By Chris Melore
Major League Baseball’s offseason has officially started and all 30 teams are preparing for the annual spending spree, better known as free agency.
For the Mets, Jacob deGrom’s historic season and David Wright’s tearful farewell were overshadowed by another losing campaign. New York was once again decimated by injuries and suffered through disappointing performances by nearly every free agent signing.
As the franchise turns the reigns over to a brand new general manager, the Mets enter 2019 with a very uncertain future.
The following is the Mets’ version of Black Friday, what they need to do internally and shop for this offseason to become contenders again:
PICK AN IDENTITY AND STICK WITH IT
“I look forward to beginning the progress of getting the Mets to contend for a championship year after year,” player agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen said in October.
It’s easy to talk the talk, but pinching pennies won’t help New York walk the walk.
New York’s recent tendency to patch holes with bargain basement free agents is not a formula for winning, as its last two sub-.500 seasons have shown.
There are two basic routes to the World Series for teams stuck in mediocrity:
- Rebuild: trade your best players and stockpile prized rookies who lead you back to the top in about five years
- Reload: spend the money to land premier talent that will compliment your current stars
If the Wilpons and Van Wagenen are actually serious about a quick return to the postseason, this is the perfect winter to start spending again.
If New York isn’t going to trade deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, then it’s time to stop acting like a small market team and declare the checkbook open for business.
SIGN A SUPERSTAR HITTER TO BUILD AROUND
Do Mets fans believe they’re walking away with either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper this winter? Obviously not.
That’s fine. That’s $300 million to spend elsewhere and the person to start with is Josh Donaldson.
The 2015 AL MVP is the best option at third base this winter not named Manny “Hustle.” Donaldson is admittedly coming off a contract year ruined by injury. He was limited to just 52 games, though a late-season trade to the Indians saw him get back on track with a .280 average and three homers in 16 games.
Despite some risk, he’s a better choice than Todd Frazier moving forward.
The Mets have desperately needed an heir to David Wright at the hot corner for almost four years. Donaldson turns 33 in December, making it likely that a three or four-year deal will be more appetizing for the Wilpons.
When healthy, the third baseman’s 30-home run power and solid glove would stabilize a lineup that falls flat without Yoenis Cespedes. Donaldson is also a career .314 hitter with runners in scoring position.
SIGN DEGROM TO AN EXTENSION
The fact this hasn’t been done already speaks to the franchise’s perceived dysfunction.
The Mets cost themselves more money every second they don’t lock up the favorite for the 2018 NL Cy Young. DeGrom established himself as one of the game’s top aces this past season, posting career-bests in starts, innings, strikeouts and ERA.
The 30-year-old right-hander won’t be eligible for free agency for another two seasons, but the Mets already know deGrom wants an extension or a trade. If the Wilpons forgot they can always ask their new GM; Van Wagenen made the statement himself when he was serving as the pitcher’s agent this summer.
ASSUME CESPEDES IS NOT COMING BACK
Yoenis Cespedes just underwent the second of two heel surgeries on Oct. 26. The Cuban slugger isn’t expected back until the second half of the 2019 season and Mets fans already know all too well how fragile the 33-year-old outfielder is.
Cespedes played in only 132 games in 2016, 81 in 2017, and 38 in 2018. With two major surgeries this fall, the Mets front office should spend like Cespedes won’t play until 2020 — the final year of his $110 million contract.
Signing a center fielder like Andrew McCutchen or A.J. Pollock would move the hobbled Jay Bruce to first base and the disappointing Dominic Smith to the scrapheap.
McCutchen, the 2013 NL MVP, had an impressive .421 on-base percentage after his late-season trade to the Yankees. Despite a down year overall, the five-time All-Star has hit at least 20 homers in eight straight seasons and has avoided the injury bug for a decade.
START FROM SCRATCH IN THE BULLPEN
If the Mets are hanging on to deGrom, Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz, then all of their spending for pitching should be aimed at their putrid bullpen.
New York’s relievers had a combined ERA of 4.96 in 2018, third worst in Major League Baseball. They also served up 82 home runs to opponents, fourth most last season.
Assuming the Mets want a top-dollar, shutdown closer, they should settle for nothing short of Craig Kimbrel.
The 30-year-old right-hander is the safest bet in the ninth inning since Mariano Rivera. Although his walks have gone up, Kimbrel posted a 2.44 ERA over the last three seasons with the Red Sox and recorded 42 saves for the 2018 world champions.
The Mets shouldn’t stop with just a closer. Adam Ottavino (Rockies) and Andrew Miller (Indians) would lock up the late innings and deepen a bullpen that is currently anchored by Robert Gsellman, Anthony Swarzak and Seth Lugo.
WHY NO TRADES?
The offseason rumor mill is already in full gear. With names like Kris Bryant being thrown around, Mets fans may wonder why not go the trade route to get back in contention?
The simple answer is New York’s farm system is a complete mess and the only real chips it has will be on the 2019 major league roster.
The Mets’ minor league pipeline was ranked fifth worst in MLB at the start of 2018. A trade for big-name talent on any team would force Van Wagenen to deal pieces like Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, or parts of the team’s coveted starting rotation.
The Mets’ winter strategy may be the hardest thing in baseball to predict right now. A confounding ownership group and inexperienced general manager will make each free agent decision a topic for discussion.
There is still one quick fix that would repair the offense and make the team instant contenders in 2019: spend a combined $70 million on Harper and Machado and call it a day.
Read more columns by Chris Melore