So far this winter, there has been much hand wringing and grinding of teeth concerning the future of the New York Mets and their offseason plans. Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera have been added to play second base and shortstop. Alejandro De Aza has been signed to work some sort of platoon in center field. Bartolo Colon was brought back for one more ride on the feel-good train. That’s about the extent of the wheeling and dealing done by the front office on the heels of a World Series appearance.
Of course, that has made many people in Mets land very unhappy, but should it really?
Before the trade deadline acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets were battling to hang around the fringes of playoff contention. They were 53-50 on July 31. Cespedes came in, the Mets went 20-8 in August, the Washington Nationals collapsed, and the rest is history. Or is it?
In August, when the Mets were seemingly the best baseball team on the planet, they played one team that would make the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Pirates. They lost all three games. In August, the Mets went 14-0 against the Colorado Rockies, Philadelphia Phillies, and Miami Marlins. Things did not turn around for the Mets because of some form of Cespedes-inspired magic. Things turned around because the team played three of the worst teams in the league a bunch of times. Even without Cespedes, the Mets likely win at least 10 of the 14 games against Colorado, Philadelphia, and Miami.
Baseball’s scheduling gods dealt the Mets a very nice hand in August and September. Their hand was also very nice in April, a month in which the team went 15-8, recording their second-best winning percentage of the season. In April, the Mets played only three games against a non-division rival. April featured the team’s longest winning streak of the season, 11 games, from April 12 to April 23. That winning streak (sans Cespedes) came against the Atlanta Braves, Phillies, and Marlins. Against those three teams last year, the Mets went 36-21, while also going 11-8 against the Nationals. take divisional play out of the equation, and the Mets were 43-43 against everyone else.
Divisional play weighs heavily on the postseason race in Major League Baseball. Nearly the entire months of April and September are devoted to making sure each of the 19 matchups against divisional foes gets played. The Mets went 15-8 in April last year and 16-11 in September. Overall, they played 18 games above .500 against everyone else in their division. In the National League Least, no one else is getting better. The Atlanta Braves are getting worse, as are the Marlins. The Phillies are working towards relevancy, but are still more than a few years away. Arguably, the Mets have at least improved their team more than the Nationals this winter. Washington has lost a key member of its starting rotation in Jordan Zimmermann, and it is unclear how he will be replaced. Signing Daniel Murphy away from the Mets to replace Yunel Escobar is most likely a net-zero move.
The Mets have upgraded offensively at second base and shortstop. The Nationals are either breaking in a new shortstop in Trea Turner or hoping that Danny Espinosa can keep his average higher than .250. Walker is a better offensive threat than Murphy. The Mets still have the better rotation and bullpen. The only way the Nationals top the Mets this offseason is by ponying up big cash for an outfielder like Cespedes. Justin Upton is not a real possibility because he cannot play center field, and Bryce Harper is not moving from right field. A huge pile of money is still sunk into Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, two assets declining in value. It just seems highly unlikely the Nationals will be the team to pay for Cespedes. With an injury-prone player or question mark at nearly every spot in the lineup except Bryce Harper’s, the argument could be made that the Mets still have the superior team to the Nationals.
The Mets may not have blown the winter out of the water financially, but they realistically cannot work that way. The franchise is still working through the far-reaching effects of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Sorry, Mets fans, it takes much longer to recoup losses from a scandal that large, no matter how much you believe your big-market ticket prices should go towards roster construction. At the end of the day, however, it does not matter that Alejandro De Aza and Asdrubal Cabrera are the big offseason additions. The Mets still have the best young rotation in baseball at an extremely affordable price. Matt Harvey will be even better in his second season after Tommy John surgery, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz will continue improving, and the pitcher believed by some to actually be the best of the bunch, Zack Wheeler returns.
In 2016, the Mets will play their 57 games against the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins. They will also play 27 games against the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, and Colorado Rockies. If you’re tallying things up, that means 84 games against teams that have exactly no shot at contending. Realistically, in the National League, only eight teams will open the season with a hope of claiming one of the five playoff spots. Of those eight teams, the Mets have, by far, the best starting rotation. That comes in handy when feasting upon a bunch of young, unprepared hitters on rebuilding teams. The NL Central and NL West teams will beat themselves up at the top, but the Mets and Nationals will not do the same in the East. Each of the other two National League divisions have at least three teams who should be viewed as contenders. The East does not. Just the Mets and Nationals, and the Mets have had a better offseason to date than the Nationals. It may not seem like much, but the extra 19 games against a terrible team should be enough to keep the Mets in the playoffs regardless of how conservative their offseason has been.
The Mets should be at least 20 games above .500 against their weak NL brethren next year. Conservatively, that puts them at 52-32 before they even start playing the good teams. Playing only slightly above .500 the rest of the way should be more than enough for a return trip to the playoffs, where the dominant starting rotation is even more valuable. While it seems important for the Mets to go out and make a big splash on the free-agent market, it just is not necessary. The National League is set up for the Mets to keep doing their thing, with or without Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Upton.