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I am not a big fan of predictions because even when right, they are often wrong.
After all, if you viewed the New York teams as playoff contenders in spring the optimism was, yes, built around dynamic aces in Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole, but also that the Mets and Yankees were going to score. A lot. These were going to be deep, powerful lineups.
But with eight weeks to go on the schedule neither club was in postseason position because of offense failings. If either team was just league average at this point, its standing would be greatly improved.
Instead, only two teams completed the weekend averaging worse than the Mets’ 3.75 runs per game — the last-place Pirates and Rangers, who were a combined 64 games under .500. Seven of the nine lowest-scoring teams were under .500. The exceptions: New York, New York, which when combined is a hell of a town, but separately have been the majors’ most disappointing offenses.
The Mets were teetering near break-even at 56-55. Maybe they can stumble into the playoffs because the Phillies and Braves are ordinary. But that was the theory for the past few months and suddenly the Mets are a third-place team. To this point, nothing has worked. Chili Davis was fired as hitting coach in May, enforcement of pitchers using sticky substances was elevated in June and Javier Baez was added to the lineup in July and the before/after picture each time has been similar — and unacceptable.
The burden to fix this remains spread out, but here are five position players with a lot to lose if they don’t start helping the Mets win:
1. Javier Baez
You know what has been another terrible (multiyear) prediction — anticipation that the free-agent shortstop class for the 2021-22 offseason would create a frenzy never before seen? The visions of uncontained bidding were built around five stars — Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Trevor Story. Only Correa has played near his peak. In fact, Brandon Crawford and, especially, Marcus Semien — also both free agents — have outplayed the others.
Lindor at least got paid, signing a 10-year, $341 million pact to avoid free agency. But how much does his underperformance and injury scare off other teams from offering dollars like that elsewhere? Fernando Tatis Jr. has been brilliant when he has played since signing his 13-year, $340 million deal. But the key words in that sentence were “when he has played.” Tatis is on the injured list with a left shoulder subluxation for a second time and (if he returns in 2021) might come back as an outfielder; perhaps another blow to the financial stratosphere of the coming class.
At the deadline, the Dodgers traded for Seager’s 2022 replacement in Trea Turner and put him at second. The Rockies claimed that no club matched their prospect request for Story. The Mets did for Baez, giving up one of their best in Pete Crow-Armstrong. Baez was hitting .176 in nine Met games before injuring his hip.
There is a highlight reel quality to Baez’s game, but 17 walks and 144 strikeouts for the season? There are 26 shortstops with at least 500 innings at the position and Baez ranks 23rd in FanGraphs’ defensive metric (Tatis is the worst).
2. Michael Conforto
Baez might not be the player who has cost himself the most in free agency. Off arguably his best campaign (albeit in a shortened 2020), Conforto had an age/offensive production case to shoot for George Springer’s six-year, $150 million deal signed last winter with Toronto. Now? Will he consider accepting a qualifying offer to re-establish his value?
Much has been made that Brett Gardner is at the finish line with his .202/.320/.306 slash line. Conforto’s is .201/.331/.339. He is a roller coaster offensively who can get hot and he so often seems a bellwether for the club — when he goes well so do the Mets. They need the best version now.
3. Francisco Lindor
On the subject of Springer, the Mets had a choice last offseason to keep their shortstop assets (Andres Gimenez/Amed Rosario) and either deal with that position at the trade deadline or the following winter and sign Springer instead. Since Springer returned for good on June 22, he has been one of the best hitters in the game.
The Mets have not averaged this few runs since 1992. That club was dubbed “The Worst Team Money Could Buy” and its big-money switch-hitting addition was Bobby Bonilla, who came in smiling and saying all the right things. But that went horribly wrong and Bonilla could not reverse it. Another big-money switch-hitter, Carlos Beltran, was able to survive a poor first Mets season.
Lindor’s offensive trend line since his career-best 2018 has been steadily falling. Now, he is out with an oblique injury. Smile and positive words or not, Lindor is going to have to win Met fans over with his bat. He should have at least September to do that.
4. James McCann
Another free-agent move gone bad? The Mets did not wait out the J.T. Realmuto trade market after the 2018 season concerned they would be shut out at the position and signed Wilson Ramos. They did not wait out the Realmuto free-agent market last offseason concerned they would be shut out at the position and enlisted McCann. They just might have signed a backup catcher for four years at $40 million.
His 86 OPS-plus is the lowest by a Met with at least 300 plate appearances since Juan Lagares in 2015 (Conforto is at 87). Maybe the fast-rising Francisco Alvarez could make McCann a backup by midseason 2022, though that would be aggressive. For now, the Mets need more from him.
5. Dominic Smith
The Mets were viewed as one of the NL teams hurt the most by MLB and the players association being unable to agree on a universal DH this year. For Smith could have played first with Pete Alonso DHing. But that was based on the 2020 Smith who had the sixth best OPS-plus (167) out of 142 qualifiers compared to this year’s 110th best (94) out of 135 qualifiers.
Perhaps the 2021 offensive plunge of Smith and Gleyber Torres (116th best) can be explained, at least in part, in asking guys to play defensive positions for which they are not well-equipped and the toll that takes on their confidence. Smith played half-time at his more natural first base last year.
Smith (along with Conforto, Lindor, Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo) were expected to be lefty bats that made the Mets fierce versus righties. But the Mets’ .685 OPS versus righties is 13th out of 15 in the NL (the Mets are due to face three righty starters against the floundering Nationals beginning Tuesday). Robinson Cano was supposed to be gone in 2021 and probably forgotten after another PED-related suspension. But with the DH likely going universal next year, Smith (or McNeil), in particular, could be beginning to damage their 2022 playing time if they do not help the offense perform much better down the stretch.
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