On Sunday, the Mets did two unusual things. If you want to be rude, you can include them sweeping a series from the Pittsburgh Pirates as a third, but the first two are more notable and also let’s be nice. One of those unusual things was that, in a departure from the norm, the team did not use a “Sunday lineup.” If you don’t know what that is, you have 1) followed baseball during the last three or four decades and 2) not followed the Mets. Sunday lineups, in which teams rested some number of regular starters, were once more common in baseball, but more or less every team in the league abandoned the practice long ago. This is not really up there with the invention of gunpowder or the steam engine; it’s just that teams just realized they did better if their best players start every game they can and don’t all sit out the same day.
The Mets, in their owners’ ongoing quest to win the 1957 World Series, never did. They stuck with Sunday lineups as everyone else played their best players, give or take a backup catcher here and there. This Sunday, uncharacteristically, the Mets rested no healthy starters; multiple players were out of position and other important players were hurt, but that’s been a matter of course for the team. Also uncharacteristically, they won. It was just their sixth victory in 17 Sunday games this season. This isn’t significant, really, but it’s instructive re: the other and more meaningful uncharacteristic thing they did—trade for Toronto’s Marcus Stroman—mostly because it happened for the same reason. It’s the reason anything ever happens with the Mets, which is that their owners think it should.
That second unusual thing is more significant, not just for the misbegotten Mets but for the trade marketplace that the team has currently, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, “hijacked.” Shortly after that win wrapped up, the Mets traded minor league pitchers Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods-Richardson—two of the organization’s best pitching prospects, but not by any consensus among the best 100 or even 150 best prospects in the game—to the Blue Jays for Stroman. In a vacuum, this seems like a decent move for the Mets and possibly also for the Blue Jays. Stroman is not an ace, but he is a really good pitcher—steady and smart and good at inducing ground balls, and also for this and one more year someone who will be paid much less than he’s worth. (Stroman is also from Long Island, as are the Mets’ owners. Kay, the team’s 2016 first-round pick, also went to high school in Long Island.) (The same high school as current Mets starter Steven Matz, actually. Sorry.)
The consensus is that Toronto probably could and therefore should have gotten more in return from another team. But given that players acquired from the Mets tend to improve rapidly with their new teams, this might be a matter of the Jays trusting both what their scouts think they saw and what their own developmental staff can do that the Mets’ cannot. This part is admittedly not very interesting if you’re not a fan of either of these two confusing teams, neither of which is making the playoffs this season.
The rest of it, the “Mets hijacking the market” part, is very interesting, and that’s the part that we don’t know yet. The Mets have, in Noah Syndergaard, easily the most valuable player being made available at the trade deadline. Ordinarily, a player like Syndergaard would not be made available under any circumstances—he is younger and better than Stroman, will be underpaid per MLB’s system for two more years instead of one, and when he’s right is one of the most overpowering arms in all of baseball. The Mets owners do not appear to like Syndergaard very much—it’s a long and stupid story, but ownership tends to have a problem with big-personality aces, and Syndergaard is one of those—and the team’s owner-dictated and shamelessly Flintstonian approach to pitching best practices have not helped Syndergaard at all in recent years. Syndergaard’s stats this year have been startlingly pedestrian given his outsized stature and talent.
The Mets think Syndergaard is less valuable than every other team in the league does, and as long as they’re the ones messing around with him, they’ll probably be right. The people in charge of the team are just self-aware enough to realize this, but unwilling to admit that the inevitable fix that unlocks Syndergaard’s potential is one they too could make. And so they seem determined to trade Syndergaard, but filled with dread at the possibility—it’s tempting to call it a likelihood—that he will compete for the Cy Young Award for whichever team acquires him and makes the same sort of simple, simplifying nudges that let the Houston Astros turn fellow Underachieving Demigod Stuck In Shitty Organization Gerrit Cole into a powerhouse. The Astros, as it happens, match up very well in a potential Syndergaard trade. “But the Mets have to be wondering if a club such as the Astros knows what they don’t,” Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post last week. “Notably, how to evoke the best of health and production from Syndergaard.” It’s not just that the entire MLB trade market is waiting for the Mets to move Syndergaard, it’s that they’re waiting for the Mets to sort out impacted organizational issues and ownership-specific neuroses that have endured for a generation. It’s less a hijacking than being in an escape room with a bunch of ultra-confident dopes. They’ve been arguing for hours.
The Mets acquiring Marcus Stroman is, in isolation, not really that meaningful. Other pitchers on the market can do what Stroman does at roughly the salary, and contenders will trade for them or they won’t. But the deal does not exist in isolation, because the Mets could do one of two very different things from here, both of which would impact not just their team but every other on the marketplace. In one scenario, the Mets go ahead and trade Syndergaard to one of the teams they’re willing to trade with—not a team that plays in the same city as them, or the same division—for a prospect haul of some kind, pretend Stroman is roughly as good, and set out to win more or less as many games next year as they’ll win this year with roughly the same payroll. This is usually the way the Mets do it. Even before MLB’s capital strike brought a bunch of other teams around to this way of thinking, the Mets were about doing just enough to compete if everything goes right. Swapping Syndergaard out for Stroman and praying the prospects work out this time would be The Mets Thing To Do.
But there is another scenario in which ownership realizes that it takes more than 79 wins to make the postseason, and keeps Stroman and Syndergaard while selling off some other pieces. The resulting team would bump around the bottom of the wild card race for a while and go into next year with a rotation that, while notably heavy on Long Island dudes, is both pretty good and notably affordable. Every other team would then go ahead and turn its attention to Mike Minor or Robbie Ray or whatever sub-Syndergaard starter they prefer.
It is not clear to anyone—we must include the Mets, here—what the team wants to do. As Sports Illustrated’s Jon Tayler pointed out on Twitter, there is a uniquely self-thwarting and therefore uniquely Mets aspect to the fact that the comparatively light price the Mets paid for the pitcher they just acquired might wind up undermining the market for the pitcher they’re trying to trade. Until word arrives one way or another on Syndergaard from the team’s notoriously fickle and infamously shortsighted owners, everyone in baseball will get to learn what it feels like to be a Mets fan.
As an actual Mets fan speaking to everyone trapped for the moment in this section of purgatory, here is what I think. I think the plan hasn’t changed, and I think this is because the plan never changes. The people that own the Mets have done things the same way for the nearly two decades they’ve spent in charge. It is not a way that any other team works, and while sometimes that approach has seemed to work, mostly it does not work at all. These owners would rather do things their way and lose than cede or change a thing; there will always be a way to make the losing someone else’s fault. The plan is for the owners’ signature mix of superstition and sentimentality and sour backwards-looking impulse to somehow suddenly start working. That is always the plan. Everyone and everything in baseball is now waiting for them to either get on with it, or finally try something new.