For the first month of the season, the New York Mets were one of the best teams in baseball. They rocketed to an 11-1 start, setting a record for the best start by the franchise. All the demons of the past, of epic collapses and strange flukes, seemed distant if not banished.
It turns out they were merely hiding.
The team, now 28-35, is one of the worst in baseball.
This may not come as a surprise to some long-suffering Mets fans, witnessing yet another collapse from a high with, yes, its share of flukes (one player was lost when he banged his foot into the center-field wall during a running catch). But their collapse is notable for all the effort and promise that went into assuring not again, not this time.
That was the promise from the owners, the Wilpon family, and the front office, led by general manager Sandy Alderson. There was a new manager, Mickey Callaway, and new coaches. There was a new medical staff and new procedures to avert injuries. There were new players.
But, in the end, it is not a new story.
“The work that we’ve done to date hasn’t been successful,” Alderson, in the understatement of the season, told reporters Tuesday before an 8-2 road loss to the Atlanta Braves.
With questions intensifying about the future of the Mets, who have now lost nine of 10, Alderson hopped on a conference call with reporters.
The general manager since October 2010, Alderson guided the Mets from some bleak and economically lean years to the World Series in 2015 and a wild-card berth in 2016. He also oversaw the disappointing 2017 season. He wanted to remain to fix the team, so he landed an extension and steered the retooling effort of this offseason.
“We expected to rely on our pitching and build a lineup of position players that would be competitive on the offensive side and defensively as well,” said Alderson, who, at 70, is the oldest general manager in baseball. “That hasn’t happened. When you’re scoring runs at the anemic rate that we have, something hasn’t worked. From that standpoint, I take total responsibility for where we are. I’m not happy about it. But at the same time, the job now is to figure out how to fix it and improve it.”
That takes a proper diagnosis of the problems. There are several causes, among them injuries, a bug the Mets never seem to shake. Injuries have hit older position players, such as outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, and younger pitchers, like Jeurys Familia and Noah Syndergaard.
But players of all ages are not playing to their potential, there is not enough talent held in reserve, and the Mets capitalized on bargains in free agency, which dropped their payroll from last year. Many of these issues point to the team’s leaders, including Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer, and Alderson.
To turn things around, Alderson said he hoped the team’s health would improve, the bullpen would stabilize behind the strong starting pitching, and the lineup would snap out of its funk.
“Given the ups and downs we’ve experienced this year, it’s a little bit unclear where we are and what we are and where we’re going,” Alderson said, adding later, “There have been such extreme ups and downs, I’m still confident there’s something there and I’m anxious to see whether it is revealed over the next two or three weeks.”
With midseason approaching, time is running short. The players know this.
“I know we say this is a long season but it creeps up on you, especially when things aren’t going well and all of a sudden it’s the middle of June or July,” said Michael Conforto, an All-Star last year who has struggled to a .694 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage entering Tuesday. “We just got to focus on the day. That slows things down a little bit. It’s easier said than done.”
The Mets may face a harsh reality soon: July 31 is the nonwaiver trading deadline. By then, the team’s decision-makers need to know whether to add to the roster for a potential playoff push (if they can get above .500 by then), stay put or subtract, and if so, to what degree.
But if the Mets’ poor play continues during this season-defining period, would they attempt the same strategy as last year, which involved trading away five veteran players on expiring contracts to save $9 million and acquiring seven relief prospects? And would people trust that such a strategy would yield positive results after the prospects the team acquired last year have yet to make a dent?
Lacking enough trade assets to plug holes last winter, the Mets spent nearly $89 million on six free agent players over 30: starting pitcher Jason Vargas (7.71 ERA), outfielder Jay Bruce (.630 OPS), infielder Todd Frazier (missed a month with hamstring strain), first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (released Sunday), utilityman Jose Reyes (who is in danger of losing his job) and relief pitcher Anthony Swarzak (missed two months with an oblique strain). The Mets also kept three other key players over 30 — second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera (one of the team’s best players) and relief pitchers Jerry Blevins (5.02 ERA) and A.J. Ramos (6.41 ERA and dealing with a significant shoulder injury) — for over $24 million.
So far, this quick retooling strategy has not worked beyond the 11-1 start. Additionally, the Mets have fewer of those valued veterans on expiring contracts to trade away this season.
Should the team sink further in the standings, the Mets know they have to consider a deeper, more painful tear down, such as trading star players like Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom, who are both under team control, to rebuild. Either player could bring the type of return that would infuse their meager farm system with top talent.
Alderson said the team’s immediate goal was to get back into contention in the NL East, but he admitted he was also thinking long term as July is fast approaching.
One area for change would be getting younger and more athletic. On Tuesday the Mets called up first baseman Dominic Smith, a former first-round pick whose production has been uneven.
Baseball America ranked the Mets’ minor leagues 27th out of 30 teams entering this season. As major league players have gotten hurt, the lack of capable depth has shown, from the struggles of relief pitchers to Reyes staying on the roster this long, in part, because they have few capable backups, to Vargas, signed to improve the depth of the Mets’ oft-injured rotation, being skipped in the rotation again.
The Mets farm system has sputtered because of their mixed results in drafting and in player development, injuries, generally staying within the spending limits for international amateurs before the rules changed in 2016, and the trading away of pitching prospects to build the 2015 and 2016 teams. An overhaul of the major league roster could help fix this.
“Could we get younger very quickly?” Alderson said. “Probably yes. The question of where we are now and what we think we can be next season and years after that is a function, at least to some extent, not totally, what happens over the next few weeks.”
The Mets could always simply keep their star core and reconfigure the roster around it. It is unclear how active they plan to be in next winter’s much-heralded free agent class that includes stars such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and others. After all, the topic of spending is always a sensitive one in Flushing.
The team’s payroll on opening day in 2017 was $155 million, which ranked only middle of the pack in the major leagues but was a record for the team. This year, it dropped to $151 million, which angered fans who believed a team in the largest market of the country should spend more to compete.
Over the past two offseasons, few teams have spent more than the Mets ($214 million, half of that to Cespedes) in free agency. The issue, however, may be how the money was spent. Whether their strategy worked will be discussed in the offseason, but until then, Mets officials believe their team deserves a chance to get back on the field and see if it works.
They also believe two months is too short a period to evaluate their new medical staff and the changing of players’ habits. The injuries they focus on preventing are the ones involving soft tissue, the kind that sidelined Swarzak and Frazier and the kind that continues to keep Cespedes out of games.
Blevins and Bruce both said the Mets had enough talent and experience to turn the season around. Blevins cautioned against worrying too much about what the team’s leadership might do.
“We just have to make it tough for them and try to win ballgames,” Blevins said. Added Bruce: “What I’m trying to figure out is how I can be the biggest help to this team as a whole and help us win games because that’s what we’re not doing.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.