By Deesha Thosar
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Around the seventh or eighth inning at Citi Field, meads Players lingering in the dugout will look up at the out-of-town scoreboard in left field. Their eyes will find that swirly, white A set against a dark blue background.
Usually, the Braves are winning. Atlanta has enjoyed 35 wins — and only 11 losses — since June 1. The Mets have played .500 ball in that stretch.
New York and Atlanta are in a battle for first place in the NL East, but the next time these division rivals meet, on Aug. 4 in Queens, their teams should look improved. The Mets in particular have holes on the roster that must be addressed.
Does Tomas Nido’s defensive savvy paired with a lack of offensive success warrant keeping him as the starting catcher for the next month-plus? With Jacob deGrom’s health a continuous uncertainty, can the Mets afford to sit idle on the starting-pitching market? Are the Mets in position to go for Juan Soto?
Looking beyond the Mets’ obvious needs, such as bullpen help, next week’s Aug. 2 trade deadline figures to be a fascinating one for general manager Billy Eppler and his front office. The Mets began the trade season with a pickup of slugger Daniel Vogelbach in exchange for rookie reliever Colin Holderman. That was a start.
But there’s more to tackle, beginning with the irksome situation behind the plate.
1. Backstop blues
Mets starting catcher James McCann has played just 30 games this year due to a left hamate fracture and an oblique strain. But even when he was healthy, his numbers on the plate were disappointing, and that isn’t a singular problem. It has been a troubling trend for Mets catchers this season, one the front office has so far failed to address.
McCann, Nido and Patrick Mazeika have combined for a seventh-worst-in-MLB .197 batting average, a dead-last .503 catcher OPS and a league-worst 48 wRC+ (100 is league average). The Mets value their backstops for their defensive proficiency, but the gaping hole in the nine-spot is awfully difficult to ignore. The Mets’ lineup needs a boost at catcher, the team’s most offensively underwhelming position — and not just because if Nido gets injured, the predicament becomes even uglier.
“They’ve done a good job defensively,” Buck Showalter said of his catchers. “Throwing and calling the game. Offense has kind of come and gone.”
kind of? There has been no offense to speak of.
Enter the Cubs’ Willson Contreras, who owns the fourth-best catcher OPS (.844) in MLB and is on the trading block. Contreras becomes a free agent after this season, and he would cost at least a couple of prospects the Mets might not be so keen to give up.
But the three-time All-Star, who sports a 1,073 OPS against lefties, would be a significant upgrade. The Mets have a .238 batting average against southpaws this season, good for 21st in the sport and only slightly better than three other NL teams.
If the Mets are concerned about Contreras’ defensive and framing issues, they can use him at DH. They have a .605 OPS from the DH spot, ranked 27th in MLB and in the basement with Cleveland, Arizona and Oakland. A trade for Contreras might not require too much of a haul if the Cubs are interested in taking a flier on Dominic Smith, whom the Mets have been trying to move since spring training.
Either way, upgrading at catcher and eventually supplementing Contreras with McCann would have a ton of upside for the Mets.
2. Cy Young — or the perennial health scare
A couple of weeks ago, when deGrom was hitting every rehab benchmark with reported success, the Mets’ need for a starting catcher was somewhere between low and medium. But that urgency jumped last week after the team announced deGrom’s “mild shoulder soreness” that delayed his fourth rehab outing.
That’s an immediate red flag for a pitcher who has sustained several injuries in the past 21 months and hasn’t pitched a big-league start in more than a year.
The Mets played off deGrom’s shoulder soreness just like they’re playing off his slow rehab process. The ace walked into spring training this year looking leaner and stronger than ever, only to be shut down from throwing after a couple of Grapefruit League outings.
Since then, his return has been a moving target. He’s expected to make his final rehab start sometime in the next week, after which he should be ready to rejoin the rotation. But every time (if?) he takes the mound, his longevity will be a point of concern for the Mets. That’s why they can’t afford to whiff on starting pitchers ahead of next week’s trade deadline.
“He’s not our savior,” Francisco Lindor said Saturday of deGrom. “Yeah, he’s going to win games for us, and we’re looking forward to it. But it’s unfair for us to say, ‘We’re going to watch, and you’re going to take us to the promised land.’ That’s not how it goes. He already has enough on his plate, like trying to stay healthy and trying to perform and trying to be the best he can be to help us win. It will be unfair for us to put all the weight on him .”
Reds right-hander Luis Castillo would be a solid fit for the rotation and in the clubhouse, the latter being a culture-building area of great importance to the Mets. Castillo, a 2022 All-Star, owns a 2.77 ERA and 1,077 WHIP across 13 starts and 78 innings.
But the competition for Castillo reportedly includes the Yankees, Dodgers and Astros. For the Mets, a trade for the right-hander, who becomes a free agent in 2024, will likely require moving two top prospects — perhaps even the organization’s No. 2 prospect, Brett Baty. The Athletics’ Frankie Montas and the Pirates’ Jose Quintana could also be options for New York.
The Mets believe their starting-pitching depth covers them in the event of another deGrom setback. David Peterson and Tylor Megill are major reasons the team enjoyed a three-plus-month run in first place. But it’s tough to imagine the Mets making a deep run in the postseason with their current rotation and without deGrom, whose durability for October baseball remains unclear.
Max Scherzer turns 38 this week, Taijuan Walker still must prove he can carry his first-half consistency into second-half success, Chris Bassitt has been up-and-down, and Carlos Carrasco has been iffy against powerful opposing lineups.
By now, it’s fair to say that it’s a long shot that deGrom can complete 12 starts in the remainder of the regular season. At this point, the Mets have proven that they can play winning baseball without him. But will his health be the difference between an NL pennant and an early exit, or can the Mets safeguard against his potential absence by trading for a starter?
Will the Mets win the NL East?
Ben Verlander gives three reasons he believes the New York Mets will win the National League East: their pitching staff, their easy schedule and their depth.
“We have a lot of respect for Jake and what he can do,” Showalter said. “But we can’t really operate like that [we’re waiting for him to return]. Because sometimes that promise never shows up, regardless of who it is. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. And then what do you do?”
3. The Soto sweep stakes
The Nationals are receiving interest from a number of teams, including the Yankees, in generational star Juan Soto. Should the Mets be one of them?
As discussed, the Mets need an offensive boost, and the 23-year-old Soto would ensure elite production for years to come. But they would have to give up the farm to get him.
The Mets’ rebuilding farm system is an area owner Steve Cohen committed to improving as early as his introductory news conference in November 2020. Trading away a handful of top prospects, in addition to major-leagues with minimal service time, would completely negate Cohen’s stated goal.
“Playing in New York against the Mets, I love it,” Soto said at the All-Star Game. “I hit the ball far. If you see my numbers in that field, it’s amazing.”
Will Juan Soto be traded by the Washington Nationals?
Ben Verlander discusses Juan Soto’s rejecting the Nationals’ offer and what it means moving forward. Will he be traded? Where are the likely destinations?
The Mets would have to start from scratch if they went for Soto, and Cohen wants to build a Dodger-esque organization, winning year after year. Then again, Soto is one of the few exceptions who is worth that type of prospect haul.
Still, it might be wiser for the Mets to wait until Soto becomes a free agent in a few years, when they can use their biggest asset, Cohen’s wallet, while continuing to build their system.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for three-and-a-half seasons as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. She never misses a Rafael Nadal match, no matter what country or time zone he’s playing in (sleep can always be sacrificed for sports). Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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