December 30, 2005
David Wright and Jose Reyes, New York's twin cornerstones, will both be 23 in 2006. Combined with Carlos Beltran, who turns 29 next April, New York has a young offensive nucleus that should be the foundation in Queens for years.
Despite that youth, the Mets have approached the marketplace with a "win-now" philosophy, primarily due to ace right-hander Pedro Martinez, who will be 34 next season. Prior to signing his four year, $53 million deal before last year, the conventional wisdom was that Martinez had about two seasons of pre-eminent performance left in the tank. Martinez's strong showing for the Amazin's last year dispelled much of the fear that his 3.90 ERA for the 2004 World Champions was the final achievement of a shredded arm, but there were still danger signs in the 2005 performance--Martinez failed to strike out a batter per inning (208 K in 217 IP) for the first time since 1995. Clearly, the premium unleaded is running a bit low, and Mets fans should be thankful the pesky toe problem may keep Martinez from expending invaluable innings in the World Baseball Classic.
It is not only Martinez's situation that has the Mets looking to gear up for a 2006 championship run. The team's pitchers in general are an aging lot--the aggregate staff age in 2005 was 31.9, oldest in the National League. Martinez and Tom Glavine, who will hit 40 next season, combined for over half of the wins above replacement level racked up by the starters, 13 of 25.2 by SNLVAR. The rest of the rotation isn't much younger--2006 will see Steve Trachsel turn 35, Kris Benson 31, Victor Zambrano 30, and Jae Seo 29. Combine that with a bullpen point man in Billy Wagner who will be 34, and you've got a team whose key arms are in the danger zone in terms of attrition concerns.
With the core of the pitching staff liable to be fully operational for only another year or so, the Mets justifiably felt compelled to trade a significant portion of their future, in the form of Yusmeiro Petit and Mike Jacobs, to the Marlins for first baseman Carlos Delgado. Delgado adds to the age issues in that he will be 34 when he dons orange and blue, but he remains a fearsome hitter, as slugging .582 in the death valleys of Dolphins Stadium and putting up a NL-third best .333 EQA attests. His presence will significantly help New York capitalize on whatever the Martinez/Glavine duo can produce next year.
The acquisition looks especially good in light of James Click's recent article looking at replacement level as the level of production a new player actually replaces. Patrons venturing into Shea Stadium last season were witness to a peculiar phenomenon--at the spot on the diamond normally occupied by the first baseman, light was refracted by an area of space-time with a gravitational field so intense its escape velocity exceeded the speed of light. In other words, the Mets had an abyss at first base. New York's first basemen last year were the worst in the majors by VORP and PMLVr:
Player AVG OBP SLG HR BB SO VORP PMLVr Mets 1B: .227 .303 .391 21 59 97 -8.7 -0.290 Delgado: .301 .399 .582 32 72 121 71.7 0.343Led by the new Royal Doug Mientkiewicz, Mets first basemen ranked last in OPS, runs, hits, total bases, and RBI. The respective PMLVr figures add up to .633 runs of difference per game between Delgado's 2005 production and what Minky and Co. achieved, an enormous figure (10 runs roughly equals one win). Based on the VORP differential, New York would have gained about 80 runs of offense with Delgado in the fold. Of course, Delgado's cumbersome glove--seven runs worse than replacement level last year--would have negated a portion of the improvement, but even a more conservative estimate of six additional wins would have made the final day of New York's 83-win season meaningful. With the recent research done by Nate Silver on the increased economic value of marginal wins that will likely bump a team into the playoffs, the $41 million the Mets owe Delgado over the next three years looks to be a worthy investment.
Adding to the benefits of Delgado's presence is Shea's kindness towards lefthanded batters. Although Shea is known as a solid pitcher's park, that reputation has been built on its ability to cripple righthanded hitting--as reported by Dayn Perry, the lefthanded park factor for home runs between 2002-04 was an inflationary 115, as compared to a brutal 77 for righties (100 is neutral). Adding Delgado will give the Mets five lefthanded swingers against righthanded pitching, with Cliff Floyd and the switch-hitting Beltran, Reyes and Kazuo Matsui, putting them in position to glean every advantage from their home venue.
A less inspired acquisition was New York's second trade with the Fish, for catcher Paul Lo Duca, who is due $12.5 million over the next two years. Lo Duca has been overrated since his first full season in 2001, when he put up a .917 OPS and a 0.405 PMLVr, second best in the majors behind Mike Piazza. Lo Duca has not come close to even half that rate of production since then (his next best PMLVr was 0.142 in 2002), and his endemic second-half fade is well documented (.782 first half OPS, .652 second half over the past three years.)
Lo Duca has proven to be a valuable asset when at full strength, though, and the Mets can get the most out of their catching situation by frequently utilizing more-than-capable backup Ramon Castro, whose .756 OPS in 209 AB last year trumped Lo Duca's .714 in 445 AB. New York needs to recognize Lo Duca's inability to perform over a full season and set up a timeshare at the position by treating Castro as the slightly lesser half of a two-headed backstop, similar to what the Reds executed so successfully last year with Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin. Playing Castro regularly will help keep Lo Duca spry in the midsummer heat, so that he can earn his clutch reputation by banging a few RBI gappers in a September pennant race.
James Click contributed research for this article
It's not too uncommon to see a team overhaul three-fifths of their starting rotation. But in a span of sixteen days, the Rangers have introduced three veteran pitchers likely to fill the top three rotation slots. And GM Jon Daniels might not be done. We'll work in reverse chronological order, because the more important deals are more recent.