Mets add depth while preparing for ‘two different seasons’
By Tyler Kepner
While the New York Mets prepared for the first game of their postseason, against San Diego on Oct. 7, José Quintana started the playoff opener for the St. Louis Cardinals. He held Philadelphia scoreless into the sixth inning, but the Phillies rallied late for a victory. The winning pitcher was David Robertson.
It was easy for Mets fans to miss that other National League wild-card series, between the Cardinals and Phillies, coming as it did amid the swift demise of a 101-win regular season in Flushing. Hours after Quintana and Robertson looked so sharp in St. Louis, the Padres thumped Max Scherzer en route to a series victory at Citi Field.
Scherzer was the Mets’ splashy signing last December, for a record $43.3 million per season. This month they added another right-handed three-time Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, for another deal at $43.3 million per year. But they also signed the left-hander Quintana and the right-handed reliever Robertson and traded with Tampa Bay for another pitcher, left-handed reliever Brooks Raley — three lower-profile, depth-adding moves that could make a big difference.
“It’s like you’re trying to manage for two different seasons, right?” Mets general manager Billy Eppler said Wednesday on a video news conference to introduce Quintana, Robertson and Raley. “We’re going to go play 162 games in 183 days or whatever, and then if we do well there, you get an opportunity to get into the postseason, where you’re managing and utilizing personnel in a little different way than you did over the course of the season. So having depth is critical.”
The Mets were deep enough last season to reach the playoffs despite injuries to Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, who combined for only 34 starts. DeGrom, 34, has taken his dazzling, but fragile, right arm to Texas, where the Texas Rangers gave him a five-year, $185 million contract. Verlander, who turns 40 in February, got a two-year deal to replace him.
Verlander and Scherzer, 38, are ferociously motivated competitors, separated by only five career strikeouts (3,198 for Verlander and 3,193 for Scherzer) atop the active leaderboard. But neither had much left by the last postseason — only one of their five combined starts extended past the fifth inning — and the Mets’ greatest challenge could be keeping them close to peak performance when it matters most.
This offseason, the Mets have lost three right-handed starters — deGrom, Chris Bassitt (to Toronto) and Taijuan Walker (to the Phillies) — but filled in with Verlander, Quintana and Kodai Senga, a right-handed star from Japan. With Carlos Carrasco and some combination of Tylor Megill and David Peterson, they should consider using a sixth starter whenever possible in the regular season, to keep their best arms fresh for October.
Quintana, who turns 34 in January, would be a steal at two years and $26 million if he pitches as he did last season, when he had a 2.93 ERA in 32 starts for Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
With a mechanical adjustment that sharpened his sinker, Quintana allowed only eight home runs; his ratio of 0.4 per nine innings was the best in Major League Baseball. He made his debut in 2012 and has never reached the World Series, and figured the Mets would give him a good chance.
“It’s a really exciting time,” Quintana said. “I think everybody’s talking about us, and that’s fine. We showed something — we want to win. Like David says, I’m not going to be younger anymore, so it’s time to win. This is the perfect fit, the perfect team. We have everything in here to show that.”
Robertson, who will be 38 in April, won the World Series with the 2009 New York Yankees and returned with the Phillies last fall, earning a save in the opener in Houston. Working without an agent, he knew where to shop himself on the open market.
“Sometimes you have to put out a little bit more money to get the players that you want, that you think are going to fit in, and get the right staff in control of that organization,” said Robertson, who got a one-year deal for $10 million. “I think it just shows a lot about our owner — he’s committed to it.”
The Mets’ owner, Steven Cohen, has authorized a record payroll of roughly $350 million for 2023, plus about $80 million in luxury-tax penalties. The deals for Verlander, Quintana, Robertson, Senga (five years, $75 million), closer Edwin Díaz (five years, $102 million) and outfielder Brandon Nimmo (eight years, $162 million) add up to a $461.66 million spending spree.
“A lot of the heavy lifting is done,” Eppler said, “but it doesn’t stop us from being opportunistic.”
Cohen and a few other team owners have been especially generous this offseason. The Mets, the Yankees, the Phillies, the Rangers, the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants — who have a 13-year, $350 million agreement with shortstop Carlos Correa — have each spent at least $230 million on free agents.
The Phillies brought shortstop Trea Turner back to the NL East with an 11-year, $300 million contract, and Atlanta — which did much of its spending on in-season contract extensions — traded for a top catcher, Sean Murphy, this week in a three-team deal.
“The NL East as a whole has just gotten a lot better,” Raley said. “I think in this division you’ve really got to reload if you want to compete. Coming from the AL East, it’s very similar. It’s part of the sport now: for the best players, the contracts are obviously fruitful.”
The spending is not as widespread as it seems: Seventeen teams have combined to spend less than $200 million on the open market. A dozen of those teams have spent no more than $12 million apiece.
It is safe to say that the Mets will always spend big under Cohen, though no payroll figure can tilt all the variables their way in October. To Eppler, every move is designed with a singular goal: to build a roster that has a chance. Again.
“We’ve got to get into the tournament at the end,” Eppler said. “And that’s, in and of itself, going to give you the opportunity to advance to the World Series and ultimately get an opportunity to win one. But if we can sign up for that number of wins again next season, if you offer me that right now, I’m in.”