NEW YORK (AP) — Late last month, when the New York Mets were on the road, a display case at Citi Field went up in flames.
Just like their 2018 season.
Nobody got hurt in the fire, which was extinguished by an automatic sprinkler system, and damage was minimal, according to the team.
If only it were that simple to fix the product on the field.
With the Mets sinking fast toward the bottom of the National League standings, baseball operations were turned over Tuesday to a trio of Sandy Alderson’s assistants as the 70-year-old general manager made the stunning announcement that he was stepping down because his cancer has returned.
John Ricco, J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya have decades of front office experience between them, both in New York and elsewhere around the majors. But it might take all three to clean up this mess, and time is of the essence.
“We’re well below our expectations, from ownership on down,” chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said. “Talk to the baseball department, talk to the scouting department, talk to the development department, coaches, the players — nobody expected to be in this position.”
Alderson’s indefinite leave of absence comes at a critical juncture for the languishing Mets (32-46) ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.
Needing to accrue young talent, they’ll probably try to sell off pending free agents such as shaky closer Jeurys Familia and switch-hitting second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera for whatever they can get.
But ace pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard could fetch an enormous return, and the club must decide whether to undertake such a sweeping overhaul at this stage — without a general manager in place.
“We’re going to talk about that. We just kind of got into this,” Ricco told reporters Wednesday. “For me, everything has to be on the table. But you’ve got to look long and hard before you move a game-changing, top-of-the-rotation pitcher.”
Even with last season’s 70-92 finish in mind, Ricco didn’t sound as though a total tear-down was likely. At least not yet.
So how do the aging Mets, not even two years removed from consecutive playoff appearances, re-energize their injury-prone team and turn it around?
The offense is stagnant. The defense is deplorable at times. The bullpen has been horrendous since New York’s 12-2 start and requires a complete rebuild next year.
Due in large part to leg injuries and a hip problem that Alderson called “somewhat chronic,” slugger Yoenis Cespedes has played in less than half of the Mets’ games since signing a $110 million, four-year contract in November 2016. He has a no-trade clause and almost certainly isn’t going anywhere. New York needs to figure out how to get him back in the lineup.
Banged-up right fielder Jay Bruce, also in his 30s and sidelined by a hip injury, is batting .212 with three home runs, 17 RBIs and a paltry .613 OPS in the first season of a $39 million, three-year deal.
Touted prospects Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith have flopped at the plate so far.
“That’s what we’ve been charged with: improving this club,” Ricco said. “Obviously, the trade deadline is coming up and that’s a big pressure point in which to better your club, and certainly we are going to take advantage of that and look to be active.”
Syndergaard, like several Mets stars, is on the disabled list again with a strained ligament in his index finger but could be back next month. The 25-year-old right-hander can’t become a free agent until after the 2021 season.
As for deGrom, he just turned 30 and leads the majors with a 1.69 ERA going into Friday night’s scheduled start at last-place Miami. Still a salary bargain relative to his brilliant performance, deGrom is under club control through the 2020 season.
Both pitchers were instrumental in leading New York to the 2015 World Series.
“We know what we have in those two,” Alderson said last week. “At the same time, you never say never.”
In the end, maybe the Mets will choose instead to shop mid-rotation starters Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz. Both are fully healthy for the first time in years, and their stuff looks crisp.
Of course, New York could simply wait until the winter to settle on a strategy — perhaps after a new GM has been hired.
Regardless of what happens over the next few months, it appears the team plans to conduct a search that includes external candidates at the end of the season.
That also might affect the status of first-year manager Mickey Callaway, hired by Alderson last fall.
So many questions. No easy answers.
Alderson said his prognosis is good but he doesn’t expect to be back on the job at any point, partly because his health is uncertain but also because he’s not sure it would be “warranted.”
Whoever winds up in charge, if they keep deGrom and Syndergaard, the Mets maintain at least the foundation of a potentially competitive squad for the next two years, provided Cespedes and some other key pieces finally manage to stay healthy.
But the team might also be bypassing an opportunity to trade deGrom at peak value, running the risk that he or Syndergaard will get seriously injured before those chips are cashed.
And then there’s this tricky little complication: One of the October contenders in hot pursuit of top-notch starting pitching is the New York Yankees.
With a stocked farm system, they could be a perfect trade partner for the Mets — a buzzy topic that’s generated plenty of fodder for sports-talk radio in New York.
Would the crosstown rivals actually consider such a deal? Could the Mets really stomach seeing deGrom or Syndergaard pitching in pinstripes during the playoffs?
Ricco said ownership has asked the three-headed GM for “a fresh take on things” and to “take a step back and maybe think outside the box a little bit.”
“So we’re going to do that, the three of us,” he said. “The long history I have with both of them, I feel real confident that we’ll be able to work together and make this team better, both in the short term and for the long term.”
These days, that’s about the best the Mets can hope for.