A month ago, when the Mets had a double-digit lead in the NL East, the looming trade deadline felt like an opportunity to polish a World Series contender, a second chance to apply the finishing touches for a deep October run.
But July has ushered in a real sense of anxiety for the first time this season, along with an urgency to fortify a roster that is rapidly losing its grip on the division crown. And that tends to change a team’s perspective, especially with the surging world champions fast approaching in the rearview mirror.
After Saturday’s 7-3 loss to the Rangers, the Mets’ lead is down to 2 1⁄2 games, the slimmest margin they’ve had since April 30, when it was only two. Trevor Williams teed up three of the Rangers’ four homers, with two of his coming on a three-pitch sequence in the second inning. The Mets, once MLB’s best with runners in scoring position, are in a 10-for-72 (.139) skid in those situations.
“Sometimes the baseball gods don’t shine on you,” Buck Showalter said.
Now in the shade, the Mets will be turning to general manager Billy Eppler. After a winter of big swings, he’s stepping to the plate again, and you could argue he’s under more pressure this time.
The Mets’ offseason reboot was orchestrated by Eppler, but it was made possible by owner Steve Cohen, who wrote the checks that financed their whopping $260 million investment in free-agent contracts.
Deadline shopping, however, is a different animal. You can’t just buy the best available players. There’s a cost in young talent, too. And that’s where some of the most difficult decisions for a GM enter the discussion.
Of course Cohen’s billions still are very much a factor. The ability to absorb outstanding salaries is huge at this time of year, and there’s every reason to expect Cohen will make good on his pledge to spend whatever is necessary to fortify the Mets’ title pursuit, even bumping up against $300 million in payroll (they’re already over $280 million).
That gives Eppler plenty of leeway — and no excuses, at least the ones that past Flushing GMs often were forced to deploy during the Wilpon regime. Teams looking to dump salary should be on the Mets’ short list because that defrays the cost in prospect capital, which is a little thin beyond the untouchables (their system was ranked No. 20 by MLB Pipeline at the start of the season).
Money is just money. And the Cohen Mets are flush with funding.
“He’s signed off on everything so far,” Eppler said Saturday. “He likes to know what the market looks like, and he likes to be aware of opportunity.”
Sounds about right for a hedge-fund titan like Cohen, but there’s a suspicion the trade market won’t truly materialize until much, much closer to the Aug. 2 deadline, partly because of the playoffs expanding to 12 teams this season. As of Saturday, 19 clubs were within five games of a postseason spot, close enough to eye the other 11 as ripe for deal-making over the next month.
The Mets insist a shaky June (13-12) hasn’t stepped up their DEFCON levels on the trade front. What that leveling off has done, however, is clarified some areas of concern. While the bullpen was circled for upgrading since mid-April, the next item on the list should be DH help — something the Mets figured to be set with at the start of the season.
But a cooked Robinson Cano was DFA’d on May 2 — Cohen OK’d picking up the $37 million tab on that one — and the J.D. Davis/Dominic Smith platoon has failed to deliver. Before Saturday, the Mets’ DH production ranked 27th in OPS (.607) and 24th in batting average (.212). Only four teams had hit fewer than their five home runs from that spot.
The Nationals’ Josh Bell and the Orioles’ Trey Mancini (a former Showalter disciple) are two of the more prominent names that should be available. As for internal options, slugging first baseman Daniel Palka (15 homers, .879 OPS at Triple-A Syracuse) nearly was called up instead of Smith last month before a sudden switch in plans. Teammate Mark Vientos (14 homers, .862 OPS) is another possibility, but the Mets seem to prefer to have their top prospect, 20-year-old catcher Francisco Alvarez — promoted to Syracuse on Saturday after raking at Double-A Binghamton — continue his development in the minors this season.
“I would like to be an equal-opportunity buyer,” Eppler said. “So whether that’s something that will help with run prevention, great. If it helps with run production, great. Let’s try to grow those numbers as far apart as we can and be open to anything.”
But the most critical number — the Mets’ division lead — continues to shrink at an alarming pace. The Mets have lost seven of their last 11 games and still have to wait two more before Max Scherzer takes the mound Tuesday night in Cincinnati. Best-case scenario, maybe Jacob deGrom returns three-plus weeks after Sunday’s start for St. Lucie begins his rehab clock.
It’s anyone’s guess where the Mets will be at that point. But figure Eppler will be on the phone, trying to find a way to reverse this disturbing trend.