I’m all for symmetry in storytelling – the heroes return home and show us how the journey has changed them – but not when it means a 1-8 homestand that too closely mirrored the Mets’ 5-13 season-killing start. Because five months later, it really didn’t look like this journey taught the heroes anything. Everything looks the same. The manager is still angry, the players are still sloppy, and still almost nothing is going right. Troy Tulowitzki was nowhere to be found for this nightmare, but Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond, and a series of faceless Nationals pitchers finessed their way through the Mets for another four-game sweep. The final inning of Thursday’s game was a scene from a movie, the two teams playing in a nearly empty stadium, overcast skies, light rain, the Mets down nine runs with a rookie outfielder warming in the bullpen.
Nothing went right for the Mets this week, save the efforts of the rotation, who bailed water for a few innings each game before the bullpen brought their fire hoses. All the starters could do was delay the inevitable. The offense scored five runs in four games, hit .135 with runners in scoring position and left 35 men on base. Terry Collins called for each and every batter to bunt during each and every at-bat, and each and every attempt failed. David Wright fielded .769 and finished the series with more errors than base hits. A reliever balked in a run when his hand got caught in his jersey. The third base coach perished from loneliness. The Mets didn’t hit well, they didn’t field well, and a chorus of relievers entered, surrendered their hits and exited stage left to a sparse volley of boos. Nothingness, the dark abyss – despair ye, these are the last days of the 2011 Mets. And it’s been bad.
For all the talk of this season as a punt year for shedding bad contracts and getting the team back in order – talk coming from this here blog, it should be noted — it’s looking like next season might be worse. See, an unpleasant thought occurred to me this week: The Washington Nationals might be better than the Mets in 2012. This idea may have been skewed by the beatdown the Nats just applied to the Mets, but if you doubt, ask yourself whom you would rather have from each team, position by position:
– Josh Thole, an average-at-best hitter and weak defending 24-year-old catcher, or Wilson Ramos, a 23-year-old above-average hitter and defender? (Ramos)
– Ike Davis, or Chris Marrero and whatever remains of Adam LaRoche? (Davis)
– The combo Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada, an inexperienced second baseman who has suffered consecutive season-ending knee injuries at the position and a converted shortstop with a .321 slugging percentage – or Danny Epsinosa, a second baseman who has good pop, walks some and fields well? (Espinosa)
– If Jose Reyes re-signs, this is an easy one. Otherwise, Tejada against Ian Desmond is close. (Tejada or Reyes, either way)
– Even ignoring the huge gap in their fielding, David Wright (.287/.368/.468) has been outhit by Ryan Zimmerman (.297/.370/.503) over the past three seasons. We all love David, but realistically, you have to go with Zimmerman.
– Jason “No wait, it looks like he could still be breathing” Bay or the lumbering beast Michael Morse? (Morse)
– Who would you rather having performing a knife-throwing magic show on you, Rick Ankiel or Angel Pagan? (Pagan, but only if I’m forced to choose)
– Pretending contracts don’t exist and you have to play them in right field, Jayson Werth or Lucas Duda? (Werth)
– Superglued Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese (career ERA+ of 89), Mike Pelfrey (ERA+ of 93) and Dillon Gee . . . or the ginger god Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann (3.18 ERA, 4.00 strikeout-to-walk), John Lannan (still just 26, with a career ERA+ of 103), Tom Milone (changeup artist with crazy minor league stats) and Brad Peacock (2.39 ERA in the upper minors). This is kinda close, and maybe I like the rookies too much, but I have to go with the Nats’ rotation here.
– The Mets’ bullpen or . . . actually, it really doesn’t matter what they’re up against. Not the Mets’ bullpen. Nationals.
– Positional depth and the bench goes to the Mets — the Nationals don’t have as many Nick Evans/Josh Satin types as the Mets do, and that’s really all that’s separating these teams this season. Neither team has any mega prospects posed to impact next season.
Rosters can change over the offseason, and the Mets are still outdrawing and outspending the Nationals. But if you have to pick the talent in one organization to field a competitive team in 2012, is there any reason to take the Mets over their counterparts in D.C.? It’s a dead heat at best, and I’m leaning towards the Nats.
And that’s just the Nationals, the team the Mets are fighting for third place in the division. It certainly doesn’t seem as if there’s reason to think the 2012 Mets are going to compete with the Braves – who have enough pitchers build two starting rotations better than the Mets’ – and the Phillies, who are selling out every night and have the best team in the history of that franchise. Even the Marlins, who are an utter clusterfluff and don’t have a lot of impact talent close to the majors, still have Mike Stanton, a new ballpark opening and a healthy/potentially interested Hanley Ramirez for next season. The National League East is a nasty division, maybe the nastiest outside of its American League counterpart. It’s a rough go for a team trying to retool.
The Mets’ decision-makers have some serious thinking to do this offseason. Even if they re-sign Jose Reyes at something between $16-20 million per season, they’re looking at a $100 million dollar payroll and an 80-85 win team without much more roster wiggle room beyond that. Their group of pitching prospects is still a season or more away, and just about everyone who looks ready to contribute to the 2012 Mets has already made it to Queens. What’s here now is just about all they got. In other words, even with Jose Reyes, the front office needs to add seven to 15 wins with $10 million dollars. Sandy Alderson spent about $10 million this past off-season on new players and added — going by Baseball-Reference’s and Fangraphs’ player evaluation — between three and one wins above replacement players. That’s close to breaking even in terms of free agent money. Any which way you look at it, it just doesn’t seem like the Mets have enough in 2012 to topple the Braves and the Phillies, or even finish ahead of the Nationals. I hate to say it, but next year might not be better.
It’s not all doom and gloom. However empty Citi Field appears, the Mets are still outdrawing (a respectable fourteenth in attendance), out cable-networking, and thus can outspend, the Nationals, Marlins and Braves. Short a massive firesale this winter, they’re still going to have the second-highest payroll in the division, and if you pretend Bryce Harper doesn’t exist and isn’t in oddly suggestive commercials, you can make a case that they have the second-best farm system in the East behind the Braves. The Phillies are really good but really old, and they just sent away two of their top farmhands to bring in Hunter Pence. And in terms of the Mets’ needs, the free agent class for the winter of 2013, rich in outfielders and pitchers, looks a heck of a lot better than this winter’s free agent class, which is filled with first basemen and players who began the season in Queens. Next year’s next year, 2013, is looking like a much better season for the Mets than 2012.
But 2012 comes first. While it’s not necessary that the Mets tank it next season to rebuild for 2013, it doesn’t make much sense to go bonkers this off-season. Hanging on to Reyes – who should still be a great player in two season — and bringing in as much pitching as $10 million dollars and a couple of spare bats can buy isn’t a terrible plan for this winter. Health from Ike Davis, David Wright and Daniel Murphy should make up a few games in the standings. Avoiding a flukey 5-13 start will at least make it seem as though they’re closer in the race and hopefully boost attendance in the early summer. Getting whatever they can from Johan Santana and Jason Bay can make a dent, too. A few break here and there, someone goes off, and they might make a run. But if the Mets can throw a .500 team on the field, there’s no reason attendance should fall any farther. And then there’s no reason to cut payroll any more. *Crosses fingers* And the while all that’s going on, the young pitchers get a year older and the front office can think about a run in 2013.
But for the time being, it might be best to stack up on DVDs of the 1986 World Series and load up Robin Ventura’s grandslam single a few more times. The Mets are still a year or more away from getting back into it, and the NL East is rough and not getting any easier. There are going to be more days like Thursday before everything turns around. If you’re a Mets fan dying with every game and reading this right now . . . we all might want to seek help as a group, if only because I’d bet group rates are cheaper. But if you’re watching these games and dying with the Mets – well, crap, it’s gotta be all the sweeter when things finally turn around.