The Mets finally have a new general manager (Jared Porter), and we'd like to say, "It's time to get started," except they've already gotten started. Last month, they gave Minor League reliever Sam McWilliams a Major League contract; two weeks ago, they added reliever Trevor May on a two-year deal. A few days ago, before Porter was even officially hired, they reportedly agreed to terms on a four-year contract with catcher James McCann, and that deal was finalized on Tuesday. New owner Steve Cohen and returning team president Sandy Alderson didn't waste any time.
So while this isn't exactly going to be a Porter solo show, he's clearly joining a team that's looking to be aggressive in an attempt to get back into the National League East race they've been largely absent from over the past four seasons.
What are they going to do? What should they do? (Aside from "invest in player development and analytics," which, while extremely important, should be par for the course at this point. Anyway, they're on that. "Innovation comes in a lot of different ways,” Porter said. “I think the most clear way in baseball is a continued investment into research and development through technology.")
While publicly available estimates vary, it's safe to say the Mets currently have somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million to play with before reaching the competitive balance tax threshold, and even that shouldn't be seen as a hard cap, though teams are often loath to exceed it. Either way, even if they do, don't expect them to go wildly past it.
Let's do what we do best: Play with other people's money. Here are five possible ideas, some of which work in tandem, some that do not.
1. The must: Go get that big star.
Look, this isn't a fantasy baseball roster. As much fun as it might be to spend a billion dollars and sign the top 15 free agents available and have Andrelton Simmons as your fourth-string shortstop, that's not actually going to happen in real life.
As Alderson said, "I think what the fans want is not that we win the offseason, but we win the season. And there are several different ways to achieve that.”
And yet: Expectations have been raised so high by incoming ownership that if the Mets don't come away with one of the top free agents -- the George Springer / J.T. Realmuto / Trevor Bauer / DJ LeMahieu / Marcell Ozuna group -- fans will be truly disappointed. It won't be Realmuto, not now that McCann has signed. Ozuna isn't a great fit, because he's a very poor defender, and the Mets are starting from a below-average defensive position in the first place. There's an argument for LeMahieu, but we've heard little that indicates Queens is where he might end up.
That leaves Springer and Bauer. ("Get both!" shout fans, and yes, we hear it. That's just not the most likely outcome.) You can argue for either one. We're suggesting Springer, for two reasons. First, he's far more reliable, having been an above-average hitter every single year of his career, while Bauer has been considerably more up-and-down. Second, while you can find other ways to fill out a rotation, Springer is the only center-field option. (We do like Jackie Bradley Jr., but another lefty outfielder is not a fit for this roster.)
As we noted when placing the Mets atop Springer's 30-team countdown list, not only does the roster fit work, but so does the time frame. At 31, Springer probably is not a long-term center fielder, but he wouldn't need to be. Michael Conforto is a free agent after 2021, and Brandon Nimmo is after 2022. Assume the Mets sign one and lose the other, then there's an open corner spot.
Speaking of which ...
2. Extend Michael Conforto.
Not every big move has to be importing a new player, does it? So how about extending a popular and productive homegrown player entering his walk year?
Over the past four seasons, Conforto has been one of the 25 best hitters in the Majors, and his 2020 line of .322/.412/.515 was his best yet -- though the underlying metrics didn't exactly support that as a new normal for him. Still, he's only entering his age-28 season, and it's not like the Mets farm system is brimming with near-ready talent. Of their Top 30 prospects on MLB Pipeline, only three are outfielders -- and they're all teenagers. (It's almost like they're missing a 21-year-old nearly-ready former 6th overall pick, but ... no, that couldn't be.)
Back in September, MLB.com's Anthony DiComo looked into what it might take, and he came away with something in the neighborhood of five extra years at around $20-22 million. Besides, this would have a nice flavor of history repeating itself, because when we think about "well-heeled owner buying big-market team from underfunded predecessor," we think about the 2011-12 Dodgers -- a team Cohen actually tried to purchase. On May 1, 2012, the sale to Guggenheim was officially completed. Six weeks later, they gave a five-year contract extension to a popular sweet-swinging lefty outfielder, Andre Ethier. At the time, it was viewed as part baseball decision, part outreach to a disenchanted fan base. Sound familiar?
(Prefer Nimmo? That's fine. They're almost identical in age, each having been born in March 1993, they're each lefty hitters, and they were each first-round Draft picks selected during Alderson's first tenure with the club. Over the past four seasons, their performance has been very similar, with Nimmo better at getting on base and Conforto better at hitting for power. We're saying Conforto because his case is a little more urgent, given that he's entering his free agent year while Nimmo is not.)
3. Go get that depth.
"I think it’s critical to have a real deep 40-man roster, especially to get through a full 162 and even coming off a shortened season last year could present some new challenges," Porter said in his introductory press conference. "So I think depth stands out. I think that depth runs through the pitching rotation. Lengthening that out a little bit."
This is crucial, if not necessarily exciting. The "stars-and-scrubs" model might work in the NBA, but it doesn't do well in baseball. (See: Mike Trout making the playoffs once.) This is how the Dodgers, Rays, Yankees and others have succeeded. "Having good players" is important, but so is "not having weak players." Or have we forgotten things like "giving 740 plate appearances to José Reyes, José Bautista and Adrián González" in 2018?
It's not like the previous regime didn't know about this, of course. They tried to fix it two years ago and had their moments. But overall, it's still been a problem. For example, over the past three years, look where they've ranked in terms of most position players and pitchers (with a minimum of 10 games played as a Met) who have been worth zero Wins Above Replacement or less.
Position players: 17 (tied third-most, behind only Detroit, Miami, Cleveland)
Pitchers: 14 (tied 10th-most)
That's a lot of Tyler Bashlor, Drew Gagnon, Tim Peterson, Aaron Altherr, Sam Haggerty, Phil Evans and so on. It's true, certainly, that even the best teams have no choice but to fill in like that every now and then. But it's worth noting that the teams in the top five with the fewest sub-replacement position players are the Rays, Twins, Astros, then Cardinals / Yankees / Dodgers / Braves. For pitchers, it's A's, Astros and Yankees.
Porter called out the rotation, and that makes sense. Jacob deGrom is the obvious ace, and Marcus Stroman is a quality veteran mid-rotation arm. Ideally, you have Seth Lugo back in the bullpen, which leaves your remaining starters as ... David Peterson, Steven Matz and? Maybe that's Masahiro Tanaka, or Jake Odorizzi. Maybe that's James Paxton, or Corey Kluber. There are options. Really, you mostly need to do better than Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha did in 2020, and in the bullpen, there are approximately 9,000 righty relievers available. That shouldn't be that hard.
4. Go make a big trade.
If we're sticking with the Dodgers parallel, remember that two months after their new owners took over, the club made two massive trades in just a few weeks. On July 25, 2012, they traded for Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins. A month later, they made the earth-shattering move to acquire Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and González from the Red Sox, taking on more than a quarter-billion dollars in salary, for six players who amounted to very little. The Dodgers didn't make the playoffs in 2012. They did in 2013, and they have every single year since.
In-season trades are not winter trades, and the baseball world has changed a lot in the past eight years, but we can still make some suggestions.
The reasonable method (i.e., the Hanley deal): Trade for the final year of Francisco Lindor's contract.
Lindor is clearly on the block, and it seems more likely than not that he will get dealt this winter. It's all but impossible to come up with reasonable trade offers, other than to suggest A) it's likely that Amed Rosario would be included and B) the cost for one year of Lindor would probably be less than you'd think. If you want to make it bigger, include Dom Smith in a possibly DH-free world, and try to get back Carlos Carrasco or James Karinchak; go right ahead, but we're making this the simple one: A few players for Lindor.
Now, let's go nuts. Let's go "2012 Red Sox trade" nuts.
The absolutely wild method: (i.e., the Crawford deal): Trade for Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.
This is objectively unrealistic. But hey, hear us out. Everyone knows that Arenado is unhappy in Denver on a non-competitive team that's likely to finish last in the NL West in 2021. Everyone also knows that the particulars of his deal -- a full no-trade, an opt-out after 2021, $199 million remaining -- make an actual deal complicated. But there's more than that, too. For all the talk about Lindor, Story is also an elite shortstop entering the final year of his deal, and there's an argument he's nearly as good -- if not just as good -- as Lindor.
Ken Rosenthal suggested this as a possibility for the Dodgers recently, but let's adapt it to a team that doesn't have Corey Seager. Think about it, the idea of extracting an entire elite left side of the infield from a team that is in something of a desperate situation. (It's unlikely they'll extend Story, and if you think Arenado is unhappy now ...)
We wouldn't begin to propose an actual deal for that kind of insanity, other than to say it would definitely include either Rosario or Andrés Giménez, and it might require the Mets to take the final year of Ian Desmond's contract off Colorado's hands.
5. Go make that international signing.
OK, we didn't mean to make this all "just repeat the 2011-12 Dodgers strategy, but that team did have some top-level elite talent (Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, to start) and nearly immediately got back into the playoffs. They did sign both Yasiel Puig and Julio Urías as amateur free agents on the same scouting trip just weeks after the new owners took over, but that was under different rules, and the same opportunities might not exist now. But at the end of the 2012 season, they did something a little more immediately relevant: They signed Hyun Jin Ryu out of Korea. Ryu threw 192 innings of 3.00 ERA ball as a rookie.
For the Mets, that could be Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim, if they see him as a third baseman, but more relevant to their needs would be Japanese starting pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, who is being posted by the Yomiuri Giants and could slot in with Stroman behind deGrom as Noah Syndergaard works his way back from Tommy John surgery.
We'll be the first to admit that all of these moves aren't going to happen this winter, other than to say that after passing on Realmuto, they all but have to add one of the big stars. But the point, really, isn't that these are the exact moves they must do in order to contend. The point is that after years in the wilderness, full of talent but less than the sum of their considerable parts, the new-look Mets finally have means. They have a well-regarded front office ready to execute the wishes of a well-heeled owner. These aren't your older brother's or sister's Mets, for once.