The Mets entered the 2021 season hopeful that they would reach the postseason for the first time since 2016. That it didn’t happen — and the way the team collapsed — leaves them with more questions than answers this offseason.
Many of those questions will be off the field.
But while the Mets are figuring things out off the field, they’ll also be making lots of tough decisions on their own free agents, external free agents, potential trades, and on just how much of the team’s core should be brought back.
As the Mets get to work in an effort to reshape the roster into one that contends and eventually reaches the playoffs in 2022, here’s what their four biggest priorities should be…
1. Determine how much of a roster shakeup is needed
Had the Mets barely missed the playoffs or had their offense performed near expectations, an easy argument could’ve been made that they should run it back with largely the same cast of characters in 2022.
But with so many players underperforming expectations on the offensive side of things and with a bunch of those players either heading for free agency or no longer seeming like long-term fits, it’s clear the Mets need at least a bit of a shakeup.
And SNY’s Andy Martino recently reported that there could be “greater turnover in players than we have seen in a while.”
Michael Conforto, who is eligible for the qualifying offer, is the first player who comes to mind. And cases can be made for moving on and for keeping him ahead of what should be a bounce back season.
What about Javier Baez, who was electric for the Mets in August and September and is open to returning?
Decisions on players like J.D. Davis (who sees the writing on the wall) could be easier than on players like Jeff McNeil (whose bad year seems like a blip) and Dominic Smith (whom the Mets would be selling low on but might not have a spot in the lineup).
2. Figure out the starting rotation situation
The rotation of course starts with Jacob deGrom, and with his season having ended on July 7 and there being no clarity on what he might look like in 2022, the Mets have a problem.
Compounding that problem is that Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard are free agents, Carlos Carrasco struggled badly in 2021, Taijuan Walker had a down second half (that could’ve been due to a massive innings increase), and Tylor Megill showed flashes but can’t be counted on just yet.
If deGrom is healthy, the Mets should be in good shape. And if they retain Stroman and/or Syndergaard, the top of the rotation should be formidable if deGrom is indeed healthy.
Things really could look great for the Mets if everything falls into place, but they have to operate under the assumption that it won’t.
And that means being aggressive when it comes to potential deals for impact arms on the free agent market and stockpiling more than enough arms to get through the season.
Starting pitchers on the free agent market will include Max Scherzer, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray (who will almost certainly be attached to a qualifying offer), and Justin Verlander.
3. Find a third baseman
The most intriguing open position the Mets have is third base, where the team could go internal with someone already on the 40-man roster, could make a big splash on the free agent market, or could possibly bide time while waiting for one of their top prospects to be ready — which could happen as soon as 2022.
Of the options currently on the 40-man roster, it’s probably safe to eliminate Davis, who valiantly played through a hand injury this season (and underwent surgery), but whose defense at the hot corner remains close to unplayable.
If the Mets are going internal at third base, the most logical option is Jeff McNeil, whose down 2021 seems like an aberration after he slashed .319/.383/.501 in 248 games over his first three seasons in the majors from 2018 to 2020.
McNeil could also be an option to play second or a corner outfield spot, depending on what happens with Baez and Conforto.
If the Mets go the free agent route for third base, Kris Bryant could be a perfect fit, especially given his versatility and ability to play both corner outfield spots and first base.
There are also two interesting options in the minors who are close to making their big league debuts, but likely won’t be ready for Opening Day 2022.
Mark Vientos slashed .281/.352/.581 with 25 homers in 83 games split between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Syracuse in 2021, and the 21-year-old will be just a phone call away next season. In addition to third base, Vientos got some time in left field this season. He could also be a DH option, assuming the NL adds it.
Then there’s Brett Baty, who hit .292/.382/.473 with 12 homers in 91 games this season for High-A Brooklyn and Binghamton.
Baty is not as close to the majors as Vientos, but he’s knocking on the door. Like Vientos, Baty got some time in left field in 2021.
So the Mets have lots of options. And the versatility of McNeil, Bryant (if he’s signed), Baty, and Vientos means that they can mix and match if needed.
4. Address the corner outfield situation
Whether or not the Mets retain Conforto — on the qualifying offer or different contract structure — will go a long way toward determining just how much New York might need to do outfield-wise this offseason.
If Conforto is back, Brandon Nimmo could be used again in center field (where he improved in 2021 while playing deeper). Or, the Mets could sign someone like Starling Marte for center and use Nimmo in left.
But if Conforto walks, the Mets will have two corner spots to fill and no real answers on the 40-man roster.
They could conceivably turn to Dominic Smith in left, but Smith is coming off a very disappointing 2021 season, is not a fit for the outfield (though he should get credit for giving it his all at an unnatural position for him), and is a better fit as a DH or at first base.
When determining what to do with the corner outfield, the Mets should also keep in mind that Nimmo is set to be a free agent after 2022. He should absolutely be retained, but the closer he gets to free agency, the likelier it is that he walks.
As far as potential prospects who could be fits in the corner outfield at some point in 2022, Vientos and Baty — as noted above — could profile there. But they have minimal professional experience in the outfield.
Also as noted above, Bryant could be a perfect fit for the Mets as a free agent target and potential outfield option due to his versatility.
Nick Castellanos, also set to be a free agent, is very much not a fit. The first reason is because he will very likely be attached to a qualifying offer, and the Mets would lose the No. 14 pick in the 2022 MLB Draft by signing him.
The second reason is that Castellanos is well below average in the outfield and cannot play anywhere else on the diamond. He was moved from third base following the 2017 season after being worth -22 DRS saved there that year.
An outfield with Bryant in left, Nimmo in center, and Conforto in right, or with Bryant and Nimmo in the corner outfield spots and Marte in center could make sense.
In the above scenario, the Mets could have McNeil at either third base or second base — depending on what happens with Baez.