When the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, the Mets finished 24 games out of first place. When the Mets went all the way six years later, the Phillies were 21 1/2 games back. In 59 years as coexisting major-league franchises, they have had eight – count ‘em, eight! – mutual winning seasons, none since 2008.
Heated rivals separated by 112 miles of interstate?
More like ships sailing on opposite ends of New Jersey.
Excuse us, then, for feeling wistful for those three glorious seasons, 2006 to 2008, when Jimmy Rollins dissed the Mets by proclaiming the Phillies were “the team to beat,” and Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca dismissed the Phillies as legit contenders, and Cole Hamels dubbed the Mets “choke artists.” Baseball around here is more fun when the Phillies and Mets are good at the same time, even if it happens as infrequently as a comet sighting.
Don’t look away now, though. The Mets have a new owner, hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen, who happens to be the wealthiest man in baseball, and a new face of the franchise in $341 million shortstop Francisco Lindor. But they don’t have star catcher J.T. Realmuto, who stayed with the Phillies after the Mets passed on signing him as a free agent in December.
The Phillies have the fourth-highest payroll in baseball; the Mets rank third and Cohen pledged Monday that they will continue to “act like a major-market club.” Both teams are led by a potential future Hall of Fame executive -- Dave Dombrowski in Philadelphia, Sandy Alderson in New York.
It sure feels as if the rivalry is about to start percolating.
“I think there’s a pretty good headwind there,” an NL East scout said over the weekend. “I love both managers. I think [Luis] Rojas is only getting better and better and better, and I love Joe [Girardi]. Something in my gut tells me the Phillies could surprise a lot of people.”
With the Mets in town for three games beginning Monday night, we broke down some key questions that could shape the next iteration of the Phillies-Mets grudge match.
Will the Mets regret not signing Realmuto?
The Phillies had only just hired Dombrowski and not yet defined their offseason budget when the Mets agreed to a four-year, $40.6 million contract with free-agent catcher James McCann.
Some Phillies officials were shocked.
It seemed the Mets wanted to move quickly to fill their catching vacancy and target top-of-the-market free agents other than Realmuto. They didn’t land center fielder George Springer or pitcher Trevor Bauer, although they reportedly made a three-year, $105 million offer for Bauer, who spurned them to sign with the Dodgers.
With the Mets out of the Realmuto market, a path opened for his return to Philadelphia. In January, he re-signed with the Phillies for five years and $115.5 million.
“They got a nice catcher in McCann,” the scout said, “but you’ve got the best catcher in baseball in Philadelphia.”
Perhaps it will tilt the rivalry in the Phillies’ favor.
How about Zack Wheeler?
Realmuto might not even be the Mets’ biggest regret.
Since they let Wheeler walk in free agency 16 months ago, he has a 2.65 ERA in 12 starts for the Phillies, who signed him for five years and $118 million and paired him with Aaron Nola atop the rotation. The Mets, meanwhile, have had a void behind Jacob deGrom because of injuries to Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman.
The Mets could’ve seen this coming, too. Wheeler had a 2.83 ERA in 12 starts for them after the All-Star break in 2019 and appeared poised to join the ranks of elite starters.
“He’s better than I ever gave him credit for,” the scout said. “I thought he was a pretty-delivery guy. He always had big stuff. But I didn’t think he had the moxie he’s showing now. He’s matured a lot the last two years. He’s out there under total control, really challenging hitters. The bell has rung for him.”
Who’s the better homegrown first baseman: Rhys Hoskins or Pete Alonso?
Hoskins, 28, bashed 18 home runs in 212 plate appearances as a rookie in 2017 and hit 34 homers in 2018. He endured a dreadful slump in the second half of 2019 but rebounded last season before injuring his elbow in September.
Alonso, 26, hit 53 homers with a .941 OPS en route to being crowned Rookie of the Year in 2019. But he regressed last season, hitting 16 homers with an .817 OPS in 239 plate appearances.
Both are right-handed hitters and heart-of-the-order fulcrums of power-packed offenses that feature left-handed thump (Bryce Harper, Didi Gregorius in Philadelphia; Michael Conforto, Dom Smith in New York). Neither is known for his defense at first base. They’ve experienced highs and lows and become emotional team leaders.
“I think they’re pretty darned close,” the scout said. “They can beat you on any given pitch. They seem like guys who will post every day and work their [butts] off to get better. Very, very comparable players. It’s a pretty close call.”
Which superstar was the better buy: Harper or Lindor?
Harper is in Year 3 of a 13-year, $330 million contract that remains a free-agent record. After trading for Lindor in January, the Mets signed him to a 10-year, $341 million extension last week. They are among five players -- with the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr., the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, and the Angels’ Mike Trout -- who are under contract through at least 2031.
So, which star would you rather have anchoring your franchise for the next decade?
“I like the fact that Lindor is a skill-position player, and he’s absolutely terrific,” the scout said. “I’d probably take Lindor. But that’s not to say Bryce is not going to be the 30-, 40-homer guy with 120 RBIs. A big year for Lindor I don’t think would match Harper’s.”
Regardless, if the Phillies-Mets saga finally does heat up again, Harper and Lindor figure to be at the center of it all.