If you squinted hard enough, you could have seen this winter being the beginning of the road back to success for the Mets. Matt Harvey was establishing himself as a superstar in his first full season, highly-touted rookies Zack Wheeler & Travis d’Arnaud were getting their feet wet, and they’d be finally free of the disastrous contracts handed to Johan Santana, Jason Bay, & Frank Francisco. With what appeared to be a talented starting rotation and more prospects on the way, if they could just add another bat or two around David Wright, well, maybe they’d have something going.
But then Harvey’s elbow blew up, and d’Arnaud looked overwhelmed in his first crack at the bigs, and Ike Davis & Ruben Tejada proved that they probably aren’t part of the future, and even the team’s COO is saying that there are only four players who they “are sold on” right now (Wright and pitchers Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, & Wheeler). Suddenly the road back appears delayed by at least a year, if not two.
Now the team finds themselves in an awkward position. After five straight years of losing baseball, the restless fans are demanding action, i.e., “spending”. Yet in a division that has two of the most talented teams in the league in Atlanta & Washington and stars Jose Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton, Domonic Brown, Cliff Lee, & Cole Hamels in Miami & Philadelphia, it’s increasingly difficult to see the Mets breaking through in 2014 without Harvey.
So the question is: should the Mets really be spending for what already looks like a grim season? If so, how? Or is this just public posturing to try to satisfy fans, a year after very nearly going the entire winter without signing a major league free agent and then finishing 13th in the NL in attendance?
Make no mistake, every report indicates that the Mets will be players on the market, with the idea apparently being to win fan support back by making a splash, similar in some ways to how they signed Carlos Beltran after three straight losing seasons headed into 2005. Most reports indicate that they’ll “spend $30 million to $40 million,” others simply say they are “under pressure to deliver,” and so it seems that the changing circumstances haven’t changed the timeline for the Mets to make some moves.
Working in the team’s favor is that with Santana & Bay finally gone, the Mets have only $25 million on the books right now, all to Wright & Niese. Add in approximately $20 million for arbitration cases like Gee, Davis, Daniel Murphy, and others, and that’s about $45 million; include Santana’s buyout, deferred money to Bay, and your usual minimum-salary 40-man costs, and Wendy Thurm estimated $62 million as the team stands today.
That’s still absurdly low for a New York team, and by Wendy’s numbers, that’s the eighth-lowest in the bigs. Of course, despite the team’s insistence that their Madoff-fueled financial troubles are behind them, the presence of a massive debt due against the team next summer makes that picture of fiduciary health less than certain.
Still, let’s take them at their word, because even spending in the $30m-$40m range gets them only up to or slightly over the relatively paltry ~$93 million they had on each of the last two Opening Days, so it’s not an unrealistic number.
This is what they start with:
C – d’Arnaud, probably
1B – Lucas Duda, or Wilmer Flores, or Josh Satin, or Davis, or…
2B – Daniel Murphy
3B – Wright
SS – anyone but Omar Quintanilla, please
LF – Eric Young, or free agent TBD
CF – Juan Lagares
RF – ?
That’s an offense that had the second-worst wOBA in baseball last season, and was the worst the Mets had rolled out since 1983. That cries out for upgrades, and there’s a lot of moving pieces there — Murphy may end up at first or with another team and Young could be at second, or Duda could be at first or the outfield or traded, etc. The obvious holes are in the outfield — especially because while Lagares was phenomenally impressive with the glove in his debut, he remains something of a question mark — and at shortstop, along with adding another starter and sorting out the right side of the infield.
That’s too much to fix with only the money they have available, though with Harvey on the mend and pitching prospects Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, & Jacob Degrom on the way, there’s young depth here for a trade. Considering that Jacoby Ellsbury & Shin-Soo Choo seem unlikely to land in Queens, a trade might be the best way to go — since so many teams will want to avoid huge contracts for that pair and Robinson Cano, they’ll all be in on the same second-level free agents, which will drive the prices up and make it more difficult for the Mets.
The Mets shouldn’t be going overboard on making 2014 a winning season at the expense of their future, but unlike when we looked at Houston last week, they are at least close enough that veterans they sign to multi-year deals might conceivably be a part of the next good Mets team.
Let’s go down that list of needs.
1. Shortstop. Mets fans want Troy Tulowitzki. Mets fans will be disappointed, because even if Colorado was willing to move their superstar — which still appears unlikely — the Mets have far too many holes to spend both their budget and their farm system on him. Besides, with the Cardinals clearly in need of a shortstop, and likely to prefer trading a pitcher than dipping into the market, it will be difficult for New York to beat them out for a good option here.
That puts them into the free agent market, and Jhonny Peralta & Stephen Drew both represent solutions. The Mets have a protected first round pick, so Drew’s qualifying offer shouldn’t scare them off, and any Mets fan who shies away from Peralta’s PED suspension must not have been watching Marlon Byrd play so well for them last year. Drew is both younger and a far better fielder, which this Mets team could use.
You said 3/$33m in your crowd-sourcing; Jon Heyman and an agent said three for slightly higher. We’ll say 3/$36m, giving the team a solid left-side pair with Wright and a huge upgrade from Tejada & Quintanilla, especially since they have no shortstop prospects who are even close.
2. Left field. Duda is in theory an option here, but he’s such a terrible defensive outfielder that he really ought to keep his low-cost mix of “patience and some power” to first base, with Davis moving on. Young was a nice find, but a .290 wOBA means that he’s far more useful as a speed option off the bench rather than as a starter.
Fortunately, the market bears some choices here. Yes, a Beltran return would be fun, but he’s far more likely to land in the American League and/or with a team that has a chance to win right now, and Nelson Cruz‘ combination of poor defense and high price makes him a less than ideal fit. A return engagement with Byrd may work, but if the goal here is to make some headlines, convincing Curtis Granderson to stay in New York might be worthwhile. (This assumes he declines his qualifying offer, as is likely.)
Granderson’s defense is stretched in center at this point, but he’d make a fine corner outfielder, and questions about his health along with the qualifying offer ought to keep his salary down. While he may not have quite as many homers away from Yankee Stadium’s right field porch, his home/road splits aren’t nearly as profound as many believe. (35 of his 43 2012 homers would have been out in Citi Field.) You said 4/$56m, and that aligns with the annual average of Heyman’s trio.
3. Right field. Ignoring backloading for the moment, we’ve spent $27m already and filled two spots, so you can see how little $30m to $40m really is these days. This is where it’s time to get a bit creative, and investigate trading Davis as a buy-low appeal for someone else as well as using some of that young pitching depth.
We’ve been hearing rumors about Andre Ethier to the Mets for perhaps forever, but it’s difficult to see what the Mets could spare that the Dodgers would want. “Davis for Norichika Aoki” has been floated, and makes some amount of sense; while the Mets risk coming out on the short end should Davis blossom, especially since Aoki has only one year of control remaining, it seems clear that a change in scenery is best for both sides. Aoki is no star, but he’s a solid outfielder with speed and on-base skills, one who can lead off and is at least preferable to a year of Matt den Dekker or Kirk Nieuwenhuis — and who costs just under $2 million.
Should the Mets want to make some real noise, they could skimp elsewhere or pass on Granderson to try and wrangle Jose Bautista out of Toronto. Bautista, who was a Met for a matter of minutes on July 30, 2004, would bring them the power bat they so desperately need, but would likely cost them Wheeler or Syndergaard, plus more. Or if the Brewers decide they can’t go on with Ryan Braun… well, that’s another post entirely.
4. Starting pitcher. The Mets shouldn’t and likely won’t be in on the Ervin Santanas, Matt Garzas, and Ricky Nolascos of the world, and how much they have to spend here depends on what they do on offense, which is clearly a higher priority. Like everyone else, they’d love an ace, but since the priority here has to be offense and there’s only so much they can do in one winter, they likely need to focus on making sure they don’t need to rely on the 2014 equivalents of Aaron Laffey, Collin McHugh, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Carlos Torres in the rotation.
That means the names here aren’t especially exciting, but if the emphasis is reliability and durability, they could do worse than a Bronson Arroyo, who really needs to be in a pitcher park but is good for 200 innings a year. Failing that, perhaps this is a fit for a Jason Vargas, or a Tim Hudson, or a Josh Johnson, but likely not the deep end of the pool.
The Mets would still need to find some low-cost bullpen options and ideally some kind of better d’Arnaud partner than Anthony Recker, and this is still a flawed team regardless. Still, there’s ways they can make this apparent spending spree effective, not only by helping to regain some fan trust in 2014, but by acquiring guys who should still be useful in 2015 and 2016, when the younger players have hopefully taken a step forward and Wright will still be in his prime.
It’s not perfect, but it’s the Mets; few things are.
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