It wasn't that long ago the New York Mets were a perceived force in the National League, full of hope and on-paper promise, especially in a short season with expanded playoffs. The Yankees might rule New York, but the rejoinder from Flushing was clear: Don't count us out.
But two weeks into the season, the Mets are already teetering, fourth in the NL East with a disappointing 4-7 record, and sporting the third-worst run differential in MLB. For that, they can thank a weaker-than-expected starting rotation and a bullpen that seems destined to break fans' hearts. And now there's Yoenis Cespedes' opt-out, which cost the Mets their best but most enigmatic slugger.
Depending on whose version of events you trust, Cespedes bolted because A) he was worried about MLB's COVID-19 surge and the risk to his family, B) he was angry after realizing he'd be out of the lineup Sunday against the Atlanta Braves, convinced ownership was sabotaging the performance clauses in his contract or C) he was just sick of the Mets in general and didn't think twice about ghosting them.
Can the Mets recover? October's generous seeding helps; more than half of MLB's teams automatically make it to postseason. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post calculated, a 32-28 record (.533 winning percentage) should be good enough for the NL's No. 8 spot. The Mets will need to go 28-21 down the stretch, which is theoretically within reach.
But the trendline hasn't been good. As has been the case for so many years, a dark cloud is again hovering over the franchise.
Losing Cespedes represented everything that always goes wrong for a Wilpon-owned team. As one major league executive said, "Something like this was bound to happen: a difficult player and an ownership that never seems to get it right."
To be fair to the Mets—and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen in particular—Cespedes' decision to leave the club was kept secret from his bosses. They didn't realize the slugger had already packed and checked out of his room until a security team was sent to the hotel in Atlanta.
According to Tim Britton and Marc Carig of The Athletic, Cespedes said his goodbyes to teammates in the clubhouse Saturday night but chose not to alert Van Wagenen or manager Luis Rojas. The Mets players did likewise. No one said a word.
The Mets' hierarchy was stunned, and rightfully so. Cespedes owed the club the courtesy of a heads-up before Sunday's game. Instead, he announced the divorce through his agent, and even then not until the eighth inning. But what could've provoked him to this end?
Although one member of the organization said that "we had no idea things were this bad with Yo," Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post reported that Cespedes had already expressed his unhappiness about being kept out of the lineup on two occasions.
The incentives in Cespedes' contract were based on plate appearances, although Rojas told the slugger he was unaware of that clause. Still, as The Athletic subsequently discovered, Cespedes was on pace to reach all but two of the bonuses and earn $6.67 million of the contract's maximum $7.41 million value.
Further deepening the mystery was Cespedes' enthusiasm after his game-winning home run against the Braves on Opening Day. The Cuban-born star, who'd spent two seasons on the injured list with foot and heel injuries, breathlessly told reporters, "And being able to hit a home run after being out for two years, it proved to me that I can still be the same player that I used to be."
Cespedes' return was a bolt of optimism to the organization.
Suddenly the Mets checked every box. They had Cespedes' long-ball threat to add to Pete Alonso's and a starting rotation that, even without Noah Syndergaard, was ready to challenge the Braves and Washington Nationals with Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom backed up by Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz, not to mention Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello as reclamation projects.
And with former Yankee Dellin Betances paired with Edwin Diaz, the bullpen appeared stable. The clubhouse was in good hands with Rojas, a rookie manager with chops after working his way up the minor league ladder. Everyone knew Rojas; everyone liked him.
Don't sleep on us, the Mets said coming out of summer camp. The 60-game schedule was practically a gift.
But here they are, staggering to survive August, let alone September. Going into Monday's game against the Braves, the Mets were 27th in the majors in ERA and only 18th in runs scored. Stroman tore a calf muscle. Diaz and Betances have both struggled. Alonso has stopped hitting (15 strikeouts in 40 at-bats and a .175 average with just one homer), as Cespedes had also done.
It turns out his Opening Day theater was just an illusion. Nearly half his at-bats (15-of-31) ended in a strikeout. With a .161 average and .235 on-base percentage, Cespedes was invisible, on a long, flat road to nowhere.
Of course, it was possible his lack of bat speed was nothing more than rust. Given enough time and at-bats, Cespedes might've turned into that run-producing machine again. He was always known for a limitless reservoir of self-confidence, so it's hard to understand the sudden opt-out.
If Cespedes was indeed piqued about his contract, why would he leave guaranteed money on the table for the remainder of 2020?
The Mets weren't just miffed. They were provoked into going public on Cespedes. They announced the slugger had failed to report to the ballpark before knowing why he was AWOL.
Van Wagenen insisted the Mets were only trying to be transparent—or, as one source said, "We were just playing defense." Either way, the decisions had the Wilpons' fingerprints all over it. It wouldn't have surprised anyone if ownership was smearing Cespedes after he'd made them look bad.
If so, both sides were at fault here. Everyone has been diminished. Cespedes lost millions in salary. His reputation takes a hit, too. That four-year, $80.42 million contract will go down as one of the worst in team history.
And the Mets? They look as hapless—and hopeless—as ever. Some things never change.