PORT ST. LUCIE — Freddie Freeman left the NL East on Wednesday night, a nice outcome for the Mets considering that Max Scherzer described the first baseman as “the toughest at-bat” in the division.
But Freeman did end up with the Dodgers, making the best of the National League even better.
And this is the ecosystem in which the Mets want to operate. Their owner has approved the majors’ largest payroll to go for it now. So they are in the business of keeping up with the best of the best.
Mets GM Billy Eppler said his philosophy in roster construction is “ultimately to try to build up your cumulative World Series odds over a long-term horizon.” He said the 2022 odds were much better today than on Nov. 1, before the Mets added Scherzer, Chris Bassitt, Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar and Starling Marte.
He explained that his organization runs simulations based on their schedule to gauge a win projection for the season. The simulation focuses on a Met win total, but takes into account the composition of opponents. So what the Braves look like with Matt Olson and the Dodgers with Freeman.
Plus, Eppler said, he checks a few gambling sites plus places like Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus to assess the consensus.
To that end, BetMGM has the Mets as a slight favorite over the Braves to win the NL East, Fangraphs has the Braves as the slight favorites and Baseball Prospectus has both at 92 wins. All the systems have the Dodgers as strong World Series favorites. Only Baseball Prospectus didn’t have those three projected for the NL’s most wins — the Brewers were behind the Dodgers.
Overall, though, the Mets have entered the upper echelon of these systems. That has been the case before in recent years. Then the actual season revealed worse. But as one NL executive said, “The Mets have had bad injury luck and bad managers. I think the projection systems see a regression to the mean with injuries, better overall talent and depth and a better manager [Buck Showalter]. That is how I am looking at it.”
At this moment, I agree that the Dodgers are the NL team to beat and favor the Braves in the NL East. The Mets have closed the talent gap on the Braves, perhaps even nudged ahead. But Atlanta has won the division the last four years and the championship last season. Understanding how to successfully navigate a season becomes part of an organization’s DNA. The Braves have that right now. The Mets have to prove it.
What the Braves no longer have is Freeman. Scherzer was actually sad about that. He says he likes to measure himself against the best, and in the righty’s view, Freeman was the best “because he could hit any pitch.”
His loss is real for Atlanta. Olson is a fine player. But he is not Freeman.
But the Braves won the World Series last year with Marcel Ozuna suspended and with Ronald Acuna Jr. out injured. Word out of Braves camp is Ozuna, who was banned for violating MLB’s domestic abuse protocols, is down 12 pounds as Atlanta hopes to reclaim the hitter who finished sixth for NL MVP in the abbreviated 2020 season. Acuna, who blew out his knee last July, is expected back as a DH a few weeks into the season and on the field fully a few months into the campaign. At the time of his injury last year, Acuna was among the NL MVP front-runners.
Mike Soroka (Achilles) could be back by the All-Star break for a rotation fronted by Ian Anderson, Max Fried and Charlie Morton, and Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa have upside. Kirby Yates, a top closer before Tommy John surgery, could be a gift come August.
“I do see it,” Francisco Lindor said of the moves other teams make. “But it doesn’t concern me. I know the team we’ve got. We can play with anyone if we do things the right way.”
That is true. Still, behold the Dodgers. They lost to the Braves in the NLCS last year, yet their recent winning pedigree outstrips Atlanta. Los Angeles has made the playoffs nine straight years and the only time the Dodgers didn’t win the NL West in that run was last season, despite 106 victories.
They are going to run out a top of the order of Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freeman — all obtained in the last two years — and Max Muncy (elbow) is set to return after missing the postseason last year. It is a frightful lineup. There are rotation questions, especially with the uncertainty of whether Trevor Bauer is or isn’t being suspended via the domestic abuse protocols and even if the Dodgers will welcome him back if he isn’t suspended.
“A lot of things happen between now and the end of the season,” said Scherzer, long in the NL East with the Nationals and acquired by the Dodgers last July, in part, to help fill in for Bauer. “I’ve learned, don’t get ahead of yourself. The first goal is to win your division, concentrate on that.”