These Mets need time, but also money
Welcome to August for the post-Madoff New York Mets, where an attempt is made to set the expectations for the coming fall and winter.
Usually, it's about this time that general manager Sandy Alderson walks back the typical declarations from ownership that begin in the spring, just after the last big free-agent signs, and continue through much of the summer, usually fading from the scene just as the Mets do from the pennant race.
It's been fascinating in 2014, however, that we haven't even seen Fred Wilpon, or Jeff Wilpon, any Wilpon at all claim that the Mets will raise payroll beyond the anemic $82 million it rests at in 2014, good for a total at the bottom fifth in baseball from a team playing in the largest market.
Andy Martino, a baseball writer who tends not to blame the Mets' owners for the team's problems, wrote this in the Daily News Thursday: "Next year, both Alderson and Collins can be evaluated on wins and losses alone. The former has had enough time to construct a sustainable team, and if it does not work soon, sharp criticism will be fair. By the same standard, Collins will have the chance to manage the team in its first year when only a pennant race is acceptable."
It's hard to know where to begin on this one.
Certainly, credit must be given to Alderson and the baseball ops staff, who have managed to revive a moribund farm system, if aided by cost-forced trades. The pitching at the major league level, from Zack Wheeler to Jacob deGrom, reflects this, while Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz loom as the next two impressive talents. Even the franchise's paucity of position players ready to make a difference looks to be changing, with Brandon Nimmo and Dilson Herrera, outfielder and second baseman, looming just two promotions away with Double-A Binghamton.
But exactly how the Mets get from here, which is the 11th-worst record in baseball, to contending in 2015—to "evaluated by wins and losses alone," in other words—is hard to see, principally because of an utter lack of money to supplement the farm system.
Depending on a farm system to provide players is vital. Depending on a farm system to provide precisely the right players is almost impossible.
And so, the Mets have a good deal of pitching, but not necessarily a surplus. (As the injury to deGrom's shoulder should remind everybody, pitchers are a highly volatile resource.) The Cardinals had plenty of pitching in 2013, more than the Mets do now by far, and at the 2014 trade deadline, they had to add a pair of arms.
But the Mets also need more hitting, especially if the idea is to contend in 2015. They need a left fielder, since the chances that Matt den Dekker, already 27, is a real answer there are pretty slim. They need a shortstop who doesn't elicit the contempt of the organization, like Ruben Tejada, or one who the Mets are merely hoping can field the position, like Wilmer Flores.
They have no discernible backup plan for Lucas Duda at first, or David Wright at third, or Daniel Murphy at second (other than rushing Herrera), nor for Juan Lagares in center or Curtis Granderson in right. Anthony Recker is the backup catcher, and not someone capable of starting, either.
Which is to say, the Mets have a path to contention in 2015, but it involves essentially everybody staying healthy, with the younger players developing meaningfully and the older players avoiding decline. They have to catch every single break possible.
But even beyond this, Martino has the path that Alderson apparently must take: trading that pitching for offense.
"The GM has spent nearly a half-decade breaking a team down, then building it up through the farm system," Martino wrote. "This winter, he is poised to use some of his pitching depth to swing a trade for a star hitter like Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez..."
About that: Carlos Gonzalez is signed to a contract that will pay him $16 million in 2015, $17 million in 2016 and $20 million in 2017 . Forget whether his large splits, suggesting much of his production is a product of a friendly home field, or his injury history makes him a poor bet to be worth that money. There's the inconvenient fact that Alderson may not even have the chance to make that deal, financially, if he wishes.
Or as he put it, when asked about a similarly-priced target, Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, priced along with Wright and Granderson: "And which 22 dwarfs?"
In fact, way back in late June, no less than Andy Martino pointed out the difficulty of acquiring a power bat, period, and said the response he got from Mets front office officials about Gonzalez specifically were "shrugs and allusions to his injuries."
Realistically, if payroll doesn't change, the Mets have two options. They can trade pitching for young, pre-arbitration eligible hitters. Of course, in the current climate, there's no more sought-after commodity in baseball, so even making teams consider such a deal will require dealing a ton of that so-called pitching surplus.
The other option is to hope that precisely the right players come through the farm system, or can be acquired on the cheap, to patch what holes remain on a roster still far afield of contention. Of course, when Alderson is forced to attack each acquisition individually, rather than receiving a budget from ownership, sometimes he needs to do things like spend on Chris Young today, rather than getting to sit back and hope that a Nelson Cruz drops his asking price tomorrow.
After all, Alderson knew he needed a left fielder. That was, thanks to ownership, all he knew about how he'd fill that position last winter, too. And he still needs one, with Young now a former Met.
Asserting that Sandy Alderson has had enough time to be judged on wins and losses alone, though, or that enough time even theoretically exists when the conditions for building a contender are so difficult, requires willfully ignoring what it means to try and build a team around ownership's parsimony.
Collins, incidental to this process (if prone to overusing the team's young bullpen arms), will be back. Judging him on what the team accomplishes on the field, absent context, hasn't made sense before now, and without significant additions to the team's payroll, it won't in 2015, either.
The same is true of Alderson. What he needs isn't more time. It's more money.