Irrelevant in their home market, adrift toward the cellar of their division and beset of late by pitching maladies both typical (forearm tightness) and pre-adolescent (hand, foot and mouth disease), the New York Mets seem to exist these days for the sole purpose of making every other team in baseball feel better about itself.
Yes, the Washington Nationals just endured a 24-hour period in which their franchise player was subject to incessant trade rumors, their young shortstop made a tearful apology for insensitive tweets and a reliever was jettisoned after spiking his glove during a 21-run blowout.
But at least they’re not the Mets (who, it should be noted, were on the wrong end of that 21-run blowout).
The statement, and the sentiment behind it, can be extended to just about any team. Yes, the Baltimore Orioles have the worst record in the majors, are on pace for the most losses of any team in 15 years and in the past two weeks traded six cornerstone players for mostly prospects.
But they appear to have a plan — so, again, at least they’re not the Mets.
It would be unsporting to pick on the Mets at such a low point in their season — a 5-3 loss to the Nationals on Wednesday at Nationals Park completed a two-game mini-sweep and dropped the Mets to 44-61, into a virtual tie but percentage points behind the Miami Marlins, whose game at Atlanta on Wednesday was rained out, for last in the National League East — except they have an uncanny, maddening way of bringing it upon themselves.
Only the Mets, for example, would get two home runs out of their fill-in second baseman, as they did Wednesday from Jose Reyes, who took over for the injured Phillip Evans in the second inning, then be required to check on the state of his arm after eight innings in the field — because he had thrown 48 pitches of emergency relief in a franchise-worst 25-4 loss the night before.
“A little sore in the back,” Reyes said, “but no big concern.”
On Wednesday, the Twitter hashtag #ThatsSoMets was doing brisk business, as usual. The Mets were held to three hits and one run over seven innings by Nationals left-hander Tommy Milone, whom they let go in October after he went 0-3 with an 8.56 ERA for them in 2017. They sent left-hander Steven Matz, who lasted just two-thirds of an inning in Tuesday night’s debacle, home for an MRI exam on his ailing forearm. They got seven solid innings from Noah Syndergaard in his return from a bout of hand, foot and mouth disease but still lost.
And none of that was the most inexplicable thing about this week for the Mets.
On Tuesday, they somehow stood pat at the nonwaiver trade deadline — having already struck obvious, low-hanging-fruit deals for a pair of walk-year assets, closer Jeurys Familia and second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, in the days leading up — despite being positioned as clear sellers and despite being flush with the type of pieces coveted by most contenders, namely controllable starting pitchers.
Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Matz — any of them, in roughly that order, could have been dealt for a significant return in a pitching-starved marketplace. And deGrom, in particular, could have brought back the type of package of prospects and young assets that could transform a franchise practically overnight.
Instead, the Mets held on to all of them — plus other obvious trade assets such as Wilmer Flores, Jose Bautista and Devin Mesoraco — trumpeting what is apparently an organizational belief that the franchise can return to contention behind those same pitchers in 2019. In other words, the same thing they said last winter, and the winter before.
“We’re interested in contending next year. We want to build around the pitching we have and have a winning team and compete for a playoff spot next year,” John Ricco, the Mets’ assistant general manager and one-third of the three-headed team running the club’s baseball operations since GM Sandy Alderson went on medical leave, said in a conference call with reporters following the trade deadline. “There was no deal on the table that we thought made sense at this point in time.”
But then Ricco added this curious kicker: “That does not say anything about how we’re going to treat our assets heading into the offseason and how we’re going to plan for next year.”
That made the Mets’ decision to stand pat for the most part sound less like a vote of confidence about 2019 and more like a punt to November. The clear implication is that the team’s owners didn’t want to entrust the three-headed interim troika of Ricco and special assistants Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi with the tall task of overseeing a critical teardown that will go a long way toward determining the franchise’s direction for the next half-dozen years.
Speaking again of the lack of deadline-day action, Ricco said: “I don’t think that necessarily means we’ve committed to one direction or another. What it does is, it gives us another two months to evaluate not only the players themselves but our club in general. It allows us to make a more informed decision this offseason with regards to the direction moving forward.”
But it remains to be seen who the architect(s) of the Mets’ 2019 roster and direction will be: Ricco alone in a traditional GM role? The Ricco-Minaya-Ricciardi trio? A new, young and analytics-minded GM? That person, or people, will have to make decisions not only on roster makeup but also whether to bring back Manager Mickey Callaway, whose rookie season on the bench, notwithstanding all the injuries and intrigue, has been underwhelming at best.
The fantasy of contending in 2019 would also seem to require more investment from ownership, in the form of free agent spending, to beef up an offense that ranked last in the majors in batting average (.229), 26th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.687) and 25th in runs per game (3.95) entering Wednesday.
But will the Wilpon family have the stomach for another spending spree after those of the past two winters — when the Mets spent $166 million on multiyear deals for three hitters, outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce and third baseman Todd Frazier, who have either been hurt or underperforming at the plate? All three reside on the disabled list, with Cespedes, who has two years and $58.5 million remaining on his five-year, $110 million deal, out for the season. All told, the Mets have some $87 million in 2018 payroll tied up in players on the DL.
It may feel like piling on, but there is only one appropriate response to that: #ThatsSoMets.