Last in a series
So what exactly should the Mets do this offseason? I have gone over their open and problem positions: second base, left field, most of the bullpen, and two starting pitcher spots. I’ve thrown out some suggestions as far as free agents who will be available who the Mets should consider pursuing. What sort of game plan would I pursue if I were Mets General Manager Omar Minaya?
First, after having time to think about it, I would stay away from Orlando Hudson. His home/away splits and drastic defensive drop scare me. Plus, he’s not particularly young, and will require a 4-5 year contract. He would definitely be better than Luis Castillo in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but not by a significant enough margin to where the team should think of acquiring him. I have a feeling Hudson will be a lemon wherever he lands, and could go down as one of the worst contracts awarded in the 2008 offseason. The Mets need to stay away.
Instead, if the Mets can’t acquire Hudson, they should inquire about Brian Roberts from the Orioles. Roberts has long been an underrated player, who would bring good speed and on base skills to the top of the Mets’ lineup. His career stolen base percentage is 80% (226 of 283 attempts), and would slot in nicely between Jose Reyes and David Wright in the Mets’ lineup, particularly since he’s a switch hitter. His defense has steadily declined the past three years, but nothing like the sudden drop-off experienced by Hudson. I’m not sure what the Orioles would want in return here, but I would at least make a call and listen, because Roberts is better than any second baseman who will be available on the open market for the Mets.
Should a Roberts trade look infeasible, I would seriously think about some sort of job sharing arrangement between second base and left field with Fernando Tatis, Daniel Murphy, and a spare outfielder or infielder. Murphy’s bat profiles really well at second base, though he may not be able to handle the position defensively. While stories have been positive coming out of the Arizona Fall League, I haven’t heard much about what sort of range he has at second there. Tatis might not be any better, and it might behoove the Mets to find a good defensive second baseman who can OPS better than .700 (hint: not Argenis Reyes). I’ve liked Felipe Lopez for a long time, although he’s not great defensively, so he might not fit here. But it looks like the Mets’ cheapest alternative would be to bring back Tatis, bring up Murphy full-time, and find a super-sub type who can play LF or 2B capably, either via trade or free agency.
If the Mets do decide to spend money on a strict LF, the choice I’d go for is Pat Burrell, but only if Endy Chavez is brought back as a fifth outfielder/Burrell caddy. Burrell would slot very well into the 6th hole in the Mets’ lineup, between Beltran and Church. He’s a right-hander, which would improve a lineup that seems a bit too left-handed, and his numbers against left-handed pitching would keep teams from bringing in a lefty to face Delgado and leaving in that lefty until they face Church. He would also add another 20-35 home runs to a team that finished 7th in the NL in home runs in 2008. Just as important to what he would add to the Mets, bringing Burrell to New York would also take away a pretty big part of the Phillies’ offense as well. There is an issue with defense, and for that, you would have to keep Endy around to play the later innings. But considering some of the left fielders the Mets started in 2008, defense clearly is not a huge priority for them in left.
As far as the starting rotation goes, I would like to see the team make a play for Derek Lowe in free agency. He’s not going to blow you away with anything he does, but he doesn’t miss starts, he gets ground balls, he doesn’t allow a lot of home runs, he doesn’t allow a lot of walks, and he strikes out a fair number of batters. He is about as good a #3 starter as you will find. The problem with Lowe is, he turns 36 next year, so signing him long-term would be a mistake, and plus it looks like several teams will bid on his services. But he’s a guy I’ve always liked, and I’d like to see if the Mets could figure out a way to add him to the rotation.
Short of signing Lowe, I would stay away from the high bid guys like Sabathia and Burnett and I’d like to see the Mets bring in two low-cost, one year contract types who might be looking for another shot. Another solution is picking up a guy in a salary dump for Castillo. Sometimes a lousy player just needs a change in scenery, and the Mets would seem to offer a good one; good defense on the left side of the infield and in center and right fields and a likely pitcher’s park in Citi Field. The benefits of good defense and a ballpark conductive to pitching could help a pitcher who struggled last year turn things around in a hurry.
Also, as I have said before, I would like to see the team try one more time with Heilman in the starting rotation. At this point, what do they have to lose? He has talent, he has pitched well in the past, and he was injured for most of last season. To trade him now would be to sell low; they would surely get nothing back in return. Perhaps changing to a new role, a role he has wanted to perform for the past several years, would be very beneficial to Heilman. I think they need to at least let him compete in spring training for a spot in the rotation. At the very least, Heilman’s biggest opponent for becoming a starter, Rick Peterson, is gone; what’s the problem with giving him a shot with some other guys?
As for the bullpen, while I would personally argue that spending big bucks on a closer is a bad strategy, I realize that because of how last year left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth, it will probably be necessary here as a public relations move. That said, I am really wary of giving K-Rod a five year contract. His strikeout totals have declined the past three years, which is a bad sign, and he blew 7 saves in 2008. Contrary to what 62 saves says, he was NOT the best closer in baseball last year. He’s good, but I wouldn’t pay $75 million for a meaningless saves record.
I will say, I really like Brian Fuentes the more I look at him. He gets ground balls, which is good when you have good infield defense behind you, and it means he avoids home runs. He’s a guy who will ring up a lot of strikeouts; despite getting older, his strikeout rate has improved over two years ago. His ERA is artificially inflated by Coors Field, meaning he might not come as expensive as one would expect a guy who has pitched as well as he has; move him to Citi Field, and I think he’s getting a lot of recognition as being a great reliever. This is the guy who I’d want to throw some money at to fix the bullpen; he will be a better buy for the money required to sign him.
Juan Cruz is another guy I would take a look at, perhaps as a set-up man. Again, my own personal preference would be to stay away from costly bullpen solutions, but for the purposes of PR, going out and spending big bucks on short-term solutions for the pen while working to fix the systematic problems that have plagued the Mets the past few years. Cruz is another high strikeout guy; unfortunately, he doesn’t bring the ground ball success that Fuentes has had, and he’s a guy who can get rocked from time to time. Still, he throws hard, he gets strikeouts, and he is more reliable in throwing complete innings than anybody currently on the team. I don’t want to spend this money, but if you’re going to do so, this isn’t a bad place to spend it if you can sign him for under 3 years.
After that, it becomes a matter of finding guys out there, freely available, who will take a one year contract or minor league contract/spring training invite. Much like with the rotation, find guys who have lacked success, see if they can be refound in the bullpen. Some terrible starters make for good relievers. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on a guy who hasn’t had success before; guys fighting for a spot in the majors are sometimes desperate enough to work out. Think out of the box here; the Rays’ bullpen didn’t rebound from the worst in the majors to one of the best by spending huge money, but by going on virtual casting call and bringing some castoffs to Tampa and watching their careers rebound. That’s what the Mets need to do.
In summary, I would target either Pat Burrell or Brian Roberts (because the team probably can’t get both) as an addition to the Mets lineup, with some flexibility at second base and left field to help out Tatis and Murphy. Pick up a Derek Lowe or a few different innings-eater types and let them fight for some spots in the rotation, shipping the rest to the bullpen. Make a splash with a Fuentes signing, but then go after low-cost alternatives to players already under contract to rebuild the rest of the bullpen. Think smart more than think big bucks. That’s where the Mets have lost their way in the past, but they can get back to a smarter way of acquiring talent and make this team a playoff team again in 2009, without going too crazy.