The Mets have played at exactly .500 since the start of June. They have stalled at a four-game lead despite a complete absence of competition. In any other division, the Mets would be at best five and a half games back and probably on the fringes of postseason contention.
The Mets run of 103 days in first place has masked a largely mediocre season. Outside of a seven-game winning streak in early May, this team is no better than the Braves and Phillies.
The Mets haven’t been in jeopardy of missing the playoffs all season, and it seems to have resulted in a lack of urgency on multiple fronts. On Sunday, they lost an absolute clunker to the Reds, highlighting all of the teams’ shortcomings along the way.
Watching Sunday’s game was akin to watching a car crash in slow motion. In the sixth inning, while already down 3-0, Marcus Stroman allowed two batters to reach with two outs. With just one out needed at the most crucial point in the game, Luis Rojas opted to bring in Miguel Castro, who, by the way, has the highest BB/9 of any pitcher on the team. Castro then proceeded to walk two batters in a row (including the opposing pitcher), putting the Mets yet another run behind. Over the remaining three innings, Rojas used the last three pitchers on the depth chart: Yennsy Diaz, Drew Smith, and Geoff Hartlieb.
After watching Diaz and Smith barely escaped the 7th and 8th unscathed, Hartlieb melted down and allowed three runs in the top of the ninth. All the while, the Mets offense managed just one run on three hits.
It seems inconceivable that any team in a playoff race would just throw away a game barely halfway over. But in the 2021 NL East? The lack of good teams has allowed the Mets to play at this level all year without having to face any harsh criticism.
The back end of this game just felt like a punt by management. In most cases, a manager would not avoid all of his best relievers in a game where they are losing by only 3 runs. It’s important to note that Rojas did use all of his top-tier relievers on Saturday, though Diaz, Lugo, and May had not pitched since Wednesday prior to that. In any case, guys like Anthony Banda and Hartlieb shouldn’t be throwing innings for a playoff-ready team. But hey, it’s not like the front office provided Rojas with any new options at the trade deadline.
The Front Office
This is the larger concern for the Mets in 2021. Yes, the bullpen has been very good thus far; but after the top six or so relievers, the depth completely falls off. Unproven assets should not be pitching in 2 or 3 run games for a competitive team. The front office had a golden opportunity to acquire more proven bullpen arms at the trade deadline and they did nothing.
The Mets were not even strongly linked to any relief pitchers, indicating they did not seriously explore such a trade. The Mets made just the one trade for Javy Báez and Trevor Williams. It seemed obvious to fans and writers alike that the team had serious holes in the pitching staff which essentially went unaddressed, leading to a feeling that the Báez trade was just for the sake of making a move.
Compare this to the Dodgers and Padres, teams with fewer weaknesses who did more to strengthen them. Realistically, it’s hard to see the Mets competing with these teams in the playoffs. Once again, this is a byproduct of the weak NL East division.
It’s easy to see the Mets 3.5 games up in August and write it off as a good season, but this team still can’t score reliably and is missing its best pitcher. Over 100 games into the season, the team has a negative run differential.
Steve Cohen made it known his goal was to build sustained success, with an eye towards winning it all in 3-5 years. The strategy this season, then, is clear: Cohen and co. want to maintain the farm system as much as possible, and did not feel the pressure to make any big moves in a weak division. They can coast into the playoffs and when the Mets are embarrassed by a better baseball team, it will still be a win for the new regime because they got the Mets into October in their first year.
The next few weeks will surely prove what this team is — or isn’t. There is an upcoming thirteen-game stretch against the Dodgers and Giants, the titans of the National League. If the Mets don’t prove something in this stretch, their division lead may finally be in jeopardy.
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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images