SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The early days of the major-league offseason are concentrated on the sport’s biggest names in free agency — the top-40 big board. While the Mets are going to be players in big-time free agency this winter, they’ll also be focused on the types of moves that don’t generate headlines the same way. New president of baseball operations David Stearns laid it out when he was introduced last month.
When you build through free agency, Stearns said, “you can focus on the top part of your roster. We continued to learn that the top half of your roster is really important; the bottom half of your roster is also really important, and even players 40 through 60 in your organization are really important over the course of 162 games. And so that’s something that I’m eager to learn more about and going forward will be a priority for us.”
Depth was rarely a priority for the Mets in the latter stages of the Wilpons’ ownership. And while the organization’s depth has improved over the first few seasons under Steve Cohen’s stewardship, its failures in 2023 were stark. New York’s woes weren’t just that Max Scherzer didn’t pitch to his track record or Justin Verlander missed time; it’s that the guys who replaced them didn’t perform.
To contextualize the Mets’ lack of depth in 2023, I’ve looked at every team’s roster from last season, ranking every player who appeared in a game from first to last in wins above replacement (according to FanGraphs). The Mets ranked 18th in total WAR for the season. They were actually 13th in WAR from the five best players on the roster — not as good as they’d want, obviously, but in line with or better than some playoff teams: Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee and Toronto.
When you go 10 deep, the Mets start to fall behind the postseason teams, and further still by 15 deep.
And the Mets ranked among the worst teams in baseball at what they received from their 26th man on down. Most teams are in negative WAR by this point, but there’s a difference between being a little negative and a lot negative. Here, the Mets ranked 24th in baseball — obviously not in the same arena as most playoff teams.
This was one area of roster construction that Stearns excelled at in Milwaukee. Let’s break down Stearns’ Brewers and the Mets the same way we did above and see how they compared over time.
The Mets had a better roster in the top 10 or 15 over that span; Milwaukee closed a lot of that gap from 15 on. The dynamic is even more pronounced if we eliminate Stearns’ first year with the Brewers and look instead at 2017 through 2022.
OK, so if we’ve established that the Mets need to get better at cultivating depth, how do you do that as an organization? And how long does it take to turn a weakness into a strength?
“You make the most out of every roster spot you have,” said Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander. “It might be a major-league free agent priority, it might be somebody looking to compete for a job in Triple A, it might be somebody looking to get into a camp. And in each of those buckets of players, you try to do the best that you can to create the most out of each opportunity that exists around your club.”
The Rays tied the Dodgers for the most wins above replacement from spots 26 down on their roster; they still received a positive overall WAR from that group.
“You don’t know which ones ultimately come through and save you when you need it, but you position yourselves well to be fortunate if you get the right players in for each and every opportunity,” Neander said.
Minnesota president of baseball operations Derek Falvey provided an example in reliever Brock Stewart, who allowed just two earned runs in 28 appearances for the Twins this season. They’d signed Stewart to a two-year minor-league deal late in the 2022 season, as he recovered from surgery, on the recommendation of his staff.
“Nobody notices. Nobody writes a story. But that led to ultimately him pitching seventh and eighth innings for us,” Falvey said, giving all the credit to his staff. “That happens independent of me. I’m not spending any time on it. I’m not paying attention. I’m focused right now on what we’re doing at the major-league side.”
“That’s a huge part of it,” said Marlins president of baseball operations Peter Bendix, who just moved to Miami from the Rays. “You need to have really good people around you that you can delegate things to and you can trust they can do a really good job.”
When you’re a team looking to improve the depth in your organization, one potential target is the teams that have too much of it, said Arizona president of baseball operations Mike Hazen.
“When you’re good for multiple years, you end up bogging down your 40-man roster because you have a lot of good players jamming on the roster, you have to fit players on the roster for playoff runs, and that causes good players to fall off,” Hazen said. “Teams that are good at capitalizing on getting those players in small trades aggressively, those teams do it the best.”
One example of Stearns capitalizing on this in Milwaukee came in late 2019, when he traded for Yankees relief prospect J.P. Feyereisen — a guy who was unlikely to fit on New York’s 40-man roster that winter. Feyereisen eventually became a key piece in the trade that brought Willy Adames to the Brewers.
“One thing we really focus on is, everyone can write out our top five prospects, but I want to make sure we’re hunting out ways to make the 15th guy better,” Falvey said. “Because that guy turns into Edouard Julien or Louie Varland. That’s important for us, is to make sure that we are constantly hunting ways to keep building that pipeline, whether it’s externally or internally, in how we develop.”
Falvey took over the Twins after the 2016 season and said, in part because of the pandemic, that it wasn’t until late in 2022 that he “started to feel OK” with how the organization pursued depth. Bendix was hired by the Marlins last week. When asked how long it could take to set up the organization the way he wanted, he quipped, “Ask me again in five years.”
In Stearns’ prior experience with the Brewers, it took a year for the team to see tangible results from the latter half of its roster. That’s a quick turnaround, especially considering Milwaukee knew it wouldn’t be contending in that first season.
Of course, the Mets offer Stearns certain resources the Brewers did not, and one way to improve the depth of your organization is to add on the top end. After all, signing five stars could make the 10th-best player the 15th-best, and on down. That would help make up that large gap between New York and Atlanta in the very first chart. But as Stearns mentioned in October, that can’t be the sole focus.
“Stars matter, there’s no doubt about it,” Neander said. “But getting through 162 games, there’s a lot of attrition, there’s a lot of adversity, there’s a lot of unexpected developments. And you just don’t know what’s around the next corner, but you better have players ready.
“Having the bottom fall out because that next line of defense isn’t as strong as it needs to be can sink you just as quickly as stars can propel you.”
(Top photo of David Stearns: Gordon Donovan / NurPhoto via AP)