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I want to revisit the deal that brought Edwin Diaz to the Mets as a vehicle to discuss the club’s first trade deadline with Billy Eppler as general manager.
There are three items to drill down upon:
1. I am not sure if we were always this impatient as a society in general and in sports in specific or if social media/confrontational sports-talk shows conditioned us to race to the quickest hot takes, but trades do need time to fully gestate to see how they turn out.
I direct this at myself, too, because I criticized the Mets multiple times for under-selling Jarred Kelenic and taking on the contract of Robinson Cano — an easier case when Diaz was struggling.
2. Having said that, I still think the trade is not some slam-dunk winner for the Mets (oh, how recency bias causes such shifts). What were the opportunity costs of taking on Cano’s money and trading Kelenic before he fully had established his minor league value?
Recently, on our podcast, “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman,” Steve Cohen, in speaking about his 2023 budget, noted Cano is still on the Mets’ books for roughly $20 million next season. So the downside of the trade still will be felt because Cohen insinuated not even he will have a payroll that erases all sins with unlimited spending.
In addition, don’t think of Kelenic’s value today, which is way down after major league cameos the past two years covering 500 plate appearances in which he hit .167 with a .575 OPS and struck out 30.6 percent of the time. Kelenic did not even have his first full season in the minors until 2019 with the Mariners after being drafted No. 6 overall in June 2018 by the Mets, and by the end of that terrific 2019 farm season he was generally viewed as among the 10 best prospects in the game. He is the kind of player who easily, for example, could have fronted a trade for Mookie Betts after that season.
3. Which brings us to the most important first element for a team when it comes to entering the trade market: honest self-examination. Delusion is the enemy. Are you a contender? If so, where in your contention cycle are you? What does your prospect base look like going forward, etc.?
The Mets were 77-85 in 2018. They might have been underachievers because they had talent. But not enough — even with dubious free-agent injections (Jeurys Familia, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, Justin Wilson) — to justify trading away their most recent first-round pick plus taking on five years and around $100 million on Cano’s contract in the immediate aftermath of his suspension for failing a PED test. Not for a closer. You trade big for a closer when you have certainty of being good, as the Cubs (Aroldis Chapman) and Cleveland (Andrew Miller) did at the 2016 trade deadline.
This is where I connect to the most recent trade deadline. Because by this July — as with the Cubs and Cleveland in 2016 — these Mets would not have been delusional to see themselves as the kind of team that should have been willing to go all-in. That was about them being a first-place team, yes, but it was more than that. Max Scherzer is still pitching at an elite level, but he is 37. You can’t bet on that to continue. Diaz, Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Nimmo, Seth Lugo and Adam Ottavino can be free agents after this season, as could Carlos Carrasco if his option is not picked up. Who knows how quickly and how successfully you can re-sign or replace all of that talent?
But the Mets did not have a go-for-it trade deadline. They obtained complementary pieces in Mychal Givens, Tyler Naquin, Darin Ruf and Daniel Vogelbach. Givens began poorly as a Met before compiling seven straight scoreless appearances going into Thursday. The hitters, though, have been central to an offensive malaise that has overcome the Mets this month, endangering the club’s chances of outdueling the Braves for the NL East title.
It has left a growing sense that Eppler and the Mets did not do enough to fortify a title contender. So I called Eppler to go down that path. But first, this proviso harking back to the points about the Diaz trade:
1. If Vogelbach hits the winning homer in a game closed out by Diaz to secure the Mets’ first championship since 1986, then no fan of the team is going to care much about how Diaz performed in 2019 or how Vogelbach hit in September 2022 nor the hot takes associated with either.
2. There always is a bit of blindness in evaluating a trade deadline because as kind as Eppler was with his time and insight, he was not going to publicly reveal all the trade permutations and possibilities the Mets had in front of them before the 6 p.m. deadline on Aug. 2. So this piece includes an alchemy of reporting, common sense and — yes — supposition. For example, it would have been terrrific for the Mets to push to the front of the line to get Juan Soto, but every person I talked to said there was no way the Nationals were trading him within the NL East, especially once the Padres showed how far they would go in piling top prospect after top prospect to get him.
3. We do not have a full picture, and we won’t for a while. The Mets traded seven prospects plus J.D. Davis for Givens, Naquin, Ruf and Vogelbach. None of the prospects were well-regarded. But, for example, when the Yankees acquired James Paxton after the 2018 season, Justus Sheffield was the prospect there was a lot of concern about giving up. In 2022, Erik Swanson — another Yankees prospect packaged with Sheffield — has emerged as one of the AL’s best relievers for Seattle.
So now that I offered those three points, let’s delve into Eppler/the Mets’ deadline behavior through 3Up:
1. More than anything else, Eppler stressed several times: “We’re trying to build something year in and year out that stands the test of time.”
Beyond a trade for Bassitt, the Mets mainly used Cohen’s money to upgrade in the offseason, thus protecting their farm system. At this deadline, Eppler said, according to their internal list, the Mets did not trade any of their top 19 prospects.
But, he insisted, that is not because they didn’t try. They had offers out that included prospects from their internal top 10 and top five. But Eppler said the club was not going to trade a top-seven prospect for a rental player who would be a free agent after this season.
“This wasn’t an exercise in hoarding [prospects],” Eppler said. “This was about putting it on paper and being willing to go above our comfort level. But let’s not get reckless because we are trying to build a culture of sustainability and everything that comes with that.”
Eppler did not make this point, but it is worth pointing out that the Mets were not the only team seeking a difference-making bat or lefty reliever. But the industry (not just the Mets) probably saw the prices as too high. Walk-year hitters such as the Red Sox’s J.D. Martinez and the Cubs’ Willson Contreras were not traded, nor were potential walk-year southpaw relievers with the ability to get out righty hitters (a Mets priority) such as the Tigers’ Andrew Chafin and Rangers’ Matt Moore.
Eppler said of his dialogues: “It was like, ‘Hey, we would do this and this [with his prospects],’ but it didn’t match or they didn’t like the player and they felt they were getting a better [prospect elsewhere]. Great, [the other team would counter], ‘For you to match this deal, you have to give this one [prospect].’ I wouldn’t do that one. Are they bluffing? Maybe, maybe not. But discipline [in sticking to long-term goals of sustainability]…you know, it’s gonna be the pain of this discipline or the pain of disappointment, and the disappointment lasts longer.”
2. Eppler also said deadline trades “don’t move it [percentage chances of a championship] that much.” If you look at the projection system or casino odds immediately after the deadline, the percentages do not rise significantly even with big deals. So, Eppler asked, how much are you willing to sacrifice in prospect collateral to, say, gain a percentage point or two of a greater chance to win?
“There’s no certainty in these things,” Eppler said.
To that end, I dug into the Padres, who were widely seen as the biggest trade deadline winners after obtaining Soto, Josh Bell, Brandon Drury and Josh Hader. Hader pitched so badly, he briefly lost his closing job. He was one of four lefty relievers dealt in a market in which the Mets were shopping. Taylor Rogers, who was dealt to the Brewers for Hader, also has pitched poorly, as has Jake Diekman. Will Smith has been fine for the Astros, but that was one iffy contract (Jake Odorizzi) for another — and Smith was coming from the Braves, not a likely trade partner for the Mets.
Going into Thursday night’s games, Soto, Bell and Drury had combined for 414 plate appearances since joining the Padres in which they had a .211 average and .673 OPS with 11 homers and 38 RBIs. Naquin, Ruf and Vogelbach, in 287 Mets plate appearances, had a combined .211 average, .687 OPS, eight homers and 34 RBIs — and that was before Vogelbach had a single, a double and three RBIs in the Mets’ win over the Pirates.
“I think when you look at results in smaller samples that can become dangerous,” Eppler said.
Since Aug. 3 — the day after the deadline — the player traded prior to the deadline who had the best OPS (minimum 50 plate appearances, going into Thursday) was Rangers catcher Mark Mathias (obtained from the Brewers), whose 1.214 OPS actually led the majors over Aaron Judge’s 1.212. Had you even heard of Mark Mathias before reading that sentence? The next best were Phillies infielder Edmundo Sosa (.961) and Red Sox catcher Reese McGuire (.903).
Naquin’s .777 OPS as a Met was almost exactly his career mark (.776), as was Vogelbach’s .750 (career: .745). They are, in bulk, performing to their career norms. But they have slumped concurrently with the Mets’ downturn in play, which has led to greater criticism of the Mets’ trade deadline moves. Their worst look right now is Ruf, especially because the fourth-best OPS since Aug. 3 among traded players belongs to the Giants’ Davis (.840), whom Ruf was traded for and replaced. Meanwhile, of the 343 players who have batted at least 50 times since Aug. 3, the only player with a worse OPS than Ruf’s .397 was Aaron Hicks at .394.
So the Mets’ inability to revive Davis or to find a strong supplementary righty bat is haunting them — at least in the small sample size. As noted earlier, neither Contreras nor Martinez was traded. The player the Mets were most strongly associated with, Trey Mancini, was hitting .200 with a .718 OPS for the Astros after being obtained from the Orioles. He does have the luxury in Astros home games of the tantalizing Crawford Boxes in left field, which he would not have had at Citi Field, and in Mancini’s first 64 road plate appearances for Houston, he was hitting just .158 with a .585 OPS.
3. The team that Cohen wants his Mets to emulate most is the Andrew Friedman Dodgers. When Friedman took over after the 2014 season, his top three prospects were Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. He never traded Seager or Pederson before they left via free agency, and Urias is still a vital Dodgers starter.
Even when acquiring star walk-year players at the trade deadline in Yu Darvish (2017) and Manny Machado (2018), Friedman never gave up his better prospects. It was not until the 2021 deadline — to obtain Scherzer and Trea Turner from the Nationals — that Friedman went to the top of his prospect list in dispatching catcher Keibert Ruiz and starter Josiah Gray. And neither Ruiz nor Gray has yet made that a painful decision (again, it takes a long time to assess a trade).
In Friedman’s time running the Dodgers, they have been superb at keeping homegrown difference-makers, such as Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, Gavin Lux, Dustin May and catcher Will Smith, and at dealing off prospects touted in the industry who have yet to justify the hype, such as Jose DeLeon and Grant Holmes. It has not been perfect. Frankie Montas was included in a trade for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick, and notably Yordan Alvarez was flipped for Josh Fields.
But the decision-making around prospects by the Friedman Dodgers has been exemplary. This is the standard the Eppler Mets hope to emulate. And, at least initially, they are (like those initial Friedman Dodgers teams) trying to let the system mature before using perceived better prospects in trades. Longtime MLB executive Dan O’Dowd, my colleague at the MLB Network, has an insight he voices often that I particularly like: “Patience is the only asset routinely rewarded in our sport and the one that is yet in shortest supply.”
It is not often that reporters or fans cheer patience in real time.
With time, we will see whether protecting the top of the system, such as Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty and Alex Ramirez, was smartly played, though it is all with the caveat of what was actually available to the Mets in potential trades and also trying to come to peace (as with Kelenic) with what the future value of the prospects is.
“You have to look at the process by which you acquire players,” Eppler said. “We can go all the way back to when I first started and we go through free agents and what happened after the lockout and then go through the deadline and think about what were the opportunities. What was real and what was fantasy? What was the process driving that? So, we try to evaluate that. I get the sense of urgency [in the moment]. I’m aware of that and aware that you have to start asking questions with players. …
“Those are the decisions you make. This could affect three or four years of this goal of this organization — to crush any urge to make short-term investments that only give marginal gains but give up large portions of future gains.”