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Roster Doctor: Fixing the Mets

Building a roster is tough. Rebuilding one is even tougher. Not only does a team need to adhere to a strict game plan in acquiring the right mix of talent at both the major and minor league levels, but it must also resist the urge to break away from a strategy if the returns are not immediately satisfactory. Sometimes multiple roster turnovers are needed before a competitive team emerges. I bring this up because the Mets currently find themselves in a strange situation, the gray area between competing and rebuilding.

Their roster was originally constructed with a win-now mentality. But a slew of serious injuries and the regression associated with various players aging kept them from seriously competing in years past. These same factors have also rendered them unlikely to battle for a playoff berth this season. The extremely high cost of several players, acquired under previous management, mixed with the financial troubles of ownership has made budgeting a serious consideration. The Mets simply cannot spend like they used to.

Without a dynamite farm system, and with high-priced players on the books, it could be particularly difficult for the team to get where it needs to be, even with a solid front office featuring Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta.  How can the Mets right the proverbial ship? Here is a brief overview of do’s and dont’s that could help vault the team back to the top of the competitive spectrum.

Don’t Overpay Mike Pelfrey
Pelfrey does some things well. Though he doesn’t miss many bats, and is by no means a control freak, he keeps the ball on the ground and in the yard. He has also proven himself durable, averaging a touch under 200 innings over the last three seasons. But he is a nice, middle-of-the-rotation hurler and not an ace in the making; his opening day start should not be conflated with his status as an opening day starter.

Pitchers of this ilk certainly have value, but they are not worth lucrative contract extensions. Much of his success stems from extremely low HR/FB ratios, which can be lower for groundball pitchers, but I wouldn’t bank on him sustaining a sub-6.0 percent rate.

The Mets should not rule out non-tendering him at some point over the next two seasons either if it becomes clear that his likely salary will exceed his value. He has two more years of arbitration eligibility and makes just under $4 million this season.

Assuming he continues to hover around his 2008-10 average of 2.5 wins per season, a wins-to-dollar computation would likely justify a $10-11 million salary, but production just over the league average could likely be found at much less of a cost. A team in the Mets position shouldn’t be paying a pitcher like Pelfrey an eight-figure salary.

Don’t Let Francisco Rodgriguez’s 2012 Option Vest
Under no circumstances should that option, valued at $17.5 million, be allowed to vest. The salary becomes guaranteed if Rodriguez finishes 55 games this season, if his 2010-11 games finished total meets or exceeds 100, and if doctors declare him healthy when the season ends. He finished 46 games last season, meaning he will need exactly 55 this season to satisfy the first two contractual criteria.

K-Rod is a solid relief pitcher but in no way whatsoever is he worth $17.5 million. The salary would only be somewhat justifiable if he was 100 percent guaranteed to match his peripherals from a year ago, and if the Mets were a serious playoff contender. The contract calls for a buyout of $3.5 million if the option is not exercised, or does not vest, and that $14 million in savings could go a long way toward helping the Mets turn things around.

Feel Out the Trade Market For Carlos Beltran
When the Mets signed Beltran to a 7-yr/$119 million contract back in 2005, they included an interesting provision by agreeing not to offer arbitration after the final year of the deal. Perhaps Beltran and Boras saw the writing on the wall that teams may shy away from Type A free agents due to the required surrender of high draft picks.

The idea that the Mets might be able to extract more in compensatory draft picks than they could in prospects from a trade has to be thrown out the window. They won’t get high compensatory picks, and if they don’t seek a trade, they won’t be able to extract value from him beyond this season in any capacity. Beltran is a fantastic player when healthy, but his production will not make or break the Mets campaign.

That being said, I’m a big Beltran fan and hate the vitriol consistently spewed in his direction. He can still be valuable and help a team this season, but it’s in the Mets best interest to use Beltran to help their future, and not just let him walk away and sign elsewhere.

Extend Jose Reyes
I know they have money troubles, but it doesn’t mean the team has no money whatsoever. Simply put, the Mets have nobody ready to fill in should they let Reyes walk, and the only other similarly talented option available via free agency is Jimmy Rollins. Can’t see that happening. From 2006-08, Reyes averaged almost six wins above replacement per season, and in his first full season removed from an injury, he managed 2.8 WAR last year.

If his asking price becomes absurdly high, the Mets should reevaluate the situation, but otherwise extending Reyes is a no-brainer. He will cost much more than the $6 million average annual value of his current contract, but he and agent Peter Greenberg aren’t going to be asking for $18-$20 million either. I’m sure a deal can be worked for all vested parties.

Trade Johan Santana?
I know, it sounds crazy, and this key is a wild card, but hear me out. Santana isn’t the pitcher he once was, and does a team in their situation really want to be on the hook for $24 million next season, $25.5 million in 2013, and $25 million in 2014? The final year of the deal is structured as a club option that converts to a player option if he pitches 215 innings in 2013, 420 innings over 2012-13, or 630 innings from 2011-13. If he can return at the end of the year and remain healthy into next season, it’s conceivable that the option becomes his, at which point he would certainly choose to guarantee the hefty salary.

If the Mets were to pay, say, half of his remaining salary, several teams would come out of the woodwork to pony up prospects and pay Santana $12 or so million a year based on the possibility he reverts to previously established levels.

If the Mets can seriously improve their team by extending Reyes, and using the money saved by not overpaying Pelfrey, from Beltran coming off the books, and from Rodriguez’s option being bought out, then Johan could be a big part of their success a couple of years out. Exploring a trade for their ace isn’t a necessity, but is interesting to ponder.

But if the team needs to remove part of his salary from their books, or use his perceived value to substantially aid their rebuilding efforts, the fact that he is Johan Santana should not stand in their way. In fact, it should be to their benefit should they try and make a move.

Right now the Mets lack an identity. They don’t know if they are rebuilding or going all in. Before following any of these steps the team needs to accurately assess its current state and decide what path to take. Otherwise they will remain in neutral, with talented players but not enough either now or in the future to compete for a championship.