Do you hear it? Listen closely, it will sound familiar.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland talking about having a championship rotation. Comparisons of Jeff McNeil to Daniel Murphy. Fuzzy baseball math by Mets officials noting what the team’s record would be if June were eliminated.
Spin is valuable to an organization to energize the fan base or pump up a clubhouse. Devastating when you fall for your own spin. And conning themselves into believing the most positive scenarios — even within the most negative of seasons — is a Mets specialty.
Maybe because those scenarios often involve sticking with what the Mets have, which usually is a less expensive route than change. Or maybe it is just part of a deja fool ethos — to be Charlie Brown and believe time after time that Lucy will not pull the football away.
In the Bill Parcells world of reality — you are what your record says you are — the Mets were 35 games under .500 since the beginning of last season, owners of the 22nd-best mark in the majors over a not insignificant 301 games. You can deceive yourself with what if fill in the blank stayed healthy or we had gone .500 in June 2018 rather than 6-21. But the next head of baseball operations cannot live in this land of delusion, which certainly will soon include how far ahead of schedule Yoenis Cespedes and Travis d’Arnaud are in healing from surgeries or how powerful the current lineup looks with Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier as the infield corners.
This is why the Mets must reach outside of their organization, culture and comfort zone for their next GM. Because colder, more objective senses are going to have to play baseball detective to fight through the familiar optimism and determine the reality on a bunch of items, notably these three:
1. Is Zack Wheeler now an ace? Wheeler’s body language, body of work and finally a healthy body have synced up successfully since mid-June in a way the Mets projected when they obtained him for Carlos Beltran in July 2011.
But if you watched Stephen Strasburg down the stretch last year, you would have believed it finally all had come together for him in health, talent and mentality. Ditto with Drew Pomeranz. Same with Marcus Stroman. None of that has proven out in 2018. So has Wheeler evolved into an ace, or is he doing a Strasburg tease?
Figuring it out is time sensitive. Wheeler will be entering his walk year in 2019, so do the Mets try to sign him this offseason somewhere between Tyler Chatwood (three years, $38 million) and Alex Cobb (four years, $57 million), hoping a guy with injury history jumps on some sure money and they get ace performance for it, or do they play it out?
2. Is Amed Rosario now a top-flight shortstop? Imagine if from mid-August to the end of the season a middle infielder hit .317 with a .935 OPS and 10 steals. Pretty good, right? That was Jose Reyes last year. And you can make a case it was more appealing than Rosario’s surge since mid-August (.349 average, .871 OPS) because it came with lots of walks and a good steal percentage, items still escaping Rosario.
Again, this is just an exercise to show how small samples when looked upon through rosy glasses can deceive. Yes, Rosario is just 22, talented, and remember it took to age 26 before Didi Gregorius truly began to match baseball skill to athleticism. But Gregorius is part of perhaps the greatest shortstop assemblage ever and, by comparison, where does even this better version of Rosario fall in a world of Lindors, Correas, Machados and Seagers? Not in the top 10. Which brings greater importance to …
3. Is McNeil a starting second baseman? Let’s put Mets fans into the wayback machine. Mike Vail’s first 110 plate appearances in 1975 (.352 batting average/.896 OPS). Steve Henderson’s first 204 plate appearances in 1977 (.313/.916). Both made their MLB debuts for the Mets during playoff-less seasons and created initial buzz never to be fulfilled again (see also Alex Ochoa and Victor Diaz).
McNeil’s first 150 plate appearances: .321/.848. His contact style and hustle stand out in today’s game. But does the next good Mets team have a double-play combo of Rosario and McNeil? Are they throwing to a first baseman named Peter Alonso? Perhaps the Mets did not call up Alonso to avoid starting his service clock or using a 40-man roster space. Or maybe they did not want to show rivals his questionable defense.
Remember the Mets once had a power prospect named Mike Jacobs, who debuted in 2005 and in 112 season-closing plate appearances was .310/1.085. That offseason, the Mets turned him into Carlos Delgado, the cleanup hitter on the 2006 team that had the NL’s best record. Will fresh eyes see Vail and Jacobs when they look at McNeil and Alonso, or will they also see the most rosy possibilities?
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