By Paul West
The New York Mets are at one of the biggest crossroads they’ve faced in their history as a franchise. After making the playoffs for their second season in a row despite a variety of injuries to key players, they’ve gone into the offseason with a lot of key variables in question. One bit of good news is that they’ve just re-signed Neil Walker, who accepted a qualifying offer of 17.2 million for next season; whether that’s overpaying the veteran infielder remains to be seen, but Walker provides a combination of solid offense, defense and flexibility on an infield that’s been frequently in flux. The most clear and present danger is the possible loss of Yoenis Cespedes to free agency; Cespedes has, as widely expected, opted out of his contract and is currently testing the market. But bringing back their best hitter is just one thing the Mets need to do if they’re going to return to the National League leaderboard. Here are the five most imperative matters the Mets face in the coming months.
Sign Yoenis Cespedes
Cespedes isn’t just the best free agent currently available; he’s been the Mets’ most valuable player since joining the team. Cespedes’ first joined the Mets on August 1st, 2015; since then, the Mets are 106-74 with him in the starting lineup and 18-23 otherwise. Cespedes gives the Mets an enormously powerful bat from the right side of the plate; he also gives them a cannon of a throwing arm in the outfield, and his presence applies a pressure to opposing pitchers that no Met has in years. Signing him is imperative; and yes, they should be willing to make him the highest paid outfielder in baseball, if that’s what it takes. With the starting rotation on pace to be as healthy as it’s been since its assembly, if the Mets’ offense can return to the level it attained during the 2014 playoff run–the Mets would return to being one of the National League’s elite teams.
Trade Jay Bruce
In a questionable and widely criticized move, the Mets acquired Jay Bruce late last summer in an effort to replace the lefty power lost in Lucas Duda‘s absence. Bruce proceeded to hit woefully, while committing ill-timed blunders in the field and on the bases; he showed diminished range in right field, and his once respected throwing arm was exposed as a shadow of what it once was; and this was all made worse in the eyes of Mets fans, when reports surfaced that he’d been averse to winding up a Met. Real or perceived slights aside, Bruce isn’t what the Mets need to get over the hump, anyway. They already have a number of outfielders who offer the same things he does, with a lower price tag, including two young talents who’ll be addressed shortly. The Mets are entertaining offers for Bruce, and they’re also one reportedly checking out the Toronto Blue Jays‘ Jose Bautista. Hopefully this is just, as suspected, a fallback strategy for a possible future without Cespedes’ righty power. But Bautista is no longer the player he once was, though he still has enormous raw power, and he would be a noticeable downgrade from their MVP of the past two years.
Commit to Conforto, Duda, Lagares and Granderson
The Mets have already lost a valuable ‘glue’ presence–not to mention the man who helped carry their ailing rotation last year–in Bartolo Colon, who recently signed with the Atlanta Braves. This is one of several reasons they should keep Curtis Granderson, who might be declining but remains a valuable contributor. Granderson brings experience, power, the ability to capably play all three outfield positions, and his renowned clubhouse presence; they would be well served to have him as a moderate-rotation fourth outfielder. Assuming they re-sign Cespedes, as hoped, the other two outfield positions should be occupied by Juan Lagares and Michael Conforto. Lagares is a Gold Glove center fielder who can change an entire game with his presence up the middle; he’s got speed and gap power, and has increasingly shown an ability to put together good at bats. Conforto, it bears noting, looked for quite a while like the Mets’ 3-hitter of the future before a prolonged swoon that began on a day when Madison Bumgarner embarrassed every lefty in the Mets lineup. He went down to the minors and regained his confidence in timing, and showed some lingering issues upon his return but also drove the ball from gap to gap and reminded us why he’s a much more solid outfielder than once advertised. An outfield with Lagares up the middle and Cespedes and Conforto on the wings would be one of the National League’s most talented; and their collective outfield defense would be well suited for a team that hopes to have strong starting pitching yet again. As for Lucas Duda, he silenced many doubters in 2014 with a strong offensive campaign that proved he was a bona-fide lineup presence. Unfortunately, he was lost for much of 2016 due to a stress fracture in his back; his absence led the Mets to sign Bruce, in a panicky attempt to infuse some lefty power. It didn’t work, and moreover it highlighted the value of his presence in the lineup. If he can come back, and the Mets can find a suitor for Bruce, there won’t be any need to convert Conforto or Bruce to first base as discussed–it will also get rid of Bruce, who would be better served to return to a park with a jet stream in right field.
Give Wilmer Flores his shot
One could argue that few Mets have been involved with as many crucial moments in the past two years as Wilmer Flores. Every time they try to usher him out to pasture, he seizes an opportunity to do something big–and he does something big. He absolutely destroyed lefty pitching last season, while playing serviceably at first, second and third base when asked. Down the stretch, he began to put together stronger at bats against righties, as well, but the refrain continued: he’s not an everyday player. You know who else a lot of people said that about while he was a Met? Justin Turner. The Mets need to commit to giving Flores steady at bats, and stop looking to better-deal him–especially in light of the fact that they gave up Dilson Herrera in the Jay Bruce trade.
Sort out the catching situation
It sometimes seems like much longer ago, but it’s only been just over a year since it seemed like Travis d’Arnaud might finally be on the cusp of becoming the middle-order hitter Mets fans have been hoping he’d become. When he got healthy down the stretch in 2015, he contributed to the offensive explosion that made the Mets one of the most potent offenses in the National League for the final months of the season. Unfortunately, he’s been visited once again by the injury bug–and when he is on the field, he’s struggled. An injury to his throwing arm compromised his already questionable ability to throw out baserunners; accordingly, opposing teams stole bases on him with impunity. Kevin Plawecki, despite the occasional shining moment, has continued to look like the proverbial AAAA player. The lone pleasant surprise behind the plate for the Mets has been Rene Rivera, who calls such a solid game that Noah Syndergaard is no longer the only Mets starter who seems more comfortable with him as a battery mate; he also sports occasional albeit impressive home run power, and a strong and accurate throwing arm. As David Ross has reminded us, it’s possible to be an elite team when your catcher is a veteran who specializes in managing pitchers while providing the occasional home run; still, the Mets need to sort things out behind the plate. D’Arnaud might finally come into his own at another position, or perhaps as a designated hitter; trading him to the American League might be worth exploring. Whatever happens, the Mets’ logjam at catcher is a net negative that might be a barrier to their success.
Despite all they had to contend with in 2016, the Mets’ window is still open; they have most of the parts in place for another deep playoff run. They simply need to choose wisely in the coming months.