BOSTON — Stripping the Mets of their pending free agents, and literally selling them off during a two-month auction, certainly existed within the realm of possibility for Sandy Alderson when this season began.
It just didn’t seem likely. The 2017 Mets were pencilled in for greater things than being reduced to Major League Baseball’s neighborhood chop shop, which probably best describes the savaging of their roster.
Those pieces no longer mattered to the Mets anyway. Addison Reed, Lucas Duda, Jay Bruce, Neil Walker, Curtis Granderson. All dispersed to contenders. But what of the two looming free agents that still call Citi Field home, namely Alderson and Terry Collins?
They seem to be looking at very different futures, with Alderson almost certainly staying put as general manager and Collins probably moving on, realizing that his chapter in the manager’s office is coming to a natural close. While Mets’ ownership hasn’t made any decisions on either with six weeks to go until the end of the season — the Wilpons rarely do with games still to play — the current assignments of both Alderson and Collins suggest where the franchise is headed.
Alderson spends plenty of time these days talking about the blueprint for 2018, a conversation that he continued this past week in touching on a number of subjects, including payroll and the prognosis for David Wright. As for Collins, he’s left to preside over a pair of promising rookies, and the skeleton of a once-promising roster, with a rotation that’s been steadily leaking potential.
When Alderson was asked what his goals were as Mets’ GM, and how much longer that might take in his current role, he deferred on the subject. In 2015, Alderson engineered a World Series run that seemed a year or two ahead of schedule. But this season represents a few steps backward, tumbling toward what could be their first 90-loss campaign since 2009, despite an Opening Day payroll of $155 million.
A costly belly-flop of this degree is the type of thing that can lead to changes in the front office, but the stunning rash of Mets’ injuries gives Alderson & Co. a built-in excuse, and should leave them an opportunity for another rebuild, again around the rotation. Considering that only the Reed trade brought back what might be evaluated a decent prospect haul, Alderson’s focus should be less on development this offseason and more on bringing in immediate, major-league ready help, with the assumption that he’ll be piloting the ship again.
“My job currently entails thinking about 2018, 2019 and that doesn’t change based on contract status,” Alderson said. “That’s just the nature of my position. From my standpoint I’m honestly not thinking about [my contract] except when I have to respond to a question. We have a lot to do between now and the end of the season. That’s what I’m focused on.”
When Alderson was asked about mapping out his future in Flushing, such as a contract extension, he didn’t flat-out say that it would take place at the end of the season. “That sounds like a good answer,” he said. Based on his response, maybe Alderson has some sort of agreement already in place, one that won’t be announced until after the regular season wraps on Oct. 1.
But even if that is the case, the question then becomes how long Alderson chooses to sign on for. Alderson turns 70 in November, in an industry that keeps tapping the next round of Ivy League thirty-somethings to do the same job, and he’s also beat cancer since the Mets’ World Series appearance.
That said, Alderson has shown no signs of slowing down, as illustrated in part by his vigorous sell-off during the past few weeks and edgy news conference Wednesday during the Subway Series, when he publicly scolded Robert Gsellman for cavalier comments about the GM’s evaluation. The uncertainty over Wright’s future, however, threatens to handcuff Alderson’s efforts to shape next year’s roster, and seems to be one of his more troublesome obstacles in trying to move forward.
Along those lines, Alderson sounded less optimistic than he had in previous discussions about Wright, and that lack of clarity — especially involving a cornerstone like the team’s captain — would be vexing for any GM stuck in this position. Wright’s neck and back issues aren’t going away, so the Mets are likely facing a diminishing value on his contract, when and if he does return. The way the deal is structured, however, his annual salary declines over the next three years, going from $20 million next season, to $15 million in ’19 and $12 million in ’20.
The only way out for Alderson is if Wright is medically unable to play, a situation that would allow insurance to pay the Mets 75 percent of the remaining money on his contract. But neither side is there yet, and Alderson apparently has to factor in Wright’s presence in planning ahead, both budget-wise and at the position.
“You can see it played out in 2017,” Alderson said. “And so it will play out to some extent in 2018. We don’t have an everyday top-shelf third base option the way some teams do. Not that we have played terribly at third base. But we didn’t go into the season with a solidified situation in part because we’re not sure what David’s condition would be. Now, as we go into 2018, do we build on what we learned in 2017 and act accordingly and consider moving David to another position, that sort of thing? That’s all something that has to be evaluated as we get into the offseason.”
Wright’s absence, however, was felt beyond the field, and the void left by the captain definitely impaired Collins’ effectiveness. Every manager needs a few strong voices among the players to help steer the clubhouse in the right direction, and the veteran framework put in place began to erode once the Mets’ season went south. Rather than concentrate on performance, and winning games, the free agents turned too much of their attention on their looming exit, leaving Collins in a custodial role during the 2017 transition.
It’s been literally a no-win scenario this season for Collins, whose seven-year tenure, after passing Davey Johnson for Mets’ longevity, appears destined to fizzle with an undignified end. Collins, at 68, is the sport’s oldest manager, and like Alderson, faces competition from a much younger generation, schooled in advanced analytics and developed to be an extension of the front office — just wearing a uniform during the games. Collins has achieved a level of success that few predicted when he was named to replace Jerry Manuel after the 2010 season, but the Mets are in upheaval again, and he’s on the wrong side of history this time.