2015 NL East Champs. Let that sink in for a moment. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Remember, it was called here first.
Little known fact: this is only the second time in their history that the Mets went from below .500 in one year to a division winner the next. You may have heard of the 1969 season, which was the only other time they did this. In fact, the 3rd place 1972 Mets actually had a better winning percentage (albeit in a strike-shortened 156-game season) than their next year’s division winners did. Only the Mets, folks.
Division titles are a rarity in these parts, five of ’em in the last 45 years to be exact. So the question becomes, do we have to wait another nine years for the next one, or can the Mets actually win back-to-back division titles? More than likely, they will be the 2016 preseason favorites to do so, but these predictions will come from the same sources that figured the Washington Nationals would be the runaway divisional winners this year. So, can the Mets actually repeat this somewhat surprising success of this year? There’s a three-part answer to this question.
The first is obvious: the Mets’ young arms must stay healthy. It was hard to swallow, but the limiting of Matt Harvey’s innings was done with the coming years in mind. Matt is a Met for at least three more seasons and it would be a shame to lose any more of this service time to injury. A fully-healthy and ready for 200 innings Harvey is a key to a long run at the top for the Mets. At some point, the Mets will have to choose between Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz as to who they will invest in and who will be allowed to walk away. Based purely on age, I’d bet they keep the latter two, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Parts two and three of the answer are closely related.
It seems like a long time ago now, but before this past July 31, the Mets pointed to a pipeline of young talent that they touted as being able to keep them at or near the top of the NL East in the coming seasons. Much of it has been stripped away, sacrificed on the altar of a postseason berth this year. And what a payoff: the big “get” has been Yoenis Cespedes, perhaps the greatest in-season acquisition the club has made since getting Keith Hernandez back in 1983, if not ever. In what can only be termed as Amazin’, Cespedes put the Mets on his back and the team zoomed past the hapless Nationals en route to their first NL East crown since 2006. Cespedes is will probably be the runner up NL MVP, but the winner of that award will be on the golf course while Yoenis’ team plays on.
Now for the rub: Cespedes’ surge is incredibly well-timed, as his contract expires at the end of this year. He is due for a big payday and the Mets pre-July 31st history indicates that they have little chance of resigning this dynamic player, as most pundits expect him to earn between a $140M and $170M deal.
Re-signing Cespedes (part two) is directly related to part three, which depends on the Mets still fertile, if somewhat mature, conveyor belt of talent to supply them with enough cheap and serviceable alternatives at other spots to absorb this monster salary. These alternatives have names: Michael Conforto, Dilson Herrera, Amed Rosario, Dominic Smith, Hansel Robles, Dario Alvarez and Logan Verrett, among others.
The Mets began 2015 with $33M earmarked for Bartolo Colon, Daniel Murphy, Bobby Parnell, Dillon Gee, Jerry Blevins and Jenrry Mejia. All of them can be allowed to walk, as each can replaced by the candidates mentioned in the previous paragraph. Colon and Murph in particular have given the Mets some big moments during this stretch drive, but such is the cruel nature of baseball. The players today have the freedom that their counterparts 40 years ago fought hard for, but this freedom means loyalty has gone out the window. You can only stay if you work for cheap, unless you are a superstar like Cespedes. I’d consider offering Murphy a QO, but only if I felt sure that he would rather explore the market for a long-term deal. They can pocket a draft pick in this scenario. They’ll need to draft smart these next two/three years. Poor drafts where the hidden causes of the collapse of the late 80’s and 90’s playoff teams.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that Cespedes gets $160M for six years. That makes him the team’s $26 Million Dollar Man. Given the rate of inflation in baseball salaries, that could be a relative bargain sooner than you might think. The money coming off from Colon, Murphy, etc. covers the first year.
Of their other July pickups, I think they can let Tyler Clippard and Juan Uribe walk, but should keep Addison Reed (arbitration) and re-sign the relatively inexpensive Kelly Johnson. Reed gets the 8th inning, while Robles, Alvarez, Sean Gilmartin, Goeddel, Verrett and Josh Edgin jockey for roles in pen. The beauty of this is that all of these arms have big league experience and at least a modicum of success. KJ can be the left handed bat off the bench as well as Herrera’s caddy. Don’t forget the Mets still have Juan Lagares, the 2014 gold glove centerfielder, signed to a relatively team friendly contract. Plenty of teams looking to get younger, faster and more athletic should be lining up at the door with offers for Lagares that could fill any gaps that open as next season wears on. Any bets on Clippard and Blevins being back in Washington next year?
More of a stretch, but in 2017 Smith replaces Lucas Duda and Rosario replaces Rueben Tejada. Farfetched? Smith was the 2015 FSL MVP, while Rosario finished this year in Double-A. Jon Niese and Michael Cuddyer and their combined his $21M are gone after next year, while Curtis Granderson and his $15M is gone after 2017. David Wright’s contract drops his salary to “only” $15M after 2018, so even after the pitcher’s salaries begin to skyrocket at the end of the decade, the Mets have other big money contracts either coming off the books or costing them less money. Smith and Rosario become the low-money guys at the same time that Travis d’Arnaud and Wilmer Flores start to hit arbitration. The same trade winds that blew Lagares out of town may end up moving Wilmer as well.
So, yes, the Mets can repeat. The bigger question is what the Wilpons will do. They should brace for at least a 25% payroll increase in the coming years. Is a division championship (at the very least) enough to justify the cost? They claim to love the team and must be reveling in this recent success. Seeing Cespedes walk has been viewed by some as a potential doomsday scenario. I can think of a worse one: the Mets lose Cespedes only to toss mega-millions at one of the lesser outfielder types like Alex Gordon to compensate. Remember the Kevin Appier fiasco?
All of this is getting a bit ahead, don’t you think? Enjoy the victory lap next week and get ready for some Divisional Playoffs! Lets Go Mets!