“The timid man calls himself cautious, the sordid man thrifty.” – Publius Syrus
The Mets always feel like an organization on the verge of a giant, hilarious meltdown. But for all the drama that can surround the franchise — whether it’s the manager and a pitcher threatening a beat writer or the team’s strange obsession with Tim Tebow — it frequently puts a competent product on the field. So it was in 2019, as the Mets outlasted most of the National League in the fight for the last playoff spot, eventually finishing a respectable 86-76. The Mets enter the offseason with most of that squad returning, but uncertainty about how much they are actually willing to spend will limit the team’s upside.
Is there a franchise with a more pronounced tendency to back their way into success? The Mets didn’t fully commit to Michael Conforto until an All-Star appearance in 2017 made their apparent casual disinterest untenable, and there always seemed to be a bit of annoyance at “having” to play Brandon Nimmo. Despite a .329/.381/.471 debut from Jeff McNeil, the Mets spent much of the winter bringing in veterans who man the positions McNeil was likely to play in the majors. In 2020, McNeil and Conforto will be keys to the team’s success, as will a hopefully healthy Nimmo.
After Sandy Alderson’s contract expired, the Mets turned the page on the era and hired Brodie Van Wagenen, the co-head of the baseball division of CAA Sports. Ignoring for a moment the potential conflicts of interest involved in moving from an agency to the front office, Van Wagenen was a bold hire. I don’t usually think of the Mets as visionaries, but I’d rather teams try something new than go with the safe veteran choice. Aside from those aforementioned conflicts, much of the skillset of a good agent ought to extend to being a good front office executive. Agents have to negotiate contracts, so generally ought to have a keen grasp of how players are valued around the league, and the job of player representation necessarily involves some knowledge of modern analytics. Call me biased, but anyone who knew to go out and hire Russell Carleton and Andrew Perpetua has to be at least somewhat knowledgeable.
Without being given a nondescript briefcase full of cash to spend in the offseason, the team was bold when it came to adding wins for 2019, acquiring Edwin Díaz and Robinson Canó from the Seattle Mariners in return for a package led by top prospect Jarred Kelenic. The Mariners sent cash along as well, giving Van Wagenen the ability to sign Jeurys Familia, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, and Justin Wilson, all players, possibly excepting Lowrie, who addressed real team weaknesses. Keon Broxton and Rajai Davis were added as center field depth, an upgrade at a position where the Mets had previously played a collection of Juan Lagares and various other corner outfielders who had no business being there. J.D. Davis, who hit .342/.406/.583 for Triple-A Fresno in 2018 and had no obvious place to play in Houston, was acquired and given every chance to hit his way onto the team.
Should the Mets have been in contention for a Manny Machado or Patrick Corbin? Absolutely. Many of the team’s financial constraints are self-imposed. But within the boundaries they created for themselves, the Mets had a successful post-2018 offseason.
ZiPS was generally impressed with the NL East and after the 93-win Washington Nationals, projected the Braves, Phillies, and Mets to all win 87 games. The front four of the Mets’ rotation looked solid, though ZiPS was worried about the falloff from Steven Matz to Jason Vargas and various other fifth starter/injury replacements. I grumbled about the team trying so hard to take away McNeil’s playing time, but ZiPS projected 10 position players to be worth 1.5 WAR or more as starters. That’s without counting Yoenis Céspedes, whose 2019 participation looked more and more theoretical as Opening Day approached. There was no particular reason to worry about Díaz or Familia. If the starting pitching stayed healthy, the Mets had an excellent argument for being serious contenders.
When it comes to Pete Alonso, a mea culpa is in order. I fiercely criticized the team for using Jay Bruce at first base down the stretch in 2018 rather than calling up Alonso or getting a better look at Dominic Smith. I was convinced that Alonso would end up getting the Kris Bryant/Vladimir Guerrero Jr. treatment in 2019, and that the Mets would decide he happened to need a little more seasoning for precisely the number of days required to secure an extra season before hitting free agency. But the team didn’t do that. Alonso started on Opening Day, and the Mets committed to him in a way they had not with previous hitters from their farm system. The extra win accumulated by Alonso by not participating in service time shenanigans didn’t matter in the end, but it could have.
Injuries gave McNeil a clear full-time role, and he responded as well as anyone ought to have expected, even improving his wRC+ to 143 from his 137 debut. Combining for eight wins with Conforto, McNeil should enter 2020 with his playing time assured.
Despite Canó disappointing with a .256/.307/.428 line and Nimmo’s season mostly ruined by injury, the Mets offense ranked 10th in baseball in offensive runs. Where the lineup let the team down was with the glove, finishing 24th in baseball by UZR, and a depressing -93 runs for 29th in DRS. I suspect this will remain a sore spot in 2020, as many of the culprits were also their best offensive players.
Whether by luck or design, by successfully adding Marcus Stroman at the trade deadline while unsuccessfully trading Noah Syndergaard, the Mets were one of the league’s big deadline winners. On August 1, ZiPS projected the deGrom-Syndergaard-Wheeler-Stroman-Matz rotation to be the best in baseball overall, better than the Dodgers, Astros, or Nationals. Below .500 at the trade deadline, the Mets played like a real contender the rest of the way, going 34-21 in August and September, and standing as the last wild card contender eliminated.
One thing I can’t fault the team for is the performance of Edwin Díaz and Jeurys Familia. While the defense contributed to the sky-high BABIPs — as they did for the ground ball-heavy Stroman — the gloves can’t be blamed for all the troubles. ZiPS sees Familia’s walk rate and Díaz’s inflated home run tally as mostly statistical flukes. From peripheral stats, ZiPS expected a walk rate just over four per nine innings from Familia; from advanced hit data, ZiPS only thinks Díaz “should have” allowed seven home runs rather than 15. The Díaz difference is also found in Statcast, which has him with the second-largest SLG vs. xSLG discrepancy in baseball at 136 points.
What Comes Next?
The Mets fired Mickey Callaway at the end of the season; pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Chuck Hernandez were let go in June. When he was hired, taking a chance on Callaway seemed like a good gamble, but he didn’t thrive in a managerial role. Players were shuffled around without rhyme or reason, and his bullpen management was shockingly old-school at times. Perhaps most importantly, Callaway wasn’t Van Wagenen’s choice, a carryover from the previous regime. Callaway was a good pitching coach for the Indians, and I believe he’ll be a good one for the Angels. New manager Carlos Beltrán will endeavor to will endeavor to have a more productive relationship with the front office (and side step questions about his possible role in the Astros sign-stealing scandal.)
The team’s most immediate issue is replacing Zack Wheeler in the rotation. The front four remains solid — at least until Stroman joins Wheeler in free agency after 2020 — but the team’s in-house options remain underwhelming. The team is up against the luxury tax threshold, but there’s little reason not to trample on it. Much of the team’s luxury tax figure consists of expenses that exist on paper only; the Mets are charged for the injured Wright and Céspedes but get millions of dollars back from insurance. Our RosterResource has the Mets currently $11 million or so under the threshold. The team could literally go $30 million over the $208 million line and have the penalties easily paid for — and then some — by the injury dollars. While I don’t think they actually will, I believe they should, while the rest of the core is intact. And $42 million will come off the luxury tax number in 2021 just from Céspedes and Wright, making it realistic that they could drop back under the threshold in future years.
As of now, ZiPS projects the Mets as an 86-win team in 2020. An 86-win team ought to be highly motivated to invest in top free agents.
The Absitively, Posilutely, Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projection – Pete Alonso
There really isn’t such a thing as a sophomore slump in baseball; as a group, players who receive Rookie of the Year votes do not underperform in their second seasons. The effect you see is mostly a result of selection bias. After all, a player is more likely to be a Rookie of the Year contender when they’re playing over their heads than if they’re struggling to meet expectations. Regression to the mean presents itself in the game in a million other ways, but rookies have to earn their jobs in the majors more than veterans, so the selection effect can be even more pronounced.
Here’s the part where you might be expecting ZiPS to take a massive chunk out of Alonso’s 2019 line. Nope! In this case, ZiPS sees the sophomore drop off for the first baseman as less than a win. Alonso’s successes are mainly sustainable; there’s no suspicious BABIP or wacky one-year defensive numbers kicking up the WAR. The projections think he ought to have hit 47 home runs rather than his actual 53 home runs based on his advanced stats, but that’s still 47 home runs. Alonso’s comp list has a lot of sluggers who didn’t age well, names like Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Burroughs, Prince Fielder, Mo Vaughn, and so on. That’s not really a worry for the Mets so much as a cautionary tale for a team signing him sometime around 2026. Alonso is the real deal.
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.