1974: That Post-Championship Season–A Harbinger of Things to Come?
So, when the smoke clears from this year’s World Series, the Mets will have taken one step closer to an infamous distinction. The conclusion of the Fall Classic will vault the Mets into the top five of teams with the longest wait in between world championships. Along with the 2016 Series’ loser, you will have Pittsburgh (1979), Baltimore (1983), Detroit (1984) and then the Mets (1986) in the top five of teams still waiting for the next hoist of the trophy. While I believe the Mets have a legit shot at returning to and finally winning the World Series in 2017, their pathway back isn’t clear, at least from this vantage point.
I read and heard about several comparisons during the 2016 team’s six-week hot streak to a similar streak the 1973 Mets went on. Both teams were effectively buried by early August, only to rally around several returning injured players, some unlikely effective starters and a red hot bullpen; riding said combo all the way to the post season. A poor managerial decision (1973) and a flat slider (2016) doomed both endeavors before they reached the ultimate goal. One of the beauties/curses of baseball is that there is always next year. The 1974 team was built on the premise that the winning version of the previous year’s squad was the true team. A 71-91 record proved that theory to be wrong. I believe that Mets GM Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins could make the same assumption about the 2017 team, based on their own predilections of what a 25-man roster should look like.
The Anderson regime began with his pronouncement that he was opposed to lengthy second generation contracts that awarded players for what they did for previous teams. To his credit, he has mainly stuck to that premise, the only real departure being the contract he gave David Wright. While we all applauded Alderson’s early stance on these types of deals, I do wonder how happy any of us would be to see a lineup like this on Opening Day:
1. Curtis Granderson, cf
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, ss
3. Yoenis Cespedes, lf
4. Lucas Duda, 1b
5. Neil Walker, 2b
6. Jay Bruce, rf
7. David Wright, 3b
8. Travis d’Arnaud, c
That lineup depends on Alderson completing two of his top orders of business in the offseason, securing Cespedes and getting Walker to take the Qualifying Offer. But look at that lineup again. With the exception of Wright and Cespedes, there are six players with one-year deals, which has to be attractive to both Alderson and his bosses the Wilpons. Alderson’s track record reveals his commitment to power, which in theory at least, this lineup has in abundance. Plus, there is the half-myth of improved performances when playing for next year’s contract. It sets up the rest of the roster as well. Juan Lagares becomes the late inning defensive replacement, Brandon Nimmo takes over the Alexandro DeAza role and Wilmer Flores and Jose Reyes act as super utility men, playing all over the infield (and perhaps in the case of Jose some outfield). From Collins’ standpoint, he gets his beloved left-right-left march through the batting order and he also gets to tinker with Reyes and Flores.
I am not condoning this lineup idea (at least not entirely) but I can see this as a distinct possibility. More on this shortly.
At first glance, it is appears that the reason the 1974 Mets didn’t repeat was their poor offense. That is partially true. They scored 40 less runs in ’74 than in the previous year and their slash line comparison from 1973 (246/315/358) to 1974 (235/311/329) does show a decline. But it was the bullpen and overall the failure of the pitching staff to maximize the paltry offensive production that they did get that sunk the 1974 Mets. They blew 40 leads in 1974 and won only 17 of the 53 one run games they played in (their 1973 counterparts won 31 one run games). One needs look no further than one Frank Edwin McGraw for the main culprit in the demise. The 1973 hero had a terrible 1974, with only three saves in 38 appearances, pitching to a 1.44 WHIP and a poor walk-to-strikeout ratio. In an early example of how historically inept the Mets medical staff has been, a cyst on his should was misdiagnosed and he was shipped off to the Phillies after the ’74 season. The cyst was removed,McGraw returned to form and soon, to the World Series with the Phils.
All of that personal angst aside, the Mets received solid bullpen work in 2016 from Jeurys Familia and Addison Reed. The latter has my vote for the 2016 Mets’ MVP. But for a variety of reasons, mainly overuse, I wonder just how much the Mets can and should depend on either pitcher. They need a substantial reinforcement here. Maybe not the Kenley Jansen fantasy that someone wrote about recently, but perhaps something along the lines of a Tyler Thornburg or a Brand Hand, although the former could cost the Mets dearly. They could bring back either Jerry Blevins or Fernando Salas (or both), but neither of them are probably suited for constant and multiple late inning appearances. The other likely options Josh Smoker, Hansel Robles and Josh Edgin, should not be considered for post-7th inning duty. And I wouldn’t be so fast to project any of the starting pitchers for a late inning role either.
I am not buying the line about the Mets having an excess of starting pitching. I think Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom will be fine at the top of the rotation, but from there it gets a little dicey. I wouldn’t count on both Steven Matz and Matt Harvey being 100% by the end of Spring Training. Harvey’s injury is serious and Matz seems to be always nicked up. Pencil in one of them for the #3 spot and hope. A lot of noise has been made about a return engagement for Bartolo Colon. We’ll take it at face value for now, at least until big Bart starts asking for a multi-year deal. Right now, my #5 starter is Robert Gsellman. Talk about a guy who came out of the woodwork. I realize this is Mets Today, but Gsellman passes the eye test, IMO. I am less sanguine about his running buddy Seth Lugo. Lugo’s peripherals and his minor league numbers are somewhat off-putting. Maybe Lugo’s curve lands him a spot in the bullpen. The final piece of the puzzle is Zack Wheeler, who not having thrown a pitch in a big league game in two years, probably needs to spend some time in AAA Las Vegas first.
It all starts with Cespedes. Like him or not, he is the lynchpin to the offseason. After a disastrous sophomore season, the Mets should be eyeing a long stint in Vegas for Michael Conforto. If Cespedes departs, his slot in the field goes to Conforto. With Cespedes, Duda and Bruce become second-tier sluggers, and in the case of Bruce, a potential trade candidate should the right offer occur. Otherwise, they become more vital components, which is a very disturbing thought. With Cespedes, they probably can pass on Walker if he refuses the QO, relying instead on Reyes, Wilmer and September hero TJ Rivera at second. Without Cespedes, they may need to gamble on a big deal with Walker, probably not daring to hope that the Reyes-Wilmer-TJR troika can produce a serviceable performance at second and pick up the power slack. Without Cespedes, they might not have the pieces they need to secure that lockdown reliever.
On the flip side, maybe change is good. Cespedes departs, the Mets pass on Walker and trade Bruce. They get a little faster, a little younger and a little less reliant on the 3-run homer. Maybe the pitching stays healthy and the bullpen stays solid and Daniel Murphy comes back to earth. Standing pat didn’t work in 1974. Maybe it won’t work in 2017 either. Like I said, it’s hard to see from this vantage point. What do you see from yours?