The New York Mets’ 2017 season was a disappointment. Coming off two playoff appearances, New York dropped to fourth in the National League East, losing 92 games and securing the sixth pick in next year’s draft.
To their credit, the team didn’t tolerate the status quo for long, moving Jay Bruce, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, Addison Reed, and Neil Walker in various deals. Add to that the departure of Jose Reyes via free agency and gone are five of the eight starters — plus the closer — from Opening Day of 2017.
Despite those subtractions, the Mets still have the makings of a potential contender. As presently constructed, they’d probably have a shot at a Wild Card spot. They’re closer than one might think to the Washington Nationals, as well. They’ll actually have to make some moves and invest in the team to make those jumps, however.
Part of the reason the Mets still have a decent chance of success in 2018 is because they retained their three best players. Yoenis Cespedes managed only a half-season’s worth of games but recorded a 131 wRC+ and was on a three-win pace in the games he did manage to play. A full season of Cespedes would represent an instant improvement. Michael Conforto, meanwhile, also lost time to injury, a torn capsule in his left shoulder ultimately ending his breakout season. If he’s able to return within the first month of the season, say, he can anchor the middle of the Mets lineup. At catcher, Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki make for a solid duo. Asdrubal Cabrera is back, providing competent production for a low price.
The departures last season also made room for two of the Mets’ best prospects in Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith. Steamer and ZiPS differ on the present talent of these two players, the latter forecasting average or better production, the former calling for something less than that. Add in Juan Lagares’s return to center field as a starter, plus useful contributions from Brandon Nimmo and Wilmer Flores, and the Mets have a roughly average group of position players.
On the other side of the ball, the club features five pitchers (Robert Gsellman, Matt Harvey, Seth Lugo, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler) with varying levels of value. Thanks to the presence of co-aces Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, however, the rotation profiles as one of the 10 best in baseball, even if the projected production past the top two is average or below.
Altogether, these are the makings of a roughly .500 team. The Mets could get lucky and compete for the Wild Card. They could get unlucky and repeat last year, too. The most likely outcome puts them in no-man’s land. That isn’t a great place to be.
So let’s talk about payroll.
Last year, the Mets opened the season with a $155 million payroll. That might seem substantial. In one way, it was: the 2017 payroll represented a $20 million increase from 2016, which itself represented a $30 million increase over 2015, which was also a $15 million increase over 2014. A steadily rising payroll in a vacuum, seems positive. Once you consider how cheaply the Mets were run after the Madoff scandal, though — and factor in the New York market, the extra television revenue, and an average attendance of roughly 2.5 million fans — that $155 million payroll isn’t so great. The Mets nearly reached that mark back in 2009. While MLB payrolls have increased more than 50% over that time, the Mets’ spending figures trended downward for much of that interval. The club also traded away $10 million in 2017 while almost certainly recouping a significant portion of David Wright’s $20 million salary through insurance. Putting it together, the Mets are running a below-average payroll in the massive New York market.
It gets worse. Joel Sherman reported that the team was planning to put forth a lower payroll in 2018, perhaps around $135 million. If David Wright’s salary is a part of that calculus, that means the Mets plan to be one of the 10 lowest spenders in baseball next season. It’s easy to look at what the Marlins are doing with regard to their payroll and call it an embarrassment. What the Mets are doing is arguably worse. The franchise put out a winning product for a couple years and now appear willing to pocket the goodwill the fanbase has shown. The team has been outspent by the Kansas City Royals over the last four seasons and it looks like that won’t change in 2018, either, even as Kansas City enters what’s likely to be a rebuilding phase.
The Mets are at a point on the win curve at which adding wins is incredibly valuable for their playoff chances. They sit about 10 games behind the Nationals right now, maybe even less if you lean towards ZiPS’ projections on Smith and Rosario. The gap is large, but not large enough to where it couldn’t be easily overcome with a few solid moves. Given that, after the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, no team has asserted itself — maybe the Cardinals — as major players for the Wild Card, the one-game playoff is a solid fallback should divisional aspirations fail.
The Mets currently have around $125 million committed to the roster right now. If they’re looking at a payroll of around $135 million, there isn’t a whole lot more the team can do. If you remove about $15 million of David Wright’s contract for insurance, then the Mets are looking at an outlay of around $110 million right now. Even a modest increase over last season’s $155 million payroll should give the team $50 million to spend. Even that amount isn’t going to place the Mets among the top 10 in terms of payroll — and certainly not among the top five, where they should be — but think about what $50 million in this offseason might buy. Mike Moustakas could push Asdrubal Cabrera to a super-utility role and add three wins. Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta could give the Mets a formidable 1-2-3 punch at the top of the rotation and make the team less reliant on gigantic question marks. Lorenzo Cain could provide an upgrade in center field. Lance Lynn’s fly-ball tendencies might play well in New York. Even Alex Cobb would provide a bit more certainty.
The Mets could sign two or three of the players above without truly breaking the bank, and they would creep awfully close to the Nationals at the top of the division. There’s still a lot of time and a bunch of available players this offseason. The Mets have proved me wrong before when they traded Yoenis Cespedes, and there is an opportunity to do it again. Teams shouldn’t take potential winning seasons for granted. If the Mets don’t change course, it looks like they are taking advantage of their fans and blowing an opportunity to contend next season.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.