By Chris Melore
It’s been a busy couple of months for Brodie Van Wagenen. The former agent at CAA Sports went on the offensive in July 2018, demanding Jacob deGrom be traded by the free-falling Mets or get a massive contract extension.
Fast forward three months, Van Wagenen became the general manager of those same New York Mets and laid out a bold agenda to turn the franchise around overnight. The rookie GM has been wheeling and dealing all offseason; bringing in stars like Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, and Wilson Ramos.
With the gates in Port St. Lucie officially opening on Tuesday, let’s take a look back at how the new-look Mets were assembled.
The biggest change going into 2019 will undoubtedly be the high expectations placed on the 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.
Van Wagenen’s blockbuster trade with Seattle will be remembered for bringing Robinson Cano back to New York, but the real catch may end up being All-Star closer Edwin Diaz. New York acquired a proven 9th-inning man who is only 24 years-old to lead their reworked relief corps.
The Mets didn’t stop with the 57-save stud. Van Wagenen then went out on the free agent market to sign former New York closer Jeurys Familia and veteran lefties Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan. Familia signed a three-year deal to come home to New York. Wilson inked a two-year deal and pitched for the Yankees in 2015. Both have closer experience and will form a competent bridge to the 9th inning.
The group joins righties Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo in a bullpen that now has depth and talent – a combination that playoff teams have been using to shorten games for decades. Bullpen: B+
CANO LEADS AN IMPROVED LINEUP
Even at 36-years-old, Robinson Cano still makes any lineup he joins significantly better.
The Mets were criticized for not joining the chase for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but trading for an All-Star second baseman with Hall of Fame talent shouldn’t be overlooked. Cano will slide right into the No. 3 spot in manager Mickey Callaway‘s lineup and bring his .304 career average to Citi Field.
Wilson Ramos – one of the best catchers on the free agent market – then signed on with a two-year, $19 million contract. The 31-year-old had an All-Star season in 2018, hitting .306 with 15 home runs and 70 RBI. Signing Ramos was brilliant move that gives New York its most established backstop since Paul Lo Duca in 2007. His $7.25 million salary in 2019 is an added steal for the club.
Van Wagenen finished off the team’s vastly upgraded infield by signing veteran utility man Jed Lowrie to a two-year, $20 million deal. The 34-year-old is coming off the best season of his career, smashing 23 homers and driving in 99 for Oakland. Lowrie has seen plenty of action at second, third, and shortstop in his 11 big league seasons.
“He’s going to be in our lineup virtually every day,” Van Wagenen said. “He’s going to hit at the top of the order. His switch-hitting ability, hitting in front of Cano and after (Brandon) Nimmo, potentially, as we start to configure the lineup, I think is something that is really attractive.”
Even without slugger Yoenis Cespedes for a large chunk of the upcoming season, Callaway will be able to pencil in a very formidable lineup each night. If Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo continue to improve, the Mets could end up with one of the better lineups in the National League this year.
The team also traded away disappointing regulars Jay Bruce and Kevin Plawecki, giving the roster more flexibility to move aging slugger Todd Frazier to first base and promising rookie Jeff McNeil to the outfield.
New York had one of the worst offenses in baseball last season, ranking near the bottom of the NL in runs scored, home runs, OPS, and batting average. Van Wagenen scores high marks for turning a thin roster into a solid and versatile lineup without having to break the bank. Offense: A-
NO CHANGES TO THE ROTATION
If there was one area the Mets could afford to say “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” it was the starting staff.
NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom leads a rotation featuring Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, and Jason Vargas heading into 2019.
Although their talent is among the league’s best, constant injuries and a lack of reliable depth in the minors should have compelled New York’s front office to bring in another starter.
Vargas’ disastrous first season in Flushing (a putrid 5.77 ERA in just 92 innings) and Corey Oswalt’s rough major league debut (5.85 ERA in 17 games) makes passing on a better fifth starter option a big mistake.
The front office earned some points back by not trading Syndergaard or Wheeler this winter. They also should be commended for giving deGrom the biggest raise in arbitration history.
What should the Mets do next? Sign Dallas Keuchel and dominate the NL East.
What could the Mets realistically do next? Sign reliable lefty Gio Gonzalez as insurance for the injury-plagued Matz and Syndergaard.
The Wilpons are also not helping matters by dragging out extension talks with their ace, deGrom. The 30-year-old has already hinted he might try to cut down his workload if he doesn’t receive a long-term contract. That’s not good when you consider deGrom’s the only Mets starter to make over 30 starts the last two seasons.
Van Wagenen didn’t have much to improve here, but doing nothing wasn’t the right move either. History has proven that it’s not if a Mets starter will get injured, it’s when. With so many starters still unsigned, this is a missed opportunity to add depth. Starting Rotation: B
Mets fans weren’t expecting Bryce Harper or Manny Machado under their Christmas trees this winter, but they shouldn’t be disappointed with what their rookie GM delivered either.
Van Wagenen shocked the world with his Seattle blockbuster and kept the hits coming as one of baseball’s most aggressive executives. The Mets took advantage of a disturbingly quiet market to greatly improve their infield and bullpen. They should have tried to get a starter at a discount too.
The three-headed pitching monster of deGrom, Syndergaard, and Wheeler is still intact, but there’s no depth in the minor leagues in case of injury. New York is putting a lot of faith in Steven Matz to stay healthy and the 36-year-old Vargas to rebound in 2019 – not the safest bets to make.
With both deGrom and Cespedes due to hit free agency after 2020, the Mets are clearly in “win now mode.” None of their free agent signings have exceeded three years this winter. Luckily for Mets fans, their new GM has found a quality major leaguer to fill nearly every serious need on the roster. With or without Cespedes in 2019, a healthy Mets team will be a legitimate playoff contender. Overall Offseason: B+