Mets president of operations David Stearns talks to the media...

Mets president of operations David Stearns talks to the media before an MLB game against the Nationals at Citi Field on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

In a move perfectly aligned with David Stearns’ Sphinx-like nature regarding this month’s rapidly approaching trade deadline, the Mets acquired reliever Phil Maton from the Rays a few hours before Tuesday night’s game.

On one hand, Maton immediately helps patch the team’s sinking bullpen, whose 7.96 ERA since Edwin Diaz’s suspension on June 23 was the worst in baseball -- by more than a full run. Can picking up the $2.74 million left on Maton’s expiring contract help keep the Mets’ playoff aspirations afloat? We can say this much: it’s nearly impossible to do any worse when it comes to the Mets’ pretzel-thin relief corps.

Tuesday night was another painful example. Jose Quintana threw seven scoreless innings, Brandon Nimmo and Francisco Lindor each homered to build a 6-0 lead, yet the Mets had to hold on by their fingernails -- forced to use a pair of high-leverage relievers and ultimately Edwin Diaz -- before escaping with a 7-5 victory over the Nationals.

Consider the Maton trade the equivalent of Stearns throwing his treading-water roster a life jacket. But the first-year president of baseball operations gave off a vibe Tuesday like he’s not yet prepared to provide a few jet skis.

“I think this is really a continuation of us trying to improve our team, supplement our team where we can,” Stearns said. “We’re going to continue to learn about our team over the coming weeks and we’ll take that opportunity to determine what our full trade deadline strategy looks like.”

Stearns isn’t the kind of guy to make “all-in” proclamations on July 9, especially when we’re only about six weeks removed from predicting a Flushing fire sale for a team that was 11 games under .500 (24-35) on June 2. But he’s also wrong if he’s still straddling the deadline fence about these Mets.

What’s left to learn? The National League is aggressively mediocre, and it’s evident that the Mets are capable of scrambling to the top of the wild-card dogpile. They also have two of the primary components required to outlast the competition during the season’s second half: rotation depth and a lineup that’s dangerous top-to-bottom.

By comparison, cherry-picking a few impact relievers should be boxes that Stearns can check over the next three weeks. We’re not suggesting it’s going to be easy. With so many clubs in contention, and bullpen arms always the finishing puzzle piece, the competition should be fierce right down to the wire on July 30.

But what else does Stearns need to see? Maybe it’s hard to feel supremely confident coming off a 4-4 road trip through D.C. and Pittsburgh, and the Mets only got back to .500 (45-45) with Tuesday’s victory. It’s more important, however, to gauge the teams around them, and the Mets being in arm’s reach of that third wild card (1 1/2 games behind the Padres) was close enough.

“That’s what happens when you start playing the game the right way,” Lindor said after the Maton trade. “You put the front office in a position where they had to add to improve the ballclub.”

Plus, Stearns needs to read the room. With Lindor and Nimmo lobbying both him and owner Steve Cohen to reinforce the roster for a playoff run, those are two voices they can trust. Despite their All-Star snubs (they could get the call as fill-ins later this week), both have teamed up to carry the Mets lately, and their hefty long-term contracts make them more partners than merely uniform employees.

“I’m not a billionaire in business or whatnot,” Nimmo said before Tuesday night’s game. “But personally, the way Steve has told me he runs his other businesses, it’s very open-minded, and they’re always trying to improve and get better. He made that very clear from the beginning, so that’s just the way we’ve been operating since he’s taken over.”

And what has Nimmo been telling Cohen & Co. upstairs?

“I think we are a good team,” Nimmo said. “And I really think we’re not that far off from being a real contender. I did express that.”

The Mets should not be trending toward a teardown. Or even a substantial renovation. Not at this stage. When Stearns assembled this roster over the winter, he did so with an eye toward a possible late July reimagining of the Mets. Instead, his best trade chip, Luis Severino, is now too crucial to an October push to trade away and the Mets will have to rely on their rotation surplus to stay in the NL wild-card race.

“I think you never have enough starting pitching,” Stearns said. “We’re going to continue to evaluate this thing in the coming weeks - see where our team is, see where our health is -- and go from there. But you’d always prefer to have more starting pitching than less.”

Three weeks is a substantial amount of time. The wild-card standings will likely remain volatile. A major trade or two could shift the balance of power for the second half. Believe Stearns when he says he’s undecided on this team’s fate. But the way these Mets have resurrected their October hopes, there’s really no choice. Maton should only be the start of delivering what everyone else understands has to be done.


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