Joel Sherman

Sports
hardball

Mets should add pitching depth well before the trade deadline

A runner stands on second base to begin extra innings. A designated hitter operates in both leagues. Many catchers communicate signals to pitchers via electronics rather than putting down fingers.

There is nothing sacred in the game of baseball. So why, if there is a team that already that knows it will not make the playoffs, can’t that team get together with an obvious contender and make a trade in May rather than wait until July?

I ask this question because, among other reasons, the Mets so far have shown all the obvious signs — in talent, temperament and success — that they are contenders. But they also have known since spring training that they will probably have to address their bullpen (at minimum) during the season. If anything, that became more obvious when Trevor May incurred an arm injury that will keep him out at least two months.

So why can’t the Mets make a deal with any of the at least half-dozen teams whose magic number has pretty much already expired?

“It’s harder to line up on price in May than June or July and that more than people not engaging in buy or sell discussion would be most likely to keep things quiet until we get into the typical trade months,” an AL executive said. Essentially clubs will want more to give up a player now so that an acquiring team gains an extra two months of impact before this year’s Aug. 2 trade deadline.

An NL official said: “Here is the challenge: Say I could line up a B-plus trade [as a seller] today, no matter how obvious what our situation is to you or me, it is going to send shock waves through the clubhouse and through the fan base: ‘They are really white-flagging it in May.’ A trade openly declares that is what you are doing.”

Buck Showalter pulls Adam Ottavino from a game.
Corey Sipkin

The Mets also have to ask whether they need to act rashly. FanGraphs projected them with an 89.4 percent chance of making the playoffs to begin this weekend; Baseball Reference had them at 65.9. There is a pretty strong have and have-not element to the NL this year. The Mets are a “have” and can feel reasonably comfortable they will, at minimum, be contending for one of what are now six playoff spots.

The Mets’ farm system is such that they have a strong prospect base up top — made stronger by the rise in appreciation for outfielder Alex Ramirez. But they do not have a deep system. So, they may decide not to expend assets now because they may find out they have a different or bigger need come July that they then may be less well positioned to solve.

Conversely, the Mets are not just trying to make the playoffs. They want to win the NL East for the first time since 2015 and secure one of the two best records in the league, which in the new postseason format will provide a first-round bye. Plus, they have seen this movie before. They entered the weekend having played 27 games; through the same total last year, the first-place Mets were given an 83.3 percent playoff chance by FanGraphs. The Braves were in third place and given a 37.8 percent chance.

The Mets, of course, collapsed in the second half (in part because of lack of pitching depth) and the Braves won the NL East for a fourth straight time and also won the World Series. Atlanta was in third place again to begin the weekend, yet with its talent and pedigree was still the biggest threat to outdo the Mets in the division. Despite being 6 ¹/₂ games back, the Braves remained the strong favorite to win the NL East by Baseball Reference.

“To do a deal now, I think you would have to have desperation and I don’t see the Mets having desperation,” the NL executive said. “Look at the Red Sox. They had expectations and they are playing poorly because they have so many problems [pitching] at the end of games.”

It’s not just the Red Sox. As the Phillies blew a 7-1 lead against the Mets on Thursday night, it became apparent that the NL team that has gone the longest without making the playoffs still has not fully solved its postseason problems.

Jorge Lopez
Getty Images

Nevertheless, the Mets have been worried about pitching depth more than any other issue. They killed a trade that was on the brink of being completed just before the season, in which they would have sent Dominic Smith to the Padres and taken on about $24 million left on Eric Hosmer to acquire starter Chris Paddack and reliever Emilio Pagan.

Even Steve Cohen had concerns about the optics of moving his payroll, for luxury tax purposes, to the edge of $300 million. But it might turn out that was a mistake. Hosmer, the player the Mets didn’t want, has been among MLB’s top hitters the first four weeks of the season. Paddack and Pagan, both eventually dealt to Minnesota, have been excellent.

Meanwhile, the Mets’ depth has been impacted. Jacob deGrom is out for at least the first two months, May is unlikely to be seen before June and Sean Reid-Foley is likely out for the year. Manager Buck Showalter has Edwin Diaz currently throwing as well as any time as a Met, plus pleasant surprises in Chasen Shreve and, especially, Drew Smith. But the circle of trust does not extend too much further. Seth Lugo would be a key if he can get back to his 2019 form, when he was a muti-inning weapon.

When (if?) deGrom returns, perhaps David Peterson could go into the bullpen to help. But that won’t be any time soon. So shouldn’t the Mets at least push a bit in the marketplace? Baseball Reference had eight teams with less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs: the Marlins, Nationals, Cubs, Reds, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Orioles and Rangers. Note six of those are NL teams, reflecting just how top-heavy and bifurcated the league is.

David Bednar
AP

A club like the Marlins, which had aspirations this year, will not surrender before Memorial Day. Neither will the Rangers, who were the biggest spenders in free agency last offseason. But Texas, for example, has among the worst results so far from its lefty hitters and DHs. Would the Rangers consider a potential win-win trade for now and the future by giving up a controllable reliever, such as Joe Barlow or Brock Burke, as part of a deal to get Dominic Smith, who can’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season? Would the Mets still be willing to deal Smith with Robinson Cano gone and, thus, possessing a little less positional depth protection? I bet they would, because this administration seems to have a lot of belief in J.D. Davis as a hitter and would like to find him more opportunities.

Baltimore’s bullpen has pitched well even after the franchise dealt relievers Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott just before the season, and the Orioles are in perpetual rebuilding mode. So it just becomes a question of when they will trade a reliever who can cover multiple innings, such as Jorge Lopez, not if they will trade him. Pittsburgh is in much the same state, and clubs have a lingering interest in closer David Bednar. The Cubs, considering their market size, probably would have to wait a while, but in Mychal Givens, Chris Martin and David Robertson, Chicago has three relievers who have all been dealt at the trade deadline at least once in their careers — and probably will be again.

Arizona’s Ian Kennedy and Mark Melancon also fall into the “traded at the deadline before, likely again” bucket.

As always, there is going to be plenty of in-season relief pitching available. But should the Mets be pushing hard to get something done sooner, rather than later?