On Saturday, the New York Mets were eliminated from playoff contention. The very next day, they "clinched" their fourth losing season in the last five years.
That latter turn of events brings us to this tidy encapsulation of the Mets' 2021 season:
I have seen this statistic in several places today, and there is no better summation of the 2021 Mets:— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) September 27, 2021
No team in Major League history has spent as much time (103 days) in first place and finished with a losing record. The Mets are mathematically guaranteed to become the first.
Things for a while were going quite swimmingly under first-year owner Steve Cohen. They were a season-best 11 games over .500 as recently as June 16. They were in first place by 5 1/2 games on multiple occasions, and, as noted above, they spent many days atop those NL East standings.
The foundation crumbled, though, first with a 9-19 mark in August and then on a broader level with a 25-42 record in the second half. Add to it a number of absurd instances of palace intrigue involving thumbs-down gestures and a rousing raccoon-rat debate, and you have an organization in very familiar -- and very troubling -- straits.
Very likely, the Mets will respond by firing manager Luis Rojas and adding a new highly placed executive to the front office. That's the backdrop to what's going to be a very compelling offseason for the Mets, for better or worse. The aim, of course, will be better results in 2022 and beyond. Broadly, here are three fundamental ways to work toward that.
1. The Mets must stay healthier
Injuries wracked the Mets' chances in 2021. According to the highly useful Baseball Prospectus IL ledger, the Mets were one of just three teams to lose 2,000 or more player days to the injured list this season. When it comes to player value missed, as measured by Baseball Prospectus' WARP statistic (very similar in concept to the more familiar WAR) the Mets were the team most diminished by injuries in 2021. Specifically, they lost 14.07 WARP to injuries this season, and the next most-harmed team was the Dodgers at 12.48. That's a significant gap.
The Mets' injuries writ small is found in the case of ace Jacob deGrom. In early May, deGrom appeared to be bound headlong for a truly legendary season with Cy Young and even MVP laurels in the offing. Then, however, injuries took hold. A side injury cascaded into his lower back and landed him on the IL for two weeks. Then just after the break, right forearm tightness put him back on ice, and eventually ended his season. On other fronts, the abundance of injuries from nagging to serious may have played a role in the far-ranging decline of the Mets' offense and the uncharacteristic struggles of some of their core hitters.
Whether this is simple misfortune, some level of incompetence on the part of the training staff, or some combination thereof, the Mets simply don't have the roster depth to withstand injuries at such a scale. Whatever's driving it needs to change in 2022. Overhaul the training staff, retool the in-house methods for identifying injury risk, prescribe specific offseason training "prehab" protocols -- this should be an "all hands on deck" situation for the Mets.
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2. Find the best possible baseball ops leader
The Mets are in need of a top decision-maker in baseball operations after a somewhat rudderless 2021 on that front. The search and eventual decision will be highly scrutinized given that the Mets under Cohen have already dismissed one GM because it came to light that Jared Porter sent unsolicited sexually explicit images to a female reporter while employed by the Cubs as their director of pro scouting in 2016. As well, Porter's replacement with the Mets, acting GM Zack Scott, was placed on administrative leave by the team following his drunk driving arrest. Suffice it to say, due diligence is essential in this search process.
The other wrinkle is whether the Mets can attract the caliber of name they want -- Theo Epstein and Billy Beane have been prominently rumored as potential targets -- with Sandy Alderson towering as the team president. On this front, only questions stand out. Would seasoned, accomplished execs like Epstein or Beane consider an arrangement in which they did not have full control over baseball ops decision-making? Can Cohen compartmentalize Alderson's role so that there's as little overlap as possible? Is Alderson even worth the trouble given his bumpy return to the Mets? Would Cohen lower his sights from Beane and Esptein and hire an exec more willing to take on a role with less than absolute autonomy? Maybe Beane, given that Alderson mentored him in Oakland, would be willing to consider a power-sharing arrangement?
How these questions are answered will shape not only the Mets' offseason but also the organization's long-term future under Cohen.
3. Cohen can't take the wrong lessons from 2021
Cohen to his credit made roster investments in his first offseason. The Mets this past winter signed notable free agents like catcher James McCann, infielder Jonathan Villar, right-handed starter Taijuan Walker, and relievers Trevor May and Aaron Loup and also tendered a qualifying offer to Marcus Stroman, which he accepted. Then Cohen greenlighted a blockbuster trade that brought All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor and chronically underrated right-hander Carlos Carrasco to Queens. Shortly thereafter, Cohen and the Mets inked Lindor to a $341 million contract extension.
The Mets in the Wilpon family's final two seasons of ownership ranked 10th and ninth in Opening Day payroll, respectively. In Cohen's first season they ranked fifth, and that's not counting the deadline additions of Javier Báez and Rich Hill. Early in his tenure, Cohen pledged to invest at levels more befitting the Mets' market, which the Wilpons decidedly did not do. So far, he's done that.
Former Marlins president David Samson discussed the Mets' situation on Wednesday's Nothing Personal with David Samson. Listen below:
The concern is that Cohen will take the wrong lessons from 2021 and indulge in payroll retrenchment. Will he survey the failures of 2021, confuse correlation with causation, and determine that investing in the on-field product was counterproductive? He doesn't seem the type, but there's presently a mini-trend of taking the Rays' model of radical disinvestment and applying to markets that have no business doing so. There's also opportunity for Cohen and the Mets to do that, what with their notable pending free agents (Stroman, Báez, Hill, Noah Syndergaard, and Michael Conforto, among others). If they let those names walk without bringing in upgrades or reasonable facsimiles, then Cohen's overreacting. Mets rooters should hope Cohen remains dedicated to adding win-now talent to the roster despite how this season has unfurled.
All of this is to say: the drama in Queens won't stop when the season ends.