Part of baseball’s allure is that so little works out as planned. With so many players and variables, the game delights in smashing preconceived narratives. Consider the fate of the New York teams, who met at Citi Field on Friday. The Bronx is up and the Mets are way down.
We did not see this coming two years ago when the Yankees arrived in Flushing on the day of the nonwaiver trading deadline. Stuck with an aging, relentlessly mediocre roster that year, the Yankees completed their summer sales event by shedding a potential Hall of Famer (Carlos Beltran) and a useful starting pitcher (Ivan Nova). General Manager Brian Cashman had already unloaded Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, relievers so dominant they would soon meet again in the World Series.
In the Yankees’ clubhouse that night, Alex Rodriguez mused about his shifting role, wondering aloud about life after baseball. He had already hit the final home run of his career. Within two weeks he would retire; Mark Teixeira would announce his intention to do likewise; and Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez would be promoted to stay.
The Mets, meanwhile, were the reigning National League champions, weathering a barrage of injuries but eventually pushing through to another playoff berth. This was their moment, their town to seize. The Yankees were the team in transition, their immediate future uncertain.
We know how things have unfolded since. The Mets fell apart last season while the Yankees nearly reached the World Series — and then added the N.L. most valuable player, Giancarlo Stanton, in a trade with the Miami Marlins. Both teams hired first-time managers, and guess which one brought the best record in the majors into Friday’s game?
“It’s been really refreshing,” the Yankees’ Aaron Boone said. “Win or lose or whatever, I’ve felt completely energized coming to work every day.”
The Yankees are 41-18 and the Mets 27-33, losers of their last nine home games and seemingly allergic to scoring runs. The cumulative score of their last four games, all losses, is 9-2. They waste good pitching with alarming regularity.
“Try not to fall into a pitcher’s plan, stay away from chasing in the dirt or outside the strike zone, move guys over,” Michael Conforto said, explaining how the Mets can fix their offense with its engine, Yoenis Cespedes, just now beginning a rehabilitation assignment for his hip injury. “It’s the little things. Keep the line moving. It doesn’t have to be homers.”
Home runs work just fine for the Yankees, though. They got two more on Friday, from Brett Gardner and Stanton, putting them on pace for 275 this season, which would break the major league record — 264 by the 1997 Seattle Mariners. Their No. 9 hitter, Gleyber Torres, had 10 homers in just 39 career games.
Torres arrived from the Chicago Cubs — in exchange for Chapman, who has since returned — in that critical summer of 2016. By making tough choices then, and understanding their personnel in the minors, the Yankees are thriving now. They have hardly benefited from the Miller deal yet, but that might happen soon.
The Yankees could dominate this summer’s trade market by dealing from a farm system that includes outfielder Clint Frazier and the left-hander Justus Sheffield, the prizes Cleveland traded for Miller. Frazier, 23, has no place on the major league roster, but had a .970 on-base plus slugging percentage at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre through Thursday. Sheffield, 22, has a 2.60 earned run average in 11 minor league starts this year, the last six at Class AAA.
Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson could make a significant score of his own next month, but it would require the kind of franchise-shaking, risky decision the Mets have steadfastly avoided in recent years — and it would probably require seven more weeks of misery on the field. It would require them to trade Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom, who was splendid again Friday in defeat.
Syndergaard will miss his start on Sunday night because his right index finger is still swollen; Seth Lugo will face the Yankees instead. At least Syndergaard’s arm and shoulder are sound, which is more than closer Jeurys Familia can claim. The Mets put Familia on the disabled list on Friday with a sore shoulder, hurting both their bullpen and Familia’s trade value.
Syndergaard is only 25 and cannot be a free agent until after the 2021 season, giving him extraordinary appeal to other teams. DeGrom is more reliable and arguably better — he has a 1.57 E.R.A. — but he turns 30 on June 19 and is one year closer to free agency.
If the Mets continue to lose, they should entertain deals for Syndergaard and sign deGrom to a long-term contract, committing to building their rotation around him.
“His ability to not worry about what just happened and what’s going on and push through it,” Manager Mickey Callaway said, describing deGrom’s most impressive trait. “His ability to get into a hairy situation and get out of it is uncanny. You just don’t see it that often, and he just steps up his game. You can see it in his face. There’s a different look when those situations occur.”
The rest of the Mets have not been so resilient, their offense generally feeble without Cespedes. Retaining Cespedes with a four-year, $110 million contract after the 2016 season has not paid off yet, but it was a worthwhile gamble and one of the few risks the Mets have decided to take in recent years.
Another was trading a pitcher who had just won a Cy Young Award, R.A. Dickey, to Toronto for a package of prospects after the 2012 season. One of those prospects was Syndergaard, and the deal was a rousing success. Without a sudden and stirring turnaround, the Mets need the same kind of bold thinking again, the kind that has set up the Yankees so well for the present and the future.
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