So What Do the Mets Do Now?

The Mets were supposed to be good. Heading into the season, we projected them for 87 wins, a bit behind the NL’s elite trio, but solidly among the top teams that were expected to contend for a playoff spot. With Yoenis Cespedes back in the fold and a strong pitching staff led by a dynamite rotation, expectations were high.

Then, everyone got hurt. Seth Lugo and Steven Matz couldn’t make it out of spring training, thinning the team’s expected rotation depth. Lucas Duda and Wilmer Flores went down at the same time in April, leaving the team without a real infield. Cespedes got hurt a week later, then Noah Syndergaard’s arm started hurting a few days after that. Travis d’Arnaud injured his wrist in the first week of May. Jeurys Familia developed a blod clot not long after. Asdrubal Cabrera hurt his thumb.

Even the guys who aren’t officially hurt might not be healthy. Matt Harvey‘s stuff has backed up to the point that he doesn’t really miss bats anymore, and now looks like a back-end starter. Robert Gsellman’s spin rates have nosedived, and his effectiveness has gone with it. Jose Reyes isn’t hurt, but given his 53 wRC+ and below-average defense at third base, the team would be better if he were.

So now, as we head into the second weekend of June, the Mets are 25-32, and they’re already 12 games behind the Nationals in the NL East. And it’s not like they’ve played any better than their record; their BaseRuns expected .438 winning percentage is sixth-worst in baseball. There’s help on the way, with Matz, Lugo, and Cespedes all out on rehab assignments, but at this point, the damage might be done.

The top four teams in the NL all have at least 36 wins, and that doesn’t include the Cubs, who are likely to go on a run and recapture their place at the top of the NL Central before the year is out. The Mets are 9.5 games behind the Diamondbacks, who project as the likely second Wild Card right now. Sure, Arizona isn’t as good as they’ve played, but it’s unlikely that all of the surprise contenders (Colorado and Milwaukee, as well) collapse down the stretch, meaning there are legitimate roadblocks to a playoff spot even beyond the NL’s big three. They aren’t so far out of the race that they should punt in June, but given where they are now and the roster they’ve constructed, it’s time to at least start thinking about being sellers in July.

As currently constructed, this team has a lot of impending free agents. Neil Walker is playing out this year after accepting a Qualifying Offer, but the new CBA rules mean he can’t be offered another one, so if the Mets don’t think they’re going to re-sign him, a trade is the only way to get anything for letting him leave. Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Addison Reed, and Duda all hit free agency this winter, as well, so the team has four everyday guys — plus Jose Reyes, but who knows why he’s an everyday guy, as replacing him will be an upgrade — and their best reliever all in their walk years.

If you’re not sure you’re going to compete down the stretch, keeping that many guys who could be useful trade chips is not a good use of organizational assets. And barring a big surge when Cespedes gets back, I’m not sure I see this roster playing well enough over the next six weeks to convince Sandy Alderson that this is a group he should keep together. The Blue Jays were in a similar position back in April and have somewhat dug themselves out of the hole, so there’s certainly a chance the Mets could play themselves back into buyer status, but right now, the 2017 Mets don’t look like a team that should be prioritizing the present.

In Bruce, Duda, and Reed the team has three decent chips it shouldn’t have too hard of a time moving for mid-tier prospects. None of them are the kinds of elite players that will bring back a ransom, but each has enough of a track record and are having strong enough seasons that moving them for some live-arm with command problems or a lower-upside utility guy who could help in 2018 shouldn’t be too difficult.

Walker is a little trickier, even though he’s probably the best player of the bunch. The list of contenders looking for a second baseman is thin, with the Blue Jays (depending on Devon Travis’s health) potentially being the most likely buyer, but as mentioned, they’re not entirely out of their early-season hole, and another slump could convince them not to add for 2017, either. If the Jays aren’t buying — or if they opt for someone like Jed Lowrie instead — then it’s not clear what the market for Walker would be. Maybe Boston would see him as a potential third baseman when they decide to pull the plug on the Pablo Sandoval experiment? This isn’t a great summer to be selling a second baseman.

But if they can get something decent for each of their impending free agents, adding some depth to a farm system that could use some close-to-the-majors types, retooling for 2018 shouldn’t be that difficult. Ideally, they’d pick up a reliever or two in return who could slot into next year’s bullpen, saving them from having to pay the escalating market rates for bullpen upgrades this winter. That would leave a good amount of money to spend to fill the holes in the lineup.

With Cespedes and Michael Conforto, the team is set in the corner-outfield spots, and Juan Lagares is good enough to at least platoon in center field, so the team doesn’t need to spend big on one more outfielder to round out that group. And with Amed Rosario likely taking over at shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera can shift over to second base to replace Walker, leaving the team with a lot of cash to find a couple of new corner infielders. The Mets probably can’t count on David Wright ever playing again, so finding a full-time third baseman would be priority #1, though first base shouldn’t be far behind, given that Dom Smith is running a .156 ISO in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the PCL.

Add a couple of useful corner infielders, some depth behind the starters, break in Rosario at short, and the 2018 Mets’ position players could be substantially better than what they’ve put out there this year. And barring a plague sweeping through Queens, it’s almost impossible to imagine their rotation not being healthier next year; just getting Syndergaard back for a full season would be worth several wins in and of itself.

Despite a rough 2017 season to date, the Mets’ window isn’t closing yet, and 2018 looks like it could be a nice rebound year. But the organization may very well be best off trying to build that roster this summer, using their trade chips to try and add some cheap depth that they’ve sorely missed this year. A second-half comeback isn’t completely out of the picture, but given the sizable deficit they’re facing, I’d probably suggest the Mets start planning for next year as soon as the draft is over.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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