CHICAGO -- Perhaps no team generated as much mystery in the days leading up to Wednesday's trade deadline as the New York Mets. Would they buy? Would they sell? What did the acquisition of Marcus Stroman signify?
After Wednesday's deadline passed without another splash from the Mets, the answer seems clear enough.
"Our focus at the trade deadline isn't really different than what our focus was early in the offseason and and what I hope will be our focus as we go forward," general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said during a post-deadline conference call. "And that is simply to try and win now, and to win in the future."
The list of Van Wagenen's players who popped up on the rumor mill was a long one. Perhaps it shouldn't have been. Star righty Noah Syndergaard? Still a Met. Scuffling closer Edwin Diaz? Still a Met. Free-agents-to-be Zack Wheeler and Todd Frazier? Still Mets.
"We evaluated a lot of different opportunities, but the short version of my comments here is that we only wanted to consider moves that were going to improve our club and keep us on mission," Van Wagenen said. "Anything short of that was ultimately not going to be something that we were willing to entertain."
As a result, Wheeler, who is scheduled to start Thursday's game against the White Sox in Chicago, was back in the visiting clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field, seated in a row with the other members of the Mets' new-look rotation -- Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Stroman, who is slated to make his Mets debut on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Wheeler's reaction to that fairly surprising development? Relief, and not of the bullpen variety.
"I'm glad it's in the past and that it's over with," Wheeler said. "Whatever happened, happened. It's almost happened multiple times but just never did. I'm just happy to be here and ready to concentrate on doing well here."
There was a lot of happiness around the Mets' clubhouse after the deadline passed. After half of a tumultuous and disappointing season, New York has suddenly started to play well. New York has opened the second half by winning 12 of 17. Wednesday night's 4-2 win against the White Sox stretched their winning streak to a season-best six games.
The run has mostly been fueled by pitching. Entering Wednesday, New York's 2.75 staff ERA since the All-Star break is the best mark in the majors. And that staff now adds Stroman, who ranked fifth the American League with a 2.96 ERA at the time he was traded by the Blue Jays.
"Very exciting," Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. "The guys are clicking and we're going to make a run at this thing. With this rotation, anything is possible, so let's go out there and put up zeros and score some runs and get it done."
Van Wagenen didn't say the Mets' recent success drove his deadline strategy. But it also didn't hurt.
"The team's performance has been great," Van Wagenen said. "We do believe the team is capable of playing the type of baseball that we have over the last two weeks going forward.
"In particular to the players who have 'expiring contracts,' we wanted to make good baseball moves. We weren't going to look at this as salary dump trades. We weren't going to look at this as just getting modest returns. These guys are good players. They matter to us, they matter to the guys in the clubhouse. We were only going to move them away from the team if it was impactful to the organization. We do not undervalue our guys. It's quite the opposite."
The one player the Mets did move out at the deadline was starter Jason Vargas, a lefty who will be a free agent after the season. Vargas went 6-5 with a 4.01 over 18 starts for New York before being dealt to the Phillies for a second-tier prospect earlier this week. That could be construed as a salary dump, one that involved a division rival whom the Mets are currently chasing. But Van Wagenen said that, simply put, the addition of Stroman meant that the Mets no longer had space for Vargas in its rotation.
"Jason has been a pro," Van Wagenen said. "He's as professional as any player who exists in our clubhouse. But as we looked and evaluated Marcus Stroman's talent, not only for the impact he could have this year but also strategically as we look at the rotation heading into the offseason and towards 2020, obviously Jason was going to be a free agent at the end of the year, so this was an opportunity to upgrade the rotation and also solidify it towards next year."
So the Mets' deadline activity was pretty a swap of Stroman and Vargas. While Vargas will have chances to exact a measure of revenge as a member of the Phillies, Stroman -- a Long Island native who grew up near New York righty Matz -- is another happy-at-the-moment Met, especially since Van Wagenen didn't break up the roster.
"I was praying we didn't trade any of those guys that were rumored about -- Wheeler and Syndergaard -- because I actually think we can have the best staff in all of baseball," Stroman gushed during his first news conference with the Mets' beat writers. "It's already one of the best staffs and I just want to come in and add to that. I think what we have is pretty special."
It all sounds pretty good until you look at the standings. For all their recent success, the Mets still are four games under .500, five games out of a playoff spot and in seventh place in the NL wild-card standings. Their work lately has been good, but there is so much left to do for a franchise that entered the season entertaining championship aspirations.
"We're the underdogs," Van Wagenen said. "We are now chasing the rest of the pack. Going back to spring training, this team had a really good chemistry. They had positive energy every day when they came to the ballpark the first half of the season, but it just didn't go as well. Now we recognize that we have to overcome what we put ourselves up against in the first half. Here we are now and we're in a position where we have some momentum. We just have to keep going."