Big-money Mets still underachieving, won’t catch Braves

After a temporary interruption for a few months last season, the Mets are back to “Mets-ing.” It started with last year’s collapse, and it’s continued into 2023. The team with the most expensive payroll in MLB history is wheezing to get its record above break-even.

Braves backers looking to put their team’s recent slide into perspective can count on the Mets to provide some solace. With a quarter of the season complete, the Mets have put down their usual markers of chronic underachievement.

High-priced hitters are failing to hit. Old pitchers have been unavailable to pitch. Everything is going wrong at once for the Mets, like usual.

“There are a lot of parts we need to put together,” manager Buck Showalter told reporters Monday after the Mets lost 10-3 at last-place Washington. “It’s not just one thing.”

The Mets split four games against the last-place Nationals. That series was supposed to be the finishing kick of a successful stretch against bad teams. Instead, New York was 4-9 against Detroit, Colorado, Cincinnati and Washington.

That left the Mets 6.5 games behind the Braves in the National League East, two games worse than after the teams split a four-game set May 2-4. The Mets fell behind the Marlins and Phillies. They were just 1.5 games ahead of the Nationals, who are years away from being competitive.

The Mets failed to win the East or a playoff series in 2022 with a $270 million payroll. Franchise owner Steve Cohen responded by spending even more money. New York’s opening-day payroll was an MLB-high $350 million, $70 million more than the Yankees. The Mets are projected to owe another $115 million or so in luxury-tax payments.

Cohen has gotten a poor return on his investment so far, at least in terms of the team’s on-field performance. One reason to believe the Mets can turn things around is that their expensive starting pitchers are getting healthy. But relying heavily on older pitchers with histories of injuries also is reason to think the rotation can fall apart the next time one or two of them doesn’t feel right.

The Mets signed Justin Verlander, 40, to a two-year, $87 million contract before the season. He was on the injured list until making his Mets debut May 4. Right-hander Max Scherzer, 38, pushed back his last start because of neck spasms. He’s compiled a 4.88 ERA over five starts. Carlos Carrasco, 36, has been on the IL for a month because of elbow inflammation. He’s scheduled to return soon, but posted an 8.56 ERA over three April starts.

The Mets prepared for the possibility that their older pitchers would miss time. But two pitchers they acquired for depth, Elieser Hernandez and Jose Quintana, have yet to pitch this season because of injuries. Another depth starter, David Peterson, has produced an 8.08 ERA over eight starts.

The Mets will sort out their pitching if Verlander, Scherzer and Carrasco stay healthy. Solving their issues at the plate won’t be as simple. Mets hitters don’t have a track record of producing much power, and sure enough, that’s what’s holding back the offense.

First baseman Pete Alonso has produced 13 home runs. The rest of the lineup regulars have 22 homers combined (all stats before Tuesday’s games). The Mets rank 22nd of 30 MLB teams in home runs and 24th in extra-base hit rate. Those numbers help to explain why the Mets are 23rd in runs scored per game despite ranking tied for 12th in on-base percentage.

The Mets didn’t hit a homer in the four games against the Nationals. That extended their homer-less streak to 52 consecutive innings. It’s the first time since 2013 the Mets didn’t homer in a four-game series, according to MLB researcher Sarah Langs.

The Mets have a lot of problems to overcome that can’t be solved by throwing money at them. The Braves have issues, too. The most pressing concern is that two good starters, Max Fried and Kyle Wright, are on the IL. The Braves have had to piece together so-called bullpen games to get by.

But the Braves are the anti-Mets in that everything always seems to work out with their pitching in the end. They also can rely on their offense to lift the starters. It kept humming despite missing key pieces. The Braves’ lineup finally got whole again last week.

The Mets already have a lot of ground to make up on the Braves in the East. The Braves did it to the Mets last season. They were 10.5 games behind June 1 and overtook the Mets on the final weekend. That was after the Mets had fooled me into believing they were finished Mets-ing.

I’m not falling for it this time. The Mets soon will have their superior rotation back together again, but they won’t catch the Braves.