After suffering through an extremely disappointing first half of the season in 2023, the New York Mets saw the writing on the wall when it came time to make some tough decisions at last year’s trade deadline.
Instead of continuing to push their team forward, they pulled back and went into a full-on fire-sale.
In a series of moves that begin with trading closer David Robertson five days before the deadline, and concluded with flipping Tommy Pham right ahead of it, the Mets made six trades to gut their roster of veterans and turn the page towards the future.
Amongst all of the trades they made, the toughest one to pull the trigger on was dealing Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros. While they got a great return, Verlander still had two years of team control beyond the 2023 season where he could have remained the Mets ace.
Trading Max Scherzer was a much easier decision, as he only had a year and a half of control left (with the 2024 season being a player option) and he had showed real signs of breaking down during the 2023 season.
Between injuries and a decline in performance, flipping Scherzer was a decision that seemed like a no-brainer then, as it does even more so now considering the fact that he will miss the first half of this season due to an injury. Verlander on the other hand was a more tricky proposition.
At the time of the deal, an argument could have been made that it was worth it to hold onto Verlander if the Mets planned to contend in 2024 and 2025.
Now, under new president David Stearns, the Mets say they intend to be in playoff contention this season, but they are facing an uphill battle, particularly with their lack of frontline starting pitching. In the long run, the Mets made out great with the trade, but in the short-term, trading Verlander is a blow that New York will feel over the next two seasons.
The question we will aim to answer today, is if it was all worth it.
What Changes in 2024 with Justin Verlander?
Let’s go back in time for a minute and pretend the Justin Verlander trade back to the Astros never happened. Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford are appearing on top 100 prospect lists as members of the Astros farm system, and Verlander is still headlining the Mets rotation.
If the Mets offseason went exactly how it has gone so far, their rotation would be sitting in a fantastic position right now heading into the season.
- Justin Verlander
- Kodai Senga
- Jose Quintana
- Luis Severino
- Sean Manaea
- Adrian Houser
- Tylor Megill
Verlander and Kodai Senga is a damn-good 1-2 punch to headline a rotation. Jose Quintana is currently slated as the No. 2 in the Mets non-Verlander rotation, but falls back into a more comfortable No. 3 slot if the Mets never traded their ace.
That then brings us to the offseason additions of Luis Severino, Sean Manaea and Adrian Houser.
Severino is a one-year gamble by the Mets, paying the former frontline starter $13 million in 2024 to see if he can regain his prior form by changing boroughs in New York. Coming off a season where he pitched to 6.65 ERA, it is very hard to have any idea what to expect from Sevy in 2024.
Still, if the Mets had Verlander there would be far less pressure on the gamble to work out.
As presently constructed, the Mets sort of need Severino to tap back into his prior form, as he arguably has the highest ceiling in this rotation outside of Senga. If he splits the difference between what he was last year, and what he was in 2022 (when he pitched to a 3.18 ERA in 102 innings), Severino will be a nice back-end starter for the Mets.
The current Steamer projection for Severino has him making 26 starts and pitching to a 4.28 ERA across 144 innings pitched. That is fine production from a back-end starter. But the Mets need him to be more if they want to contend in 2024.
Moving over to their biggest rotation upgrade of the offseason, at least financially, Manaea signed a two-year, $28 million deal with the Mets with an opt-out after this season. The bet the Mets made on Manaea was based on great numbers he posted in the second half with the Giants, and the hope that he could tap into a little more in his second full season working with Driveline.
Looking at the projections, Steamer has Manaea pitching to a 3.99 ERA over 148 innings pitched. Meanwhile they have the incumbent Quintana pitching to a 4.23 ERA in 168 innings pitched.
In the scenario where Verlander is with the club, the Mets would really only need one of Severino, Manaea, or Quintana to exceed their projections, or have two of them meet them. With just Senga atop this rotation, the Mets need two of those three to exceed their projections to contend, and really need all three to at least come close to meeting their projections.
Finally, looking at the very end of their MLB depth chart, the Mets currently have Adrian Houser and Tylor Megill entering camp in a battle for the last starter spot. Both figure to get plenty starts this year, especially as the Mets could employ a six-man rotation at times to help starters like Senga and Severino who may need their innings monitored.
Even in a year where Verlander missed the first month of the season last year, he still pitched 162 1/3 innings between the Mets and the Astros. Having that level of a workhorse atop the rotation does wonders for everyone else on the staff. Both in the rotation and in the bullpen.
The Mets chances of winning the World Series would still be relatively low compared to their pre-season expectation in 2023, but there is no question that having Verlander would put them much closer to playoff contention this season.
New York still has holes in their bullpen and could use another bat in their starting lineup, but shoring up the front of their rotation would have an incredible impact on this team.
Instead they patch-worked a rotation that could work, but has them looking like a team who can sneak into a third Wild Card spot if everything breaks right, instead of a team that would have pretty solid odds to at least get into the dance.
Could the Mets Win a World Series with Verlander?
In each of the last two seasons, we have seen the third Wild Card team make it to the World Series from the National League. When answering the question of if the Mets could have won the World Series with Verlander, the answer is yes.
Would it have been a likely outcome? That is where things get more complicated.
To win the World Series you have to make the playoffs first. As already discussed, Verlander would have given the Mets a much better chance to be a playoff team in 2024, but they still would have likely trailed behind both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies on paper.
Being the third-best team in your division is a tough starting point to winning it all. It is not impossible, but certainly not likely that the Mets would have won the World Series in 2024 if they had Verlander.
Really their best hope to win it all with Verlander would have been in 2025. Now this first assumes that Verlander reaches the 140 innings required to trigger his $35 million 2025 club option, and also that he pitches well enough that the Mets would pick it up.
Next, this would require the Mets to have seen some of their young talent rise to surface, such as position players Luisangel Acuña and Jett Williams (remember Drew Gilbert is still an Astro in this hypothetical universe) and pitching prospects Christian Scott and Mike Vasil.
With only one year left of Verlander and Max Scherzer officially off the books, the Mets could go big-game hunting yet again and try to sign an ace like Corbin Burnes to pair with Verlander and Senga.
If all of those things broke the Mets way, yes they could have won it all with Verlander. But that is asking for so many things to go right, and that’s not even getting down to actually winning in October when anything can happen.
Instead, the Mets chose the long-game and made the prudent decision for their franchise long-term.
It is a tough pill to swallow for Mets fans who want to see a winner in 2024 and 2025, but the cold harsh reality of the Justin Verlander trade was that it took the Mets out of win-now mode. Next offseason, the Mets could sign a Burnes-type pitcher and jump right back into the mix, just like they tried to make the push for Yoshinobu Yamamoto this offseason.
Until they land their next frontline arm, or produce one from their farm system, the Mets are in wait-and-see mode. Which is not a bad place to be when you have one of the best farm systems in baseball.
Why the Mets Made the Right Call
There are no certainties in the game of baseball. Last year, coming off the heels of a 101-win season, the Mets put together a juggernaut on paper. Unfortunately for them and their fan base, it did not work out.
Instead of just watching his $43.3 million per year investments waste away on a bad team, Steve Cohen ordered his front office to shop Scherzer and Verlander, using his pocketbook to buy prospects.
The result was three prospects in Acuña, Gilbert and Clifford who are all appearing on top 100 lists heading into this season. The window to win with all those guys might not open up until 2025 or 2026, but at least it is a long window and has a much better chance to be a solid foundation.
Gilbert in particular is looking like the steal of the deadline for the Mets. The 23-year-old former first round pick posted a gaudy .984 OPS in 35 games with the Mets Double-A affiliate after the trade and is set to make his Triple-A debut to start the season.
There is every chance that Gilbert is holding down a starting outfield spot by the end of the 2024 season, and he could ascend to be a star-level player during his time in Queens. If that happens, the Mets will have won this trade, regardless of what happens with Clifford.
If Clifford can find his big-league footing as well someday, the Mets will have made out like bandits.
Ultimately, if the Astros asked David Stearns right now if he would trade Gilbert and Clifford to get Verlander back he would hang up the phone immediately. The Mets are looking towards the future and their fans will thank them for that once that future starts to present itself.
For now, Mets fans have to hope for Luis Severino to find a fountain of youth if they want to watch a winner in 2024. It could happen and be a fun year, but know that is not what this club is really building towards.
A sustainable winner cannot be built overnight, but if you have enough money, the jumpstart to one can be built that quickly. The Mets bought a rebuild last July. Fans just have to wait until that rebuild starts to take root in Queens. The first step might just be when Gilbert makes his MLB debut.