NEW YORK — Halfway to first base, Tommy Pham grimaced Thursday as the White Sox completed a third-inning double play on another one of the veteran’s hard-hit balls. Pham said he would’ve been “dumb enough” to try and play through discomfort, adding that doing so would’ve made things worse. But manager Buck Showalter intervened and pulled him before the next half inning. Now, the Mets hope Pham can avoid the injured list with a groin issue that first plagued him a couple of weeks ago.
Numbers say that Pham profiles as the Mets’ most productive batter.
Scouts say that Pham profiles as arguably the Mets’ best trade asset.
For the Mets, such describes life on the fringe.
The players New York needs to make an improbable run at the playoffs double as intriguing trade candidates if the Mets decide to sell.
The Mets head to Boston this weekend needing to win more games in order to at least stand pat before the Aug. 1 trade deadline. Their 6-2 loss to the White Sox on Thursday ended a three-game winning streak. At 45-51 and seven games out of a playoff spot, the Mets can delay decisions —whether to buy or sell and how far to go in either direction or pursue some kind of combination — for only a short while longer.
White Sox 6, Mets 2: The loss ended the Mets’ three-game winning streak. Drew Smith gave up four runs (one earned; Alonso error) in the sixth inning. New York is 45-51.
— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) July 20, 2023
In the meantime, a few individual storylines from Thursday added to the intricate picture. The three games between the White Sox and Mets attracted several scouts from a host of clubs. They tracked the players from Chicago, which definitely will sell. They also evaluated the players representing New York, which waits. For now.
One American League scout, while factoring in cost and contracts, listed the Mets’ most tradeable players as Pham, David Robertson, Brooks Raley and Mark Canha.
In addition to liking his bat, evaluators covet Pham because he cares about winning, prepares well, works hard and carries a competitive edge.
Pham, whose .831 OPS trails only Francisco Alvarez (.832) for the club lead, first experienced groin trouble in San Diego just before the All-Star break. He said the discomfort doesn’t feel as bad as it did then but noted he felt “some tightness.” He missed time before the break, but Thursday marked his third-straight start in left field. Pham wouldn’t say whether he’d be able to avoid the injured list.
“I don’t want to give out false hope, you know, say something and have to retract back my words,” Pham said. “I would say it’s not as bad as two weeks ago. So there’s reason to be optimistic.”
Things played out differently for Starling Marte. Just before the game, the Mets placed Marte on the injured list because of migraines. Showalter said they made the move Thursday in part because it marked the last day that such a transaction could be retroactive to July 17. (Also, Marte has a baby due at the end of the month.) For the past couple of days, Showalter had mentioned how Marte’s migraines led to vomiting and the 34-year-old being sensitive to light.
While Showalter said Marte “had been pretty weak today,” the manager added there’s a good chance that Marte could return when his IL stint ends in a week. The situation adds to what has been a down year for Marte, who had double groin surgery in the offseason. Marte’s regression stands out as one of the reasons for the Mets’ disappointing season.
To replace Marte on the roster, the Mets will recall first baseman/third baseman/designated hitter Mark Vientos, a league source confirmed.
Marte’s absence means more playing time for Canha, another favorite among rival scouts for his professionalism, positional versatility (he can play some first base) and on-base skills.
Lately, Canha has played well in a limited role. Canha started the season as the Mets’ left fielder with Pham as a part-time player. But Pham’s surge led to fewer at-bats for Canha. Still, Canha has performed well in July, going 6-for-21 with a home run.
Early on Thursday, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that teams have asked the Mets about Canha’s availability and cited the Mariners as a possible match. The link makes sense; outfielder Jarred Kelenic recently landed on the injured list after breaking his foot while kicking a water cooler.
Trading Canha and holding onto Pham could be an example of the Mets buying and selling, depending on the return. From a purely speculative standpoint — read: no evaluators suggested this — a few options come to mind. The Mets could swap Canha for the struggling A.J. Pollock and a prospect, with New York covering the small difference in remaining salary. Also, they could trade Canha and absorb the remainder of his salary for a reliever with club control or a near-ready prospect. Owner Steve Cohen has already demonstrated the willingness to buy down contracts, which adds to the intriguing permutations of several of the Mets’ trade candidates.
José Quintana stands out as another name to consider. Like Pham, the Mets need Quintana healthy and productive in order to cling to any hope of a playoff chase. Returning from rib surgery to make his season debut, Quintana showed some encouraging signs and a few of the things — throwing strikes, mainly — that made him a good fit for the Mets in the offseason. Against the White Sox, he threw five innings (77 pitches), allowing two runs and six hits with no walks and three strikeouts.
Showalter said Quintana improved as the game went on, a perspective mirrored by that of rival scouts in attendance at Citi Field. The left-hander left with the Mets trailing 2-1 and after he had retired eight of his final nine batters. Said Showalter: “He showed all the things he’s good at — command of the fastball and attacking hitters.”
In the eyes of evaluators, Quintana makes for an interesting trade candidate, albeit also a distinctly complicated one. To deal him, the Mets would need to find a team that needs pitching, feels comfortable with his health, likes Quintana and likes him enough for 2024 depending on the cost and if New York would buy that year down, too. But that’s probably already jumping too far ahead. An American League scout said, “He has to show he’s healthy beyond today’s start to be a factor.”
Given how much New York has missed consistency from its starting pitching, the same could be said in the context of the Mets’ chances.
Such is life on the fringe.
— The Athletic’s Tim Britton contributed to this report.
(Photo of Tommy Pham: Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)