I know what you’re thinking. The Washington Nationals are reigning World Series champions, so they should, in gloating fashion, at least be favored to win the NL East in 2020. You could also argue the Braves in good faith, obviously; they actually won the NL East in 2019, and they boast largely the same squad while adding Cole Hamels, Travis d’Arnaud, and Will Smith.
That being said, there’s another contender that’s probably overlooked in the 2020 NL East race, and that’s the New York Mets. Just by taking at a cursory look at Vegas odds, it’s a tight race despite the Mets trailing: the Braves lead the pennant race at 5/1, followed by the Nationals and Phillies at 7/1, and then the Mets at 9/1. That’s one half of the story.
The other half is that I found it incredibly interesting that when looking at FanGraphs depth charts, the Mets actually lead not only the division in projected WAR, but they trail only the Dodgers in the National League. How exactly did we get here?
Remember, it could have been the Mets and Nationals swapping fates at one point. On as recently as August 10th, the two teams were separated by just 14.6 percentage points of playoff odds, when the Mets won a whopping 21 of 27 games from the All Star break until that date.
And the entire second half was nothing to sneeze at: by pitching fWAR, only the Astros had more in the second half, and by position players they ranked ninth, better in fact than the presumptive NL East winner. Their wRC+ of 108 in that time was seventh.
So it’s easy to say what went right: Jeff McNeil and Pete Alonso were both 4.5+ win players. Jacob deGrom won his back-to-back Cy Young award, and Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler had phenomenal, 4+ win years themselves.
The things that went wrong were also easy to count. Their manager, Mickey Callaway, was sent packing after fielding some egregious blunders like batting out of order , shouting at reporters, and an altercation regarding General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen managing from his couch at home, undercutting his play-making ability. Yoenis Cespedes’ contract was altered after he had an incident with a wild boar, a bizarre way to start the year news-wise.
All at the same time, Fred Wilpon’s ownership is being sunset in favor of hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, who will buy a majority share of the team over the next few years. Cohen is infamously known as the center of SAC Capital’s wide-reaching SEC investigation that resulted in a record $1.8 billion in penalties for insider trading, yet Cohen avoided jail time. Oh yeah, and wasn’t that Edwin Díaz guy—and the trade for him—a total disaster?
If there’s anything that would preclude the Mets from achieving what the FanGraphs depth chart says they can, it’s one-million-percent themselves. The team made a couple of shrewd moves in the offseason; despite losing Zack Wheeler to the Phillies, they signed Rick Porcello, who should be competent enough as a fifth starter. They also signed Dellin Betances on a bounce-back deal, and that kind of bounce-back would be sorely needed for a relief core that ranked in the back third of the pack.
Yet many of the elements that made the team so absolutely insufferable to watch, from 10,000 feet, are still in place. The Wilpons are still ownership, technically, and as mentioned before, they are ceding control to someone with questionable business ethics that MLB seems primed to rubber stamp approval as an owner.
The General Manager is still the same, and combining his existing conflicts of interest with his current players along with the recent history of under-cutting the manager doesn’t exactly bode well. While Carlos Beltran could be a nice change—and I’ll include the massive footnote that he could also be implicated in the wide-reaching Astros cheating scandal—there is nothing stopping Van Wagenen from eroding any authority he actually has or builds. And while some of his moves have been the kind of go-for-it deals the team should make, like the trade for Marcus Stroman, others, like the trade that sent Jarred Kelenic to the Mariners for a recently-poor Díaz and an aging Robinson Cano, could be seen as erratic and not well-thought-out.
Ultimately, the pieces are all there, and despite just a couple of small moves so far this offseason, FanGraphs still gives them a median estimate of 92 wins next year, largely because of their excellent pitching and new young stars. Maybe a Mets fan can’t trust the front office to improve the team, nor can they count on Beltran solving all of the clubhouse troubles. At the very least, they can hope they don’t get in the way.