To improve a Mets team that has not made the playoffs since 2016, the new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, has made a flurry of moves this winter, like trading for second baseman Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz and signing catcher Wilson Ramos, infielder Jed Lowrie and reliever Jeurys Familia.
On paper, the Mets are already better and deeper than last season’s 85-loss squad. But have they done enough to contend for a playoff spot in a crowded National League East? If they intend to be as bold as the confident Van Wagenen has said, should they not pounce on Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, the prize free agents who remain unsigned with spring training less than three weeks away?
Don’t count on it.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the Mets’ chief operating officer, Jeff Wilpon, and Van Wagenen lauded the front office’s off-season, said the bulk of the work had been done and essentially ruled out any pursuit of Machado and Harper, superstars who have not found as rich a free-agent market as once expected.
“From a price-to-value point of view, I don’t think they’ve come to me to say, ‘Listen, we really need to do this because it’s come down to the point where we think the cost has value,’ ” Wilpon said of the front office.
Then, referring to Yoenis Cespedes, who has underperformed or been injured during his four-year $110-million contract, Wilpon added, “We do have a $29 million outfielder on the roster we hope will come back sometime this year to be productive.”
From across the room, Van Wagenen, who was Cespedes’s agent during those contract negotiations before his switch to front-office work, chimed in.
“He was awarded that contract for a reason,” Van Wagenen said. “We believe in him and we believe he can make a high impact, and we hope that he will in the coming season and beyond.”
When Van Wagenen took over the Mets, he talked about eliminating as many “ifs” on the roster as he could — in other words, improving the team’s ability to withstand injuries — and said he expected to “be in on every free agent.” Yet his citing Cespedes, who is not expected to return from major operations on his feet until the second half of the 2019 season, as a reason for not pursuing Harper or Machado seemed counter to those statements.
“I don’t know how may teams have two $30-million players, so I think that’s a bit of the answer,” Wilpon said, referring to Cespedes and another potential high-prized addition.
Money is always a hot topic when it comes to the Mets. The team plays in the largest market in the country, yet its annual payroll since 2012 has ranked closer to the middle of baseball — or lower.
After its busy winter, the Mets’ payroll, according to RosterResource.com, is about $145 million. That figure includes the money the Seattle Mariners kicked in to offset Cano’s contract and the insurance savings from the deals for David Wright (who retired) and Cespedes, but it is less than the Mets’ 2018 opening-day payroll, $150 million, and significantly under the luxury-tax threshold, $206 million. Wilpon said Van Wagenen still had some wiggle room for more spending, but the amount was not specified.
Van Wagenen said the Mets talked this winter about every player available via free agency or trade, but concluded the team’s best plan for improvement was to spread its resources, to address multiple needs and not just commit themselves to a single, huge investment.
“The goal from the beginning was to address all of our needs in the most efficient way we could,” Van Wagenen said.
With Lowrie and Cano joining an infield that may include, among others, Amed Rosario, Todd Frazier, J. D. Davis and perhaps the prospect Peter Alonso, Wilpon said the Mets were crowded there. In the outfield, Van Wagenen said the Mets had multiple options, too. Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo will return, as will the oft-injured Juan Lagares. Keon Broxton, an athletic but light-hitting outfielder, was acquired in a trade earlier this month, and Jeff McNeil is a converted infielder who has not played the outfield regularly since college.
“One of things we looked at last year and a reason we failed: We just weren’t deep,” Wilpon said.
That problem, the Mets said, has been addressed. But the solution does not appear likely to include Machado or Harper.
Follow James Wagner on Twitter: @ByJamesWagner.
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