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How Mets could approach trade deadline as improbable sellers

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As a so-far disappointing Mets season nears the halfway mark, I still expect they will be buyers at the trade deadline. So does every executive and scout with whom I speak.

The reasons most often cited: 1. They are so heavily invested in this season that it would be difficult to pivot. 2. They are better than their record and will eventually play to that level. 3. As bad as the play has been, they were still only five games out of a playoff spot (through Monday) in a tepid National League. 4. Key members of the organization such as Billy Eppler and Buck Showalter may have their job status at stake and would not use their influence to recommend selling. 5. The Phillies were .500 as late as June 14 last season, barely eked into the playoffs and won the NL title. The 2021 Braves were 56-56 on Aug. 7 and won the World Series.

If I were a betting man, I would think the Mets hang around the playoff race and augment at the margins so as not to cost difference-making prospects. In a recent interview, Steve Cohen mentioned that if the club were in the race, that he would add and that the easiest place to do so is in the pen. The Mets’ obvious need is for a few strikeout relievers — think someone such as the Royals’ Scott Barlow and/or the White Sox’s Joe Kelly (among others).

This complementary strategy did not work well last trade deadline with the acquisitions of Mychal Givens, Tyler Naquin, Darin Ruf and Daniel Vogelbach. But Cohen has emphasized the two-tract nature of his current ownership: a willingness to invest heavily in payroll to try to win now, but also to create cover time to strive toward a powerhouse farm system. He told me two weeks ago that he will judge his stewardship on whether he successfully builds a farm juggernaut akin to that of the Dodgers.

GM Billy Eppler will have some Mets decisions to make if Buck Showalter’s crew can’t turn it around.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Eppler has been told he will be assessed on his ability to deliver such a feeder system. It is why the Mets were so protective of their best prospects at the deadline last year. It is why I think they will have basically the same approach between now and Aug. 1, especially when combined with what is setting up as an extreme seller’s market that should make buying prices high.

An executive who negotiated with the Mets at the deadline last year provided this assessment: “My sense of Cohen is that he desperately does not want to trade prospects.”

Cohen has the most expensive of several high-payroll, so far big-disappointment clubs that includes the Cardinals, Padres, Red Sox and White Sox. Each will have to decide a lane to take for the deadline. Teams generally want to clear the July 9-11 draft before seriously deciding one way or the other.

The Mets — among other items — believe Jose Quintana might be back just before the All-Star break and they then could begin to get a read on how much he could potentially help and change their fate. They will see for at least another month whether Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander can get on a roll and various dead spots in the lineup can perk up.

A NL official when asked to gauge where he perceives the Mets are in regard to the deadline said, “They do not have a very good farm system and they probably don’t want to start trading from their draft last year and they pretty much know now they are not catching the Braves [for first place]. So how much will they want to invest [in trading prospects]? They are in the worst place — they shouldn’t buy and they are too committed to this season to sell. There is nothing worse than the middle.”

There is probably a number of games under .500 and/or out of the final wild card in which the Mets have to concede on, say, July 20 that the best plan is to try to restock as the Yankees did in 2016 when they traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova. The idea is not to rebuild, but to deepen with an eye on going for it the next year.

Mets owner Steve Cohen walks off the field after the Mets Hall of Fame inductees.
Steve Cohen isn’t afraid of making changes — but doesn’t seem likely to have to Mets begin trading prospects.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

If the Mets were to make this decision, what would that look like?

1. The obvious strategy is to trade walk-year players. In the Mets’ case, that would be headlined by David Robertson. And there already is a template for what they should receive since the Cubs traded Robertson in his walk year last season. The return from the Phillies was Ben Brown, whose upside projects to a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter and downside is as a bat-missing setup man.

That fits into what the Mets need for their system. Scouts who cover the Mets farm speak well of the potential of Mike Vasil, a righty recently promoted to Triple-A, but are not as high on others the Mets like internally such as Dominic Hamel and Blade Tidwell. So someone in the vein of Brown, who has risen to the No. 96 prospect by MLB.com, would be an ideal return if Robertson were moved.

The Mets also could view Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar and Tommy Pham as a version of Naquin, Ruf and Vogelbach with an eye on adding as many potential useful depth pieces as possible, especially in pitching. Heck, would a team be interested in Vogelbach? Adam Ottavino would be in play. And the Mets would have to listen on Brooks Raley, who has a $6.5 million option for 2024, though it would leave them needing a lefty reliever again.

2. Do they have to listen on Scherzer? This could instantly be a non-starter. Scherzer and Verlander have complete no-trade clauses and Verlander has a $43.67 million contract for next season. Scherzer can pick up an option for that much next season. Both have waived no-trade clauses at the deadline in their careers to move to contenders and both had significant dollars left, particularly Verlander when acquired by Houston.

But how many teams not named the Cohen Mets would allocate that kind of 2024 cash for pitchers at that advanced age/risk. As perilous as 2023 has been so far, do the Mets see having Scherzer/Verlander as key to winning in 2024? Or could the Mets deal Scherzer for pieces and then go back into free agency for a Shohei Ohtani or Aaron Nola or Julio Urias?

Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer #21 walks back to the dugout
Max Scherzer’s looming option could impact any trade deadline value.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

What I mainly wonder here is could Cohen continue to use his money as a way to build the farm system? Could he essentially agree to pay the rest of the 2023 contracts of anyone from Ottavino to Robertson to Scherzer in exchange for getting better prospects in return? He is fixated on getting the system stacked as soon as possible, often regardless of the cost for personnel or technology.

3. Do they have to listen on Pete Alonso? This is strictly a Cohen call. As part of connecting to and energizing the fan base, the Mets’ owner has increased attention on Mets history. He could see Alonso as an eventual retired number and just refuse to consider moving him — not to mention that Alonso is a fan favorite, is homegrown, has proven he can excel in New York and has the kind of power that is difficult to replicate or replace.

Mets Pete Alonso looks on from the dugout
Trading Pete Alonso is an unlikely — but not impossible — concept for the Mets.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

I would think the only way this becomes a possibility is if any extension talks between Alonso and the Mets camp have convinced the organization that not even Cohen would bridge that gap. Is it possible that the Mets see him in the recent high-end first-base bucket of five to six years at $26 million-$27 million of Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman that takes them just beyond their mid-30s while the Alonso camp sees him more in the New York-proven power titan class of Aaron Judge (nine years at $360 million) that spans his whole 30s.

Alonso is not just a power guy. His average is low this year. But he is a good hitter (like Judge) and he has worked on his body and craft enough to handle first base capably. He also has a control year in 2024, probably at around $22 million. So, the Mets could get a lot in return. The disappointing Cardinals have to be thinking the same with Goldschmidt, who also is under control for $22 million next season.

My hunch is both teams keep trying to win this year and wouldn’t seriously consider moving their first basemen unless they were also struggling midway through their 2024 walk seasons.

But the Mets have played poorly enough for nearly half a season that they are going to have to at least consider what seemed impossible to be on the agenda just a few months ago.

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