The New York Mets struck out when it came to signing star free agents this winter. Now, it appears they have pivoted to the trade market. According to Andy Martino of SNY, the club has interest in acquiring third baseman Kris Bryant from the Chicago Cubs.
It's pretty clear the Mets are trying to build a pennant contender in year one of the Steve Cohen era. So if the Mets really are going all out to try to knock the Los Angeles Dodgers off the National League throne, then they should be going after players like Bryant. But Bryant alone won't scare the Dodgers.
It's great that the Mets aren't content with their splashy offseason acquisitions of James McCann, Trevor May, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. And it's even better that they're turning their attention to their biggest area of need. The Mets have struggled to find any sort of consistency at third base since David Wright began to struggle with injuries in 2015.
At one point, things were so bad that they were forced to play catcher Travis d'Arnaud at third base for a game in 2017. Still, they did little to address this at the big league level, even after Wright retired in 2018. They do have two highly ranked prospects in Brett Baty and Mark Vientos, but both are still down in the lower levels of the club's farm system.
The Dodgers also have a third base problem. Justin Turner, their hometown hero, reportedly wants a four-year contract to be able to retire a Dodger. But they are too smart of an organization to give that much term to a 36-year-old. Their contingency plan probably involves trading for Bryant and the $19.5 million he'll earn to play this season before becoming a free agent. The Dodgers blew past the $210 million luxury-tax threshold for NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer—what's a little more tax money at this point? After all, this is the best team money can buy.
The Dodgers have a legitimate opportunity to be able to repeat as World Series champions and the organizational depth to be able to withstand his departure after next season. But it's more difficult for other teams to justify, the Mets included.
The Atlanta Braves, another team the Mets will need to get around in the National League, said no thanks to one year of Bryant, preferring to let Austin Riley take over at the hot corner. So did the Washington Nationals, another NL East foe that lacks farm depth at the upper levels of the system. It's a lot of money to take on with no guarantee past 2021.
The 29-year-old Bryant is coming off the worst year of his career, and while this doesn't mean the Mets should low-ball the Cubs, it means they should take a cue from some of the smarter teams in the National League and not mortgage their future to get him.
There are reasons to think the pandemic-shortened season was a fluke and not the beginning of a decline for the 2016 NL MVP. Since 2017 his wRC+ has been 132, the same as Mets right fielder Michael Conforto's. FanGraphs Steamer projections are positive for Bryant in 2021: 3.2 fWAR, 26 home runs, 115 wRC+. Should the University of San Diego product end up in Queens, his projected 3.2 fWAR would be second to only Lindor's 4.5 for all Mets position players.
But earlier this week the Mets made a move to bolster the depth at the higher levels of their farm system, getting outfielder Khalil Lee in a three-team trade with the Kansas City Royals and the Boston Red Sox. Cohen has talked about how they don't want to decimate a farm system already ranked No. 19 by Keith Law of The Athletic, so the club seems to be prioritizing building depth after former general manager Brodie Van Wagenen traded much of it away in just two years.
If there is a chance to sign Bryant to a long-term contract, then maybe it's worth giving up a little more right now, but that's unlikely considering Bryant is represented by Scott Boras. What the Mets need to be able to truly challenge the Dodgers, Braves, Nationals and San Diego Padres this season and in seasons to come is sustainability. They need defense for their stellar pitching staff, they need to invest in new technologies, invest in analytics and they need to draft and develop more talent to be able to have the kind of organizational depth that will allow them to be competitive year after year.
It's no secret that the Mets have not been able to scout their own system well in recent years. They fall in love with the velocity of mediocre pitchers and the raw tools of position players while overlooking key contributors. Jeff McNeil comes to mind as someone who the Mets didn't really regard as a "prospect" but proved to be more than what the Mets thought he would be.
If they want to compete with the Dodgers, then they shouldn't do what they have done in the past and trade away top, MLB-ready players.
They should keep shortstop Ronny Mauricio, who is ranked as their top prospect by MLB.com, even if he is a few years away from being ready to contribute in the big leagues. His ceiling is too high. And they should absolutely keep left-hander David Peterson, who has a chance to lock down a rotation spot this season. And if a player like Peterson is what it takes to get Bryant, Matt Chapman, Eugenio Suarez or any other third baseman, then they should look elsewhere. Maybe Turner settles for a two-year deal with his former club.
Bryant would be a big boost to the Mets in their 2021 quest, but one year of him is not worth being marred in mediocrity for the next three or four. If the Mets are really going for it, then they need to do it right.