Major League Baseball
David Stearns prepared to be the Mets' bad guy as trade deadline looms
Major League Baseball

David Stearns prepared to be the Mets' bad guy as trade deadline looms

Updated May. 28, 2024 8:41 p.m. ET

NEW YORK — Strong leaders recognize the importance of making difficult or unpopular decisions for the benefit of long-term success. The more unpopular the decision is, the greater the chance that the person calling the shots will be disliked, or even despised, long after the dust settles. But being loved or hated hardly matters. Even if morale is already low, strong leaders have no problem making a tough call that could add to the emotional turmoil. 

David Stearns is one such executive who is undaunted by the idea of making those tough calls. He would, unemotionally, make an unpopular decision if it means the Mets, in the long run, will be better for it. He’s not interested in being a people pleaser. He has no scruples about removing a fan favorite from the roster, or even breaking up the team’s core. 

If it makes logical sense to take the calculated risk, if it means he will be labeled the bad guy who broke hearts, Stearns is prepared to make the call.

"It doesn't matter to me at all whether players existed here before I got here, or whether there were transactions that I made to get players here," Stearns said Tuesday at Citi Field. "I'm not looking to put my imprint on anything. I'm looking to help create an organization that's going to win a lot of games for a long time. I think there were players that were here before I got here who are gonna help us do that. And there are players that I brought in, and continue to bring in, that hopefully should help the cause as well."

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Perhaps that’s not a surprising stance to learn about Stearns, the Harvard graduate and shrewd baseball operations executive known for savvy roster construction that led a small-market club to the playoffs in four consecutive years. But this isn’t Milwaukee, and these aren’t the Brewers. Stearns, after becoming the Mets’ first president of baseball operations, isn’t afraid of potentially becoming public enemy No. 1 in New York as early as his first year on the job. 

That’s the mark of a strong leader, and that’s exactly who the Mets need to assess their complicated situation right now.

"We haven't played like a playoff team," Stearns said when asked if he believes the Mets can compete for the postseason. "That doesn't mean we won't, but we gotta show it. I think we have a group of players that is very committed to that goal that is determined to play better. But until we show it, it's a reasonable question."

Pete Alonso is more than 50 games into his contract year, on the cusp of becoming a free agent for the first time in his career. His .768 OPS is statistically the worst start to a season across his six years in the major leagues. Talk about bad timing. All the while, the Mets are struggling to string wins together. Since April 21, their 10-23 (.313) record is the worst in baseball. They're the only team allowing more than five runs per game (5.16) and scoring less than four (3.75) during this span. 

The underperforming club is on the verge of facing irrelevancy before the official start of summer for the second consecutive year. 

Except for an aberrational 2022 campaign that featured 101 wins and a postseason berth, the Mets’ lackluster play is déjà vu for those who have a high tolerance and pay close attention. For the past four years, the team’s offensive core has consisted of Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil and Alonso. Most of that core especially hasn’t played to its potential this year. Lindor entered the third week of May batting below the Mendoza line. McNeil’s 94 OPS+ earned him a demotion to the bottom-third of the lineup. Nimmo has been serviceable, owning the best wRC+ (124) and highest fWAR (1.3) on the club.

More and more, it appears Stearns has inherited an underperforming core group of hitters in need of sweeping changes. Alonso’s contract situation represents Stearns’ first such opportunity to make an aggressive adjustment, but it remains unclear how soon he will address the Polar Bear’s future. 

"Nothing's changed with Pete’s situation," Stearns said. "Our goal on a daily basis is to help Pete succeed as much as he possibly can so that we can win as many games as possible. And that's where I expect we'll continue to be."

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There are a number of ways this can go. Stearns can trade Alonso, marking a controversial decision that could quickly turn foam fingers into pitchforks at Citi Field. He could hold off until the offseason to give Alonso a contract proposal, and if Alonso rejects that offer and signs with another team, the Mets’ qualifying offer on the first baseman would net them a compensatory draft pick. Alonso could be traded, and then decide to re-sign with the Mets in the winter. Or he could explore the market, field competitive offers, and eventually end up back in Queens.

Stearns was asked directly Tuesday whether a player’s connection to the franchise, like Alonso’s years-long kinship to the fan base and status as face of the organization, will factor into his decision-making. The president of baseball ops didn’t give a direct answer, but he made it clear his decision would be impersonal, and wholly focused on the organization’s long-term success.

"I think the guiding light on all this is: put together the best team possible," Stearns said. "That's our goal as an organization, from ownership on down, and that's what we’re going to strive to do."

It's easy to envision a world in which Alonso belongs on Stearns' version of the best team possible. He has been the club’s most productive hitter since his 2019 debut, and he has established himself as one of the game’s top sluggers in that span. But he is a 29-year-old homegrown first baseman asking for a massive contract, all while the majority of his future could be limited to DH duties. It’s not an easy decision, and that’s why it’s so important that the Mets have a leader who is undeterred by the court of public opinion calling the shots. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, Stearns still believes that the Mets’ core is capable of making a run between now and the July 30 trade deadline. If they don’t, there are a handful of players signed to one-year deals (Luis Severino and J.D. Martinez, among them) who are much likelier candidates to hit the trading block before Alonso. 

The obvious elixir to a complete sell-off is winning, but the Mets do not look like a sharp club capable of a sudden, two-week turnaround. They have played poorly in nearly every facet of the game. Edwin Díaz's shaky role as closer is one of the most concerning developments of the season, and this week we learned ace Kodai Senga's timeline to return from injury was pushed back. Around here, the bad news never seems to end.

The time is ripe for changes, and Stearns is prepared to make them. How aggressively Stearns acts will dictate the fallout. Trading Alonso in the next couple of months would send shockwaves through the clubhouse, as well as rupture the fan base. Yet, thanks to the seemingly bottomless hole the Mets continue digging for themselves, no matter what path he chooses, it’s easier now than ever to follow Stearns' lead. 

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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