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Sitting in limbo: Flailing Mets try to find gold in this gap year

WASHINGTON — Jeff McNeil is fading away, though unlike so many vestiges of the New York Mets, the condition is not permanent. He’s simply been absent from the lineup − manager’s decision − for the past two games, the byproduct of an ugly stat line and an overall value that puts him below a replacement player.

It was just two years ago that McNeil was an All-Star, worth 5.7 WAR on a 101-win team, a playoff dalliance that inspired owner Steve Cohen to double down on his $43.3 million annual investment in Max Scherzer with a similar outlay for similarly aged Justin Verlander.

We all know what happened: The 2023 Mets, the most expensive team in the game, did not inspire, winning 75 games with $320 million in payroll, plus a $100 million tax bill. Significant change unfolded, though what the Mets are left with is, like McNeil’s plight, not unlike the iconic photo from ‘Back To The Future,’ where Marty McFly must maintain history lest he be erased from the picture.

Scherzer and Verlander? They’re gone, physically, to the two Texas teams, though the commitment remains: The Mets are paying the Rangers $30 million and Houston about $17 million for both not to pitch for them.

First baseman Pete Alonso? The three-time All-Star is just four months from agent Scott Boras shopping his wares on the open market, with only Cohen’s checkbook, like McFly’s determination to get his parents together during time travel, keeping him in the picture.

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What remains is a club that’s somehow a notch below mediocre − at 26-35 − yet still capable of crushing the soul, with six losses in games they led entering the ninth inning.

Indeed, closer Edwin Díaz might best epitomize where the Mets were two years ago − his stunning entrance music, 118 strikeouts and 32 saves punctuating so many of their 101 victories − and where they are now. 

It was Díaz’s unfortunate knee injury that set a grim tone for 2023. And now he’s authored four of the blown saves the Mets have suffered, his 5.40 ERA landing on the injured list with a shoulder impingement.

Díaz still has three years remaining on his $102 million contract, almost certain to be around when the Mets answer the prevailing question after years of big spends, dashed hopes and regrouping.

What now?

‘When he speaks, I’m all ears’

Carlos Mendoza was talking about McNeil, but really could have been speaking on the Mets as a whole.

‘He cares,’ the Mets’ rookie manager says of his second baseman who’s batting just .192 in his last 22 games, ‘and he wants to win and he wants to perform. The one thing is, he’s not going to stop working.

‘And he’ll find a way to get through it.’

There aren’t many doubts the Mets will do the same. It’s not like Cohen’s vast wealth and hunger for a title have dissipated. It’s just that a fat check sometimes doesn’t have a worthy home and besides, buttressing the minor league system isn’t a bad idea, either.

An interesting winter reload lurks: Will Cohen drive up the price for megastar Juan Soto, running the risk he simply returns to the Yankees, anyway? Is Alonso a lifetime Met? Will new club president David Stearns reunite with one of his Milwaukee aces, the Baltimore rental Corbin Burnes?

For now, they are a curious mélange: Holdovers from the previous decade like Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and McNeil, a handful of short-time vets like J.D. Martinez and Harrison Bader, a few promising to very promising youngsters like third baseman Mark Vientos and slugging, rehabbing catcher Francisco Alvarez.

Occasionally, the mix turns up some gold.

Such as the kinship Vientos found on what might be his last trip on the Queens-Syracuse Class AAA shuttle. This time, veteran infielder Jose Iglesias was on the Syracuse roster, lending his dozen years of major league experience to the up-and-down prospect.

‘I got to give him a lot of credit,’ says Vientos. ‘When I was down in Syracuse he was one of the mentors in my ear, telling me how to play the game the right way.

‘And the guy’s done it for 13 years in the league. He knows what it takes to be a 10-year big leaguer. When he speaks, I’m all ears.’

Vientos was summoned once more from Class AAA on May 15, and since then might have seized the third base job permanently from Brett Baty, who was optioned to Syracuse on May 31.

In 13 games since May 18, Vientos posted an 1.152 OPS and Monday night reached base four times and slugged a home run in a win over the Nationals. His third year with a taste of the bigs might be the one that sticks.

‘Conviction. On time. Ready for pitches in the strike zone,’ says Mendoza of Vientos. ‘When he’s short to the ball and putting that barrel on that baseball … The way he’s controlling the strike zone is pretty impressive.’

To say nothing of his work defensively, probably his biggest improvement since he first came to the majors in 2022 and also since the club sent him to Syracuse rather than Queens on Opening Day.

‘People are going to talk about how he’s murdering the baseball, which he is,’ says Alonso, ‘and that deserves endless amount of talk and praise because he’s been doing so great for us offensively.

‘But the one thing I don’t think he gets credit for, and I tell him this, is how awesome and polished he looks defensively. How he’s transformed from last year to this year is very admirable.’

Baty’s optioning coincided with Iglesias’s recall, and after spending 2023 without a major league job, the longtime shortstop is now keeping second base warm for McNeil.

Yet it’s not just the six hits in his first 15 at-bats he’s providing.

‘It’s a privilege wearing this uniform,’ says Iglesias, 34, speaking specifically about the Mets gear but also about being a big leaguer again. ‘We all mature, each and every year. It’s perfect timing for me, to be on this great team that wants to win. Nothing but great things.

‘So many ways you can contribute to a team. Not necessarily with the bat or the defense − but the energy and you keep pushing your teammates and supporting them.

‘It’s just about vibe − it’s a long season. We’re going to fail. We’re going to succeed. We’ve got to stay as positive as we can.’

The future will get here soon enough.

Highway 101

For now, 101 games remain with this alignment. Two wins in D.C. gave them their first series win in a month; the finale will be followed by a flight to London for two games with the near-unbeatable Philadelphia Phillies.

There’s nearly two months before they’d blow anything up at the trade deadline, yet it would also take weeks of winning baseball to shake this club’s maddening inconsistency.

So, what now?

‘Every day’s a new opportunity,’ says Alonso, who hit his team-leading 14th homer Tuesday. ‘And there’s a ton of baseball left.’   

That proclamation will include McNeil, who might sit a third consecutive game with another left-hander opposing the Mets. For now, he‘s a symbol of the team’s limbo. But he is signed through 2027, plenty of time to reinsert himself in the picture.

‘When I put him back in the lineup,’ says Mendoza, ‘I know he’ll be ready to do it.’

This post appeared first on USA TODAY