Closer than you think: a five-point plan for the 2022 Mets

Marcus Stroman pitched like an ace during a baffling and frustrating season.

by Paul West

For the Mets, 2021 was a promising season gone awry. In the modern divisional era, no team has spent so many days in first place (103!) and ended the season with a losing record; this fall from grace, and the astonishing way it happened (most astonishing was their odds-defying string of losses in one-run games), has led to widespread calls to tear the whole thing down and start over. But a look at the rosters of playoff teams, or even those came close, should dispel any notion that the Mets’ woes would be cured via scorched earth.

The Mets already made one seemingly necessary move when they declined to renew the contract of manager Luis Rojas–who, despite being among the reasons, was not the only cause of their downfall. Here are four more things the Mets should do this offseason, independent of any other moves.

Keep Taijuan Walker

The Mets took a flier on Taijuan Walker last offseason, hoping he’d provide some innings and lengthen the rotation; instead, he spent the first half as one of their most reliable starters, while the rotation was decimated by injury. He hit a at-times brutal second-half wall, interspersing good outings with ones in which he got shelled; but there’s a lot of reason to stick with him. Three things bear noting: Walker is just 29 years old; he had Tommy John surgery in 2018; and he threw 13 innings in 2018, one inning in 2019, and 53 innings in 2020. Walker’s 2021 first half is his upside and growth, while his second half is him trying to literally multiply the innings output he’d had in recent years. With an offseason to get properly ‘lengthened out’ as they say, he’ll be a solid 3 who can occasionally throw an ace-like performance. He’s shown talent, heart, and a willingness to take the ball in big moments even when he’s not feeling his best; he was proverbial found money when they got him, and he’s absolutely a keeper now that he’s here. I’ll close with this note: with his final outing, Walker set a new Mets record for games in a season (eight) in which he gave up two hits or less.

Acquired to lengthen the rotation, Taijuan Walker has evolved into a keeper.

Sign Marcus Stroman

It’s remarkable that the Mets ended the season with a losing record, given how many of their pitchers had a historic season in some way or another. In his final outing, Marcus Stroman threw his 24th game in which he allowed 2 runs or less in a season; this is the sixth most in franchise history, but the list in front of him is composed of two people: Jacob deGrom and Tom Seaver. Stroman is a renowned battler and innings vacuum, with an intricate knowledge of the game and a love of playing in big moments. He’s also a local kid, who seems to love playing here.

Keep the bullpen intact

Get this: in 56.2 innings this season, Aaron Loup has a .95 ERA and a .94 WHIP with 57 strikeouts. Generally speaking, the Mets’ bullpen performed admirably this season when asked to go beyond the conventional call of duty–and only faltered down the stretch when the cumulative strain of backing up a literally halved starting rotation caught up with them. Edwin Diaz isn’t the ‘elite’ closer we thought he was when he arrived; but he’s a better option than most teams have, and it bears noting that closer (and goalie, among NHL fans) might be the most ‘grass is greener on the other side’ position among the major mainstream sports. The Mets could do a lot worse than Diaz, and he anchors a bullpen that performed admirably under great duress.

Change the hitting approach

One of this season’s many ironies was that the Mets’ offense was generally more dangerous and versatile when they were, on paper, not as ‘good’ of a lineup. Similarly, one surprising side of the 2020 and late 2019 seasons was that the Mets offense was better than expected: capable situational hitters, stress-inducing for opposing pitchers, and ‘never out of a game.’ They were known for thrilling comebacks, crooked-number innings, bloop-and-blast rallies, and being hard to put away. Cut to the 2021 season, and the Mets have mostly been the opposite: a limited-outcome team that often seemed easy to pitch to, and for whom every would-be rally came up literally one swing short. Accounting for a degree of randomness–sometimes, things just don’t bounce your way in a close-and-late situation–and the fact that limited-outcome offense has become a league-wide problem…the Mets’ woeful situational hitting and general predictably is still astounding. While it’s theoretically possible that a lineup full of decent-to-good-to-excellent hitters could all slump into career-derailing years at once, the problem is most likely between the ears: primarily confidence and approach. When the Mets got rid of hitting coach Chili Davis, Pete Alonso literally cried at his locker over the loss; the dismay was reportedly team-wide, and they spent the season lost at the plate. Up and down the lineup, Mets hitters have alternated between anxiously hacking at chase pitches and freezing or tightening up on mistake pitches they used to punish. It didn’t matter if they were aggressive or patient; they almost always seemed a bit off kilter. The next hitting coach should keep them cognizant of situational approaches, while keeping them relaxed and confident enough to attack when appropriate and hit like most people believe they can. Just think: they’ve had both Davis and Kevin Long and let them go; the next time they find a keeper at the position, they should actually keep them.

The DH is coming to the NL this season.

Anticipate the DH

It seems almost certain that the designated hitter is coming to the National League. The Mets have a player who would flourish in this role: JD Davis, who produced a solid batting average despite playing through an ailing hand all year. His power numbers fell off significantly, but imagine how hard it is to hit for power with torn ligaments in your hand; and at this point in his career, Davis is a proven presence at the plate. He’s provided many big moments for a team and city that, in his own words, he loves to play for; and while his middling defense stands out in an everyday role, his strong arm and serviceable glove at third are suitable for spot duty. The coming change will also give the Mets more ways to handle their logjam at first base, where Alonso is better than once thought and Dom Smith has been a defensive nomad due to the desire to keep both bats in the lineup. Smith had a rough year at the plate along with most of the team; but he, like Davis, he was playing through pain (dealing with multiple lingering injuries, per some reports) all year. The Mets are very well positioned to adapt to the universal DH; they should stay that way, rather than scramble to keep up with the times when the future arrives.

Avoid appeasing the back pages

Part of the ‘tear it down’ movement involves those who think the Mets should use their newly deepened pockets to stockpile All Stars and big names. This approach has backfired on the Mets franchise more often than not. The Mets lack neither big names nor big talent; heading into this season, their lineup was widely seen as one of the most stacked in baseball, and they have deGrom and Stroman at the top of a deep rotation. The problem with the Mets isn’t on paper, and another headline-grabbing acquisition won’t cure what ailed them in 2021.

The Mets started off hot, lost the best pitcher in baseball, suffered myriad key injuries, and collectively flailed under a new hitting coach. They still have the same depth and talent, and the NL East is still a comparatively weak division. It’s the intangibles that are most in need of fixing; but if they decimate their core by chasing headlines and the approval of the ill-informed, rumors of their demise will no longer be exaggerated.

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