The New York Mets on Tuesday answered the important question surrounding the club with the move everyone expected: David Stearns will be the team’s president of baseball operations.
The agreement between Stearns and the Mets is for five years, according to a league source, and he won’t officially start on the job until after the regular season.
Ahead of another consequential offseason, several other major questions now await Stearns and the Mets.
Here’s a look at the biggest ones.
What is the timeline for winning?
This is the question that foregrounds everything that follows. After this year’s failure, when do the Mets plan to be all-in on winning a championship again?
New York was all-in to start this season, of course, and before the trade deadline, it was reasonable to assume that approach would continue unabated into 2024. However, in dealing both Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — and listening on offers for Pete Alonso — the Mets pivoted toward a view on 2025 and 2026 as the opening of a new competitive window.
The Mets haven’t been totally clear on what that means for 2024. Both owner Steve Cohen and general manager Billy Eppler have said the aim remains to be “competitive” in that season (and Cohen has said “formidable”) while also conceding that expectations would be lower than they have been going into the last two seasons. Now Stearns gets to set that direction more precisely, refining just what “competitive” means in practice.
What’s Pete Alonso’s future?
The long-term future of New York’s offensive cornerstone and the current face of the franchise hinges on that timeline. If the Mets are comfortable aiming much lower in 2024, then continuing to explore the trade market for Alonso this winter makes sense. He’s a free agent after next season, a long-term, nine-figure deal for him could start with a two, and Alonso could bring back a good prospect return.
Of course, there’s also a strong case to make that Alonso deserves exactly that kind of deal, especially given the Mets’ lack of options to replace his skill set. He has as many 40-homer seasons (three) as everyone else in franchise history combined.
Is Buck Showalter the right manager?
Showalter won Manager of the Year for the fourth time last season, providing just the right touch for a veteran roster to cohere into a 101-win beast during the regular season. That magic has eluded him throughout 2023, with the team universally underperforming and often playing sloppily. Showalter has one year left on his contract, and it’s generally preferred across the sport that managers not enter a season as a lame duck.
There are two competing arguments here: One, the job you hired Showalter for is different now. Rather than shepherding a veteran squad, the Mets are pivoting to a youth movement. Maybe Showalter isn’t the best man for that specific gig, and now’s the time to install a person who is. Second, Showalter’s teams have done their best when little is expected of them, and thus the 2024 Mets might be a better showcase of his skills.
Given Stearns’ shared time with him in Milwaukee, current Brewers skipper Craig Counsell will be the subject of plenty of speculation. He hasn’t re-upped with Milwaukee even though his contract ends after this season. Counsell, however, is a Wisconsin native who may want to follow Stearns’ lead in taking a step back from the everyday grind of the season rather than pursue a different opening right away.
And how Stearns views Showalter is a microcosm of how he may view the larger operation he’s inheriting. How much does he value continuity from some of the more recent hires by Eppler — both the coaching staff and a group of front-office officials whose words carry sway — and how much does he want to start fresh with his own people?
Stearns inherited Counsell and longtime Triple-A manager Rick Sweet, thus he has never hired a manager on either level.
When asked about his job status before Tuesday’s game — with news of Stearns yet to be announced by the team — Showalter said he was “not thinking about those things.”
“This is not the time and place for my mind to be going there,” Showalter said.
How should the Mets proceed with their young position players?
On Tuesday night, the bottom half of the Mets lineup featured a quartet of significant prospects: Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty, Ronny Mauricio and Mark Vientos. Do they want to make that an everyday dynamic next season?
Alvarez has established himself as the club’s everyday catcher, and Baty has had the everyday job at third for much of this season, despite his struggles. In a brief snippet in the bigs, Mauricio has exhibited elite exit velocity, and he could play second base with Jeff McNeil shifting to a corner outfield spot. Vientos has shown flashes of power at the major-league level, and the Mets may want to move on from Daniel Vogelbach as their primary designated hitter (or, in the event they move Alonso, slot Vientos in at first base).
Trying to break in that many young players at the same time will come with a lot of growing pains. Back in spring, when I talked to executives about the challenges of integrating young prospects in bigger markets, one piece of advice was, “Be careful how many you’re trying to (incorporate) at once,” because the range of outcomes is so wide. A team is unlikely to hit on all of them at the same time.
What about Starling Marte and the outfield?
It remains unclear whether Marte will return in 2023 after lingering groin issues. Generally, Marte has not felt healthy all season. He had groin surgery on both sides during the offseason, which put him behind teammates in spring training. In addition to the groin problems, severe migraines limited his availability. When healthy, Marte, 34, projects as the Mets’ starting right fielder. But how much can they reasonably expect from him — and what plans need to be made if they can no longer count on significant contributions?
Last year, Marte received MVP votes and became an All-Star; as the team’s No. 2 hitter in the order, he hit 16 home runs with 18 stolen bases and produced an .814 OPS. He played in 118 games. This season, Marte has appeared in only 86 games. He owns a .625 OPS. Marte remains under contract for another two years and $41.5 million.
The Mets could be set elsewhere in the outfield, depending on their plan for McNeil/Mauricio at second base and left field; Brandon Nimmo is entrenched in center field. However, Marte stands out as a major question.
With Milwaukee, Stearns sometimes carried a surplus of outfielders. For example, in 2021 (and without a universal DH), the Brewers entered the season with Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Avisaíl García. As it turned out, the group was hit hard by injuries and poor performance, thus making the depth necessary. And after the season — once García became a free agent — Milwaukee flipped Bradley and two prospects to the Boston Red Sox for Hunter Renfroe. The financial equation couldn’t be different in New York than Milwaukee, which operates on a tight budget, but the move demonstrated an ability to get out of an undesirable contract (Bradley was owed $9.5 million after producing one of baseball’s worst offensive seasons in 2021) while filling a need.
How much of a 2024 rotation is already in-house?
Kodai Senga is in line to garner some Cy Young votes, and José Quintana has been exactly what the Mets signed him to be since debuting in July. After that? It’s been a whole lot of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ from the Mets’ younger starters.
The inability of either David Peterson or Tylor Megill to capitalize on opportunities early in the season helped tank the Mets’ fortunes. They’ve pitched better of late, but still not well enough to comfortably slot them into a rotation spot for next season. José Butto and Joey Lucchesi have pitched decently in small big-league samples, but that they’ve remained behind the uninspiring Peterson and Megill all season suggests they remain lower on the organizational hierarchy. Mike Vasil is unlikely to reach the majors this season, with the Mets preferring to keep a spot open on the 40-man roster.
New York signed three starters in free agency last winter, with Verlander joining Senga and Quintana. If the Mets aren’t ready to hand over the keys to anyone else in-house, they’ll need to add at least three arms again.
(Top photo of Pete Alonso: Wendell Cruz/USA Today)