Francisco Lindor faces uphill battle in Year 2 with Mets

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Francisco Lindor will earn $32 million next year, the first season of the 10-year extension he signed after being traded from Cleveland to New York.

If he repays the Mets with a repeat of his 2021 season, it may be time to start investigating him for larceny.

The normally jubilant shortstop kept his spirits high and a smile strapped to his face even as he bumbled his way through the worst season of his career. Lindor’s career trajectory took a detour from its linear progression, as the 27-year-old posted career lows in batting average (.230), on-base percentage (.322) and slugging percentage (.412). His 2.7 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs, was by far the lowest in any of Lindor’s full 162-game seasons, finishing closer to the 1.8 from the 2020 fever dream than the 4.7 he accumulated in 2019.

From 2016 to 2018, Lindor averaged 6.3 WAR per year and was the best shortstop in the game by a fairly comfortable margin. His teams made the playoffs after each of those three campaigns, advancing as far as Game 7 of the World Series when Lindor was in his age-22 season.

In 2021, Lindor was maybe the third-best shortstop in his own division, fourth when Trea Turner was still in Washington. Advanced metrics preferred the Braves’ Dansby Swanson and the Marlins’ Miguel Rojas’ defense to Lindor’s — while Swanson considerably outslugged the Mets’ moneymaker and Rojas turned in a batting average 35 points better with fewer strikeouts and more extra base hits.

Lindor would readily admit that his first year in Queens was unacceptable, not just by the lofty standards he set for himself, but also for a player who was pegged as the Mets’ leader of the new school. Steve Cohen was to provide the money, Lindor was to multiply it by supplying the main thing that makes both the men in suits and the families at Citi Field wearing Lindor jerseys happy: postseason appearances. A 77-85 ledger — with a .392 winning percentage after the All-Star break as the shining black eye on top of it — prevented that dream from coming true.

Now, Lindor faces perhaps the biggest challenge of his career. He was traded out of Cleveland before he could see a full rebuild take place, and while the Mets certainly won’t tear this thing down to the studs, they have the arguably more difficult task of trying to slightly rebuild (or re-imagine) the roster while remaining in contention.

The 2022 Mets will most likely be, on paper, worse than their 2021 version. Michael Conforto, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, and Lindor’s pal Javier Baez could all bolt in free agency soon. Same goes for Aaron Loup, Jeurys Familia and Jonathan Villar, who all proved to be important pieces of an underachieving team. Take them out of the equation and things could get much uglier, especially if the Mets’ recent history of dysfunction scares away other free agents from wanting to sign with the club.

Recruiting Baez back to the Mets would be a giant step in the right direction, not just for Lindor’s status in the eyes of fans, but also for the on-field product. Baez was the Mets’ best player in the season’s final months. His return would tick several important boxes: shoring up the middle infield defense, allowing Jeff McNeil to move to third base or left field, and stamping legitimacy on the Mets’ much maligned image. That will not be easy, though.

For one, we still don’t know who will be putting the team together, as the Mets do not have a general manager at the moment. Beyond that, we also don’t know who will manage the guys on the field now that Luis Rojas is out the door. It’s hard to understate how critical those decisions will be, as the Mets’ window of contention could be slammed shut if Jacob deGrom and Pete Alonso — both free agents after the 2024 season — decide to leave for greener pastures when their contracts are up. Getting some players this winter who can extend that window is of paramount importance, but on the flip side of that, why would players willingly sign up to play for the Mets right now?

Sure, Cohen can line their pockets and the allure of New York City is always enticing. But many players will balk at that as well, choosing smaller markets away from the media circus that typically follows the Mets. The Braves will get a healthy Ronald Acuña back next year too, and the Phillies may have both the NL Cy Young and MVP on their team. Getting back to the NL East mountaintop is a steep order for these Mets, and their cornerstone shortstop remembering how to hit above .230 again would be a great place to start the climb. Lindor is still, unquestionably, among the handful of most talented players in the world. He just didn’t show it over his last 125 games, which were also interrupted by an oblique strain.

The Mets trading for Lindor was supposed to shift the tectonic plates of the National League. Instead, as the poor start to his National League career and other factors conspired against them, the Mets found themselves at the epicenter of a self-created earthquake.

It is partially up to Lindor to help them sift through the rubble and make something workable out of it again.

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