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Aiming Higher With Michael Cuddyer

With the fifteenth pick in the 2015 draft, the New York Mets selected the present. They didn’t put their trust in a marker for the future. They went with a Michael for the season directly in front of them.

If the Mets’ signing of Michael Cuddyer [1] — 36 years old in 2015, which will be his fifteenth season in the majors — has anything in common with the amateur they won’t be drafting in the amateur draft come June, it’s that the “best available” descriptor leaps to mind. In draft terms (albeit usually in football), “best available athlete [2]” is the catch-all explanation for why someone gets picked as high as he does. For the Mets, substitute “outfielder who we’re pretty sure will hit” for “athlete,” and Cuddyer totally becomes worth the surrender of the first-round pick they have to turn over to Colorado as compensation for nabbing their qualifying-offered free agent. Same can be said for the $21 million the player himself will receive over the next two years. Twenty-one million dollars used to sound like a lot, even in baseball, especially for the Mets. These days, who can tell?

This isn’t how the Mets have operated lately. The Mets weren’t all about this year. Or next year. They were about the three or four or five years it takes to develop a top-notch minor leaguer into a serviceable major leaguer. They were about waiting on Brandon Nimmo or Dominic Smith. The subtext had been no rush is necessary; it’s not like a good player is going to make us substantially better. That’s why a draft pick trumped Michael Bourn as 2013 loomed. That (plus money) helps explain the reluctance to go after Stephen Drew on the eve of 2014.

We still wait on young Nimmo and young Smith, but we won’t have to wait for an outfielder who figures to make us somewhere from marginally to substantially better in 2015. Whatever shortcomings are inherent in Monday’s signing of Cuddyer — age, injury history, defense or lack thereof — he was the one guy the Mets identified as the best available outfielder. They decided he’d improve their team right away and they decided improving their team right away was imperative.

How novel! And how pleasant!

Two years of Cuddyer represents a sturdy and visible bridge from how well 2014 ended to how promising 2015 appears. In early September, I dared to list three wishes [3] on top of my previously stated desire [4] for a .500-plus record after the All-Star break. Lucas Duda should hit 30 home runs. Juan Lagares should be voted a Gold Glove. Jacob deGrom should be awarded the National League Rookie of the Year. All of it has come true [5]. Now, well before we figured anything would happen, we have one of those “pieces” we knew we’d need to build on those individual accomplishments and that 34-33 finish. We have the addition of Cuddyer.

There’s a gathering critical mass of position-playing ability in Flushing. It hasn’t fully come together yet, but Cuddyer pushes it toward coalescing. I’d be a bit more excited if our core wasn’t leaning a bit heavily on older guys who you hope haven’t aged too much and younger guys who still need to completely ripen. Those who are approaching their prime (Lagares, d’Arnaud) and those who are drifting past it (Wright, Granderson, Cuddyer) surround a couple of guys (Duda, Murphy) who are as at high a level as they’re probably gonna get. Somewhere amid these demographics, there is a best-case scenario developing, with bases being reached and runs being scored and an offense that isn’t so shaky or shallow anymore.

Then you throw in the freshly minted Rookie of the Year deGrom and prospective Returnee of the Year Harvey and whoever among the rest of the pitchers isn’t traded for a shortstop, and the 79-83 Mets of 2014 are easily pictured evolving into an outfit with more wins than losses — and from there, as we’ve just seen, it doesn’t take much beyond vaulting over .500 to earn a playoff ticket. As a couple of Wild Cards could tell you, that ticket can take a team a long way.

That’s a trip one shouldn’t plan too hastily, but thinking about it as a decent possibility beats what had been the status quo, which amounted to maintaining mid-market mediocrity offseason after offseason. Why not roll the dice on a Bourn or a Drew, either of whom would have represented, at least on paper, upgrades at the positions they would have filled? It was judged not yet worth it, not for the money (tens of millions in both cases) and not for the draft picks (first-round for Bourn, third-round for Drew).

If Cuddyer doesn’t heal or doesn’t hit or falls down a lot, well, that will be too bad. If he does enough that a den Dekker or Nieuwenhuis probably wasn’t going to do, then it will be all good. A productive Cuddyer means a better lineup. A better lineup means a better team. A better team means a better season. A better season means a second half that isn’t played for hints of forward momentum amid auditions for the year after. And while that’s not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s the side of the rainbow we’ve been dying to be on for too long.

By the time the pot of gold is within unassailable reach, Cuddyer — and Granderson, who’s likely moving to left — might be supplanted by Nimmo, 21, and 2014 first-rounder Michael Conforto, also 21. Smith, 19, could chase Duda off first when the whole thing’s ready to come to fruition. The restocking of the farm system via the draft wasn’t folly. That’s where you get most of your future from. But sometimes you have to stock the present. That’s what the Mets did on Monday when they sacrificed a first-round selection upon the altar of winning sooner rather than later.