Mets' $154M Flop Has Turned NL East into MLB's Worst Division

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 26, 2017

New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey (33) leaves the mound in the sixth inning of the team's baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, April 11, 2017, in Philadelphia. The Mets won 14-4. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

The NL East was never going to be a work of art in 2017. In theory, it figured to be a two-horse race to October at the top and "thanks for playing" at the bottom.

In reality, it's turned into something more akin to a dumpster fire.

I wouldn't draw from that well of internet hyperbole if it weren't true. Although the NL East isn't the only bad division in Major League Baseball, get a load of how its overall winning percentage and run differential compare to the other five:

MLB Divisions Through May 24
DivisionW-L%Run Diff
AL East0.53092
NL West0.520-2
AL West0.513-14
NL Central0.50634
AL Central0.489-27
NL East0.438-83
ESPN.com

The NL East was three games over .500 at this time last year. In the end, it produced two playoff teams and a not-terrible .495 winning percentage.

What happened? Well, it's not all the New York Mets' fault. But...

OK. Fine. It's mostly the New York Mets' fault.

With a record of 19-26, they're not having a good season on the surface. And with a minus-23 run differential, it's not much better underneath the hood.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

The Mets won 87 games and earned a wild-card berth last year. They committed $154 million—the club's highest-ever Opening Day payroll—to bring pretty much the same team back for 2017.

Because the 2016 Mets had to overcome an offense that was over-reliant on home runs and a defense that regularly personified the word "bumbling," the 2017 Mets were going to need the same driving force that made the previous season's playoff run possible.

Starting pitching. And lots of it.

But if ever there were a monumental "if," this was it.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey were coming off surgeries. Noah Syndergaard escaped that fate but put everyone on high alert by bulking up and embarking on a quest to build on his already unparalleled velocity.

Fast-forward to today, and the Mets rotation has gone from the third-best ERA in 2016 to the third-worst ERA this season. The question is less "what's gone wrong?" than "what hasn't gone wrong?"

DeGrom hasn't resembled the Cy Young-caliber ace he was in the past. Harvey has pitched every bit as poorly as his 5.36 ERA would indicate. It turns out Tommy John surgery and thoracic outlet surgery can strike down even the most overpowering of pitchers.

Elsewhere, injuries have struck down Matz, Syndergaard and 2016 breakout star Seth Lugo.

It seems fair to pin Lugo's woes on the World Baseball Classic, but there's palace intrigue at play with the other two. According to Bob Klapisch of NorthJersey.com, the Mets were "frustrated and flummoxed" as to what was wrong with Matz's elbow. And mere days before he left an April 30 start in obvious pain, the Mets let Syndergaard refuse to have an MRI on a right arm that was already barking.

With any other organization, developments like these could be waved off as a bad break. But the Mets have a shady history with injuries that's hard to ignore and, apparently, not simply down to bad luck.

ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick broke it all down, and one source told him: "It's the same old, same old mistakes. The Mets are a successful, profitable organization. But no organization, over a protracted period of time, has more significant players on the disabled list. There's a failing across the board. And what changes have been instituted, if any?"

Also on the DL are star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, steady shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and relief ace Jeurys Familia. Veteran third baseman David Wright is there too, but that's nothing new.

Officially, the Mets have four months to climb out of the hole they've dug. But looming much closer is the July 31 trade deadline. With rentals always in demand around then, the Mets could sell.

If that's the path they choose, they'll likely have company from fellow NL Easters.

The Atlanta Braves brought in veterans like Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Brandon Phillips over the winter, but that was more a case of adding name value for their new stadium than star power for their roster. Lo and behold, a team that lost 93 games last year is on pace for 90 losses this season.

The Philadelphia Phillies also added veterans during the winter, such as Michael Saunders, Howie Kendrick and Clay Buchholz. But that was also something of a respectability play. Considering they were lucky to lose even 91 games last season, it's no wonder they're on track for 104 losses this season.

The Miami Marlins went into the offseason with the impossible task of replacing the departed Jose Fernandez in their rotation. They understandably punted on it, choosing instead to load up their bullpen.

That's not working out. Marlins relievers have pitched a ton of innings, but they haven't been good innings. Their 4.33 ERA ranks 20th in MLB. Without offsetting strengths elsewhere, the Marlins are on a path from an 82-loss 2016 season to a 104-loss 2017 season.

With this much badness elsewhere in the division, there's one question to be asked: Just how good is the one good team in the NL East?

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

The Washington Nationals sure have the look of a good team. Their 28-18 record puts them atop the division by 7.5 games. They lead the National League in most offensive categories, including OPS, home runs and runs. And with an ERA of 3.86, their starters are doing just dandy.

However, it should surprise nobody the Nationals have played one of the weakest schedules in baseball. It hasn't been a picnic when they've gone outside the NL East. They're 17-10 against divisional foes and 11-8 against everyone else.

The Nats' NL East feast won't end anytime soon. They have 116 games left, and 49 of them are within the division. As long as they don't break their pattern, they can maintain their near-100-win pace.

But for that, they must hope their fatal flaw doesn't come back to bite them.

The Nationals may be good, but their bullpen fits nicely with the general theme of the NL East. Its 5.26 ERA is the worst in baseball. That's helped put a dent in the club's overall win probability.

It's also had another, even more ominous effect. As easy as it is to appreciate how good Nats starters have been, there should be concern for how much they've worked. No other team's starters average more pitches per game.

That's not Dusty Baker being Dusty Baker. As ESPN.com's Eddie Matz put it, that's the Nationals manager "being human and doing anything and everything to avoid using a relief corps that has been lighter fluid instead of lights-out."

It's working. But if Baker has to keep this act up for the whole season, there could be consequences.

So welcome to the NL East. Most of it is falling apart, and the one good part isn't without red flags.

Yeah, it's a fixer-upper.

     

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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