The Mets, as you may have heard, went in big last winter, Brodie Van Wagenen's first as general manager. Robinson Canó. Edwin Díaz. The missing-in-action Jed Lowrie. Wilson Ramos. Justin Wilson. Luis Avilán. J.D. Davis. You know the names by now, and you know it hasn't worked. "They came and got us," Van Wagenen said recently, referring to the rest of the National League East, as the 42-51 Mets have a better record than only one other NL club: Miami.
So: Now what?
The Mets are almost certainly going to trade impending free agents Todd Frazier and Jason Vargas, though neither will bring back much in return. (Zack Wheeler would be included there as well, except he just went on the injured list with poorly timed shoulder fatigue.) They're unlikely to be able to fix all their problems via free agency this winter. They can't -- and shouldn't -- do a full teardown, not with what's still an impressive young core in Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith and veteran ace Jacob deGrom.
If trading a few expiring contracts isn't going to cut it, what would? What if the Mets blew up this particular mess without blowing up the entire thing? What if a recent team that went all-in unsuccessfully could provide an example of how to pivot?
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Four and a half years ago, the Padres were getting ready to go for it. General manager A.J. Preller, who had been hired in August 2014, spent the 2014-15 offseason attempting to remake a team that finished 77-85, seventeen games behind the Dodgers. (If this sounds familiar: The 2018 Mets finished 77-85, thirteen games behind the Braves.)
In a whirlwind winter, Preller imported Matt Kemp, James Shields, Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and B.J. Upton, among others. It wasn't likely to work -- a sub-par infield was totally ignored, for one thing -- and it didn't. The 2015 Padres fired manager Bud Black that June and finished 74-88, fourth in the NL West. (If that sounds familiar, the 2019 Mets are on pace to go 73-89 and finish fourth in the NL East.)
Worse, it cost the Padres dearly. To import the big names, San Diego bid farewell to Yasmani Grandal (to the Dodgers), Trea Turner (Nationals by way of the Rays), Zach Eflin (Phillies by way of the Dodgers), Max Fried (Braves) and Jake Bauers (Rays) -- plus, the competitive balance pick they sent to Atlanta in the Kimbrel deal became young slugger Austin Riley.
Here, for example, is a 2016 recap of the situation from CBS that could just as easily have been written about the 2019 Mets save for the name of the GM.
New GM A.J. Preller swung a series of blockbuster trades that left the Padres with a mismatched roster. They had players playing out of position ... and the team defense was terrible.
Despite "winning the offseason," the year was such a disaster that the Padres immediately set about undoing it all -- and the rewards were huge.
Free agents Ian Kennedy and Upton were given qualifying offers before signing elsewhere, which brought back Draft picks that became starter Eric Lauer and San Diego's current No. 9 prospect, infielder Hudson Potts. In November 2015, Kimbrel was shipped to Boston for four top prospects, including Manuel Margot and Logan Allen. They got a little lucky in April, swiping Brad Hand off waivers from Miami before he become an All-Star and eventual trade piece for Francisco Mejía.
Then, over the span of a few weeks in June 2016, in addition to a successful Draft, they pulled off two of the largest trade heists in recent memory -- flipping Shields to the White Sox for Fernando Tatís Jr., at the time a 17-year-old who hadn't made his pro debut, and sending reliever Fernando Rodney to the Marlins for 20-year-old pitcher Chris Paddack, who had been tearing up Double-A. In July, Kemp was traded to Atlanta for, essentially, salary relief. Save for Myers, every important import had been turned around.
There were missteps, sure, like only briefly hanging onto Luis Castillo after the Colin Rea deal had to be renegotiated. But like the 2019 Mets, the 2015-16 Padres had a poorly constructed roster with big names, bad defense and a depleted farm system, and by accepting those flaws and pivoting, they were able to better position their organization for the future. What if, as MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal termed it on Monday for The Athletic, the Mets "pulled a Preller"?
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At this point, you may be pointing out that the Padres were then a losing team for several years, losing at least 91 games in each of the last three seasons, and for all their excitement, still aren't even a .500 team this year. That's not the future the Mets want.
But the Mets have one significant advantage here: The best players on those 2016 Padres were Myers, Drew Pomeranz, Yangervis Solarte and Ryan Schimpf. That quartet was worth 11.2 Wins Above Replacement. Meanwhile, Alonso, deGrom, McNeil and Conforto have put up 12.4 WAR through the middle of July, and only deGrom is older than 27. (This doesn't even count the injured Brandon Nimmo, who was the best Mets position player last year and is still only 26.)
Pair that with what should be the advantages of playing in a larger market, and the Mets might able to do this without starting from square one. So sure, trade Wheeler, Vargas and Frazier. But here's what else they might consider, in order to import talent, fix their defense and just make the roster pieces fit together better.
Some of this is going to be painful, obviously. When you're on your way to a ninth losing season in 11 years, it has to be.
Trade Dominic Smith
There's a red-hot take in there somewhere about letting Smith play first and trading Alonso, but a blue-and-orange clad army would storm through Queens if that happened. Smith, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, has had something of a breakout this year, hitting .295/.380/.527 in his age-24 season; he's also endlessly blocked behind Alonso for the next half-decade. (While he's admirably attempted to play left, it says something that the position he's appeared at the most this year is "pinch-hitter.")
Smith has raised his profile and his trade value after relatively unsuccessful cameos in 2017 and '18. He doesn't turn 25 until next June. No time like the present to take advantage.
Possible fits: Red Sox, Rockies, Royals
Trade Wilson Ramos
It's fair to note that doing this will lead to an enormous hole to be filled in 2020, but this goes back to fit, or lack thereof. Ramos has had difficulty getting on the same page with deGrom and simply no longer catches Syndergaard at all. Ramos has turned it around offensively after a rough start -- he's hitting a strong .286/.372/.458 since May 1 -- but this is no way to help a pitching staff succeed. His bat and track record will give him some appeal; maybe next winter, the Mets could revisit last year's failed Yasmani Grandal talks, with Grandal set to hit free agency again this winter.
Possible fits: A's, Rockies, Rangers
Trade Edwin Díaz
Doing this would make for some very interesting tabloid headlines, obviously, especially considering how well prospects Jared Kelenic and Justin Dunn -- the key pieces the Mets sent to Seattle to get Díaz and Canó -- have done for the Mariners. It might be seen as "admitting defeat," though the defeat has already clearly occurred. While Díaz's 5.35 ERA looks bad, it comes with some enormous caveats, like the fact that he hasn't lost any notable velocity or movement on his pitches, like the fact that advanced Statcast metrics still paint him as one of the best 30-35 relievers in the game, like the fact it's possible that almost no other pitcher in baseball has been harmed by his defense as much as Díaz has. In fact, his .418 BABIP is the highest of any pitcher with at least 30 innings pitched.
Selling low? Perhaps. Then again, look around at the state of bullpens right now. Everyone needs a reliever or three, and unlike the other big-name relievers on the block, Díaz is under team control for three more seasons after this one.
Possible fits: Name a contender. Literally every contender. Maybe not the Yankees.
Trade Robinson Canó, accepting it will be a "bad deal"
Say what you will about whether the deal that brought Canó to Queens was wise, the one thing that couldn't have been predicted was that Canó wouldn't hit at all. That's changing somewhat, because after a miserable start, he's hitting .277/.318/.446 since returning from the IL a month ago, and .344/.364/.563 so far in July. That said, he's nearly 37 and clearly needs to be at least a part-time DH sooner than later.
You're going to have to eat a ton of the remaining money, and you wouldn't get a great deal of talent in return, though perhaps a situation where he's tethered to a more attractive player could be found, like the one that brought him to New York. That's not the point. The point is getting younger, more athletic and better on defense -- like, say, getting McNeil out of the outfield and back to second base.
Possible fits: No great fits, but perhaps Indians or White Sox
Consider a different future for Amed Rosario
This could mean a few things. Maybe it's a trade, if another team finds him interesting. Maybe it's a 2020 that starts in the Minor Leagues. But unless a massive improvement appears down the stretch, it's difficult to see him as the shortstop on Opening Day 2020. The metrics that say he's been one of the weakest shortstop defenders in the game this year align with the eye test, which is part of why you're hearing stories about him maybe moving to center field, but even that isn't terribly appealing for a batter who, while improving, still has trouble getting on base. (His .303 OBP is both below average and a career best.) That he was recently benched for a lack of hustle hasn't helped.
Possible fits: Orioles, Tigers, perhaps Triple-A Syracuse
Trade Noah Syndergaard ... this winter
Syndergaard's 4.55 ERA is a career worst, though that doesn't tell the entire story. (It was 4.93 through his first 11 starts, and 3.95 in his last seven.) The argument towards trading him is that his talent remains immense, with flashes of it breaking through even now -- note the 1-0 shutout he threw against the Reds while hitting a solo homer for the only run earlier this year -- and pitching-hungry teams known for improving pitchers like the Astros or Yankees would be all over it. (Yes, they should make a crosstown trade if that's the best deal they can make.) Like Díaz, he's likely been harmed by the Mets' defense more than he's earned, as his underlying metrics indicate a pitcher who has performed similarly to All-Stars like Lance Lynn, Marcus Stroman or Zack Greinke.
The argument against is the worry that his inconsistency and high ERA might not make for peak value. Perhaps so. While accepting the risk injury or a step back could make things even worse over the final two months, an offseason trade here might make more sense, and he has two more years of team control after this one, and could significantly enhance his trade value with a strong second half.
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And then, on top of that, it's not just about the big moves. It's about knowing how to find the next Paddack or Tatís, or plucking the next Hand off waivers. It's about having players arrive in town and improve, like they do in Houston and other clubs, not take a step back. It's about looking at free agency and knowing that for similar contracts, an Adam Ottavino was more likely to be valuable than a Jeurys Familia. It's about making the right next choice if and when a change at manager comes.
You'll note we haven't proposed specific trades here, because those are difficult if not impossible to come up with, especially with Minor Leaguers and varying contracts, and this series of moves would obviously leave the 2020 Mets with some holes to fill. It might, however, make them more flexible, better on defense and with a better understanding of how to go forward.
It's not going to be easy, and it won't be easy to get past the $41 million owed to Lowrie and Yoenis Céspedes next year with no indication of any return, but it shouldn't be easy. Over the last 10 years, only two NL teams have won fewer games than the Mets have. It's going to take bold move, good fortune and some trades you might not want to make. It's going to take more than just moving Wheeler, Vargas and Frazier. A lot more.