The Mets took another hit Monday when Marcus Stroman announced he was opting out. Stroman cited a number of things that worried him — the obvious one being the game of chicken every ballplayer is playing on trying to avoid the virus, the immediate being the Mets’ upcoming trip to Miami, the geographic symbol of MLB’s fight against COVID thanks to the Marlins.
And even if there were other concerns — Stroman is a free agent at the end of the year; there is likely little to be gained and much to lose in what would probably have amounted to an eight-start season for him — opting out is his right. Unlike the Yoenis Cespedes farce that played out in Atlanta last week, player and team handled this the right way.
But losing Stroman isn’t what should concern Mets fans.
It’s what happens now that should terrify them. Now, his absence won’t help. It means the Mets’ projected No. 2 and 3 starters, Stroman and Noah Syndergaard, won’t pitch an inning combined in 2020. It means the ancient Mets concern about six viable starters seems especially nostalgic and hilarious, given the fact that Michael Wacha’s shoulder has him on the IL now.
But of greater concern is what this will do to the inside of Brodie Van Wagenen’s fertile imagination. Not only is the trade the Mets’ general manager pulled off at the deadline last year now on the clock for being an epic fail, suddenly the three weeks connecting Monday afternoon and the Aug. 31 trading deadline looms as a potential dreamscape for Van Wagenen — and a possible nightmare-scape for the team.
Because if there is one thing we’ve learned about this truncated season so far it is this: with 53.3 percent of the 30 teams qualifying for the playoffs this year, it will be almost impossible to play yourself out of contention. Even the Mets, who labored through a five-game losing streak last week, woke up Monday to discover that at 7-9 they were tied for the second and final NL wild card.
(… and wouldn’t that be a most 2020 development, having to determine tie-breakers between two 29-31 teams to identify the No. 8 seed?)
It means no matter how depleted the Mets are and how shaky the ground on which they walk might be, Van Wagenen — along with his lame-duck bosses — would be motivated to improve the club between now and the deadline — and yes, given his track record, “improve” definitely needs to be inserted in quotation marks now. But he will actually be extra motivated.
It is no secret the Mets are almost certain to be controlled by a different ownership group by the time the New Year arrives. And whether that’s Steve Cohen or Alex Rodriguez or the guys who own the Devils and the Sixers, that means there will be zero pre-existing loyalty to anyone presently in the Mets’ employ.
So if Van Wagenen likes his office at Citi Field, he’s going to need to present the new ownership with a compelling reason to keep him. And given the first 21 months of his tenure, the one thing that can make that argument seem reasonable is to hand over a team that’s gone to the playoffs this year — preferably for more than a two-game cameo.
Otherwise? Van Wagenen is going to have to answer for a couple of things. The continuing adventures of Edwin Diaz and the suddenly impossible-to-keep-on-the-field late-30s version of Robinson Cano is a mortal sin Van Wagenen will have to explain away for a good 12 or 15 years, assuming Jarred Kelenic is even a fraction of the player everyone breathlessly believes him to be.
And the sum total of Stroman — acquired at last year’s deadline when all the world believed the Mets were sellers, not buyers — will likely be this: 11 starts, four wins, two losses and a 3.76 ERA for what turned out to be a third-place team.
Costly because the Mets gave up former first-rounder Anthony Kay (off to a strong start in Toronto: 1-0, 1.13 ERA, .750 WHIP) and Simeon Woods Richardson (a second-rounder whom scouts love) in the trade at a time when they should’ve been harboring young arms, not discarding them. And costly because it surely closed the door on bringing back Zack Wheeler (one of the only bright spots in Philly so far, 2-0 and 2.08) — or, as important, dealing Wheeler and/or Syndergaard at the deadline to rake in a haul of prospects, an equally prudent option.
Now, we could go on with some other odd choices (letting Travis d’Arnaud walk for nothing), and for fairness’ sake we should also mention that the J.D. Davis trade appears to be a steal, and Van Wagenen bucked the industry trend by letting both Pete Alonso in 2019 and Andres Gimenez in 2020 begin the season in the majors, rather than finagling their service time (though those choices could well come back to burn the Mets eventually).
See, this isn’t about if Van Wagenen should be fired today: in normal circumstances, he shouldn’t. But this isn’t a normal time, and Van Wagenen is on a clock held in the hand of a future boss whose identity he doesn’t know. It behooves him to try anything at this point.
And it behooves the men who still do own the Mets — who likely, and troublingly, have similar what-the-hell agendas right now — to make sure that doesn’t happen.