It may seem odd to start a story about the 2016 New York Mets with a line from ur-Yankee Babe Ruth, but given the current state of the team, it seems appropriate to invoke his self-description in the summer of 1948, near the end of his life: "The termites have got me."
There are few things sadder than a sad Babe Ruth; an aggrieved Terry Collins penciling in Kelly Johnson at cleanup doesn't even rank. But given that termites appear to have gotten the Mets as well, invoking Ruth seems apt. Lose three straight to an Atlanta Braves team that is less a ballclub than a pitch-black anti-comedy performance, it's not being paranoid to look for an exterminator.
In this metaphor, the termites are the injuries that have picked apart the Mets' pennant defense. Back on May 28, the Mets were 28-20 and in a rough tie for first place in the National League East. In the 20 games since then, they've gone 8-12, which is not the worst record in the league, but is in the bottom three. The Washington Nationals, meanwhile, have gone 14-6 and the Marlins 12-8, with the result that—well, you can see the standings for yourself. The Mets have dropped a fraction behind the Fish and into third place. They're six games behind the Nats for first place and a half-game behind the Marlins and Dodgers in the wild-card hunt.
The low-odds lottery ticket that is the wild-card game would be a disappointing encore for a 90-72 season that took the Mets all the way to the World Series; not making the postseason at all in the face of justifiably great expectations would be devastating. The 30th anniversary of the team's 1986 championship is an ongoing reminder of both how good the Mets had it then and how shabby and threadbare they've often seemed since, and not just on those days this season when they've had both Eric Campbell and Ty Kelly in the starting lineup. In making a contender of the Mets during the Years of Wilpon's Desiccated Wallet, Sandy Alderson accomplished something few other general managers operating under similar conditions have ever achieved. There have always been pinchpenny owners, but very few pinchpenny pennant winners. Mostly, those teams just lose—see, for example, the Braves team that just swept the Mets in Queens.
And yet, there are limits to what even Alderson can do now that injuries have exposed the team's lack of depth. For one thing, the problems aren't limited to injuries, but underperformance. Over those painful last 20 games, a lot has gone strangely well. The pitching staff has allowed 3.5 runs per nine innings, which is still well below the league average and about what the team has been doing all along. In an ideal world there wouldn't have been a Logan Verrett spot start in there, but spot starts happen, and if they had had them in Samuel Johnson's day, his aphorism would be that a spot start is like a dog walking on its hind legs—it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.
That leaves the offense, presently bereft of Lucas Duda and David Wright, its infield corners, which is hitting but .237/.301/.390 during this difficult eighth of a season. They've scored 3.2 runs a game, which is to say they're just hanging in there with the pitching staff on most nights. This is the frustration right now: Just a little bit more offense and the Mets likely would have been closer to breaking even.
In a way, though, the patches the Mets have deployed at the corners, while hardly evoking memories of HoJo and Keith Hernandez—or, for that matter, Duda and Wright—have been kind of okay. Third base has seen a good deal of Wilmer Flores, who is hitting .293/.354/.466 in those 20 games. It may all be a fluke, but as uninspiring as Flores was last year, he is still only 24 and was a highly thought-of prospect for years. At .279/.329/.412, James Loney has been little more than adequate, but he's also been an upgrade on what the Mets have gotten from first base on the season (.225/.282/.386, including Loney). Kelly Johnson, who has bounced from the Braves to the Mets to the Braves to the Mets like a child making home-visits to his divorced parents, had a strong first week back at mom's; if he's very unlikely to do much more than pop the odd home run and take the odd walk, well, that's more than the Mets seemed likely to get from, say, Eric Campbell, who is largely a singles hitter outside of Las Vegas—as are we all.
The problem is that even this intermittent adequacy seems unlikely to last. Maybe Flores has learned something from the struggles of the previous three years; he's showing more patience at the plate than before—with 10 walks to date, he's more than halfway to last year's total of 19 in 137 games—but Loney and Johnson were available for a reason.
While the absence of Duda and Wright hasn't been what has crippled the offense in the short term, the performances that have held the team back are of a more unsettling variety. Yoenis Cespedes has only lately emerged from a slump that had him, in his own words, "a little bit lost at the plate right now." He's hit .258/.311/.394 during the 20 games of doom. Michael Conforto, who showed real star quality last season, is staring down a get-your-head-right demotion to Triple-A. Part-time outfielders Alejandro De Aza and Juan Lagares have combined to go 8-for-50 (.160). Mets catchers haven't hit all year—as a group they've averaged .194/.292/.273. Kevin Plawecki and Rene Rivera have combined to hit .221/.291/.294 during this span. At least they've been consistent.
That has left Adsrubal Cabrera (.237/.310/.408, but really, what were you expecting), Curtis Granderson (relatively hot at .273/.337/.532), and Neil Walker (.246/.348/.439, which is more or less what Authentic Neil Walker Averages look like) to carry the weight during those last 20 games. You can't fault them, but you can't praise them too highly, either. They've more or less done their jobs, but those jobs shouldn't be carrying a big league team.
Conforto's season is the truly confounding one. Having gone from the amateur draft to World Series hero in just over a year, Conforto opened the season looking, no exaggeration, like the best hitter in Mets history, hitting .365/.442/.676 in April. Since then, amidst Collins' insistence that Conforto was a platoon player, he's looked, no exaggeration, like the worst hitter in Mets history, and this is the team that employed Rey Ordonez. In 40 games going back to May 1, Conforto has hit .157/.212/.321. There are six home runs in there, but he's lost the strike zone utterly; he's fanning in almost a third of his plate appearances and has taken just one more walk over the last seven weeks than he did in April alone.
After Sunday's 6-0 loss, in which the Mets went 1-for-28 (Conforto had their sole hit) against Julio Teheran and the Braves, Collins said, "You don't want to panic early, but right now, with what's going on, we may shake some things up." Hey, it's not that early, Terry, so panic freely and without shame. Activating Travis d'Arnaud, who has completed his latest minor league rehab, is a no-brainer, an instant upgrade at catcher assuming he can stay healthy for more than a week. Health is a physical skill, like speed or eye-hand coordination and d'Arnaud seems to lack it; on the 20-80 scouting scale, his score for "Constitution" is "Frangible."
Health should also have some bearing on how the Mets treat Conforto, but that's apparently a subject of controversy. Conforto has cartilage damage in his left wrist for which he received a cortisone shot on June 13. It's not clear how long the wrist has been troubling him and he insists it hasn't been an issue during games. It seems unlikely that a wrist injury would impact a player's batting eye to the extent that Conforto has struggled to make contact, but it's also not impossible to imagine a player making adjustments to compensate for a bum paw and undoing his whole approach.
That raises this question: what the hell are the Mets doing with Michael Conforto? Among the options prominently floated after Collins' postgame auguring was packing Conforto off to Vegas for reeducation and replacing him with 2011 first-round pick Brandon Nimmo. In principle, there's nothing wrong with that, though there are reasons to suspect that Nimmo is as much a product of Las Vegas' unique conditions as he is a real improvement over last year's combined .269/.362/.372 combined showing at Binghamton and Las Vegas. That doesn't matter right now—Nimmo could be terrible and still outhit what Conforto is currently capable of doing.
What's troubling is why the Mets would be inclined to demote Conforto when he should be disabled. Why convey to a player the message that he's failing when he may just be flailing due to a malfunctioning wrist? Coverage of the decision, which may have been made by the time you read this, has suggested the Mets could go either way with Conforto, but the choice between the DL and Triple-A is a false one. If Conforto's hurt, he's hurt.
It seems unlikely that the club's offensive problems can be solved from within the organization given the resources at hand. Sure, Cespedes might get crazy hot and give the team a temporary boost, but in the long term it would be kind of nice to have a complete infield and a functional left fielder. They could call up second base prospect Dilson Herrera, who has little left to prove in Triple-A, but it's hard to see where he fits. It has been freely speculated that once Zack Wheeler returns from Tommy John surgery, the Mets might be able to deal a pitcher for help. That prospect depends on Wheeler being instantly restored to his old status, though, which is probably as likely as Duda or Wright returning vastly improved from when last we saw them, if they return at all. It also depends on a better payoff in trade than one is likely to get from, say, a 43-year-old rent-a-pitcher or the baggy and inconsistent pitcher wearing Matt Harvey's uniform. In this vacuum of possibility the Mets are...working on it, presumably. The team is reportedly even considering bringing back Jose Reyes once he's officially released, which is a failure of imagination as well as morality.
Not many teams get to make a return trip to the World Series; entropy comes at you fast. As long as the Mets' starting rotation is in place, there is hope they can supplement it with actual professional hitters. The shortest route to that point is not a trade, but figuring out what's wrong with Michael Conforto, a professional hitter who's already on hand. First, though, they'll have to decide whether they should send him to detention, a doctor, or both. Here, as elsewhere, there's the sense that the team isn't just stuck for an answer, but still trying to figure out the questions.