The 2010 Mets believe in comebacks. The additions of Jason Bay, Kelvin Escobar and Ryota Igarashi work to that end, but in order to truly support this aphoristic ad campaign, the front office must fill in the gaps.
The team is set at five positions in the field: Bay, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Jeff Francoeur all project to start at their respective positions; Alex Cora, Angel Pagan and Henry Blanco have guaranteed bench spots; Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine will be in the rotation; Francisco Rodriguez, Sean Green, Pedro Feliciano, Bobby Parnell, Igarashi and Escobar will be in the ‘pen.
Assuming the club carries the usual thirteen position players and twelve pitchers, there are six or seven roster slots open and/or in need of an upgrade: catcher, first base, second base, starting pitcher (or two depending on Niese) and two bench spots.
I’m bored of making fun of Bengie Molina, especially when others have done it better. Molina and low free agent Rod Barajas are not good hitters. In fact, Chris Coste’s .325 career wOBA is compares favorable to the free agent pair, plus there’s reason to believe he is better than both defensively. The team’s current payroll is ~$123M with another $3M or so in obligations due to the rest of the 40-man roster. Assuming the team caps spending at last season’s $150M mark, there’s a $24M budget to address those roster spots. There’s no reason to allocate resources here, unless it involves trading Luis Castillo for Chris Snyder. Any combination of Coste, Blanco or Santos should be good enough to provide slightly below-to-average production.
First and Second Base
It’s possible that the Mets turn to internal options, namely Daniel Murphy and Luis Castillo, to fill the right side of the infield. This is the worst-case scenario, but one that’s become increasingly likely as the off-season’s developed. Castillo’s dime-sized range is a major liability and his lack of positional flexibility makes him nearly impossible to carry on National League bench. His absolute upside is one-and-a-half wins above replacement, with a reasonable projection closer to a win. Murphy’s a rangy fielder, probably better suited for a more difficult position — yes, I think he should still be used in the outfield — but his averageish bat doesn’t play as an everyday first baseman. Murphy, conservatively, is about a one win player.
The team must move Castillo, regardless of the cost. There’s a number of available second baseman on the market (Orlando Hudson, Felipe Lopez and to a lesser extent Adam Kennedy) and the team cannot eschew the opportunity to upgrade the position. At minimum, Hudson and Lopez would add a full win over Castillo. More importantly, all three players are significantly better fielders than Luis, allowing the Mets to leverage defense to improve their pitching.
The rumored Mike Lowell for Castillo deal would work on multiple fronts. It would rid the team of Castillo and a $6M obligation next season. Lowell, a right-handed hitter and once excellent third baseman, could be platooned with Murphy at first base to minimize much of Murphy’s potential downside (i.e. issues with left-handers, continued BB rate erosion). Lowell is only marginally better than Murphy at this point in his career, but he’s much more of a known quantity. Should this trade not materialize, and many media sources have shot it down, Omar Minaya must look to unload a heavily subsidized Luis Castillo on any team willing to listen. If that fails, eat the entire contract.
The Mets have shown varying degrees of interest in first basemen Carlos Delgado and Russell Branyan this offseason. It’s obvious the team prefers Delgado, but both players represent an offensive upgrade over Murphy and neither necessitates a platoon. Unfortunately, the injury risk attached to both players is significant. Another option is right-handed hitting Ryan Garko, who sports a career .887 OPS vs. left handed pitchers. If all else fails, the team can bring him in to platoon with Murphy. Be it injury, age or talent level, these alternatives only stand to add a half win to one full win at first base. The goal is to raise the production “floor” under the auspices of budget constraints.
Improved defense at second base, the return of Jose Reyes to shortstop, Beltran’s knee condition and Bay’s below average defense should shift the focus to ground ball pitchers. This seems counter-intuitive, with Citi Field’s cavernous reputation, but given the pitching market and the players currently on the roster, it just makes a lot of sense. The best (healthy) free agents available – Joel Piniero (48.6% ground ball rate since 2002), John Smoltz (45.9%) and Doug Davis (44.6%) — are ground-ballers. Signing Joel Piniero to a backloaded three year contract with a vesting option would be Omar Minaya move of choice. He wouldn’t necessarily be wrong; clearly, Piniero offers the best combination of effectiveness and durability. Should contract negotiations prove difficult, the Mets should move toward signing the tandem of Smoltz and Davis. Such a move would bolster the rotation’s depth, protecting the team from the volatile and injury prone Perez and Maine and allow the team to take things slow with a rehabbing Jon Niese. Either alternative stands to add three wins to the pitching staff.
Given that the Mets most significant liabilities are in the outfield – Beltran’s knee, Bay’s defense, Jeff Francoeur – adding a reserve outfielder to pair with Angel Pagan would be the best use of the the final roster spot. If Murphy platoons with Lowell or Garko, this player should bat left-handed/switch to compliment Francoeur’s right-handedness and play well defensively to replace Jason Bay late in games. Randy Winn (switch hitter, +17 UZR/150 last two seasons), Gabe Gross (left handed, +16 career UZR/150) and Endy Chavez on one-year deals would all fit the bill.
In the event of Delgado at first base, Murphy should move into a bench role, giving the team a left handed hitting reserve player. To balance the left-handed bench, the team would need a right-handed, defensive oriented outfielder. Reed Johnson is a good left fielder (+23 career UZR/150) and has an .841 career OPS vs. left handed pitchers. For a creative solution, Eric Byrnes’s .857 career OPS vs. lefties and +6 OF UZR/150 is an ideal match. Castillo for Snyder/Byrnes saves Arizona over $10M in contract obligations (perhaps more if there’s cash included) and fills a few holes for the Mets.
If deployed correctly, any of these players could add as much as a full win to the team. I’m looking at you, Jerry Manuel.
The Mets as currently constituted are about an 84-85 win team. Adding three wins to the pitching staff, a win and a half to second base, one-half win to first base and a full win to the bench would catapult this team over 90 projected wins, well within striking distance of the division and a favorite for a wild card berth.