By Beattie Bernfield – Last Word On Baseball
It was early March, but the the temperature was warmer than the date. Six tall men stood side by side on a sunny baseball diamond in Port Saint Lucie, Florida; they stared into the camera, arms stretched out, each gripping a baseball in their hand.
The 2016 season was the supposed to be the season for the New York Mets. The photo said it all: Bartolo Colon, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler. Side by side. All on the same field. They had their Captain back. They had two superstar outfielders. But the pizzaz of the Opening Day team made people forget that, after 162 games, what really matters is the backup team.
Mets Look to Follow Cubs Championship Blueprint
The Mets learned this the hard way in 2016. Although their starting rotation seemed unstoppable in March, only two of the six pitchers who posed for that photo remained healthy in August. Harvey pitched to a disappointing 4.86 ERA before undergoing season-ending surgery, while Matz had four delayed starts before throwing his last pitch in August. deGrom’s ERA jumped more than a point in the second half, yet things were worse for Wheeler, who witnessed one setback after another until he was shut down for the season without stepping on a mound.
That doesn’t even include the offense. In summary, everything that could have went wrong for the Mets, did in 2016. They should expect the same in 2017. Sandy Alderson will hope for the best, but prepare for the worst by following another GM’s strategy.
The Ways of a Winner
What separated Theo Epstein’s Cubs from other contenders in their World Championship season was depth. When Kyle Schwarber tore his ACL and LCL in the fourth game of the season, they were able to slot Jorge Soler, arguable Schwarber’s equal in ceiling, right into his position. When any player went down, there was no panic. They regrouped, and the next man stepped up.
The Cubs front office used a three-step formula to build their beautiful work of architecture: 1. High draft picks each year, such as Kris Bryant; 2. Good trades, such as Jeff Samardzija for Addison Russell; and 3. Good free agent signings, such as Jon Lester. With each of these methods they also accumulated solid, under-the-radar players. They found hitters who make contact and pitchers with good command.
Many forget the importance of players like Mike Montgomery, among others. These players didn’t have amazing stat lines, but were professionals who would always give Joe Maddon a good at-bat or eat innings. When Maddon needed someone to finish Game 7 after he burned out Aroldis Chapman, it was Montgomery who induced the grounder to seal their first championship in over a century. Maddon analyzed his most versatile arm: “He could be this utility pitcher who is very successful. Although, when he gets the chance to start, he nails it down, too.” Montgomery, who hasn’t been on many radars since around 2013, should play a large role as rotation and bullpen depth for Chicago.
The Mets go into 2017 with the knowledge that they can’t depend on anyone. They know that their lineup in September will look nothing like it will on Opening Day. They know that 2017 differs from 2016.
This year, when their pitchers hit the DL, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman, and Wheeler can come to the rescue. If there are injuries in the outfield, Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo provide major league level-depth. When infielders go down, Wilmer Flores and T.J. Rivera are both reliable backups. This is Sandy Alderson’s blueprint.
“The depth is very important,” Alderson explained. “In some ways, the fact that we had those injuries last year has put us in a better position this year because of the experience they had last year and the fact that we are legitimately seven deep at this point, subject to whatever begins to happen over the course of the season.”
Particularly in Lugo and Gsellman, Alderson and his staff have found something similar to Montgomery. While Lugo finished with a stupendous 2.68 ERA as a starter, he also pitched to a nearly identical 2.65 ERA as a reliever. Meanwhile, Gsellman allowed 2.63 runs per nine as a starter, while not allowing a run out of the bullpen. Wheeler, while without bullpen experience, has a skill set that could make him a perfect fit. As a hard-thrower with innings limits, Wheeler could air it out in the bullpen and not worry about his magical right arm’s safety.
On the offensive side, Flores can play all four infield positions while Rivera can play three. Gavin Cecchini may be further from ready, but can also play all around, and Ty Kelly is adored by the organization as a patient hitter who can play seven different positions. Of course, there is also the annual Mets tradition of trading for Kelly Johnson.
Jay Bruce trying out first base is also a Cubbie-esque strategy the Mets are employing. Versatility has always been Maddon’s speciality, and it proved helpful. Putting Bryant in the outfield gave Russell and Javier Baez chances to play. Bruce in the infield could do the same for Conforto.
The Mets are following the Cubs championship blueprint, emphasizing depth and versatility. And why not? It worked for Epstein, as he held up the Commissioner’s Trophy in the end. The goal for the Mets in 2017 is to achieve the same thing.
“I think we’re deeper than we’ve ever been at this time of the year,” Terry Collins said in a Spring Training press conference. “I think Jose brings that; Wilmer Flores now is acclimated to the role where he’ll have to play around a bit… It’s pretty exciting to think that we’ve got that depth that we’ve needed in the past.”
“What we did last year took a lot of character. And that character is back.”