Nearly halfway through the 2023 season, the most expensive team in Major League Baseball history is closer to last place than first. After a dispiriting 7-6 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, the Mets and their nearly $500 million roster — once luxury taxes are considered — were left with a 35-42 record, dwindling odds of reaching the playoffs and a growing number of questions.
The Mets have won only five more games than the Washington Nationals, a franchise mired in a rebuild and, for the moment, the only team keeping them off the bottom of the National League East. The Atlanta Braves, who have won the division five years in a row and lead it again as of Sunday, are 15 games ahead of the Mets.
Even Manager Buck Showalter seemed to acknowledge on Sunday that his team has limited options to turn things around. Leading the Phillies by 6-3 entering the eighth inning, the Mets endured a disastrous four-run meltdown in which they surrendered only one hit. Instead of using some of his better relievers to close out the game, Showalter, saying they had been overworked recently, turned to less-established bullpen options.
“It’s frustrating for the players and everybody,” Showalter said after Sunday’s loss. “We shot every bullet we had, just about.”
Josh Walker, a rookie left-hander, had loaded the bases by walking two and coughing up a single. In came Jeff Brigham, a right-handed reliever, with a tall task. But Mets third baseman Brett Baty, 23, made a throwing error to second base, turning a potential double play into a Phillies run instead.
“There’s really no excuse,” Baty said. “That play needs to be made 10 times out of 10 and it cost us the game, it cost us the series.”
The inning then further unraveled. With the bases loaded, Brigham walked Brandon Marsh, and then hit both Kyle Schwarber and Trea Turner with pitches to allow three more runs and give the Phillies the lead.
“Hopefully there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Brigham said, adding, “There’s definitely a lot of pressure as the season goes by.”
The season is certainly passing the Mets by. A roster with stars such as Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso had only a 16 percent chance of reaching the postseason after Sunday’s defeat, according to FanGraphs. Before the season, the Mets were expected to contend with Atlanta for the N.L. East title and even challenge for a spot in the World Series.
“Usually that’s what happens: We don’t play well, people lose jobs,” Lindor told reporters over the weekend. “But I don’t see us as a team that’s going to sell out. I see us as a team that’s going to contend, that’s going to be there. We’re built to be contenders.”
If they continue to lose at their current rate, they may not be in a position to add reinforcements ahead of the Aug. 1 trade deadline. Instead of shopping for a late-season push, they may be looking instead to shed players — and salary — to other teams with actual playoff hopes.
The only other option would be to ask the billionaire owner Steven A. Cohen to try to patch the Mets’ problems with trades that could mean further bloating the team’s player budget, which already includes a record $377 million 40-man roster and an estimated $105 million in luxury tax penalties.
On Friday, the Mets made a modest move that didn’t quite fit either direction, sending the veteran third baseman Eduardo Escobar to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for two pitching prospects.
Seen as a key player ahead of last season, Escobar struggled this year and lost playing time to Baty, a rookie. But in order to bring back better pitching prospects in the deal, the Mets agreed to pay most of the remainder of Escobar’s $9.5 million salary. But nothing in the deal will immediately improve a pitching staff that entered Monday with a 4.65 earned run average, sixth worst in M.L.B.
Scherzer, 38, and Verlander, 40, are both multiple-time Cy Young Award winners, but each has been alternately injured or pitching poorly. The rookie Kodai Senga has been better (3.52 E.R.A.) but he pitches only once a week in his first season from Japan. The rest of the rotation — Carlos Carrasco, Tylor Megill and David Peterson — has struggled.
The troubles of the starting rotation have only been exacerbated by a bullpen that entered the season with holes, chief among them the injury to the star closer Edwin Díaz. Showalter’s use of the bullpen hasn’t helped either: He saved David Robertson, the Mets’ best healthy reliever, for the ninth inning on Sunday rather than use him when the game was on the line in the eighth.
“I just can’t pitch the same people every night,” said Showalter, who also declined on Sunday to use reliever Adam Ottavino for a second day in a row and Brooks Raley for a third. “I just can’t do it. What else can we do?”