On Opening Day, a partly cloudy afternoon at Citi Field, the Mets’ lineup contained seven walk-year free agents, a World Series-or-bust group motivated not only by a championship ring but the promise of greater personal fortune.
The Mets were a now team, hoping to make this last season together a memorable one. And the Wilpons bankrolled that dream to the tune of $154 million, the club’s highest payroll ever, in what generally was considered to be a sound investment.
But all that officially came to an end Thursday, when the Mets finally acknowledged the inevitable by trading Lucas Duda to the Rays for Double-A reliever Drew Smith.
While any pretense of contending this season had been steadily eroding for weeks, the stripping away of the pieces is the stinging reality slap upside the head, especially with one of the longest-tenured Mets in Duda.
“This guy was a Met and wanted to be a Met and we’re trying to claw back in it,” Terry Collins said after saying his goodbye in San Diego. “This guy’s a big piece. We’ll adjust and move on, but yeah, it’s kind of a big loss for us right now.”
No matter how you felt about Duda — whether you continued to hold a grudge for that errant World Series Game 5 throw to the plate or appreciated his freakish power — this was a page-turning moment for the Mets, who are cashing out on 2017 before the big ’18 reboot.
Disregard Collins’ manager-speak about the clawing back. The “For Sale’’ sign has been up since the All-Star break. Unfortunately, the timing isn’t so great.
The Mets were counting on this free-agent core to give them a final kick, with an eye on upping their market price heading into the offseason. Instead, the roster was decimated by injuries, and the hand they now hold — in the dwindling days before Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline — isn’t going to yield much for the rebuilding process.
Perhaps the greatest value lies in clearing space for what’s to come from Triple-A Las Vegas: Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith. For two months of Duda, the Mets received Drew Smith, a 23-year-old bullpen piece with a 97-mph fastball, and roughly $2.5 million in salary relief, the remaining freight on Duda’s contract.
Every dollar counts in Flushing, so that’s something. More meaningful, however, will be the promotion of Dominic Smith, and the Mets don’t seem to be in a rush for that — not until they iron out a few more roster issues first. But there’s no sense dragging their feet on Smith, and after Monday’s deadline, the next two months have to be used to survey the organizational landscape for next season.
The good news here is the Mets have a talented, cheap, ready-made replacement for Duda in Dominic Smith, who has been raking in Vegas all season long. That includes killing it this month; in his past 22 games, he hit .383 (36-for-94) with seven home runs, 22 RBIs and a 1.139 OPS. Thin air or not, those are pretty ridiculous numbers, and the Mets need to do a more thorough evaluation in the majors before penciling him in for the starting job in 2018.
Collins talked before Thursday’s game as if he’s ignoring the white towel being waved back at Citi Field, where Sandy Alderson & Co. are working furiously to find new homes for any desirable free agent. After Duda, it’s looking like Addison Reed, with the others maybe having to wait until an injury pops up somewhere after the deadline, forcing them to clear waivers first.
The demand for Reed could push the negotiations for him down to the wire, but the player the Mets really need to move is Asdrubal Cabrera, the last hurdle standing between Rosario and the shortstop gig in Flushing.
It seems as if the Mets waited too long to play Cabrera at third base — the spot that makes him most attractive to contending teams — so determining his fate might not be as simple as giving him away. However that plays out, the Band-Aid has been ripped off for 2017. The dismantling only gets easier from here.
As for Duda’s legacy, he finished seventh on the franchise list with 125 home runs. One ahead of Todd Hundley, the guy pushed aside for Mike Piazza.
It’s time for what’s next.