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Mets at crossroads: Where do they go from here?

June 7, 2018

NEW YORK -- The thing about Mr. Met is that he always looks sad. That doesn't make any sense, of course. He is a mascot, with a mouth and head that do not move and therefore cannot convey emotion. Even with that mouth permanently smiling, though, it has long resembled

NEW YORK -- The thing about Mr. Met is that he always looks sad. That doesn't make any sense, of course. He is a mascot, with a mouth and head that do not move and therefore cannot convey emotion. Even with that mouth permanently smiling, though, it has long resembled less genuine joy and more of a grim, rictus grin. Just look at the poor guy. Does this look like someone enjoying "the best seat in the house"?

The reason Mr. Met always looks sad isn't Mr. Met, of course: It's the Mets, the franchise with millions of dedicated fans who talk about the Mets with a mix of heartfelt affection and despair. Even when things are going wonderfully as a Mets fan, even when you have the most exciting rotation in baseball and you're in the World Series, you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Being a Mets fan is putting on the Mr. Met grin, the smile that says, "I'm trying to ignore the piano about to fall on my head."
This week, the piano fell. The Mets began a homestand last week 27-26 and still hovering around the National League East and Wild Card chase ... and then promptly lost six games in a row, four to the Cubs and two to the lowly Orioles. And it's how they lost them that's particularly demoralizing: The Mets' offense has evaporated. They have scored two runs in their last 42 innings. During the six-game homestand, they have batted .139. Jay Bruce has stopped hitting all together; Michael Conforto has turned from an All-Star into a glorified fourth outfielder; Jose Bautista was signed from the scrap heap and immediately became their best on-base guy.
Wednesday's game against Baltimore was particularly grueling. It was a day game before a day off for the Mets and a flight to Canada for the Orioles, and both teams played like it; the game was an hour old and already in the sixth inning. The Orioles shut out the Mets, 1-0, and the Mets only mustered up two small rallies, one that ended in an Amed Rosario strikeout with the bases loaded, and another that ended with an Asdrubal Cabrera bunt double play in the eighth inning with a runner on first.
The Mets have suffered through their fair share of injuries -- and Yoenis Cespedes could be back this weekend -- but every team goes through those, and not every team is next to last in the NL in runs and gasping to make it through a two-game sweep at home against the Orioles. With the Yankees, a team that has won eight of 10 and has no trouble scoring runs, coming into town, a turnaround does not appear imminent.
Which leads us to the question: What do the Mets do now? The core of that 2015 World Series team is either gone (Curtis Granderson, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Matt Harvey), older and more rickety (Cespedes, Noah Syndergaard) or better than ever but sitting idly by helpless (Jacob deGrom). The NL East is clearly emergent, with the Braves and Phillies both taking big steps forward this season with young players who will be dominating the division over the next half-decade or more and the Nationals, no matter what happens with Bryce Harper this offseason, not going anywhere anytime soon. You take a step back, and the Mets start to look less like a perennial contender and more like, well, the Orioles, Pirates, or Blue Jays, a team that contended for a while but may have missed its window. This division is going to get tougher in the next few years, not easier. And the Mets aren't getting any younger. What do you do with this team?
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson made headlines earlier this week when he said he had no intentions of gutting the Mets, even frowning on the whole idea of teams tearing down to build back up again, saying "I don't know why it's become so popular." (The Astros and the Cubs might have some theories as to why.) But it is worth noting that Alderson, as always, was careful with his words, saying that while he thinks the Mets will overcome their current woes, if they don't, "We'll make an evaluation then." He is hopeful about the Mets ... but if it stays like this, he's not going to fiddle while Citi Field burns. He didn't last year, after all.
Right now, Fangraphs gives the Mets 11.8 percent odds to make the playoffs, more optimistic than Baseball Prospectus' 4.5 percent. The Mets' offensive collapse is happening at the worst possible time, though, as they enter their toughest stretch of the season: 16 of their next 19 games are against teams with winning records -- and the three that aren't are against the Dodgers, the team with the best record in the NL since May 16 -- with a West Coast road trip smack in the middle. The Mets are 7 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East and 7 1/2 games out of the Wild Card. If those numbers are the same in a month -- and they right well might be worse -- you think Alderson is going to floor it off the cliff? I think he's going to read the writing on the wall as well as anyone else can.
Do I think he's going to trade off deGrom (under team control through 2020) or Syndergaard (through 2021)? Of course not. But there isn't a team in baseball who couldn't use free-agent-to-be Cabrera, who's probably the team's best hitter right now, or even Jeurys Familia. It wouldn't make sense for the Mets to blow it up entirely anyway, not with deGrom and Syndergaard locked in and Cespedes still under contract through 2020. Trading those players whose contracts expire -- and maybe even considering Todd Frazier, though the third-base market might be saturated -- allows the Mets to make another quixotic run at it next year, hoping the pitchers stay healthy and the moves on the margins, like Frazier and Bruce and Cabrera, add up to contention.
But the larger question of where the Mets are going looms. Do they double down on this roster and think big, maybe even, as been speculated, going after Manny Machado? They do have a lot of money coming off the books this year; they could theoretically spend. Or do they think that's good money after bad, that 2015 is just another year farther away at this point, that this isn't a legitimate contender with the rise of the Braves and Phillies? If they think that ... maybe they should deploy the strategy that Alderson seems to dismiss. You know what teams do when they're not as good as the other teams in their division, in both the short and mid-term, and they also don't want to spend on a massive free agent? They do what the Astros and Cubs did. You know who this just worked for? The Phillies and the Braves, the Mets' division rivals.
Either way: The Mets appear to be, once again, at a crossroads. Not good enough to win it all, but, regardless of how ugly the last six games have been, probably not bad enough to fall apart entirely. That's a scary place to be, particularly for a team in the largest media market, with a loyal but beleaguered fan base always seeing doom lurking around the corner. It's enough to make a smiling mascot frown. Or at least feel like he's frowning.

Will Leitch is a columnist for