David Stearns coming back to New York to become president of baseball operations for the Mets was about one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball. The Mets asked to talk to him after he stepped down from his post in Milwaukee and were denied access after last season, but it didn’t take a cocaine-addled private investigator to figure out what would happen when his contract with the Brewers ran out. And so it came to be, as the Stearns will be running the baseball operation for Steve Cohen come the end of this season.
There’s no question Stearns comes in with a pretty impeccable resume, creating a multi-division winning team with one of the lower budgets in the game with the Brewers. Though fleecing that version of the Marlins for Christian Yelich and being in the right place at the right time when the Cubs just decided to abdicate their throne in the Central could have been achieved by just about anyone willing. But beyond that, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Freddy Peralta, and one or two others were produced by Stearns either through signing, draft, or trade. And he certainly benefited from getting to employ Craig Counsell as manager, arguably the best in the game. There’s a lot of fans in places like Milwaukee that wish they’d had Stearns.
Stearns’s hiring in New York is being compared to Andrew Friedman’s hiring in L.A., the parallel being a young exec who had to dance through the raindrops with a small-market team and producing consistent winners while doing so will now be given the F1 car that is the budget of one of the biggest teams in the league (hopefully Stearns can hire fewer abusers!). It’s not quite as linear as that though. Friedman moved west from Tampa after the Dodgers had already become a power and were on the back of two straight NL West titles. While the Mets won 101 games last year, there aren’t quite as many things in place as the Dodgers had (i.e. Clayton Kershaw). Friedman certainly didn’t arrive with the team having freshly just executed a sell-off as Stearns has.
Certainly, there are a couple of long-term pieces in place, or hopefully so. Francisco Alvarez looks to be set behind the plate for a good decade or more. Mark Vientos has struggled at the plate in The Show, but tore AAA apart enough to be in the mix at third and DH next year. Drew Gilbert might arrive next season as well, and Ronnie Mauricio’s tools are still tantalizing enough to wonder whether he could claim second base or a corner outfield spot.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. One, the Mets are kind of old everywhere else. Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, and Edwin Diaz will all be over 30 next season. Pete Alonso will be 29 and also heading into his last season of arbitration. The Polar Bear might be Stearns’s biggest decision as soon as he sits in the chair behind the bigger desk than GM Billy Eppler’s got. Alonso is one of the game’s premier sluggers, but these days when hitters get into their 30s is usually when they start to roll down the other side of the hill. Alonso could bring back a couple younger pieces in a trade from a team that thinks he’s the final piece (one wonders if Stearns hasn’t already called Jed Hoyer and the Cubs about it). But he’s also not easily replaced, and Stearns will have to decide if he wants to commit a lot of years and a lot of dollars to a player who will get all of them in his 30s.
Lindor is still a 5-WAR player, and isn’t likely to drop off a cliff next year, though his days of contending for MVPs are probably over. Nimmo probably can’t handle center much longer and has seen his strikeouts climb, more worrying when you see how much he’s whiffed at fastballs this year over last (13 percent to 19 this year). Moving him to a corner gets tricky with how many players the Mets already have trying to do that (Marte, Mauricio, either Baty or Vientos might have to, and on we go) McNeil might already be starting to smell funny.
Moreover, the Mets don’t have a rotation for next year. The only pitcher signed is Kodai Senga, along with whatever Tylor Megill or Jose Butto might be (which isn’t much, whatever it is). Stearns is lucky in that both Cohen and Eppler made it very public that the Mets were in a reset, which means expectations aren’t pressing for 2024.
Doubly good, because next year’s free agent class is more flea market than Rodeo Drive. There is the hope of Shohei of course, though he won’t help the rotation in 2024. Beyond that, Cody Bellinger might solve the Mets’ centerfield problems, or their first base problems if they trade Alonso, or both. As far as pitchers go, Sonny Gray at 35? Aaron Nola? Eduardo Rodriguez? It’s a good thing that Cohen won’t be pressing to put a juggernaut out there in ‘24, and this is yet another area where a trade of Alonso might be alluring, if Stearns can wrangle young pitching in return. The Mets just don’t have a lot of pitching in the system anywhere close.
Stearns may run into the problem of whatever he can bring in under the surface will be ready for Queens right when Lindor, Nimmo, McNeil, and Diaz have gone off the boil, equalling out and keeping the Mets right where they are. Or that Vientos, Mauricio, and Baty just never find MLB-level offense. It seems like it should be a sweetheart job, given Cohen’s open wallet and flexible outlook. And it well may turn into that in a couple years. But getting there won’t be as easy as it was in L.A. for Friedman, and the patience and comfort he found in Milwaukee won’t be anywhere to be found in New York.
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