It's been a weird and dramatic past few days for the Mets. However, despite the colorful headlines and sky-is-falling public reaction, the team sits just 4.5 games back in a Wild Race where no team is showing signs of breaking from the pack.
It's June 26, most teams have played nearly half of their games this season and only two NL teams are more than five games away from the final Wild Card spot. In addition, of the other teams fighting for the Wild Card, just one has won more than six of their past 10 games (with four having played at or below .500, including the Mets).
The Brewers and Phillies -- the top two teams in the Wild Card race -- each have lost seven of their past 10 games. Also, they both have a losing record on the road this season. The Rockies, who are tied with the Phillies for the second Wild Card spot, are 5-5 over their past 10 games and also have a losing road record.
As a result, it is very, very difficult to gauge how most of the league will handle the July 31 trade deadline.
Traditionally, teams are labeled as being either "buyers" or "sellers" at the deadline. However, there are also teams that try to play both sides of the fence regardless of how far they may be from a playoff spot.
For instance, even when in striking distance or leading a playoff race, A's president Billy Beane often simultaneously sells off pending free agents for prospects, while trading existing prospects for big-league players that can help now and are under contract through at least the next season.
"I think most fans and reporters don't realize this, but most teams put very little value in to how a player is performing during the current season," a top team's head of analytics told me last week. "Instead, most of us base value on what that player was expected to do entering the current year and what he could mean for us next season (be it in terms of on-field production or his ability to help clear payroll as a free agent)."
"I won't bore you with the difference between positive and negative regression," he continued, "suffice it to say that buying high in July rarely pans out for the teams in a pennant race."
If the above reality is true, this year's trade deadline for the Mets will all come down to how Brodie Van Wagenen handles Zack Wheeler, who is performing better than preseason projections yet on par with what he did last season.
As a result, the market for Wheeler's services should be high, with the most likely landing spot for him being a team in need of an arm that is already on track to have a large payroll next season. The Astros come to mind.
"This time of year, pretty much every team that sees themselves in a pennant race is looking for pitching, be it starter or reliever," a rival front office person told me earlier this week.
The thing is, based on conversations with MLB insiders, I don't get the sense teams believe the Mets are committed to dealing Wheeler or anyone else for that matter.
Van Wagenen shouldn't wait too long, though. As of now, teams interested in starting pitchers see no way Madison Bumgarner (Giants) and Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays) remain on their current rosters -- with Stroman being every team's top target.
Whereas Wheeler and Bumgarner are both free agents at the end of this season, Stroman is due roughly $3.8 million the balance of this season, after which he is still under contract before being eligible for free agency after the 2020 season.
That said, "Talent for talent, Wheeler is pitching better than 'MadBum,'" a talent evaluator told me, pointing to how batters are having a field day with Bumgarner's low-90s fastball. Of course, he added, "His postseason experience and results will always be enticing to contending teams."
He's right. Bumgarner has a terrific track record, but Wheeler has been better on the hill. Much like last season, he's continued to show top-level velocity, while maintaining his elite spin rate. Due to be a free agent and with the injury issues seemingly behind him, insiders say the Mets can expect to get back one Top-50 prospect in baseball or multiple prospects within a Team's top 15.
The point is, in contention or not, Van Wagenen has to deal Wheeler if he doesn't plan to extend him. And if he bungles it the way deals have gone for the Mets the past few seasons, it'll be the cherry on top of what most fans feel has been a tough beginning to his time running the organization.
What happens after Wheeler, though, will dictate much of how this winter will go...
In the event the Mets decide the best course of action is to blow up the current roster, move on from Sandy Alderson's acquired talent and rebuild (or "reload," as they say), the Mets have other attractive and useful talent to deal.
Teams looking to add talent for the second half of the season and well beyond should all have interest in Michael Conforto, Edwin Diaz, Seth Lugo and Noah Syndergaard. Otherwise, with better position players available than what the Mets can offer, Van Wagenen's next group of candidates will likely come in the form of players used for depth off the bench, such as Todd Frazier and Dominic Smith.
Van Wagenen's bullpen has been a total disaster and is very much responsible for the team's poor record. As a result, outside of Lugo and Diaz, the Mets have no one to dangle over an always-hot market for relief pitchers.
In the case of Diaz, though, he's just 25 years old, has an affordable contract (under contract through 2023), still-relevant results in 2018 (57 saves) and a good-enough performance so far this season (3.12 FIP and 47 strikeouts in 29 innings). These factors should make the cost to acquire him high enough to consider letting him go during a rebuild, but not if the Mets have faith in 2020.
As has been the case the past few summers, Diaz, Lugo and other top-of-the-market relievers will likely fetch one or two top prospects, or two to three next-tier prospects, as well as some sort of cash compensation. As an example, in return for pending free-agent reliever Jeurys Familia (and his remaining $3 million in salary, the A's last summer dealt 27-year-old reliever, Bobby Wahl, $1 million in international slot money and 3B prospect Will Toffey, who is currently ranked as the Mets' 15th-best prospect.
My hope is that Van Wagenen will take an Oakland-style approach during the next month. I'd love to see him acquire other team's top prospects for Wheeler (because he's a pending free agent) and Diaz (because relievers are so sporadic), while using a few of his own top prospects to acquire mid-tier, youngish talent under contract next season.
In the end, though, I expect the Mets will only complete a trade this summer for Wheeler (and maybe Lugo or a bench player), while keeping Conforto, Diaz, Syndergaard and their other young talent under contract beyond 2019.
This could be a missed opportunity. But, with no one team running away with the Wild Card, and the potential to win next season, I understand why they may choose to mostly sit tight.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!