with a 17% chance at making the playoffs, just between the Phillies and Braves in the projected standings. While the Mets weren’t a young team with upside like those other two NL East clubs, the chance of the starting pitching staying healthy did give them some significantly sunny scenarios.
Everything went amazingly well… for two weeks. The team started out 11-1, sweeping the Marlins, Nationals, Phillies, and only dropping one of three to the Cardinals. The five aforementioned pitchers started games exclusively for the Mets until Jason Vargas returned from injury in late April.
Amusingly, this wasn’t even by design, with the team making Matz and Wheeler fight for a rotation spot with Vargas in the spring, and Wheeler only ended up receiving those April starts because both Vargas and Seth Lugo were injured. In late March, the team even hinted at moving Wheeler to the bullpen.
How the Mets used Wheeler reflects one of the fundamental issues of the organization. Wheeler has had an up-and-down career, but like Gonzalez, Vargas was just given a job, no questions asked, while the Mets showed casual disinterest in the player with more upside. It was similar at first base: you can be down on Dominic Smith, but the Mets just didn’t appear to be all that curious about what he could do.
As a result, a lot of the team’s high points from 2018 arrived almost accidentally. Brandon Nimmo had a .379 on-base percentage in 2017, but the Mets constructed their outfield such that Nimmo was able to get at-bats only when Conforto hurt his shoulder. In the end, an injury to Cespedes was required for Nimmo to get any regular playing time.
It took an Asdrubal Cabrera trade for the Mets to show an interest in taking a longer look at Jeff McNeil in a lost season. The abysmal Reyes, meanwhile, got an extended run at third base while Frazier was out with sore ribs. Peter Alonso hit 36 homers in 2018, and rather than let him get a taste of MLB pitching, the club decided they wanted to see if Bruce, sub-replacement as the starting right fielder in 2018, could also be a sub-replacement first baseman.
But there’s good news, too, in that — even if the Mets showed a bit of an old-school veteran obsession — they did play quite well over the second half of the season, going 38-30 (a 91-win pace!), largely by virtue of the core talent whom the Mets ought to be prioritizing. Conforto, McNeil, and Nimmo were the three Mets hitters with an OPS over .850.
On the pitching side of the equation, deGrom better be the first starting pitcher with just 10 wins to claim the Cy Young Award, with a 1.70 ERA and 8.8 WAR to go with 269 strikeouts in 217 innings. Wheeler actually had a lower ERA than deGrom after the All-Star break at 1.68 versus deGrom’s 1.73.
What Comes Next?
The good news for the Mets is that the team has a lot of core talent, but the question — as always — is if they can truly identify it and build around it. They arguably don’t even need to add another starting pitcher this offseason.
The Mets are a large-market team, but because of their ownership situation, they’re frequently run like a middle-market club that can’t afford to invest in players who will make an actual difference. The Mets are the type of club that strongly resists cutting bait on a Jay Bruce or a Jason Vargas, even when that’s the best move for the organization long-term. It’s a team that should be in the Manny Machado market this winter, but almost certainly will not be.
It’s also a team, similar to the Orioles in recent years, that doesn’t really know where they’re going other than not wanting to rebuild. Alderson’s health concerns left a gaping chasm in the organization, leaving the team with a three-headed front office of Omar Minaya, J.P. Ricciardi, and John Ricco — and ownership that is anything but hands-off.
Jeff Wilpon blamed the lack of spending on Alderson publicly while Tim Britton of The Athletic reported that Alderson wasn’t even allowed to hire more full-timers for the analytics department.
The Mets have talent, but they need a real plan and a GM/president/whatever with real authority to execute a plan. Neither the talent or the revenues are deep enough that the Mets can squeeze by easily with their current slapdash approach.
Way-Too-Early Projection – Jacob deGrom
Let’s just bask in all this deGrommy goodness.
That’s not quite a repeat, but those projections put deGrom in the top handful in the league. If the Mets aren’t going to build a team around that kind of performance, plus that Noah Syndergaard guy, you kind of want to see them trade deGrom to a team that will get one of the best pitching seasons in team history more than 10 wins.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.