As the 2022 season ended, the New York Mets and owner Steve Cohen were wrapping up a major-league payroll record by shelling out about $430 million in salaries plus luxury tax penalties. Then Cohen doubled down, going on a further spending spree in the run-up to 2023. In free agency, the Mets added future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander (two years, $86.7 million), Japanese pitching star Kodai Senga (five years, $75 million) and veteran starter âÃâ¬Ãâ¹âÃâ¬Ãâ¹José Quintana (two years, $26 million). Those weren’t even the team’s biggest outlays of the winter: Center fielder Brandon Nimmo re-signed for $162 million over eight years, and closer Edwin Díaz did the same for $102 million over five.
All of this added up to $501.3 million doled out by Cohen in hot-stove contracts — a number that could, in theory, have been as much as $816 million if shortstop Carlos Correa had finalized a 12-year, $315 million deal that fell apart. As it is, the Mets are poised to shell out something on the order of $380 million in salary and tax commitments this season, the highest figure in MLB by more than $80 million. Having already won 101 games just last year, the Mets have turned into baseball’s impossible-to-ignore elephant in the room. Mets fans are captivated as their owner tries to win. Opposing fans aren’t jazzed about a financial behemoth trying to outspend the entire league, or they wish their team would be the one doing it. And Cohen’s fellow owners are even less jazzed about expanding player salaries, creating an “economic reform committee” that might as well be called the “stop Steve Cohen committee.”
Against that backdrop, the Most Expensive Team That Money Can Buy has to actually get down to the business of playing ball games. And after an offseason that was built to generate excitement, the first few weeks of New York’s regular season have been boring at best and frustrating at worst. Through 11 games, the Mets are 6-5, enough to nudge their FiveThirtyEight season forecast down from a 92-70 record projection and 75 percent chance to make the playoffs in preseason to 91-71 and 74 percent, respectively. The Mets’ computer outlook is dimmer in part because FiveThirtyEight’s model bakes in injuries to starting pitchers (though not to relievers or position players), and the Mets are heavy on injured starters. Verlander went on the 15-day injured list on March 30 and has yet to make his Mets debut as he rehabilitates a strained shoulder. He expects to be back before April is over, but Quintana, who had bone graft surgery on his rib, will not pitch for the Mets until at least July. The Mets’ planned starting rotation has five pitchers aged 30 or older, and so far, 40 percent of the staff hasn’t stayed healthy.
What remains has been a mixed bag: Max Scherzer has had an uncharacteristically shaky start and was striking batters out at a rate of just 7.71 per nine innings (with a 4.41 ERA) in his first three trips to the hill, but he pitched five shutout innings on Monday. Carlos Carrasco has walked 7.27 hitters per nine and shown a general inability to get anyone out. But fortunately, Senga has already been both good and fun to watch. Through two starts, he has struck out better than 11 hitters per nine innings while flashing a legitimate four-pitch arsenal — highlighted by a very spinny 97-mile-per-hour fastball and, maybe more importantly, his terrifyingly named “ghost fork”.
The other compelling Mets starter through the first 11 games has been Tylor Megill, who’s gotten sporadic starts over the past two seasons. Megill’s 1.64 ERA in two outings won’t hold up, but a 3.85 fielding-independent pitching mark (to follow up on last year’s 3.77) is encouraging. In the extremely early going, Megill’s slider has been the fourth-most valuable pitch in the major leagues. Hitters have an .056 batting average in 18 plate appearances that have finished with that pitch.
With Senga and Megill looking promising and their injured rotation mates returning eventually, the Mets’ most challenging pitcher injury may not be to a starter. In his capacity as New York’s closer, Díaz was comfortably the best reliever in baseball last year. His 3.0 FanGraphs wins above replacement were 0.6 more than anyone else from any team’s bullpen. His FIP of 0.90 (to go with a 1.31 ERA that arguably rendered him unlucky) was the fifth-best for any reliever this century and sat within 0.04 of every season ahead of his, save for Craig Kimbrel’s 2012 (0.78) with Atlanta.
Díaz also became a cultural sensation as much as he was an unhittable closer. His entrance to a Timmy Trumpets tune is now in “MLB The Show.” But it will not be in real Mets games this year, because Díaz tore his right patellar tendon in a horribly unlucky celebration after closing a game for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. Whether Díaz ultimately justifies his $102 million deal on pure wins-per-dollar terms is almost immaterial, given Cohen’s practically bottomless pockets. A more relevant fact is that the Mets had a reliever who’d been worth a combined five wins on his own the previous two years … and for all of 2023, they will not.
Non-Díaz Mets relievers were worth a mere 1.4 fWAR in 2022. That would’ve been 27th in the league on its own, but merely having Díaz in the fold brought the Mets to 11th. The good news is that the Mets were proactive about beefing up their bullpen supporting cast even before their best pitcher got hurt. The (very, very) early returns have been good on recent signee David Robertson, who hadn’t allowed a run in five appearances through Monday. Fellow relievers Stephen Nogosek and John Curtiss each had sub-1.7 ERAs in their first handful of innings of the year. Adam Ottavino had seven strikeouts, no walks and one run allowed in his first five appearances covering four innings. The bullpen has been worth 0 fWAR through 11 games, because a few relievers have gotten tagged. But someone could squint and see a path to the Mets, holding up OK in the pen, even without Díaz.
Save for the Correa non-signing, Mets’ acquisitions, re-signings, and general headline-making did not revolve around the team’s lineup. Headed into the season, the offense was in more of a set-and-forget mode, and with good reason: The Mets had the majors’ No. 3 offense last year by wRC+ (116, which translates to 16 percent more runs created per trip to the plate than league average) and got the fourth-most fWAR out of their position players (31.3). Every player in the team’s go-to lineup was in the organization by last July, and most long before that. For the bench and a platooning role, the Mets signed outfielder Tommy Pham, who has played mostly against lefties so far, and outfielder Tim Locastro, who has never hit a lot but brings world-class wheels that manager Buck Showalter could use in a range of ways (particularly with new rules encouraging speed). Locastro’s average baserunning sprint speed last year, per Statcast, was No. 6 in MLB at 30.2 feet per second.
The Mets’ bats have yet to stir much. The teamwide wRC+ through Monday was 92, equating to 8 percent worse than the league average. But most of the Mets’ big mashers have been somewhere between excellent and fine, led by Pete Alonso and his five homers in the first 11 games. The only regulars who really haven’t hit are third baseman Eduardo Escobar, catcher Tomás Nido and infielder Luis Guillorme. Escobar has a wRC+ of -2 (that’s “negative-two,” not “two” or “two under”), but major projection systems peg him as about a league-average hitter for the rest of the season. If he is one, the Mets will be able to give fewer at-bats to Guillorme. And Nido may have just been keeping a seat warm for the sport’s No. 1 prospect, Francisco Álvarez, who came up from the minors to make his season debut on Sunday. (Nido’s negative-19 wRC+ in his first 20 plate appearances should stabilize, too.)
All of which is to say: The Mets are not likely to remain a picture of mediocrity, although early injuries to their old and expensive pitching staff could certainly turn into a longer-term problem. At the moment, the Amazins are subject to the same noise that all of MLB’s less-expensive teams face, too. In some areas, April volatility has even been good to the Mets. They were third in the league in Defensive Runs Saved through Monday’s games, despite a fielding configuration that changed very little after finishing a few runs below average in 2022. Maybe the Mets have figured some things out in their efforts to turn batted balls into outs.
Either way, all forms of regression to the mean should come soon enough. That will mostly be a good thing for the Mets — and the guy who spent all that cheddar trying to make them great.
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