By Brad Kallet
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There’s no way around it. There’s no way to sugarcoat it.
The Mets are simply worse right now than they were after losing to the Royals in five games in the World Series.
It hasn’t been a disastrous offseason, but it’s been extremely underwhelming. Conventional wisdom suggested that the Mets would lose Daniel Murphy and Yoenis Cespedes in free agency, but the hope was that the front office would keep the lineup potent.
Unless a splashy trade or free-agent signing comes out of left field, it’s likely that we’ve seen the last of the Mets’ “impact” moves.
So what did they do?
They let Murphy walk, as expected, and traded for Neil Walker. OK, that was an excellent trade. All Walker cost was Jon Niese, who isn’t particularly good and is the odd man out in the rotation. And the former Pirate is very solid. The 30-year-old hit .269 with 16 home runs and 71 RBIs in Pittsburgh last season, and he’s a better fielder than Murphy.
Everybody agrees that what we saw from No. 28 in the National League Division Series and National League Championship Series was a mirage. He’s not that kind of hitter, as evidenced by the fact that he only got $37.5 million as opposed to $75 million or nine figures.
But was that historic home-run display a gift from heaven or a sign that he’ll be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s? Most likely the former, and we’ll find out soon enough when he’s trying to beat the Mets in a Nationals uniform.
Murphy’s smooth swing and knack for getting clutch hits will be missed, but Walker should fill his shoes nicely. One could make the argument that Murphy is better than Walker, and the counterargument could just as easily be made. It’s essentially a wash.
As for Asdrubal Cabrera, he’s pretty much a left-handed Wilmer Flores. Not much of an upgrade there.
Where the offense really takes a hit is in the outfield.
Slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who completely turned the Mets around after he was acquired at the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, won’t be back. Replacing him in center field will be a platoon of Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza.
That pair won’t cut it.
Lagares and De Aza are both light, bottom-of-the-order hitters. Cespedes, you might remember, hit .291 with 35 home runs and 105 RBIs in 2015 (including 17 homers and 44 RBIs in 230 at-bats with New York). He also hit 42 doubles and six triples.
As Mets fans learned during a glorious three-month stretch, Cespedes is one of the most feared hitters in the game. He hits to all fields, has tremendous power and lengthens the lineup. Batting cleanup, the former All-Star protected Curtis Granderson, David Wright and Murphy, and gave Lucas Duda, Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Conforto more opportunities to drive in runs.
Playing devil’s advocate, there’s no question that Cespedes struggles against quality pitchers who know what to throw him — as we saw in the postseason — and he occasionally takes plays off. (Run on a dropped-strike three, dammit!) But his explosive bat more than makes up for his occasional laziness, and he absolutely crushes mediocre pitching. To make the playoffs, the Mets need to take care of business against the Braves, Phillies and Marlins. Cespedes will feast against those teams’ staffs.
Yes, he’ll cost a lot of money and a lot of years. But paying him is a wise investment, as this team only has a relatively small window to be great. In a few short years all of these prized young arms will hit free agency, and not even the Dodgers or Yankees — let alone the financially strapped Mets — could afford to keep them all. Will the Mets even be able to keep two of their quartet of aces? Who knows.
General manager Sandy Alderson is not in the business of handing out massive, long-term contracts. And the majority of the time, that makes sense. But in this case, Cespedes would keep the Mets in win-now mode before they have to blow up the pitching staff. I think it’s safe to say that every Mets fan on the planet would sacrifice a few lean years for just one World Series title.
But this is just the way it is. The organization said if the fans came, the players would too; the payroll would increase and the Mets would again operate like a large-market franchise. Well people came, and guess what? We’re still waiting. And waiting. And waiting. We’ll probably we waiting for a long time.
In November I wrote that this offseason would likely be anticlimactic, which is OK. To be clear, I didn’t mean that the Mets shouldn’t stay aggressive and continue to improve the team. All I meant was that, coming off of a World Series loss hangover that stung so badly, it was difficult to get excited about transactions.
But forget improvements and forget maintaining the status quo. This organization has taken a step back while the Cubs, Giants and Diamondbacks have all gotten better. If the Mets hope to return to the Fall Classic — which I presume they do — they’ll need to get past these clubs.
The Mets are still far better than they were at the beginning of last season. They will have Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz for an entire season, and Zack Wheeler is expected to return in the summertime. Conforto will play a full season, and Wright and d’Arnaud should play a lot more games than they did in 2015.
This is still an extremely talented club, and there’s no reason it can’t win a second consecutive NL East crown.
But without Cespedes — or another superstar of his ilk — it’s hard to see the Mets returning to the World Series.
Brad Kallet is an editor and columnist for CBSNewYork.com. He has written for TENNIS.com, MLB.com and SMASH Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet.