by Paul West
That sound you thought you heard tonight, just after ten o’clock, was actually a cacophony. It was the collective sound–an aggregation of moans, wails, sighs, screams, and the like–of Mets fans, everywhere, feeling the air begin to drain from their playoff hopes.
After spending June getting clobbered, the Mets went for it at the deadline and spent six weeks blowing baseball’s doors off. They roared their way back into contention, reminding the baseball world–and, most importantly, themselves and their supporters–why they were, not too long ago, considered a viable contender for National League supremacy. They won with pitching, offense, defense, and the power of belief. And then in one six-day swoon, they gave away one game after another–reminding all concerned why, despite having many components of greatness, they aren’t quite the team we’d like them to be.
Tonight–a night on which they ran Max Scherzer off the mound early, and capitalized on the Nationals’ apparent determination to gift-wrap the game–they lost in exactly the fashion which has bedeviled them all season: the notion, moreover the virtual fact, that almost literally no lead is safe for this season’s New York Mets. And in this single game lay bare all the reasons for Mets fans’ current despair, as well as all the reasons all hope isn’t lost for this team’s talented core.
The Mets have one of the league’s best ‘pure hitter’ types, in Jeff McNeil, who plays several positions passably and is 27 years old. They have the likely rookie of the year in Pete Alonso, an all-fields power hitter with leadership ability beyond his years and a steadily improving glove at first base–who, by the way, is just 24. They have JD Davis, who basically fell into their laps, a 26-year-old slugger who produces good at bats, great energy, and has a cannon of a throwing arm to complement a serviceable glove at third base. They have Amed Rosario, whose defense is a work in progress but steadily shows flashes of brilliance at shortstop while rounding out into a good top-order hitter…and is only, for heaven’s sake, 23. They have Michael Conforto, who at this point needs no introduction, who’s still just 26 himself despite having been here a while. Dominic Smith, whose resilience, energy and professionalism have made him apparent peas in a pod with Alonso–his supposed rival–is only 24, and steadily improving at the plate while remaining smooth at first base. Speed-power combination Brandon Nimmo, also one of the game’s most renowned positivists and energizers, is only 26. Heck, Juan Lagares, who’s begun to look like his old self in center field while producing decent enough at-bats to justify regular playing time, is still only 30.
Sensing a theme here? I haven’t even mentioned the top four arms in their rotation, all in their late twenties except for Jacob deGrom, who’s 31 but carrying less mileage than other aces his age. Recently acquired depth piece Joe Panik, a former Gold Glover with a low strikeout rate and occasional power, is only 28. Wilson Ramos is one of the regular lineup’s elder statesmen at 32, and he’s one of the game’s best-hitting catchers.
All of this, along with their countless comeback wins during this recent hot streak as well as their playoff runs, indicates as follows: the Mets have a never-say-die core that combines talent, youth, and experience. Said core has accumulated, and is currently accumulating, experience playing under late-season pressure–and many of them already have two years of playoff experience under their belts, having actually won the National League pennant just four (admittedly long) years ago. To borrow a well worn phrase: rumors of the Mets’ demise are greatly exaggerated.
The Mets could not have foreseen the implosion of Edwin Diaz, last year’s most dominant closer. While this has been at the heart of the team’s frustrations this year, it bears noting that he’s not the only closer who’s struggled this year. The Oakland Athletics, whose late-inning relievers seemed a virtual lock last year, have been a blown save waiting to happen for much of the second half. Very few teams this year have an even semi-reliable bullpen, largely because of the open secret which, while proving a fair amount of excitement this year, threatens to cast a shadow over future retellings of the entire season–and cast doubt over its records and accomplishments legitimate and inflated alike. Even if there’s never a course correction–even if lowered seams and decreased drag are here to stay–Diaz is still only 25, himself, and punting on him is more of a risk than giving him a season to course-correct. With that said, the Mets’ bullpen is still a glaring weakness, and sticks out like a sore thumb even in relation to the preponderance of this year’s head-scratching bullpens. The thing is, getting bullpen arms needn’t be either costly or risky.
Relievers, with somewhat rare exception, tend toward year-to-year volatility in terms of output. Great and successful ones often come out of nowhere, from reclamation projects and long shots to converted and/or ‘failed’ starters. The Mets found McNeil and Alonso outside the first round (McNeil in the twelfth), and finding successful relievers is as much a matter of scouting and development as of spending. Concerns about moving Nimmo or Smith, or other valuable members of their developing clubhouse ecosystem, might be unfounded–as it’s entirely possible to fortify the bullpen without breaking the bank or even making a headline splash.
To borrow from a lesser known phrase, the Mets need not wait for some grand future. This season’s frustrations have their root in a limited, and soluble, range of causes; and the Mets’ front office needs to keep two things in mind: their foundation remains strong, and resolve and wisdom will bear more fruit than panic headline chasing.