Billy Eppler’s first year as Mets GM set up tricky winter

One year ago today, the Mets finally ended a long and arduous search for their next general manager by hiring Billy Eppler.

They took a winding road to get there — a six-week process filled with nos from prospective candidates or the teams they worked for, compiling a long list of names along the way that spanned from Theo Epstein to Adam Cromie (remember him?).

But one year later, Eppler has done well for himself. Because of it, for the first time in three offseasons, the Mets are not searching for a new top baseball executive. The prospect of David Stearns one day coming on as president of baseball operations likely will return to the conversation next offseason — though the Astros also could challenge for Stearns after he stepped down as the Brewers’ president last month — but at least for now, Eppler is calling the shots as he enters Year 2 at the helm.

Of course, Eppler and the Mets face another crucial offseason, and it will be hard to replicate the success he had in his first swing at free agency and trades last year. But before his second offseason fully kicks into gear, let’s take a look at Eppler’s best and worst moves in his first year as Mets GM:

The good

Max Scherzer headlined the Mets’ free-agent class of the 2021-22 offseason.
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Free agency: In a two-day span last Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, just before the lockout began, Eppler signed Mark Canha (two years, $26.5 million), Starling Marte (four years, $78 million), Max Scherzer (three years, $130 million) and Eduardo Escobar (two years, $20 million) to upgrade the team in one fell swoop. Then, shortly after the lockout was lifted, Eppler signed Adam Ottavino to a one-year, $4 million deal.

All five of those free-agent signings enjoyed strong first seasons in Queens, combining for 15 Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball Reference), led by Scherzer (5.2) and Marte (3.8), despite both players missing time due to injuries.

Perhaps just as importantly, those free-agent additions were strong fits in the clubhouse as respected veteran voices, which Eppler factored into his decision making. They helped strengthen the culture of the Mets, along with …

Hiring Buck Showalter: Once the lockout came, Eppler had time to turn his attention to the manager search. The Mets settled on finalists of Showalter, Joe Espada and Matt Quatraro before landing Showalter, who was the favorite going into the process.

The 66-year-old, who won the National League Manager of the Year award on Tuesday, gave the Mets instant credibility. His attention to detail and vast knowledge of the rule book were second to none, and the team responded well to his presence in the dugout.

Chris Bassitt #40 of the New York Mets reacts against the San Diego Padres during the second inning in game three of the National League Wild Card Series at Citi Field on October 09, 2022.
Chris Bassitt arrived via trade as a one-year rental, and was the Mets’ most reliable starter.
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Under Showalter, the Mets largely avoided any of the off-field controversies that have plagued them in years past, allowing the focus to be strictly on baseball.

The first trade: Two days after the lockout ended and transactions unfroze, Eppler got right back into action and made a key trade, acquiring right-hander Chris Bassitt from the Athletics in exchange for minor league pitchers Adam Oller and J.T. Ginn.

The Mets only got one season out of Bassitt — he’s now a free agent, though it’s possible he could return on a new deal — but he made the most of it. In a season in which Scherzer and Jacob deGrom combined to make just 34 starts because of injuries, Bassitt led the staff with 30 starts, posting a 3.42 ERA across a career-high 181 ⅔ innings. The only time he missed was when he contracted COVID-19, but otherwise he was a bulldog in the rotation — though his last two starts were disappointments in which he gave up a combined seven runs in 6 2/3 innings in losses to the Braves (with the NL East at stake) and Padres (in the season-ending Game 3 of the NL wild-card round).

Cutting ties with Cano: The Mets gave Robinson Cano a chance to prove himself after he missed all of the 2021 season because of a PED suspension. But it quickly became clear Cano was not going to make an impact, and Eppler didn’t drag it out any longer than necessary — using a deadline for roster cutdowns from 28 to 26 to make the move. On May 2, the Mets designated Cano for assignment, eating the roughly $37.6 million left on his contract.

Of course, the ability to pay Cano not to play for the Mets was thanks to owner Steve Cohen’s deep pockets. But Eppler talked through various potential moves with Cohen, who then told him to “make the baseball decision.” Eppler obliged and sent Cano packing. The veteran second baseman later latched on with the Padres and Braves, but continued to struggle and was out of a job by August.

The bad

New York Mets first baseman Darin Ruf (28) flips this bat after he is walked during the 6th inning at Citi Field. Friday, August 26, 2022.
The Mets gave up J.D. Davis to acquire Darin Ruf, who posted comically poor stats for the team (10 hits and 20 strikeouts in 74 plate appearances).
Noah K. Murray

Trade deadline: We don’t know what trade offers Eppler turned down at the deadline or what kind of prospect haul he would have had to give up to acquire a player of real significance to help the Mets down the stretch — or whether those players would have guaranteed the Mets a better playoff fate than a first-round exit.

But the trades Eppler did end up making were mostly underwhelming, and one in particular could come back to hurt.

The Mets’ biggest needs were a right-handed bat, a catcher and bullpen help. Instead they got left-handed DH Daniel Vogelbach (for reliever Colin Holderman), right-handed 1B/OF/DH Darin Ruf (for J.D. Davis, Thomas Szapucki, Carson Seymour and Nick Zwack), left-handed OF Tyler Naquin and LHP Phillip Diehl (for Hector Rodriguez and Jose Acuna) and RHP Mychal Givens (for Saul Gonzalez).

Vogelbach made the biggest impact of that group with an .830 OPS and 0.9 bWAR, and the Mets picked up his $1.5 million for next season. But Ruf, Naquin and Givens combined for -1.5 bWAR, providing little to no production when it mattered most.

The Ruf trade especially looks like it could hurt. The 36-year-old, who is under contract for next season, recorded a .413 OPS with 20 strikeouts and no home runs in 74 plate appearances as a Met. Davis, who still has two more years of team control, took off with more regular playing time with the Giants, posting a .857 OPS with eight home runs and 56 strikeouts in 158 plate appearances.

The future

Francisco Alvarez #50 and Trevor Williams #29 of the New York Mets celebrate as they walk off the field in the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on October 05, 2022.
One of the key questions facing the Mets: How much catching responsibility can Francisco Alvarez handle in 2023?
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Eppler’s second offseason got off to a strong start when the Mets re-signed closer Edwin Diaz to a five-year, $102 million contract last week. It’s a hefty sum to pay for a reliever, the most volatile position in baseball, but it’s one that was worth paying given Diaz’s importance to the Mets’ success.

Now Eppler has some difficult decisions ahead of him.

How much are they willing to pay to retain Jacob deGrom, who can be the best pitcher in baseball when he’s not injured, and Brandon Nimmo, who has said he hopes to remain a Met but has Scott Boras as his agent?

How does he go about rebuilding the bullpen, which only has Diaz and Drew Smith as sure things at the moment? What about the rotation, with possible holes left by free agents deGrom, Bassitt and Taijuan Walker?

New York Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz #39 takes the ball from New York Mets manager Buck Showalter #11 for the 8th inning of Game 3 of the NL wild card series against the San Diego Padres.
Buck Showalter has turned his attention to next year after winning 101 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

And when does he think Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty will be ready to be full-time major leaguers, and how does that affect the rest of his offseason plans, especially at catcher?

Eppler had a quality first year as the Mets GM. But it doesn’t get any easier from here.

Buck doesn’t stop here

In his first year in Queens, Showalter did what no other Mets manager had been able to do since the award inaugurated was in 1983: win National League Manager of the Year.

In true Showalter fashion, he spent most of his post-award conference call deferring the credit to others. But he was also quick to turn the focus to next year, knowing his work — like Eppler’s — is only just beginning.

“It’s an honor, don’t get me wrong, but I just look at it as such an organizational reflection, and now the charge we have to keep is to sustain it,” Showalter said. “I think that’s harder than sometimes a single season. That’s why we’re in Queens right now. We’re working on trying to sustain this confidence that our fan base has shown in us.”

No Rule 5 moves

Jake Mangum #15 of the New York Mets at bat against the St. Louis Cardinals during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium on February 22, 2020.
The Mets risk losing outfield prospect Jake Mangum in the Rule 5 draft after deciding not to add him to the 40-man roster.
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It was notable that the Mets did not add anybody to their 40-man roster on Tuesday ahead of the deadline to protect players from next month’s Rule 5 draft. They were the only team not to add a single prospect to their 40-man on Tuesday.

(As a refresher, minor leaguers are eligible for the Rule 5 draft if they were first signed at age 18 or younger and were not added to a 40-man roster within five seasons, or signed at 19 and older and were not added to the 40 within four seasons.)

Each of the Mets’ top 15 prospects (per MLB.com) is either already on the 40-man roster or not yet Rule 5 eligible.

The most notable minor leaguer the Mets left unprotected and who could be picked in the Rule 5 draft is outfielder Jake Mangum. The club’s fourth-round pick in 2019 out of Mississippi State is not a top-30 prospect and he turns 27 in March, but finished this season at Triple-A Syracuse, where he hit .333 with a .836 OPS in 33 games. He could have provided important outfield depth for the Mets, whose 40-man roster includes only three outfielders: Canha, Marte and Khalil Lee.