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Should the Braves be worried about the Mets?

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

-Clint Manry

With a brand-new manager and the sport’s highest 2022 payroll, once again (on paper) the Mets are looking like a real threat in the NL East. So far the team’s winter has featured one superstar signing after another, including pitcher Max Scherzer (3 years / $130M), infielder Eduardo Escobar (2 years / $20M), outfielder Starling Marte (4 years / $78M) and… much more. With nearly $230 million in total contracts to just those three players, it’s evident that spending is no obstacle for New York. But as we witnessed last season (when the Mets finished in third place in the division and eight games under .500), the team’s frivolous spending doesn’t necessarily translate to success on the field.

If you recall, the Mets made some pretty big transactions last winter, pulling off signings such as pitchers Taijuan Walker and Aaron Loup, as well as hitters Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar, not to mention huge trades that netted Francisco Lindor and Carlos  Carrasco. Heading into the 2021 campaign, FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski called New York’s hitting “deep” and said he wouldn’t be surprised if its starting rotation is “the best in baseball”. Although, Szymborski felt the bullpen was merely average.

All in all, on April 1 of this year the 2021 Mets were pegged as a 91-win team by the ZiPS projection system, tying with the Braves for the most wins in the NL East. Braves-versus-Mets was expected to be a marquee race for the entire season, and one that would most likely be decided by each club’s mid-season additions. Except, as we now know, that wasn’t what really happened (at least not the first part). For the entire first-half of the season, the Mets paced the division, heading into the All-Star break with a four-game lead over the Phillies at 48-40. Meanwhile, Atlanta sat in third at just 44-45.

And it probably has more to do with how great the Braves were down the stretch, and less to do with how bad the Mets were, but by the first weekend of August the latter team’s lead in the NL East had completely dwindled. A dozen losses in a 14-game stretch from Aug. 13-27 for New York, to go with a nine-game winning streak during that period for Atlanta, turned a tied division into a five-game lead for the Bravos, and from there forward the Mets choked and the Braves took home its fourth consecutive NL East title… and eventually a World Series.

It’s probably safe to say that that kind of turnaround is doubtful to happen again, for both teams. But we’ve seen enough craziness with the Mets in recent years to know that bad things are simply more likely to happen to them. It’s very realistic to expect the 37-year-old Scherzer to be on some type of innings limit in 2022. The guy is a bulldog, but his “dead arm” during the most-recent postseason – preventing him from starting Game 2 of the NLCS versus Atlanta — could very well be a sign that some kind of decline is coming. Lindor proved he’s still an ultra-talented player, laboring through a tough first-half that featured just a .225 AVG to still finish the year with 20 homers and 2.7 WAR, but that’s quite a ways away from the nearly 5 WAR per season he averaged while in Cleveland over the last six seasons. And Escobar has had some really strong performances over the last handful of seasons, logging 9.5 WAR overall since the start of 2018, but 2022 will be his age-33 campaign, meaning it’s probably unfair to expect 3-3.5 WAR-type seasons going forward (hence just the two-year contract).

On the other hand, though they paid a premium in years, landing Marte could be a boon for the Mets. The outfielder is roughly three months older than Escobar (currently 33), but he’s coming off a breakout year with the Marlins and Athletics in 2021, ending the season with a .310 AVG, 12 homers, 47 stolen bases and 5.5 WAR. Soon he’ll be entering his mid-30s, but Marte has a chance to become New York’s top player in 2022. And I don’t think the team is too worried about the back-half of that contract. Getting Mark Canha for around $13 million a year for two seasons was a pretty good signing as well as Canha adds a little more pop to the lineup and does a great job of consistently getting on base.

There’s no doubt the Mets will probably end the offseason as the better team on paper – same as last year. And I haven’t even mentioned all the players that are returning for them in 2022: guys like Jacob deGrom, Pete Alonso, Walker and Carrasco. But if we’ve learned anything from the Braves current run, you can’t always buy a division title, and unfortunately for the Mets, they don’t seem to understand that yet. Hell, I’m sure Braves Country would love to have some of the players the Mets have heading into 2022, but make no mistake, the path to taking the NL East still runs through Atlanta.

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