The more prudent move would have been for the Mets to add pitching, especially considering they knew before Friday’s trade deadline that Jacob deGrom had suffered a setback in his return from the injured list that will shut him down for the next two weeks due to elbow inflammation.
Instead they made a big-splash move, trading for a potential difference-making player in Javier Baez, who at his best could have a Yoenis Cespedes-like effect, circa 2015, on a still-sputtering offense.
In that sense, kudos to the Mets’ brass for going for it in a year when the NL East is theirs to win, and deGrom (if healthy) makes anything possible come October.
However, in failing to add another starter, other than journeyman Trevor Williams coming over in the Baez deal, Sandy Alderson and Zack Scott are taking a big gamble that their team will have enough pitching to hold onto their lead in the division over the next two months.
Could they have traded instead for Jose Berrios? Based on the strong package the Twins got from the Blue Jays, the Mets would have had to give up more than Pete Crow-Armstrong, last year’s first-round draft pick, whom they gave up to get Baez.
But you can make the case, especially after the deGrom news, that they’d have been better off doing what the Phillies did, trading with the Rangers for Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy, a starter and a reliever each having strong seasons.
Nevertheless, at this point there’s no guarantee the Mets’ offense was suddenly going to kick into gear, and Baez has the star presence and power bat to do for this team what Cespedes did in 2015, when he got hot and carried the ballclub to a higher level.
So we’ll see. There’s another gamble in simply acquiring Baez, as Crow-Armstrong is a big price to pay for a potential rental deal, and it’s hard to see the Mets giving Baez a Lindor-like contract -- which is what he’ll want -- to lock him up long-term.
In addition, Baez has obvious flaws as a free-swinger, considering his 131 strikeouts are the most by any hitter in the National League, and he’s only walked 15 times. That lack of plate discipline, which currently adds up to a .292 on-base percentage, is not what Alderson typically wants in his lineup, but Baez is also an electric talent who improves the Mets in all facets of the game.
In fact, Alderson and the Mets have wanted Baez for a long time. Ten years ago they went into the 2011 draft hoping he’d be there for them with the 13th pick, only to see the Cubs take him at No. 9.
“We were hoping,” VP of scouting Tommy Tanous told me in January, when I wrote a story about that remarkable 2011 draft.
“At the time he had the best bat speed I’ve seen in 20 years of scouting, he reminded me of Gary Sheffield. And his hands were elite. We worked him out before the draft and it was one of the most fun workouts I’ve ever been to. The talent was something to see.”
The Mets wound up taking Brandon Nimmo in that draft, but more than once in the next few years Alderson inquired about trading for Baez, even willing to talk about dealing Zack Wheeler or Noah Syndergaard, but Theo Epstein wasn’t biting.
“We tried more than once for him,” a former Mets’ exec recalls. “The talent was always very enticing.”
The Mets thought Baez would develop better plate discipline over the years, but even as that remains a glaring issue he has developed into the star they envisioned, at least partly because he can win games in so many ways,
Indeed, Baez will provide elite defense at shortstop until Francisco Lindor returns from his oblique injury and then at second base where he’ll form the most spectacular middle-infield combination in baseball with his long-time friend.
Baez is also considered an excellent baserunner who has 13 stolen bases this season against three times caught stealing, and he has big power for a shortstop and a knack for driving in runs, as evidenced by his 22 home runs and 65 RBIs.
As an NL scout told me, “His profile doesn’t fit a guy you’d want up in a big spot because he chases so much, but for me he is because he’s got supreme confidence in those situations. It’s a cliché but he’s not afraid of the moment because he has so much confidence in his ability. The guy loves the spotlight so I think he’ll thrive in New York.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s a bit like the scouting report on Cespedes at the time Alderson traded for him in 2015 to jump-start the Mets’ offense. Except Baez doesn’t bring the baggage that came with Cespedes, whose work ethic and attitude at times exasperated his various employers over the years.
Baez can be flashy to a fault on occasion, and it was only a month ago that Cubs’ manager David Ross pulled him from a game after a baserunning blunder when he forgot how many outs there were and got doubled off first on a routine fly ball.
However, Baez took responsibility for his mistake, telling reporters, “I blame it on myself. I lost count of the outs. We talked about it. We’re on the same page.”
There was also his highly-charged confrontation with Reds’ reliever Amir Garrett, when Baez gestured emphatically toward the pitcher after hitting walk-off fly-ball single and was later fined by MLB for taunting.
In general, though, Baez is considered a high-energy guy with a solid reputation.
“He’ll style it sometimes on a ball that doesn’t get out (for a home run) but I’ve never seen him dog it,” another scout said. “He plays hard. The defense is always there. He runs hot and cold with the bat, but when he’s hot he can carry a ballclub.”
That too sounds a bit like the Cespedes who came over in 2015 and immediately caught fire with the bat, lifting the Mets to a higher level offensively over the last couple of months of the season.
It was only three years ago that Baez, at age 25, had that type of impact on the Cubs, when his 40 doubles, 34 home runs, and 111 RBIs, in addition to his great defense at shortstop, added up to a second-place finish in the NL MVP voting to Christian Yelich.
The Mets are hoping for a similar boost, as their inconsistent offense is the biggest reason they’ve been unable to pull away in the NL East. Their total of 389 runs ranks them 14th in the NL, ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Meanwhile, Baez, as the scout noted, is streaky with the bat. In June he hit only .157 with a .604 OPS but this month he has hit .324 with an .890 OPS, so perhaps the Mets are getting him at a good time.
It all makes for great intrigue: the time is now for the Mets, especially given the state of the NL East, and they made a go-for-it move that is sure to jazz up the clubhouse.
But will they regret not adding more pitching instead? We likely won’t know that for weeks, but the deGrom news certainly puts the question in a harsher light.