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July 14, 2005

Small Moves Could Pay Off Big

Retooling the Mets' Roster

by Dayn Perry

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Received wisdom has it that a team cannot simultaneously rebuild and contend. While the ideal behind this--that organizations do better with a singular focus--is sound, sometimes circumstances allow a club to perform a balancing act of sorts. This season, the Mets are in just such a position. They're not hopelessly out of contention, and they can make some overdue moves without toppling their long-term vision.

At present, the Mets find themselves bringing up the rear in the NL East, eight games behind the front-running Nationals and 5 1/2 games behind the Wild Card-leading Braves. The Nationals have shown signs of regression in recent days, and the general sense that they've been playing over their heads will likely reveal itself to be true. Atlanta, meanwhile, has Chipper Jones--arguably the team's best hitter--and 60% of its Opening Day rotation on the disabled list. In spite of such critical injuries, the Braves are 17-7 since June 15, and expect to get those injured contributors back in the second half. As for the rest of the division, the Marlins and Phillies are both more than capable of making serious stretch runs for the division.

In other words, the outlook for the Mets is somewhat grim. Their odds of making the playoffs are modest enough that a farm-gutting trade at the deadline isn't prudent.

That said, the Mets do have at their disposal a handful of internal solutions that, if implemented quickly, could improve their chances. First, they can remove a trio of ciphers from the lineup. According to Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), a Baseball Prospectus metric that measures, in runs, the value a player contributes above what could be provided by a readily available "replacement-level" talent, the Mets have given regular duty to three of the worst hitters in the NL. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, second baseman Kaz Matsui, and shortstop Jose Reyes all rank among the 30 least productive hitters in the senior circuit among those who have logged at least 200 plate appearances.

Mientkiewicz is on the DL, and without question should be left out of the lineup once he's ready to return. In terms of offensive production, he's been the second-worst first baseman in all of baseball, ranking behind only Tampa Bay's Travis Lee with a VORP of 0.3.

Fortunately, the Mets are already making contingency plans. Victor Diaz, who's been reasonably productive in limited duty this season, is back at Triple-A Norfolk learning to man first base. In an outing last week, Diaz looked sharp moving to his right and helped the Tides turn a pair of double plays. Diaz was once viewed as a potential second baseman, so he's got the athleticism to make the switch. The sooner they call him up, the better.

If both players maintained their current levels of major league production, Diaz, over the span of 300 plate appearances, would out-produce Mientkiewicz by about nine runs for the balance of the season.

The same goes for Matsui, who like Mientkiewicz, should not be reinserted into the lineup when he returns from the DL. Matsui is also the majors' second-worst player at his position, joining Washington's Jamey Carroll as the only second baseman with negative VORP on the season (-2.8). While none of the Mets' internal options at second is ideal, they do have improvements available. Marlon Anderson is batting a respectable .305 AVG/.360 OBA/.386 SLG, and while he may not be able to maintain that on-base average, he nevertheless figures to be a substantial upgrade over Matsui, and could form a functional platoon with righty-swinging Chris Woodward.

Reyes is more problematic. It's clear at this point that he needs further seasoning; a demotion to Norfolk is in order, and it's better for both Reyes and the organization in the long-term. There's a case to be made for on-the-job-training, but there's also the matter of fraying confidence. Reyes, remember, was a regular major leaguer by age 20, and while he spent more than 100 games in the high minors, he didn't have an impressive minor-league campaign after his stint in the High-A Florida State League in 2002. In other words, he was rushed. Reyes proved his mettle quite well after being called up in 2003, but he's scuttled badly since then, compiling a .278 OBA. Pitchers have adjusted, and he hasn't. He looks like a player who needs to put in some remedial time at the plate in the minors. Otherwise, the risk is a cycle of struggles and frustration that could derail his promise.

Since the Mets have nothing in the way of adequate shortstops in the upper rungs of the system, they'll need to look outside the organization for a replacement. One low-cost acquisition candidate would be Tampa's Julio Lugo, author of a .287/.346/.365 line this year. Lugo is the AL's sixth-most productive shortstop, and his VORP of 21.1 would make him the second-best regular shortstop in the NL. He's also highly disposable from Tampa Bay's perspective; Lugo is arbitration-eligible, and the organization has top prospect B.J. Upton ready to take over at short.

From the Mets' perspective, it wouldn't require a sheik's ransom to pry him from Tampa, certainly nothing involving top farm talent. Lugo's contract has a $4.95 million option for 2006, so the Mets would have flexibility in deciding to keep him or drop him. If they can't swing a trade, the Mets should at least move Reyes and his .284 OBA way down in the order, far away from the leadoff spot.

On the mound, replacing Kaz Ishii in the rotation with Aaron Heilman or Jae Seo, who's dominating Triple-A at the moment, makes perfect sense. Moving Ishii to the bullpen in a lefty specialist role is long overdue. No Mets pitcher with a significant innings total has been worse against right-handed batters (.274 AVG/.361 OBA/.451 SLG allowed), and no Mets pitcher this season has been better against lefties (.161 AVG/.246 OBA/.403 SLG). With Felix Heredia out for the season with a serious shoulder malady and Royce Ring and Dae-Sung Koo combining to allow 5.34 runs per game, the Mets could use some portside relief help.

Would these decidedly non-scorched earth changes result in a division title? Probably not. But they would notably improve the club without compromising the farm system. At the very least, they might return the Mets to the competitive fray. These moves, in tandem with a rejuvenated Carlos Beltran in the second half, could make the Mets into something of consequence in the NL East, both this season and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the New York Sun. During the regular season, Baseball Prospectus regularly contributes to the Sun.

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