After a long winter spent changing general managers and retooling a roster that went 147-177 the previous two years, the New York Mets are now gearing up for what may be a season at the crossroads, even by the standards of baseball’s most star-crossed franchise. New GM Brodie Van Wagenen hasn’t been shy about proclaiming his team the one to beat in the National League East. But that was before the rival Philadelphia Phillies added free-agent OF Bryce Harper — to say nothing of the existing talent base in Washington or the emerging one in Atlanta. This division race should be merciless, and New York is right in the thick of it, for better or worse.
It’s possible that the Mets have improved more than any other MLB team over the offseason, in terms of net talent added. Van Wagenen went out and got a new lineup centerpiece (Robinson Cano), a new catcher (Wilson Ramos) and a new closer (Edwin Diaz), among other additions. But after all that, our simulations still only give New York a 42 percent chance of making the playoffs out of the brutal NL East. And if the Mets do falter for a third straight season, it isn’t immediately clear where the franchise goes from there, with an old-ish roster and big paydays looming for the pitching staff that powered the team’s surprising 2015 World Series berth.1
So Van Wagenen’s Mets are built to win now, even though that’s far from guaranteed. They invested in getting better, though they didn’t pursue either Harper or Manny Machado, the offseason’s biggest prizes. They improved just enough to be competitive, even though nobody gives out trophies for simply being in the middle of an exciting pennant race.
Mets fans can be forgiven for any skepticism they might have over token efforts to compete. Back in 2004, team brass crowed about playing “meaningful games in September” before a 71-win campaign that was only marginally more competitive than the 66-win one that preceded it. (In each of those seasons, the Mets’ playoff probability was effectively 0 percent throughout September.) When it comes to putting a quality product on the field, the Wilpon family hasn’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt.
But this time, Van Wagenen’s numerous machinations may actually add up to a surprisingly solid group on the field. Despite New York’s relatively uncertain playoff odds, our Elo model considers it to be MLB’s 12th-best team, with an 85.1-win projection that ranks 11th in baseball. Since the Mets won just 77 ball games last season and 70 the year before, 85 wins would represent a sizable improvement. New York has fooled everyone before with hot starts that ultimately melted down into hot garbage, but enough of the team’s 2015 World Series core remains (and enough improvements have been made around it) that Brodie’s boasts aren’t too delusional.
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Or at least, they would have sounded a lot less delusional before Philadelphia snapped up Harper to cap off an offseason that also saw the team add Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto and reliever David Robertson to a roster that looked playoff-bound most of last season before a late collapse. Now the NL East looks like a nightmare division, the only one in baseball with four above-average teams according to our Elo ratings. After years of the division looking like a two-team race at best, Van Wagenen has New York taking its shot at exactly the moment when its chief rivals are also at their collective strongest.
Which is to say, this could all go very poorly for the Mets. But in a strange twist — #LOLMets potential aside — the philosophy behind the Mets’ moves is actually a welcome mindset to see in MLB in 2019, where most noncontenders are not even pretending to compete.
In an age of rampant tanking, baseball needs more middle-of-the-pack teams taking a shot at contention like this. Going back to at least 1990, the standard deviation of MLB-wide Elo ratings (a proxy for the dispersal of team talent) has never been wider than it was in 2018. After the Cubs and Astros provided a model for teams to win the World Series by stripping a roster down to its bones and rebuilding around cheap, young prospects, many others have followed suit. The team-building notion of merely being competitive — aiming somewhere above .500 and hoping for the best — has fallen almost completely out of favor in recent years.2
“The last thing you want to be is caught in between,” Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn told The Washington Post last year. “You don’t want to be a club that’s not good enough [to win] a championship but at the same time is just stuck in the middle.”
Perhaps. But that mentality has also had some fairly dire consequences for the sport’s competitive balance and even the free-agency market. And as difficult as it is to remember in today’s era of stacked megateams, we’re not too far removed from the San Francisco Giants building a bona fide dynasty out of a few teams that floated around 90 wins and got hot at the right time (i.e., approximately every other season). At a moment when other contenders have enough divisional breathing room to shed payroll and still be comfortable favorites, baseball should incentivize more teams to simply strive to be competitive and see how far it takes them.
Not that Van Wagenen and the Mets couldn’t have done even better in that regard. By Spotrac’s estimation, they’re still approximately $23 million below the competitive balance tax threshold — and contrary to how teams treat it, that is not a hard salary cap (particularly not for a team in the country’s largest media market). If the Mets fall short in their quest to play those “meaningful games in September,” at least part of the blame can be cast on failing to fully take their offseason improvement plan to its logical conclusion.
But at least this Mets team is poised to make some kind of run before time runs out on its talented core of pitchers and assorted position-player parts. Although it ultimately might not work in one of baseball’s toughest divisions (in fact, it’s more likely to fail than succeed), the Mets figure to at least be relevant this season. In 2019, that’s a goal more of baseball’s teams could stand to pursue.