Braves Teach Steve Cohen and the Mets a Lesson
After watching Raisel Iglesias throw three scoreless against the Mets, New York is left to wonder what could have been
I do not want this blog to become a Mets/Braves comparison blog after writing about the differences in offensive philosophy, but after the Braves sent the Mets limping home to Flushing two games out of first and on the brink of being eliminated from the divisional race, I think it's important to once again highlight a major difference.
Alex Anthopoulos did a cannonball into the water. Billy Eppler put his toes in.
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In the biggest series of the year, the two general managers were background figures. Their jobs were mostly complete. They had given their managers the players to win, and while they weren't exactly sitting on the sidelines, they also were no longer at the forefront. This was a stark difference to the trading deadline as both teams were after the same thing and the two general managers competed directly with one another.
On August 2, the long-referenced 10.5 game lead the Mets had on Memorial Day was all-but-evaporated. The Braves were just 2.5 games back and the two teams were looking to add pieces to the picture in order to propel their teams into a strong stretch run. The Mets already acted by adding Daniel Vogelbach on July 22 and Tyler Naquin six days later. By August 2, they were looking for the final touches - a right-handed DH to pair with Vogelbach and a reliever to solidify the bullpen.
Atlanta, on the other hand, added Ehire Adrianza the day before the deadline and that was about it. Well, other than trading a trio of prospects including Drew Waters to the Kansas City Royals for the 35th pick in the draft, which became JR Ritchie. For more Ritchie and the 2022 draft, see my article from Friday. Shameless plug aside, the Braves still had a few different needs - an extra outfielder and a starting pitcher were priorities. But the other hope was to land another shutdown reliever, much like the Mets wanted.
On that fateful deadline day, the Mets would trade for Darin Ruf while the Braves would add Robbie Grossman and Jake Odorizzi. None of the trio of moves were super successful, though Grossman has had a few moments.
There remained the need to upgrade the bullpen. While the New York Mets had a monster like Edwin Diaz at the end of games and Adam Ottavino was doing a solid job, the bullpen had been rather disappointing. Seth Lugo, Drew Smith, and Joely Rodriguez all were prone to meltdowns. The pen needed another high-leverage arm capable of getting big outs in the 7th and 8th innings. And they had a target in mind.
The Braves didn't quite suffer from the same problem. A.J. Minter had been incredible and Collin McHugh was as clutch as they come. While Kenley Jansen certainly isn't the most shutdown reliever in the game, he's been shockingly productive. But with Tyler Matzek's injury struggles and slow bounce-back paired with Dylan Lee's roll-of-the-dice numbers in high leverage, the Braves wanted to solidify their pen to mimic the shutdown force it became in the playoffs last fall. They, too, had a target in mind.
It was the same target as the Mets sought. The two were part of a collection of teams interested in Angels' closer, Raisel Iglesias. In fact, both New York teams had interest, according to Jon Heyman of the New York Post. All told, the Atlanta Braves were probably a bit of a longshot for Iglesias. After all, their farm system was ranked 27th according to MLB Pipeline. Landing a player of Iglesias' stature would be difficult. The Mets, for instance, had the 14th-best farm system. The Yankees? 12th. How could Atlanta compete?
But two things seemed to aid the Braves' efforts. The first was that Iglesias was not having a typical Iglesias season. The 32-year-old from Cuba was struggling with his infrequent work, saving just half of the games he got called into with three blown saves. His ERA of 4.04 was a full run above his career average and he had just one season since transitioning to the bullpen with an ERA above 2.74. But many teams could look past all of that. His FIP was 3.17, well around his career average, and his peripheral numbers were excellent.
The bigger concern that made teams hesitate to make a move was Iglesias' contract. Acquired from the Reds prior to 2021, Iglesias spent a year with the Angels before becoming a free agent. In free agency, he re-signed with Los Angeles for $58 million over four years. Roughly, $51 million remained on the contract and Angels GM Perry Minasian wanted out. As teams inquired about Iglesias, the former Braves assistant made it a priority to unload all of the reliever’s contract rather than have to cover some salary or take back another costly contract in return.
It was Minasian's focus that kept both the Yankees and especially the Mets from using their considerable resources to acquire the right-hander. As the trade deadline neared its final minutes, Minasian was forced to take the best offer that included taking on the remainder of Iglesias's contract. It's worth debating if the better move was to get a couple of higher-rated prospects by covering salary, but that clearly was not the focus of the Angels. It should also be mentioned that a few weeks later, Angels' owner Arte Moreno announced the Angels were on the block to be sold so Minasian's may have been forced to prioritize future salary relief over the best potential assets he could get.
Speaking of financial problems, many have suggested the Mets balked at adding much in terms of salary due to the fact they were already paying a hefty amount for their 2022 roster. With a spending spree highlighted by Max Scherzer last offseason, the Mets breezed past the luxury tax threshold of $230 million. Not to get too lost in the numbers, but the Mets' payroll topped off at around $282 million - the biggest payroll in baseball. For luxury tax purposes, when the fines were taken into account, the Mets were on the hook for $314 million for their roster and, theoretically, adding Iglesias may have been seen as too much. On the other hand, part of what was supposed to be "different" about these Mets is that they didn't care how much they spent.
The main takeaway here is that the Braves saw an opportunity. Other teams with better prospects on the table balked at the salary they would need to add to future payrolls. The Braves, on the other hand, didn't blink. Bring on the salary, they seemed to say.
That is why the Braves pulled the trigger on a two-for-one trade, sending prospect Tucker Davidson and fedora-wearing righty Jesse Chavez to the Angels for Iglesias. To be fair, Davidson is not far removed from being one of the more exciting pitching prospects in the Braves’ system. The Mets pivoted, sending minor league relief arm, Saúl González, to the Cubs for Mycal Givens.
Over the last few years, the former Oriole, Givens, was a productive righty with a niche of being fairly good. I say fairly good because the Givens had above-average, but not elite, strikeout numbers and was prone to bouts of wildness and homers. Such habits often short-circuited his ability in high-leverage situations. Win Probability Added (WPA) is a very telling stat for relievers as it helps show how successful they are in high-leverage spots. Since the beginning of 2019, Givens had a WPA of 1.43. That ranked 98th.
Again, Givens is a fine option to fill out your bullpen, but does he have the pedigree you might want in the most-important moments of the game like Iglesias? No. But the Mets went the cheaper route. Givens would struggle early, though had started to round into form when, in mid-September, he landed on the IL with Covid. He's completed a rehab stint, but was not activated for this series. Since the trade, he's allowed 11 earned runs in 19.2 innings (5.03 ERA).
Meanwhile, Iglesias has flourished with the Braves. In 27 games, he's allowed just one earned run in 25.1 innings. For those wondering, that's a 0.36 ERA! He's picked up 14 holds and struck out 27 compared to just four walks.
More succinctly, he worked all three games of the series against the Mets, allowing three hits and striking out a pair in three scoreless innings.
Time will tell how Iglesias performs over the next three years when he is due $16M each season. It seems the plan is for Iglesias to replace Jansen as the Braves' closer in 2023 and moving forward. Essentially, he'll follow the Will Smith plan who, after serving as a middle reliever in 2020, became the closer in 2021 following the free agent defection of Mark Melancon. Either way, $16 million is a lot of cash for a reliever.
But Alex Anthopoulos showed yet again that he's not looking for half-measures. He's not interested in doing just enough. His focus is on titles and delivering them to the city of Atlanta. Meanwhile, what we also learned is that Mets superfan and certified billionaire, Steve Cohen, has a limit on the cash he wants to throw around after all. Since he became the Mets owner, their fans have puffed out their chests with confidence that Cohen, unlike the Wilpons, will pay whatever it takes to put a champion on the field. And then they watched the half-measures as the Mets hoped Ruf, Givens, and company would be enough to keep their team from coughing up the rest of their formerly comical lead in the NL.
They chose not to jump into the water.
And now, instead of preparing for the NLDS round as the second seed, New York is a Braves win or a Mets loss away from needing to beat Juan Soto and the Padres to even have a hope to advance to play the Dodgers in the NLDS.
It's just another reminder that most general managers are playing checkers while Anthopoulos is waiting for a worthy chess opponent to step up.
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