David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Shortly after baseball’s winter meetings wrapped up Thursday, in the sprawling ballroom that housed the Rule 5 Draft, team officials held court briefly before hustling to the airport.
In the midst of this semi-organized chaos, one discussion turned to the Mets’ efforts to find a lefthanded-hitting outfielder to platoon with Juan Lagares, one of the things left on their shopping list after shoring up their middle infield with Neil Walker and the yet-to-be-announced signing of Asdrubal Cabrera.
Why the push to minimize Lagares’ role, we asked. He’s still only 26, one year removed from winning a Gold Glove. Had Lagares, a career .254 hitter against righthanded pitchers, already reached his ceiling in their minds?
The answer, in retrospect, made us feel kind of dumb for bringing up the subject.
“We’re trying to win a championship,” the Mets exec said.
That’s what a trip to the World Series does. It changes everything. Where developing a player at one position or another once seemed OK, that’s no longer the case. Flaws must be corrected. Weaknesses must be limited, if not erased altogether.
After too many years of long, empty winters, the Mets have a whole different mindset now, as we witnessed in their lightning-quick response to losing out on Ben Zobrist. The Mets know what they need to do, and within reason, are doing it.
They were quite happy with the Walker trade, which materialized faster than anyone in their Opryland Hotel suite could have dreamed. The Mets’ dogged pursuit of Zobrist probably helped in securing Cabrera as well, as the two players are represented by the same agency. Acquiring both within 24 hours of being dumped by Zobrist was a solid start to an offseason with plenty of time left on the clock before Port St. Lucie.
“We’re in a good place,” assistant GM John Ricco said Thursday.
The Yankees also departed Nashville feeling positive about their four days sequestered at the Opryland. But for a team whose last playoff win came in 2012, trying to remodel an older, expensive roster on the fly while staying a contender is a tricky proposition. Apparently on somewhat of a budget, too.
Under those conditions, Brian Cashman did extremely well in trading for Starlin Castro, undercutting all the Mets’ legwork to get Zobrist by practically delivering him Tuesday to the Cubs. It cost him a valuable swingman in righthander Adam Warren and a very expendable infielder in Brendan Ryan. But by the Yankees’ standards, acquiring a 25-year-old All-Star, at a position of need, for $38 million over the next four years, felt like a holiday miracle.
From that point, however, the decisions get a little more difficult. Cashman chose to take another bite out of his bullpen Wednesday in trading Justin Wilson, the lefty seventh-inning piece, to the Tigers for a pair of minor-league starters.
Like the Mets, who shipped Jonathon Niese to the Pirates for Walker, Cashman was dealing from his biggest area of strength. But there is a delicate balance to what he is attempting to do by restocking the farm system at the expense of the 2016 roster. He is adamant that the ’16 goal remains a 28th championship, so how many more assets will the Yankees be able to unload?
Cashman certainly is willing to listen on Andrew Miller, and the price tag may have just gone up in the wake of the domestic-abuse allegations against Aroldis Chapman, who has been in limbo since Monday’s tentative trade to the Dodgers.
When pressed on Miller’s availability, and how moving him would seem inconsistent with winning this season, Cashman brought up Dellin Betances as the ready-made replacement. He’s right about that, of course. But if the Yankees’ problem then becomes getting to Betances, trading Miller could haunt them for the foreseeable future.
Cashman also knows, however, that he doesn’t have much to offer other than Brett Gardner if Luis Severino, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge remain essential to his burgeoning youth movement.
“I think we’re addressing areas of need, without a doubt,” Cashman said Thursday. “But there’s still steps in the process I would like to take.”
Both the Mets and Yankees departed Nashville with more left to do, and more time to do it. But we’re seeing the dynamic between these two teams shift, and that was never more evident than at these winter meetings.