Are the Mets better off than they were entering 2020?
This is the eighth annual article on this topic.
The story so far…
The 2017-2019 Mets gave fans ulcers, finding myriad ways to disappoint, from starting pitching (2017) to health and defense (2018) to the manager and closer (2019). Each year, preseason forecasts saw the Mets as contenders, and each year, they failed to live up to the predictions.
Nevertheless, a certain amount of optimism surrounded the team after their 86-win 2019, thanks to huge breakouts from young players Amed Rosario, Dominic Smith, J.D. Davis, and especially Pete Alonso. If the starting pitching could hold steady while the offense continued to mature, then perhaps new manager Luis Rojas and a return to form from relievers Jeurys Familia and Edwin Diaz could get the Mets over the hump in 2020 for their first playoff games since 2016…
More ulcers! More disappointment! More great individual performances wasted! National pundits have latched onto the Mets franchise as a punchline for self-sabotage, and in 2020 they were at it again, as the Mets offered a clinic in choking.
The Mets offense put up exceptional numbers, leading the league in batting average and OPS+ while finishing 3rd in OPS overall… but they were only 7th in runs. With men on, and especially with men in scoring position, the bats went silent time and time again. Boasting a .272 average and a .245 mark with RISP, the Mets’ -27 point difference was the worst in the majors.
This sort of choke fest can be a sign of a fractious and dysfunctional team or clubhouse, but the 2020 Mets actually seemed quite harmonious. The guys seemed to really like each other, and Luis Rojas showed a much better knack for communication than his predecessor. From all appearances, Rojas did his best to run out the best lineup every day, and he didn’t make any enemies among the players he had to bench or demote in the process. Luis managed to be honest with the media while keeping any criticisms of players professional and goal-oriented. By all accounts, he kept a very even keel, and the players loved him. The team-wide failure in the clutch defied any simple “bad environment” explanations.
To be fair, clutch hitting wasn’t the Mets’ only weakness. Their defense rated near the bottom of the league, and their pitching was unreliable. Late in the season, it seemed like every time the offense did turn hits into runs, a pitcher would blow a lead. The starting pitching was terrible all year, and the up-and-down bullpen was not very clutch in the second half.
The bar for making the MLB postseason has never been anywhere near as low as it was in 2020, and the Mets just couldn’t scratch out wins. They ended the year tied for the 3rd worst record in the league.
Despite all that, the team’s poor play wasn’t at the forefront of fans’ minds in October 2020. The main storyline was the sale of the team from the resented Wilpons to billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen. By early November, the sale to Cohen was official, and he was telling Mets fans exactly what they wanted to hear: that he wanted to build a World Series winner, and was willing to pay to make that happen.
Cohen’s regime got off to an odd start, when he brought recent (and largely unsuccessful) Mets GM Sandy Alderson back to be team president, then couldn’t find a taker for the team’s President of Baseball Operations position, meaning Alderson had to fill that role himself.
Fortunately, new GM Jared Porter quickly diverged from Alderson’s previous strategy of “waiting out the market” for everything, instead pouncing quickly on some useful pieces and then swinging a trade for the most talented available player in Francisco Lindor.
The Porter era came to an abrupt end 12 days later: he was fired after news broke that he’d spent a good chunk of 2016 making unwanted advances on a reporter. Zack Scott, who’d interviewed for the GM job before being hired to assist Porter, was named Interim GM.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Let’s take a deeper look at how the players performed in 2020, and see what we can take away for 2021. Given those performances, as well as the subsequent changes in personnel, should we be more or less bullish on the Mets now than we were heading into last season? Is the team trending up, or trending down?
James McCann – stock: unchanged
Wilson Ramos was a complete disaster in 2020, but he came in with a much better offensive track record than McCann brings to the Mets. Ramos was a solid hitter for most of the previous 9 years, while McCann was a terrible hitter for 4 years in Detroit before putting up good numbers over 149 games with the White Sox.
On the defensive side, McCann and Ramos boast similar Caught Stealing numbers, and McCann’s framing stats have been all over the place, but it’s a safe bet that McCann constitutes a defensive upgrade from Ramos. Ramos showed no mobility, failing to get down multiple tags at home, and the leg-extended crouch he used to better frame low pitches left him completely unable to move side to side to stop any potential wild pitches.
Tomas Nido – stock: unchanged
Nido missed time due to COVID-19 and only got into 7 games.
Pete Alonso – stock: down
Few expected Pete to repeat his 53-homer 2019, and his strikeout rate was always going to be an issue, but 2020 still had to qualify as a disappointment. Something about his set-up, stride, and swing looked different from 2019, and he wound up spinning and falling over the plate on every hack, completely unable to cover the outside edge (which was a strength in 2019). A surge in the season’s final week elevated his stats, but up until then, Pete was an easy out.
Fans now have to hope the Polar Bear can rediscover his 2019 form, as the only thing he really needed to improve on from there was pitch selection and chasing fewer balls out of the zone.
Jeff McNeil – stock: down (personal), way up (Mets 2B)
It looked like the Mets were going to play 2020 with a washed-up Cano at second base, so using McNeil there in 2021 certainly has to be seen as a better way to head into a season. In reality, Cano had a fantastic 2020 at the plate, one McNeil will be hard-pressed to match.
McNeil kept the open stance he adopted halfway through 2019, and suffered the worst of both worlds, failing to retain his power while also keeping the uppercut that ruined his previous line-drive ways. Although no longer the impressive force he was in early 2019, McNeil still proved to be a good hitter overall, mixing in one red-hot stretch with some more pedestrian periods.
Robinson Cano – stock: unchanged
In 2020, Cano showed a much quicker bat than in 2019. He still wasn’t great in the field, but looked like he old self at the plate. Was he juicing again? Yep. He eventually got caught and will miss the 2021 season due to the resulting suspension.
J.D. Davis – stock: down
J.D. did not reprise 2020’s offensive breakout in 2021, hitting the ball with much less authority. He did show a good eye, and his high OBP meant he still qualified as an above-average bat in the lineup. Unfortunately, regular playing time did not improve his defense, which was awful in just about every way.
Francisco Lindor – stock: way up
Even though hopes were high for Amed Rosario after a solid 2019, Lindor has to be seen as a huge upgrade. Francisco is universally regarded as one of the best shortstops in the game, a good-to-great fielder with great contact ability, good speed, and above-average pop. With the Mets locking him up for 11 years and $363m, there’s every reason to think he’ll be a star for the next 3-5 years and a payroll black hole for much of the subsequent 6-8, so here’s hoping Steve Cohen doesn’t care about luxury taxes!
As for Amed Rosario, he’s gone to Cleveland after reverting to his wild-swinging ways in 2020 (he got an ovation when he drew his first walk at 100+ ABs). It was a disappointing ride for a prospect once regarded by some as #1 in baseball. Also gone in the Lindor trade is Andres Gimenez, who had an impressive 2020 debut, showing speed, defense, basestealing ability, and flashes of being a legitimate hitter.
Dominic Smith – stock: up
Though clearly miscast as an outfielder due to his lack of speed, Dom didn’t let his journey between 1B, DH and LF affect his swing. Smith absolutely raked in 2020, until a slump at the very end of the season got his OPS under 1.000. Dom nearly led the league in doubles, and was easily the Mets’ best RBI machine and clutch hitter.
Along the way, Dom wound up as one of the faces of MLB for racial justice, not due to any brilliant speeches or campaigning, but rather by being vulnerable and honest in public, and being so well liked by his teammates that they wanted to support him and the issues that mattered to him. Smith was one of MLB’s good guys of 2020.
Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes disappeared on the team one day and never came back, eventually claiming COVID-19 concerns, but actually upset about not being given enough playing time to earn his performance bonuses. This after a .161 start. The team’s star of 2015-2016 will not be missed.
Brandon Nimmo – stock: up
Back to full health after neck problems in 2019, Nimmo returned to his .400-OBP ways in 2020, while posting the lowest K rate of his career. Unfortunately, he was still terrible in center field. With the Mets prioritizing upgrades in other areas this past offseason, and currently using LF to shoehorn Dom Smith’s bat into the lineup, Nimmo returns for another go in center, this time with a plan to play deeper.
Michael Conforto – stock: up
In 2020, Conforto suddenly learned how to fight off pitches to the opposite field, producing lots of singles. That .322 avg looks like a whole new hitter, but Michael posted the same strikeout rate as every other year of his career, which makes me wonder if his huge BABIP jump was mostly luck.
Jacob deGrom – stock: unchanged
With two Cy Young awards already on his mantle, deGrom threw harder than ever in 2020 and struck out more batters than ever, whiffing a ridiculous 13.8 per 9 innings, which would have been an NL record in a full season.
Earlier in his career, Jake used to keep hitters off balance by mixing pitches, but by 2020 he had evolved into more of a pure power guy, identifying a pitch for each hitter that the hitter couldn’t handle, and largely just sticking with that pitch. In 2020, that was often his slider, which was more of a true slider than ever before. Back in 2018, the pitch looked more like a slider-cutter hybrid — it had a very short break and deGrom was able to locate it very consistently, without a single “hanger” of the type that happens from time to time with a true breaking ball. In 2020, the pitch no longer resembled a cutter — it had a sizable two-plane break that missed bats, but deGrom also hung a few that were clobbered.
It was strange to watch deGrom throw the same one or two pitches over and over, allowing hitters to time them and lineups to predict them. His strike-throwing was also bit less consistent than in the past, with fewer pitches at the knees. In the end, though, he finished 3rd in the Cy Young vote and is still regarded by many as the game’s best pitcher.
Marcus Stroman – stock: unchanged
Stroman sat out 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, but looks ready to go for 2021. Based on an up-and-down career so far, Marcus offers serious upside but minimal certainty.
Carlos Carrasco – stock: up
Carrasco’s track record with the Indians as a dominant breaking ball pitcher would make him the Mets’ clear #2 if he were healthy. Unfortunately, Carlos tore a hamstring doing routine conditioning drills in the spring. For this 34-year-old veteran, is this just a blip, or the beginning of the end? Assuming he makes it back at all in 2021, one would expect Carrasco to be an improvement over the Mets’ #3 candidates in 2020.
Gone is longtime Met Steven Matz, who really didn’t do anything well at any point in 2020. Rick Porcello occasionally looked really good, going right after batters, but his propensity for throwing 0-2 pitches down the middle with men in scoring position was maddening, and his final line was ugly. Michael Wacha showed strikeout stuff between his elite change-up and weird arm angle, but made way too many mistakes over the middle for homeruns.
Taijuan Walker – stock: up
Walker’s stock over the years has been as up and down as any player in the game, from ultra-elite prospect to underwhelming big leaguer to injury casualty to stretch drive hero. In his final six starts with Toronto in 2020, Taijuan posted a 1.37 ERA to help the Blue Jays clinch a wild card spot, leading some to think the once-hyped hurler had finally “figured it out”. Less encouragingly, Walker’s key rate stats – walks, strikeouts, homeruns – were all below average, suggesting he may have gotten lucky. He’ll probably need to improve those numbers to be anything more than a back-end starter in 2021, but he’s definitely a better bet than Wacha was!
David Peterson – stock: way up
With Jacob deGrom followed in the rotation by a bunch of total disasters, emergency promotion David Peterson stepped up as the team’s #2 in 2020. Although he walked far too many batters, he showed a knack for getting out of trouble, often making a big pitch when he had to. He didn’t look fazed by the big stage, with his walks resulting more from occasional lapses in control than from nibbling.
Peterson showed a good slider, an adequate change-up, and a fastball that didn’t get barreled up too much. It’s unclear what to expect from him going forward, but simply having a chance to stick in the 2021 rotation has to be seen as a huge leap forward.
Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto – stock: up
I’m not sure if these pitchers provide any more guarantee of quality than 2020’s back end starters did, but I’ll take the upside and years of team control. As a lefty with a weird motion (dramatic front shoulder lift a la Chris Young) and unusual pitch (“churve” change-up curveball hybrid), Lucchesi has the potential to give hitters fits. Yamamoto starts the year in the minors.
Noah Syndergaard – stock: unchanged
Thor continues his Tommy John rehab, with a possible return in June. Some look at him as a mid-season difference-maker who warrants an extension before free agency. I see a pitcher who needs to prove he can perform after disappointing in 3 of the last 4 years.
Edwin Diaz – stock: unchanged
Diaz posted some dominant rate stats in 2020, but was extremely un-clutch and couldn’t be trusted in a big spot. He also didn’t show much control, and was a bit lucky that all those walks didn’t lead to more runs. His astronomical K rate declined as the year went on, and he seemed to have lost some gas by the end of the shortened season. His elite stuff is a welcome inclusion in the Mets bullpen, but employing him as the last line of defense with no safety net rightly makes many Mets fans very nervous.
Trevor May – stock: unchanged
A high fastball pitcher with tons of strikeouts and tons of homeruns on his resume, May signed early in the offseason to be the Mets’ set-up man after the Twins let him walk. Whether he’s a big asset in the 8th inning remains to be seen, but at least he adds another capable arm to offset the loss of Justin Wilson, who the Mets did not re-sign.
Seth Lugo – stock: unchanged
Lugo pitched very well in relief in 2020, although nowhere near his utter dominance from late 2019. Moved to the rotation to finish the year, Seth alternated excellent starts with terrible ones, unable to avert meltdowns once they started. He’s ticketed for the ‘pen in 2021 once he recovers from “minor” elbow surgery.
Miguel Castro – stock: unchanged
Castro has eye-catching stuff but little ability to harness it. At age 26, the Mets hope he still has some time to figure out how to get his 100 mph heat where he wants it on a regular basis.
Tantalizing upside plus known issues? This reminds me of how Dellin Betances entered 2020. Betances, though still with the team in 2021, turned out to be finished.
Jeurys Familia – stock: unchanged
After being unusable in 2019, Familia returned to getting grounders and limiting homeruns in 2020. Unfortunately his strikeouts declined and he averaged 6.4 walks per 9 innings. He enters 2021 somewhere in the middle of the bullpen depth chart, mostly out of necessity.
Bullpen depth – stock: down
Aaron Loup was acquired to be a lefty specialist, an interesting proposition in the 3-batter era. He’s also the only lefty on the staff. Robert Gsellman, Jacob Barnes, Trevor Hildenberger, Stephen Tarpley, Sam McWilliams and Drew Smith are all in the running to soak up some low-leverage innings. This group has even less of a track record than 2020’s back-end corps.
Minor leaguers of note
The minor leagues didn’t play in 2020, so the Mets are still waiting to see the next step from talented kids Ronny Mauricio, Francisco Alvarez, and 2019 draftees Brett Baty and Matthew Allan, plus new draftee Pete Crow-Armstrong. No prospects are currently knocking on the big league door.
Summing it up
Changes since a year ago
Stock way down: The Mets haven’t really had any player or position fall off a cliff since opening day 2020.
Stock down: Pete Alonso, J.D. Davis, and Jeff McNeil. Three 2019 breakouts couldn’t reach those levels in 2020, but were still solid.
Stock unchanged: deGrom, the bullpen, the catcher, and the MIA list
Stock up: Carlos Carrasco is a nice addition, while Nimmo, Conforto, and Dom Smith all had good years in 2020. Walker, Lucchesi and Yamamoto upgrade the starting pitching depth.
Stock way up: David Peterson skipped AAA and found success in the majors, and Francisco Lindor joins the Mets as an established star.
With most of the Mets’ ascending players having leveled off, only Dominic Smith continued a multi-season rise in 2020.
What it all means
Did Francisco Lindor just get handed the largest assignment in baseball? He just signed one of the richest contracts in sports history, and he’s being asked to address many of the team’s biggest needs.
- The Mets have been a bad defensive team for a long time. Lindor is a gold glove shortstop.
- The Mets have underachievd for years, with many viewing the organization as dysfunctional losers. Lindor is a charismatic leader known as “Mr. Smile”, and he’s played in four of the last five postseasons.
- The Mets have looked good but not great to most prediction models over the last four years, a probable contender but not a favorite. Lindor’s big WAR boost vaults the Mets to the top of the projections (or just behind the Braves, depending on the model).
Whether anyone in the Mets organization really expects all that of Lindor or not, he certainly was the centerpiece of the Mets’ offseason. With Steve Cohen talking about building a champion, some expected him to land multiple top free agents from the group of George Springer, J.T. Realmuto and Trevor Bauer. The Mets acquired none of them (they did outbid the Dodgers for Bauer, but Bauer decided to join the proven winner).
With most of the Mets’ other offseason moves being relatively modest, spring training saw some fans getting anxious to see Cohen back up his words with dollars. Giving Lindor another $341 million probably puts that question to rest. Now the question is whether Cohen, Alderson, and the rest of the front office can spend effectively.
If the 2021 Mets are going to succeed, they need to overcome more than just their own history: three out of their four division rivals are stacked with talent, and the fourth one (Miami) made the playoff last year and boasts a nasty young rotation. Lindor and improved starting pitching should make the Mets a better team than 2020’s 26-34 squad, but the huge leap forward they’ll need in order to take the NL East crown will require better performances up and down the roster, including everything from fielding to baserunning to clutch hitting. If they can’t quite make it past the Braves, a wild card may be a longshot, given the easier competition faced by West and Central contenders.
Cohen said his goal was a championship in 3-5 years, not in year 1. But it sure would be nice if the Mets made the playoffs in 2021 to show they’re on the right track. If not, don’t be surprised if Luis Rojas’s mild demeanor gets painted as a lack of urgency and competitive fire, and a new manager gets brought in to “teach the Mets how to win”. Mets fans will be watching closely this year to see whether the play on the field looks like a new era or just more of the same.