As we sit here in mid-January, there seems to be no more obvious free agent fit than the idea that Stephen Drew should sign with the Mets. It’s such an obvious pairing that the internet has been talking about it with such regularity that it almost seems like he already was a Met, and is now looking for his next new home.
It’s obvious because the Mets made some moves to improve this winter, importing Bartolo Colon, Curtis Granderson, and Chris Young, and still have a hole at shortstop. It’s obvious because their first-round pick is protected and they already gave up their second to add Granderson, so giving up a third-rounder seems to be a minor annoyance. It’s obvious because these are the guys who have started at least one game at short since Jose Reyes left following 2011 — Justin Turner, Omar Quintanilla, Ruben Tejada, Jordany Valdespin, Wilfredo Tovar, and Ronny Cedeno — and because that group has combined to contribute all of 2.8 WAR over two seasons. It’s obvious because a below-market return to Boston seems to be Drew’s only viable alternative at this point, his free agency waylaid by the qualifying offer.
Drew’s not a great player, but he is a good one, and almost certainly better than what the team currently has. So obvious! And yet just last week, GM Sandy Alderson reiterated his feeling that the team isn’t likely to sign Drew, instead intending to go into the season with Tejada and the .236 wOBA he put up last season. Merely media posturing, hoping to drag things out and get Scott Boras to lower his demands? Sure, possibly. Maybe even probably. Yet there’s also the not-small possibility that Alderson is just a bit smarter than the rest of us, and he really doesn’t have any intention of adding Drew.
So let’s play a bit of devil’s advocate here. Let’s say that the Mets don’t end up signing Drew, a decision for which they’d almost certainly be excoriated for in the press. Would it be so crazy to go with what they’ve got? Or just a little crazy?
1. Maybe Drew isn’t all that much better.
If you look at Steamer’s 2014 projections and squint real hard, you can maybe see this.
My initial reaction to that is that Steamer is probably underrating Drew. That line is down in every way from his solid 2013, and looks a whole lot more like his 2007, when he was in his first full season as a 24-year-old Diamondback.
We don’t yet have ZiPS numbers for Drew, but it’s worth noting that Oliver comes out with something similar, giving him a .230/.308/.390 and 1.9 WAR. (Actually, we do. .239/.313/.393. and 1.6 WAR, so not all that far off of Steamer.) Still, let’s agree that this is a bit unnecessarily dour on Drew, and figure he can be counted on for something in the 2.5-3 WAR range.
But what’s really interesting there is that this makes Tejada look like he could be a reasonably decent major league shortstop, which requires looking past an atrocious 2013 that featured a strained quad, a season-ending broken leg on a nice defensive play, and discussions of grievances over the Mets possibly trying to manipulate his service time. When Tejada played, he was arguably the worst-hitting shortstop in baseball, thanks in some part to a .228 BABIP; in 877 plate appearances over 2011-12, he’d put up a much more reasonable .287/.345/.345 line, making the more modest Steamer projection above seem not unreasonable. (ZiPS has him for a .281 wOBA and 1.5 WAR.)
Knowing that the shortstop job is, for the moment, his to lose, Tejada was one of three major league Mets to — warning, spring “best shape of his life” claims almost certainly ahead — volunteer for a four-week fitness camp in Michigan in November, and he’s spending part of his January there as well, apparently taking to heart the team’s concerns about his work ethic. Still only headed into his age-24 season, it does seem premature to write him off after an injury-plagued and awful 2013, especially when only Joey Votto and Matt Carpenter have a higher line-drive rate than he does since 2010, even with the down season.
Were Tejada merely to return to what he was in 2011-12, with no improvement, that’s a player in the 1.5-2 WAR range. That’s not as good as Drew, of course, but it’s also not as much of a deficit as you might think. That leads us into our next proposal…
2. Maybe the slight improvement doesn’t matter.
The Mets aren’t going to win the NL East in 2014. Sorry, Mets fans, but it’s true. The Braves won 96 games last year despite carrying B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, and even though they’ve done little to replace Brian McCann, they’re in great shape to contend again. The Nationals arguably have as much or more talent as Atlanta does, and all they’ve done this winter is go out and add Doug Fister without subtracting from their team. The Phillies aren’t likely to be a whole lot better than last year, but then again, now they have Marlon Byrd and the Mets don’t. The wild card? Tough in a league that also has the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Giants, Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals.
If the team still had Matt Harvey, you could potentially see a scenario where they run to the playoffs, but it looks extremely difficult now. Even an increase of 10 wins — if that’s even possible without Harvey — puts the team at only 84 wins, still on the extreme fringes of contention. That means they aren’t exactly in a position on the win curve where the extra win or two Drew would provide is likely to make a whole lot of difference, and in the team’s accounting, that might mean the pick and however many millions it will cost to acquire him aren’t worth it.
You could apply that argument to their other acquisitions, though it’s not really the same. Young didn’t cost a pick and came relatively cheaply for a single year, and they had to have someone in the outfield. The team obviously expects Granderson to play at a high level long enough where his contributions will make a difference in future years, and he buys headlines, too. Colon isn’t getting them into the playoffs either, though he again cost less in money and picks than Drew would.
3. Maybe Drew’s flaws terrify the Mets.
Drew, again, is a solid and potentially underrated player, so this isn’t meant to convince otherwise. That doesn’t mean he comes without concerns. For example, there’s the fact that he seems to add a whole lot of swing-and-miss every single year:
There’s also the fact that he’s essentially a platoon player these days, or the fact that he was actually pretty lousy away from Fenway Park last year, with just a .295 OBP on the road:
|(wOBA)||v LHP||v RHP||Home||Away|
Don’t put too much emphasis on single-year splits, you might say, or simply double road splits to get a full year, and you’d be absolutely right to say so. But remember, the exercise here is to find the reasons the Mets might not be making the move that everyone thinks is so obvious, and at least in terms of a platoon split, it’s not a single-year fluke. (Career vs lefties, his wOBA is .297; vs righties, it’s .344.) Throw in the up-and-down inconsistency he’s shown over his career, and all of a sudden you’ve at least introduced some doubt into the conversation. We might all look at this and think, well, obviously the Mets should get Drew. But there’s also enough worry here to think that the Mets front office is looking at it differently.
4. Maybe the Mets really are out of money.
The Opening Day payroll for the Mets in each of the last two seasons was around $94 million dollars. That’s absurdly low for a New York-based team, but then again, most teams don’t have to deal with the ongoing repercussions of being associated with Bernie Madoff and the looming $250 million debt that comes due in June. As of a week ago, ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin estimated the Mets were currently at $85.9 million. So if the payroll is to remain similar to what it’s been, they’ll need to make some moves to fit Drew — no matter how badly his market tanks, it’s difficult to see Boras allowing him to sign for less than the $14.1 million he turned down from Boston’s qualifying offer. Perhaps Daniel Murphy or Ike Davis eventually does get moved, opening up some funds; for now, all the obvious in the world might not make the numbers work.
If we take Alderson at face value at this point, Tejada starts 2014 as the starting shortstop in Queens. We should probably know better at this point than to take any executive’s public statement as gospel, but the longer we go without the Mets signing Drew (or making some other move like trading for Didi Gregorius or Chris Owings), the more likely it is that this actually comes true. Signing Drew might be obvious — it might be really obvious — but maybe it’s not so clear that he’ll bring so much more value to CitiField than Tejada would that expending so many millions of dollars along with a draft pick is actually worth it. It won’t change the perception, of course, though perhaps we can at least see a different path for the team at the position.