The Van Wagenen Era in Mets history officially started earlier Tuesday afternoon and with roughly two weeks before the GM Meetings and six weeks before the Winter Meetings
During his introductory press conference, Brodie Van Wagenen could not have been more clear about his expectations for 2019.
"The goal is to win right now," he repeatedly said.
He did not, however, detail his plan to make that happen. To do so, he'll need to have a firm plan in place to address the following four issues to achieve his goal...
It's true the Mets made the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, but it's also true that they've finished below .500 eight of the past 10 seasons, including the past two years. So, I don't know how he can conclude that they are not in need of a major injection of talent, specifically in the lineup and the right side of the plate.
My hunch and hope is he intends to buy his way to a more talented roster because, while he does not have the experience needed to rebuild, he does have experience getting teams to spend money, including the Mets, whom (as an agent) he negotiated with to give $100 million to Yoenis Cespedes and a three-year deal to get Jason Vargas. As a result, it's reasonable to think he intends to convince Mets ownership to again spend on proven, quality talent, as opposed to 'spreading it around,' and targeting part-time, leftover, less-expensive players.
The Mets began to increase payroll a few years ago and have settled in to the $140-160 million range for players, which has been exactly middle of the pack in baseball. They're set up to be in the same neighborhood when subtracting David Wright's $15 million and adding raises to their arbitration eligible players.
2. Improving the lineup
The Mets have got to score more runs, just ask Jacob deGrom. To do it, Van Wagenen would be wise to add a right-handed power hitter to play either first or third base.
In regards to putting a bat at first base, Van Wagenen and his staff need to first decide how and when to promote Triple-A 1B prospect Peter Alonso. Then, they need to determine if Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier are skilled and swift enough to temporarily man the position. The thing is, if they are skilled enough, are the healthy enough to handle the job? The lower back, spine and plantar fasciitis issues that plagued Bruce in 2018 may have improved at the end of this past season, but they are traditionally chronic conditions that will again pop up. Similarly, Frazier, who had rarely missed a game before 2018, also suffered multiple injuries after joining the Mets last winter. And, in case you forgot, Wilmer Flores, who will be a free agent after next season, was diagnosed this past September with arthritic knees.
Alonso has earned a chance to showcase his talent in the big leagues. However, though he has consistently mashed the ball in Double- and Triple-A and now the Arizona Fall League, there is no real way of knowing whether he will be an instant hit.
The free market for first basemen is not that exciting, as it will include Matt Adams (30), Lucas Duda (32), Marwin Gonzalez (30), Mark Reynolds (35), Danny Valencia (34) and probably Logan Morrison (31). The trade market will offer much better choices, though only Justin Smoak (Jays) and Paul Goldschmidt (D-backs) are likely to be attainable. Of course, each will not be cheap.
The point is, third base will be the easiest and quickest way to beef up the team's offensive production. This is why, like the Marlins did with Jose Reyes in 2011, Van Wagenen should be allowed to meet 26-year-old Manny Machado at the airport next week waving a giant check. This type of bold move on day one will not only add an instant upgrade to the lineup, it will make Michael Conforto a more productive hitter and will signal to every team, player, reporter, agent, fan and free agent that the Mets are back in the business of doing whatever is necessary to win, not just 'compete.'
3. Bullpen talent and philosophy
It has become an annual tradition here to write about how the Mets must improve their bullpen during the offseason. For what it's worth, this same article is often written about most teams in baseball. It's hardly exclusive for the Mets. Nevertheless, nearly every winter and trade deadline for the past decade we all push our respective teams to add relievers...
The thing is, this cycle is in constant replay because bullpens are notorious for being inconsistent and rarely do what is expected of them when on paper the previous winter.
With input from manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland, Van Wagenen needs to decide if he's going to go the traditional route and bring in an established, save-oriented closer. Or, is he going to acquire multiple high-leverage, versatile relievers to give Callaway the option to mix and match his talent.
Craig Kimbrel will be the most elite closer on the free agent market, though his value has slightly diminished the past four seasons (his 2017 withstanding). Nevertheless, he's going to want a four- or five-year deal. And, while it's hard enough to predict what any relief pitcher will be next year, it's especially difficult to project Kimbrel.
Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Joe Kelly and possibly a reunion with Jeurys Familia will also be options for Van Wagenen. However, each of the above will require a long-term deal, the likes of which may end up being more than Van Wagenen can spend depending on how he addresses his batting order.
In either case, regardless of whether one of the above free agents is acquired, the league's top bullpens each year often do it with a group of unknown kids that emerge from the farm to catapult the overall staff.
Thankfully, Van Wagenen takes over a roster that has a wide variety of bullpen arms that did well in 2018, as well as others that at least demonstrated a hint of potential to have an impact next season. Rookies Tyler Bashlor and Drew Smith and veterans Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman all did well last season and provide a nice base upon which to build. Anthony Swarzak, Gerson Bautista, Paul Sewald, Jacob Rhame and Jamie Callahan will also play a role.
However, while all of the above names have talent and will be helpful, they still need a heavyweight, high that will calm everyone's nerves (in the bullpen and in the stands) because he's "been there, done that," and is not fazed by throwing big games in New York. It could be someone acquired in trade, or it could be Kimbrel or Britton. But, it has to be someone other than whom they currently have...
4. Fielding and fundamentals
The tradition in baseball is to field a roster with strong up-the-middle defense, guys at the top of the order who frequently get on base, a clean-up hitter with power, a catcher with a strong arm and a high-leverage reliever to pitch at least the final three outs of the game. The more recent trend is to forgo defense and forgive strikeouts in favor of unabashed power.
On the mound, new GMs forgive efficiency and command for less walks and more strikeouts. Speed and stolen bases are also less important, and who bats where is based more on statistical trends and match-ups than it is on ego and experience.
In the event Van Wagenen wants a more traditional team, he has to acquire a more reliable, fielding-first, everyday center fielder and catcher. He's also going to need to pay for a closer.
In the event he wants mostly strikeouts from his rotation, he should do nothing.
In the event he wants a power-first, everything-else-second lineup, he's going to need to have a lot of faith in Bruce, Frazier and the return of Cespedes, while also paying a free agent like Machado (or trading Noah Syndergaard for an established right-handed hitter with power).
As the organization's new leader, it's up to Van Wagenen to make a ruling on all of the above, otherwise he's going to miss opportunities to meet the awesome and exciting mission statement he set forth earlier today...
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!