Trade deadline season is finally here. On Sunday afternoon, the Mets and Blue Jays consummated the biggest trade of the season so far, sending starting pitcher Marcus Stroman to Queens in exchange for minor league pitchers Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson. It’s not surprising that Stroman is on the move, but the fact that he’s moving to the Mets is, well, super weird. With the Mets 11.5 games out of first place in the NL East and six games out of the wild card, it’s fair to call this a trade between two noncontenders, which is unusual. “Unusual” has been a polite way to describe the first year of Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s tenure, and as rumors of a follow-up Noah Syndergaard trade swirl, it’s not clear that Stroman fits the Mets’ competitive window. For that matter, it’s no longer clear what the Mets believe their competitive window is.
Stroman, a 28-year-old right-hander, was one of the biggest names set to move this year. A first-time All-Star, the Duke product is second among qualified starters this year in ground ball rate and tied for eighth in ERA-. And despite wild year-to-year inconsistencies in ERA, Stroman has posted extremely consistent underlying numbers: In the past four years, he’s never posted a DRA lower than 3.66 or higher than 4.19. While he doesn’t strike out many batters by modern standards, he’s shown a consistent ability to make up for it by inducing weak contact and keeping the ball on the deck. Stroman is not a capital-A Ace, but he’s both reliable and good enough to start in the playoffs.
The Mets didn’t give up a lot to get him. Kay, a 2016 first-rounder out of UConn, missed all of the 2017 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and wasn’t particularly impressive in A-ball in 2018. This year, he posted a 1.49 ERA in 12 starts at Double-A Binghamton, good enough to get him some consideration for the back half of some midseason top 100 lists. But Kay hit a wall after being promoted to Triple-A in mid-June: Since his promotion, Kay has struck out just 26 and allowed 23 earned runs in 31 1/3 innings. Woods Richardson, a second-round pick in 2018, has a good fastball-curveball combination and lots of upside, but he was also born in 2000, which is another way of saying he’s a long way from reaching the big leagues. MLB.com ranked Kay and Woods Richardson fourth and sixth, respectively, in an underwhelming Mets farm system.
Kay will reach the majors soon, but it matters not only how close to the big leagues he is, but what he’ll do when he gets there. With his injuries and (the first half of this season notwithstanding) no track record of minor league dominance, Kay has the ceiling of a mid-rotation starter, with no guarantee he’ll reach it. I’d take the under on him having, say, Wade Miley’s big league career, much less Stroman’s. If a contender had given up an equivalent package for someone like Blue Jays closer Ken Giles, that would’ve been understandable, but it’s genuinely puzzling that the Blue Jays couldn’t get more for Stroman. With so many teams in need of starting pitching, and such a long (and constantly varying) list of pitchers available for trade, it was hard to pin down what it would cost to trade for a pitcher like Stroman. Now we know: not that much. In a vacuum, this is a good piece of business for the Mets.
Even though disappointed Mets and Blue Jays fans might conclude that baseball sucks right now, it is not played in a vacuum. Stroman’s a good pitcher, and the Mets didn’t give up much to get him. But every added layer of context beyond that causes this trade to make less sense.
Last week, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Mets were floating the idea of trading Noah Syndergaard to replenish the farm system and replacing him with Stroman. Indeed, New York Times writer Bob Klapisch reported after the Stroman trade that Syndergaard could be out the door soon, though shortly thereafter SNY’s Andy Martino reported the opposite. Stroman’s outpitching Syndergaard this year, but Syndergaard has better stuff and a better statistical track record overall. Not only that, Syndergaard is younger, cheaper, and under team control one year longer than Stroman.
If the Mets are trying to contend soon—and trading for a pitcher who can be a free agent in a year and a half would indicate that they are—it sure seems like they’d be better off keeping Syndergaard, rather than trying to sell low on him when he’s pitching poorly. Swapping in Stroman for Syndergaard doesn’t make a ton of sense from a purely by-the-numbers perspective. It makes less sense from an optics standpoint. Syndergaard is a franchise cornerstone, a hugely famous and popular player among fans, locally and nationally. Syndergaard is the kind of player a GM should be building around, not the guy he swaps out just to shake things up.
After the Stroman trade leaked, Rosenthal tweeted that if the Mets were to trade Syndergaard, they’d be interested in immediate big league help, not prospects. That’s puzzling for two reasons. First, the teams interested in trading for Syndergaard—i.e., good teams—would probably be reluctant to give up players who can help them now, while they’re trying to win. If the Mets do trade Syndergaard, they’d get more value back if they looked further down the road and invested in prospects, which trade partners would be more likely to part with.
Second, Rosenthal’s report seems to indicate that the Mets think they can still contend in 2019, either with Syndergaard in the rotation or with whatever MLB-ready replacements a Syndergaard trade could buy them. Stroman will help, but he’s not good enough to close the gap to the playoffs all on his own. No pitcher is.
Back in 2015, the Texas Rangers traded for Cole Hamels when they were in third place, eight games out in the division and four games under .500. The Rangers got incredibly hot down the stretch and ended up making the playoffs. That’s a best-case scenario, an outlier notable enough to remember. But the Mets are farther out of first place, with more teams to jump to even make the wild card. The Rangers’ comeback was more the result of the first-place Astros going into a tailspin down the stretch than anything Hamels did, and the Mets need several of the teams they’re chasing to fall apart, not just one. Hamels was also under team control for four full seasons after the trade, while Stroman’s under team control for only one more year. Bargain or not, trading for Stroman is a short-term play, and the Mets’ short-term outlook isn’t that good. If the Mets trade Syndergaard, their short-term outlook will be even worse.
There are other minor factors that make this trade puzzling. For example: Being as ground-ball reliant as he is, Stroman would be a great fit for a team with a good defensive infield. The Mets infield, by contrast, is more like a tribute to the Continental Army’s defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in 1776, the worst defense in the history of New York City. And while the Mets have some good position-player prospects, their minor league pitching is not an area of great depth, particularly after they sent Justin Dunn to the Mariners in the Edwin Díaz trade this past winter.
The Mets got a good pitcher without giving up much in return, and from that standpoint this trade is laudable. But in the broader context, it’s not really clear what the Mets are doing, or even what they think of the roster they’ve assembled. Maybe Van Wagenen is trying to put a pitcher on the moon by the end of the decade, and the 5-foot-8 Stroman is the only guy who’ll fit in the capsule. That’d make as much sense as any other explanation. After all, this trade looks pretty good in a vacuum.