WASHINGTON — It was clear long ago that this Mets season was lost. Entering Tuesday, they had the third-worst record in the National League.
So why did the non-waiver trade deadline pass on Tuesday afternoon without the Mets plugging some of their holes by, perhaps, trading Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler? Why would the team do nothing beyond two trades earlier in July? If the Mets hope to contend for the playoffs next year, when does that overhaul begin?
Like much around Flushing, it’s complicated.
“We were not going to move those players unless it involved considerable talent coming back in our direction,” John Ricco, the longtime assistant general manager, said in a conference call with reporters after the deadline.
Any potential trade of their talented pitchers under more than a year of team control — Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Syndergaard or Wheeler — was always going to be difficult anyway.
Since General Manager Sandy Alderson stepped aside last month because of a recurrence of cancer, the Mets have been led by a group of three executives: Ricco and two special assistants, J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya. The group is overseen by Jeff Wilpon, the team’s chief operating officer.
The fill-in front office was there for the slam dunk deals, such as trading the free-agents-to-be, infielder Asdrubal Cabrera and closer Jeurys Familia, or to accept should a desperate rival attempt to overpay for one of the team’s talented pitchers.
Ricco insisted that the lack of one general manager did not hurt the Mets and that the Wilpons, the Mets owners, gave the interim front office the opportunity to make a larger, more difficult trade.
“I’ve been here through multiple regimes and been through a lot of trade deadlines. I thought we operated as smoothly during this one as during any other time period I’ve been here,” Ricco said.
Ricco said the Mets simply found that contending teams were less willing to trade major league players and that non-contenders wanting pitching were not going to pay the desired premium. He said the off-season may be better: The Mets will have an opportunity to discuss trades with 29 teams, not just a handful of contenders.
For now, deGrom, a top candidate in the N.L. Cy Young race, would be harder to trade given his importance and reliability. But Syndergaard or Wheeler could be intriguing to teams with deep farm systems, such as the San Diego Padres, a rebuilding franchise that was recently interested in Syndergaard.
“We want to build around the pitching we have and have a winning team and compete for a playoff spot next year,” Ricco said. “There was no deal on the table that we thought made sense at this point in time. That does not say anything about how we’re going to treat our assets heading into the off-season and how we’re going to plan for next year.”
Wheeler posed the most interesting case for a trade by Tuesday: Despite a long injury history and beginning the season in the minor leagues, he has remained healthy and posted a 3.20 earned run average since the start of June. And since Wheeler is slated to hit free agency after next season — sooner than Syndergaard, deGrom or Matz — why not sell at the highest value?
Despite interest from several teams, the Mets did not receive an offer they deemed strong enough for Wheeler. While the Mets saw a strong pitcher, the rest of baseball saw a pitcher with lingering questions about injury and performance.
The Mets were not idle in July. They traded Familia to the Oakland Athletics and Cabrera to the Phillies for three prospects and international slot space. The Mets saved nearly $6 million as a result of the trades and added some talent to their meager farm system. But both of those trades were easy decisions: Familia and Cabrera were free agents at the end of this season.
There is still, of course, an opportunity for the Mets to be active in August. Jose Bautista, a veteran bat, and Devin Mesoraco, the catcher acquired in exchange for Matt Harvey, are the type of players that could be let go in waivers or traded.
Whatever the case, the Mets still have a lot of work to do if they want to contend next season. Will they spend the money on or trade for needed top talent?
Money is often a hot topic in Flushing. Few teams have spent as much in free agency as the Mets the past two winters, but most of those deals — Jason Vargas, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Yoenis Cespedes, among others — have been disappointing because of poor performances or injuries.
Ricco said the Mets had the basis for a strong pitching staff behind the rotation, and a bullpen stocked with Anthony Swarzak, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and other young inexperienced hard-throwers. The lineup and defense need work, though.
“Our strength is our pitching so we need to support that in every possible way,” Ricciardi said. “The more athletic we become, the better we’ll become as a team.”
The heavy lifting on the Mets’ revamping will more than likely have to wait until the winter — with a new general manager in place.