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A Very Busy Day in Metstown

I’ll give the Mets this much: They do keep you interested.

I started Sunday in the park with Emily and Joshua, securing visors and nice tickets in section 101, another one of those sections that didn’t exist at Shea and so are irresistible to me. The best thing about our seats? This time, they were in the shade.

The Mets then went out there and won the damn thing, 8-7 [1], barely withstanding the Pirates to complete a three-game sweep.

It’s a win, and every win is inherently good for its effect on team record and standings. But it didn’t particularly feel like one, and let’s just say this game was not one to inspire odes to the majesty of baseball. The Mets started off by jumping on Chris Archer [2] for a six spot, but hopes that they would then slowly pull away were unfounded. Archer settled in, or the Mets settled — hard to tell from beyond the center-field fence — and the Bucs crept back to 6-3 against a serviceable but unimpressive Jason Vargas [3], were pushed back to 8-3, and then came storming back against Tyler Bashlor [4] and Edwin Diaz [5].

Bashlor’s brief bout of recent competence seems to have been the universe’s ruse to lull us: He walked Colin Moran [6], gave up a two-run homer to Bryan Reynolds [7], and surrendered an infield single to Starling Marte [8] (which Adeiny Hechavarria [9] arguably should have converted to an out) before being excused further duty. Enter Diaz, who promptly surrendered a bolt into the left-field corner by Jose Osuna [10], a no-doubter in Diaz’s no mas season.

Diaz got the last two outs, but he also got loudly and roundly booed — by me. I have nothing against Diaz — I thought bringing him to New York was a fine idea and didn’t sweat the price paid — but one can only take so much Looperesque/Francoian/Benitezite serial incompetence before the frustration has to go somewhere. Apparently, today was the day the relief valve deployed and I wound up furiously booing a Met while people in my section wondered if I was having a stroke.

Diaz’s struggles made me think about the plight of Off the Cliff guys. A couple of years back Chris Archer looked like a star in the making; his time in Pittsburgh has been an out-and-out disaster. What in the world happened to him? Is he hurt? Caught by a perfect storm of bad luck? At least what happened to Jung Ho Kang [11] seems fairly clear: He set fire to his career with a flurry of DUIs, missed the better part of two years, and has reportedly quit drinking but never seen his baseball skills reignite. Kang struck out four times Sunday and is hitting .170.

The Mets have their own Off the Cliff guys — unfortunately, two of them used to be Mariners. Robinson Cano [12] hit three home runs against San Diego not so long ago; what he’s done since, alas, has served as a reminder that Babe Ruth [13] hit three in a game for the Boston Braves, shortly before the end. I figured Cano would be at least serviceable as a Met, at least for the first couple of years left on his mega-contract, but he’s looked like a statue at second, been below replacement value at the place and done himself no favors with bouts of on-field sloth. And he’s here for four more seasons. Gulp.

And then there’s Diaz. Hopefully whatever happened to Diaz is a blip: Jacob deGrom [14] and Noah Syndergaard [15] have seemed to harness previously missing sliders under Phil Regan [16], allowing us to imagine Diaz will go back to being Edwin Diaz. But maybe he won’t. Maybe he’s hurt, and not telling anyone. Maybe he’s just lost it — a hazard for all players but relievers in particular, one we unfortunately remember keenly when their plunge coincides with becoming a Met. (Ramon Ramirez [17], don’t answer the blue and orange courtesy phone.)

Oh yeah, and there’s Jeurys Familia [18]. But honestly, I’ve depressed myself and probably you enough with those last two paragraphs.

Anyway, the Mets won and have crept back into what you could fool yourself into thinking is contention, particularly entering a stretch in which they’ll play 10 against the White Sox, Pirates and Marlins. (And oh, what could have been with two of those mind-boggling losses in San Francisco going the other way.) If the Mets play well, they could conceivably poke their noses back above .500 and be on the first screen of the wild-card standings again.

Great! But even if they do pull that off, it’s a mirage. This team doesn’t have the bullpen or up-the-middle defense to survive the last six weeks of the season, which will be heavy on games against the Braves, Cubs, Phils, Nats and Dodgers. The Mets played a brutal stretch against such solid competition in June and early July and were exposed as pretenders; I’m pretty sure the same thing will happen again. (As always with Mets pessimism: I’d love to be wrong! Please let me have to print out this post and eat it!) Their focus ought to be on 2020 and 2021.

Which brings us to the other shoe that dropped on Sunday: the Mets’ acquisition of Marcus Stroman [19] from Toronto for two prospects, the bespectacled Anthony Kay [20] and young fireballer Simeon Woods Richardson [21].

Wait, the Mets are buyers? Holy Victor Zambrano [22]!

Except industry scuttlebutt is that the Mets are not buyers — that the Stroman deal is a prelude to trading Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler [23].

Which lands us back in a familiar place, one that makes me angry and has stopped making a lot of people as angry as they should be.

The Mets’ writers and a good chunk of the fanbase have accepted a poisonous narrative that ought to be unacceptable: that the Mets’ financial limitations are as unchallengeable as the laws of physics. It’s become accepted wisdom that in July the Mets will sell players off for cash considerations and/or mediocre relief prospects, and in December they’ll shop in the clearance aisle of the free-agent supermarket, shuffling to the register with a dented infielder and a scratched-up fifth starter. And so all of their moves or potential moves are assessed this way: What’s the ceiling for this empty-headed Double-A power arm? Is this aging fifth starter good for 150 innings?

It’s infuriating.

The Mets are still being run on the cheap, hobbled by the Wilpons’ refusal or inability to operate the National League’s New York franchise in a manner that Major League Baseball should expect. Their payroll figures are fundamentally dishonest, swollen by millions in MLBPA money, naming rights and recouped insurance money that the Wilpons continue to count against payroll instead of reinvesting in the team. And that’s led to their current blinkered existence. There’s a lot of talk around the Mets being “creative,” but they’re creative because that’s what you have to be when you’re cheap. The point shouldn’t be that the Mets’ creativity is so often ineffective, but that it’s self-inflicted.

Yeah, the Mets extended deGrom. Terrific! Why did we all treat it like a miracle, instead of like what any competently run big-market franchise would do? Why don’t we ask where the other extensions are?

The Mets ought to be pushing all their chips in for the next two years. Besides the superlative deGrom, they have a vibrant, exciting young core in Pete Alonso [24], Jeff McNeil [25], Michael Conforto [26], Syndergaard and Wheeler. They control Syndergaard through 2021 and can make a qualifying offer to Wheeler keeping him through next year. The question ought to be whether they should sign those two pitchers to long-term deals. Instead, they’re talking of trading them. It’s madness — madness that too many of us have come to accept as normality.

Which brings us to Stroman.

Look, I really like Stroman — he’s been a wonderful pitcher when healthy and he’s a player who’s easy to root for, an undersized hurler who’s withstood baseball prejudices and ridden his own talent and smarts to the upper ranks of his sport. He’s a clear upgrade over, say, Jason Vargas — to say nothing of Walker Lockett [27].

But is Stroman here to replace Vargas? I doubt it. I think he’s here to replace Wheeler or Syndergaard. The former would be a lateral move at best and quite possibly a downgrade, given the stretches of success Wheeler has had over the last two seasons. The latter would be a disaster in the making, a move that could easily haunt the Mets for a decade or more.

When pitching at his peak, Syndergaard is quite simply the best Mets starting pitcher I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen Tom Seaver [28], Dwight Gooden [29] and deGrom. His arsenal seems stolen from videogame cheat codes, he’s cerebral and interested in outthinking hitters as well as overpowering them, and he’s got the essential meanness that a top starter needs. He’s been hampered by a rash of odd injuries, MLB’s experiments with the baseball, and his teammates’ horrendous defense. None of those things is insurmountable or ought to blind a smart fan to his otherworldly talent.

And yet the Mets want to trade him. Why? Because he’s the most valuable chip on the market and they need to do some retrenching? Again, that’s the false narrative the Wilpons have force-fed us until it’s been accepted as true. Or is it because he’s ornery and outspoken and loves the spotlight? You better believe that’s a part of it too — which is both deeply stupid and richly ironic, given that the Mets have literally marketed Syndergaard as a deity.

The Mets ought to be selling off 2019’s deadwood: goodbye, Vargas and Todd Frazier [30]. They could certainly explore trading pieces that don’t seem to fit, starting with Dom Smith and maybe including Amed Rosario [31]. They ought to listen on any other proposed deal (you always listen), but always asking if that makes them better for 2020 and 2021.

Lock up Syndergaard and Wheeler and get to work on the up-the-middle defense. Yeah, you’re stuck with Cano, but improvements could and should be made at catcher, shortstop and in center. Does that mean trying Rosario in center? Trading for a center fielder? Signing an actual free agent who’s not north of 33 years old? Figure out a plan around that remarkable core of young players and go for it, the way a team playing in what’s still the capital of baseball ought to.

But here’s what I think the Mets will do instead. (And let’s be clear: Boy oh boy would I love to be wrong.) They’ll sell off Vargas and Frazier for cash considerations and maybe a couple of lightning-armed dimwits who’ll put up a 4.83 ERA over chunks of three seasons. They’ll trade Syndergaard for something that might or might not help in other areas, then anonymously whisper about how he was uncooperative in the clubhouse. They’ll then beat us over the heads with how wonderful it is that Steven Matz [32] and Stroman are both Long Island kids — as if anyone with a brain cares whether a given Met grew up in a nice house in Stony Brook, in a missionary’s cabin in Botswana, or in a scientific research station on the Ross Ice Shelf.

The Wilpons will see that local story as a PR win, and the Mets will keep flacking it all the way to another 74-win campaign. Meanwhile, Syndergaard will hoist hardware for the Twins or Padres or Astros and when he returns to beat us we’ll get sentimental and admit that it’s all kind of a shame. And no one in the media will seriously ask if any other story was possible.