How the $445 million Mets crashed and burned

It was May, barely a month into the Mets season, and the visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park was silent. The typical frenzy of a getaway day had been replaced by introspection, players sitting at nearly every locker, heads down as they scrolled through their phones.

In a span of 27 hours, the Mets had been swept by the lowly Tigers, their ninth loss in 11 games pushing them back to .500. That final loss in Detroit was punctuated by something that rarely, if ever, had to happen during a charmed 101-win season in 2022:

Buck Showalter called a postgame team meeting.

Showalter has long viewed the clubhouse as the players’ sanctuary, trusting a veteran squad in Queens to police itself. One day prior, in the midst of getting swept in a doubleheader, those players had held their own meeting. The simple gist, according to a veteran: “We’ve really got to play better.”

Showalter’s message that Thursday was, according to those there, “words of encouragement.” The perceived need for action, however, spoke volumes about the early direction of the 2023 Mets.

“We’re still good,” one player told himself, “…but I’m not 100 percent sure.”

This was when doubt first germinated in New York’s clubhouse — when they first diverged from the smooth sailing of 2022, hit choppier waters and learned that perhaps they lacked the instruments to navigate them.

“That series was kind of a wake-up call,” reliever Adam Ottavino said.

“Detroit was the highlight of, Hey, things are not really going the way we would like,” said Brandon Nimmo.

“It wasn’t just Detroit,” said another player — and that was the problem. The debacle against the Tigers would be the third in a run of five consecutive series losses, four of them to teams not expected to contend. June would go down as one of the worst months in franchise history. July would include a once improbable sell-off of established talent. And August would see them drop to last place.

Now, even this deep into the season, they struggle to come up with a satisfying answer to the main question that matters: How?

After nearly two dozen interviews with people who have experienced the failure firsthand, this is the inside story of how the $445 million Mets, the most expensive team in major-league history, crashed and burned.

His inability to live up to his own high expectations weighed heavily on Pete Alonso. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

It was late in June, and Pete Alonso had ducked his head into Showalter’s office — again — trying to explain himself. The month had unraveled into a nightmare for Alonso, a nightmare for the Mets. There had been a slump and a losing streak, an injury, a deeper slump and more losing. As Showalter would later recall, in those meetings, Alonso looked like he wanted to apologize for not driving in every run, for not hitting every home run.

Alonso would plead to his manager, “This isn’t who I am.”

“Pete, I know,” Showalter would kindly respond. “You don’t need to tell me this.”

Looking back in late August, Showalter said it was important at the time to just let Alonso talk.

“I guess it was more so for me,” Alonso later explained, “just showing that, listen, I am working, I am doing the best I can and I feel bad for not playing (well) — everyone has internal expectations, but for me personally, I pride myself on being as consistent as possible, and I wasn’t that.

“Especially doing all I did to come back early and do what I could to help, and I just failed. I was healthy. I was just failing way more than I was helping the team.”

Alonso’s presence in Showalter’s office served as a microcosm of a team struggling to perform under intense pressure owing to a huge payroll, high expectations and a trade deadline getting closer and closer. While Alonso’s woes received top billing, he was far from alone. Almost to a man, the Mets were underperforming.

The Mets finished June with a 7-19 record. The three teams ahead of them in the National League East standings (Atlanta, Miami and Philadelphia) combined during the month to lose just 20 games. In 30 days, New York lost 14 1/2 games in the NL East standings to Atlanta.

As Tommy Pham, the perpetually intense veteran outfielder, bluntly put it in a recent interview, “We had a terrible f—ing June.”

Often after games or during meals on the road, players discussed how they could turn things around.

After a devastating sweep in Atlanta, Pham, infielder Eduardo Escobar, catcher Francisco Alvarez and star shortstop Francisco Lindor talked about small things that the Mets needed to improve in between bites of food at a Brazilian steakhouse, Fogo de Chão, in Pittsburgh. Pham, 35, has played on seven teams, and organizations know when negotiating with him that he brings an edge, strong work ethic and little tolerance for lackadaisical effort.

For weeks ahead of the dinner, Lindor had held himself accountable after every crushing loss during a prolonged slump of his own, answering every question from every reporter every day. Pham respected Lindor’s accountability as a leader, how he worked hard and never placed blame on others. As The Athletic reported earlier this month, the conversation started with Pham explaining that he wanted New York to roll out more than one batting-practice group because he used the time to work on live reads in the outfield. With Lindor, Pham felt comfortable sharing something that roamed in his mind after observing how often some players in the clubhouse played games like pool.

Pham says he told Lindor, “Out of all the teams I played on, this is the least-hardest working group of position players I’ve ever played with.”

Opinions varied on the subject. Per Pham’s recollection, the players at the restaurant seemed receptive to what he had to say. In further explaining his comment later, he added that he held a lot of respect for the work ethics of the team’s leaders: Lindor, Alonso and Brandon Nimmo. And Lindor told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal that before Pham left in a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Lindor said to Pham, “Hey man, thank you for teaching me how to work hard again.”

“Guys are super professional around here,” Jeff McNeil countered. “We go about our business, and everybody comes ready to play and does what they need to do.”

“Each person needs to assess that individually,” said Nimmo of the club’s work ethic. “You can only lead a horse to water; you can’t make him drink. Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to individuals and what they’re willing to do.”

Nimmo and others hesitated to place too much blame on any one thing. Presented with Pham’s comment, one player understood the perspective “because the team results weren’t there.” That said, “There’s a lot of reasons you could point to,” he said. “I don’t know which one is it.”

Maybe that was the problem.

One night after a loss, pitchers Justin Verlander, Brooks Raley, Adam Ottavino and others assessed where the Mets could improve. The conversation veered in too many different directions.

“We weren’t good in any facet of the game, honestly,” Ottavino said. “What’s been the challenge this year is explaining it, because there’s no one thing that broke the system. Everything underperformed all at once.”

Citing Starling Marte’s health issues and poor performance, the first-half struggles of Lindor, Alonso and McNeil (the league’s batting champion in 2022) in addition to the pitching problems, some people around the club wondered: Has any group regressed this much from one year to the next?

“That’s what makes analytical people scratch their heads,” one person said, “and realize that the game is played by human beings.”

In the span of 30 days, the Mets went from a team looking to contend for a championship to one lacking a competitive timetable — with a lot of big decisions to make ahead of the trade deadline.

While the losses in May opened their eyes, Nimmo said, “June was the killer.”

The loss of Edwin Díaz, who appeared at the Mets home opener on crutches, was a blow the team’s bullpen never recovered from. (Thomas A. Ferrara / Newsday RM via Getty Images)

It was March 15, and Showalter was getting ready for bed. In the arduous, embryonic days of spring training, Showalter typically goes to sleep early, so he didn’t have the World Baseball Classic on his TV when his phone started buzzing. He ignored it at first, until there were so many notifications that he grew suspicious. “Aw f—, what’s going on,” he thought to himself, and so he turned on the game. He wouldn’t sleep.

After closing out Puerto Rico’s win with a strikeout, Mets star closer Edwin Díaz, while jumping up and down in celebration, blew out his patellar tendon. He would need surgery on his knee. The Mets would play the entire season without him.

In the offseason, the Mets made Díaz the richest closer of all time, the first piece in Steve Cohen and Billy Eppler’s spending spree that brought in Verlander, Kodai Senga and José Quintana, among others. Now, the bullpen would be without its centerpiece, creating not just a void but also a cascading effect in his absence.

Even before Díaz’s injury, the Mets’ front office had drawn criticism for its approach to bullpen depth. At one point, the group sought optionable relievers over experience, but due to either injury or poor performance, no one from this second-tier group clicked for a long period. By then, the Mets had already re-signed Ottavino, traded for lefty Raley and signed veteran David Robertson, so even without Díaz, they believed they would have a few capable options. And they held out hope of Díaz one day returning in September to propel a postseason surge.

Throughout the season’s first couple of months, Ottavino would often tell Robertson, “Let’s just hang in there, and the trumpets are going to play and everything will be all right.”

Things never worked out that way.

Díaz’s injury was only one domino. Earlier that same week, Quintana needed to undergo bone graft surgery to repair a stress fracture in his rib; he would be out until July. Already that spring, some around the team suspected Marte, coming off double-groin surgery in the offseason, wasn’t quite right.

Aside from the physical issues, the Mets didn’t have as much time to go over the sport’s new rules because so many of their players were in the WBC. (Only the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals sent more players.) A veteran roster was a counterintuitive detriment here; few of New York’s players had experienced any of the rules in the minor leagues. Later, people around the Mets would attribute some of the mental mistakes, poor play and high amount of rule violations in the early weeks to a postponed adjustment period.

“Buck was really good last year with getting guys to buy into philosophies and culture and carrying that into the season,” one Met said. “He tried to do it the last week of spring training, but I didn’t feel like we were in sync.

“The World Baseball Classic really hurt us.”

Others, however, push back on the theory.

“As far as the spring training went, we had a bunch of professionals who understood how to play the game and what to do,” Nimmo said. “Maybe it took a little bit of time. But I don’t even think you can argue that because we went 7-3 on that early West Coast trip, and April wasn’t an issue.”

True, but the Mets’ issues would soon catch up to them.

Persistent health issues bedeviled the Mets’ veteran rotation. Verlander landed on the IL on Opening Day; he missed a month and took another to find his stride. Max Scherzer struggled to go deep into games when he pitched, and he couldn’t take the ball as often thanks to a sticky-stuff suspension and tightness in his side and back. With Quintana also out, the Mets leaned heavily on David Peterson and Tylor Megill, neither of whom rose to the occasion.

With other relievers now pitching in different roles to make up for Díaz’s absence, the Mets’ bullpen eventually looked thin. Starters too often failed to reach even the fifth inning, adding to the toll on the relievers. Even as the Mets teetered around .500 at the start of May, the path looked challenging at best or, more realistically, unsustainable.

“We never had any margin for error. Even when we were winning, we were barely winning,” Ottavino said. “There was no breathing room.”

Díaz’s injury was far from the only thing that doomed the Mets, but as one official put it, “It may have been the biggest thing.”

Verlander earned his 250th win, and an ovation from the crowd, in what everyone knew would be his last start for the Mets. He was traded to the Astros two days later. (Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

It was late on July 31, and a group of Mets veterans had just spent a full day on a Kansas City golf course, recognizing what was likely their last off-day together.

“When you’ve gotten close with guys and there’s a chance that they are going to leave, it sucks,” Daniel Vogelbach said. “So you want to spend as much time as possible with one another.”

Those who didn’t play golf spent the afternoon watching a movie together — or as much of a film as they could before phones began buzzing.

“I didn’t get to finish ‘Oppenheimer’ that day,” said Mark Canha, the veteran outfielder who was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers late that afternoon.

Just four days earlier, despite a record seven games below .500, those vets had still believed a run was possible. When rain halted a 2-2 game with the Nationals at 9:46 p.m. that night, Robertson had been warming in the bullpen. When the game continued 97 minutes later, Robertson was a Miami Marlin. In the middle of the rain delay, he had been called into the manager’s office.

“He came out,” one Met said, “and you could just see it on his face. That was just a really difficult time. We were trying to play a baseball game.”

That was the moment the Mets folded on 2023.

“I just remember spring training and the hype of what the Mets were going to be. I was one of the kids in the schoolyard thinking, ‘Man this is awesome. We are in for something special this year,’” said one veteran. “Then fast-forward to that moment, knowing that this is the first trade chip to fall. And there will be more.”

The next night, Scherzer pitched the Mets to a 5-1 win over Washington, a victory that became a sidenote when Scherzer said postgame that he needed to have a conversation with “Mets brass” about the direction of the franchise. The impetus, which Scherzer only revealed after the fact, was the deluge of texts he’d been fielding over the prior 48 hours from players around the league asking if he’d waive his no-trade clause to join their team.

“Hearing from guys, ‘Would you accept a trade?’ it’s like, what’s going on?” Scherzer said. “That’s why my quote was, ‘I need to talk to brass.’ That’s why I said that. I couldn’t tell you people were texting me.”

Scherzer got his meetings with Mets brass the next day. At around 2 p.m., he and Eppler talked in person at Citi Field, the GM laying out the club’s new direction: It wasn’t just players who would be free agents after 2023, like Robertson, that were on the trade block. The Mets were listening on anyone whose team control did not extend beyond 2024, and they were eyeing more serious contention in 2025 and 2026. That meant they were open to moving Scherzer, Verlander and Alonso.

“So then I’m staying through a rebuild,” Scherzer said. “I just don’t have interest in that.”

Over the phone, Scherzer spoke with owner Steve Cohen, who reiterated what Eppler had just told him. By the time Scherzer’s teammates funneled into the clubhouse in the 3 p.m. hour, he was waiting in the trainer’s room to say goodbye.

“It ain’t fun telling everybody,” he said.

One day after that, as he departed what would become his 250th career victory, Verlander received a standing ovation from the Citi Field crowd. Everyone knew where this was headed. As Scherzer had, Verlander postgame said he needed to talk to the higher-ups about the Mets’ long-term direction. He played golf with the Mets on Monday. He was an Astro on Tuesday.

By that afternoon of the trade deadline, the visiting clubhouse in Kansas City was restive. On a pair of TVs in the middle of the room, MLB Network blared updates from around the league. One player paced around the clubhouse in street clothes, just waiting to be told where to fly.

The Mets lost that night in extra innings, en route to getting swept by the last-place Royals. That weekend, they were swept by the first-place Orioles.

“When we played Baltimore,” Ottavino said, “now it’s more that we’re getting beat by a better team rather than we’re beating ourselves. And that was a different feeling than before.”

In the time since the June slide and subsequent trade deadline, some of the Mets’ earlier misfortune has shifted. Alonso’s batting average on balls in play has surged. Lindor has a chance for down-ballot MVP votes. McNeil, Vogelbach and Ottavino have all played closer to their career norms. All of it is too late.

“The whole entire season has been an uphill fight,” Lindor said. “Nothing’s given. You’ve got to earn everything. And things can change very quick.”

“You don’t always have the full 162 for it to even out,” Ottavino said. “You have maybe 100 before you have to make some decisions, and we didn’t inspire any confidence at that point.”

It was the end of August, and the Mets were lining up to take their team picture in center field. There, representing Cohen’s investment of nearly half a billion dollars, was a roster that included Rafael Ortega and Jonathan Araúz, Sean Reid-Foley and Denyi Reyes.

After spending more days in first place (289) than any other team in 2021-2022, the Mets spent all of two days in first place this season, the last of them on April 2. The $445 million Cohen spent on the team was just over 10 times the amount spent on the ’92 Mets, a team immortalized as the worst that money could buy. That team won 72 games. This one is on pace to win 75.

By chance, Scherzer was there in the outfield where the stage for picture day was being set, wearing his Texas Rangers uniform, catching up with guys before they got into position. A day earlier, he’d sat in the visiting dugout and taken in the scene. He’d been away from the Mets for nearly a month, playing for a team in the middle of a pennant race. Has he yet divined what had gone wrong in Queens? Had a different perspective helped?

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “That’s a billion-dollar question.”

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images; Greg Fiume / Getty Images; Adam Hunger / Getty Images)