December 27, 2009
A few weeks back, near the end of the Winter Meetings, I got a panicked text message from a friend of mine: "Are the Mets going to do ANYTHING?" It was a fair question, as even now the Mets have been almost completely silent this offseason, but as I pointed out then, doing nothing is better than signing Bengie Molina.
In fact, it's the lack of the big mistake that defines the current offseason for the Mets, who are coming off a disastrous season in which six of their top seven players by payroll spent significant parts of the season on the Disabled List. It was the injuries, above and beyond all other factors, that destroyed the team's season; the Mets were 17-13 and in first place when they lost Carlos Delgado on May 10, the first of the string of season-ending hurts. They were 21-19, a game out of first, when Jose Reyes went down for good on May 20. They were hanging on a month later at 34-33, still just two games out, when Carlos Beltran went on the DL. At that point, the wheels fell off: without those three players, the Mets went 28-42 until Beltran's return on September 8, during which time they also lost Johan Santana for the season and David Wright for two weeks following a beaning. As disappointing as John Maine and Oliver Perez and Francisco Rodriguez were, the line for the 2009 Mets runs through the DL.
So in planning for 2010, it's fair for Omar Minaya to not see his team as needing radical reconstruction. With health, he'll have back the core that nearly won the division in 2007 and 2008. In Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and Santana, the Mets have a championship-caliber foursome that matches up with that of the Phillies if all four players have healthy seasons. (The Phillies' health record is tremendous the last three years, a real edge for their team.) The roster around that core is capable, and in fact, almost certain to be better in '10 than it was in '09. Maine and Perez combined for just 29 starts, walking 96 men and allowing 93 runs in 147
Signing Bengie Molina wasn't going to help things. The Mets, in fact, got a player who provides 90 percent of Molina's value when they signed Henry Blanco to a one-year, $750,000 contract. Blanco has a legitimate cannon behind the plate and he hits left-handed pitching well enough to carry that half of a platoon. Moreover, there's little temptation to bat him high in the lineup or give him a bigger job than that. Molina's inflated RBI counts hide the fact that he's an offense-killer, posting a sub-.300 OBP in two of the previous three seasons. He's also one of the slowest men in the game, and not a particularly good defensive catcher. To sign him and bat him sixth in 125 games would make the Mets actively worse. What they need is a lefty bat to pair with Blanco; I'm open to the idea that Josh Thole can be that player, but Thole has to hit .290 to play and it's an open question whether his Mike LaValliere act will carry forward to the majors. Josh Bard, who can't throw and might hit, could serve as a stopgap while Thole spends two months at Buffalo, but the real key here is to avoid signing Bengie Molina. It would be wasted money.
This isn't to say that the Mets' offseason couldn't use a boost, and I don't mean by signing a guy with a single appearance in two years. Kelvim Escobar might work out, and for a million bucks, it's worth finding out. The same applies to Ryota Igarashi, a Japanese right-hander brought over on a two-year, $3 million deal. By Cot's count, the Mets have about $98 million committed to 14 players, plus a million bucks owed to J.J. Putz. Jeff Francoeur, John Maine, Pedro Feliciano, Angel Pagan, and Sean Green are all arbitration-eligible; combined, they made about $8.5 million last year, only Pagan had a good year but all added service time… let's say they'll cost $13 million in 2010, and set aside that $6 million of that will go to the right fielder with a career .311 OBP. That would put the Mets at $112 million. They were at $149 million last year, $137 million two years ago, $115 million in '07. Let's say that they can go to $149 million again, but no higher, as last year may have been a local peak with some contracts overlapping and the new park coming on line. How do they spend the other $35 million in a way that helps them compete with the Phillies and the Braves for the next two years before Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes reach free agency?
The Mets have no left fielder and no first baseman, and assigning Daniel Murphy to one of those spots doesn't change much, as it's certain that he can't hit enough to play first and questionable that he can hit enough to play left given how poorly he fields the position. Murphy could end up as Frank Catalanotto, but right now he's a career .275/.331/.437 guy in the majors and has just one game at Triple-A, so all we really know is that he can play in the Eastern League. You cannot build around him, so looking outside the organization for solutions is the way to solve both these positions. The Mets have a luxury in that they only need one of these players to bat in the middle of the lineup; Reyes/Castillo/Wright/Beltran is a good top four, so what they need is one player to fill out that top five and the other to likely bat seventh, between Francoeur and the catcher. If they were to sign two very good hitters, Castillo could move down in the lineup.
The Mets have to fix their offense before they fix their pitching. They should be spending their money on bats, rather than on starters, and given the high-risk pitching that's out there, money spent on Joel Pineiro or Jon Garland or Jarrod Washburn doesn't change things for them, it just adds the type of pitcher they already have but with more recent success. The Mets needed a John Lackey, someone to be a clear second starter between Johan Santana and the rest of the field, and there was exactly one John Lackey available this season. A move for a high-upside player, such as Ben Sheets or Erik Bedard, would make more sense for them, while allowing them to stay in the market for hitters.
With so many suitors finding other answers, both Jason Bay and Matt Holliday are still available, and presumably at a price that gets a little better every day. I've recommended staying away from both, as both are declining stocks, good-but-not-great players likely to be overpaid because of their status as the top guys in a weak year. The Mets, however, are a special case, a big-market club with some money to spend, a core that would allow either player to be the fifth-best on the team, and a short time horizon. For the Mets, Matt Holliday could make sense, as he's a gap-to-gap hitter who should play well in Citi Field, he's good enough defensively to cover ground in those same gaps, and he fits within the payroll parameters. Bay would likely be less expensive and require a shorter commitment, but his defensive issues would give back a lot of the offense he provides. This will be the first time I've recommended this for anyone, but the Mets should sign Matt Holliday for up to $18 million per season on up to a five-year deal. They'll be hurting a little on the back end of that, but the improvement over Murphy or Pagan (who is a strong fourth outfielder, and probably better than Francoeur) in the short term is worth that.
That leaves first base, and about $17 million to spend. Well, there's no first baseman who's going to come close to that on the market, so the good news is that the Mets come in under budget on my plan. That extra money can be used in the midseason trade market, or added to an offer on Aroldis Chapman, or perhaps piled into incentives for Sheets. As far as how to fill the spot, I go back to the man whose injury started the team's downfall. Quietly, Carlos Delgado has had a very gentle decline phase, and was hitting well when his hip problem forced him to the DL in May. A strained oblique suffered during rehab effectively ended his season. I asked Will Carroll, and he indicated that while he'd prefer if Delgado had a DH option, he doesn't see a health reason to not sign him. Delgado is one of the few players available who brings some OBP, and the Mets should try and fill the spot with a left-handed batter for lineup balance. Coming off a shortened season, and with a limited market for free agents-Nick Johnson's contract is likely an upper bound for Delgado-he'd be inexpensive enough to allow for another signing, such as Bedard. As a value-for-money proposition, I'd rather have Delgado for one year at his price than commit to Adam LaRoche for three years at his.
So let's wave a magic wand and see how the roster shakes out with these moves:
Bench: Blanco/Bard, Pagan, Murphy, Alex Cora
There's roster space for another hitter, probably a right-handed-hitting outfielder/first baseman. That could be Nick Evans, or it could be something from the free-agent pile. Ryan Garko is sitting out there, and would be a steal at this point. He might be able to take the first base job outright by the end of the year. Thole could claim a chunk of the catching job at midseason. The back end of the pitching staff is in considerable flux, as the Mets have an assortment of fifth-reliever/sixth-starter types, and under this plan would have two starting pitchers in camp coming off lost seasons, in addition to Maine and Perez. Niese, Figueroa, Fernando Nieve, Brian Stokes and others will all be fighting for jobs.
Trades are also an option, especially given that the Mets can take on some payroll, but I'm not sure there's a fit for them. Fernando Martinez's value is down due to his ongoing inability to stay healthy and a rough debut last year. I think trading him now would be a mistake, and the Mets should play him every day in Triple-A until he forces his way into the outfield picture. If that's June, great; it's a nice problem to have. He's just 21 years old, and never should have been in the majors last year, and remains a tremendous talent. They shouldn't trade Jenrry Mejia, and I'm not sure assembling a prospect package without those guys gets them where they need to be. Then again, Cliff Lee, Curtis Granderson, and Javier Vazquez have all been dealt for packages seemingly below their station, so perhaps there is a deal to be made.
The biggest flaw in my plan for the Mets is this: it still doesn't get them ahead of the Phillies as the division favorite, and they may not be as good as the Braves, even with $30 million worth of free agents. I think the signings make sense for them, but even with them, there's so much volatility in the Mets' roster that it's hard to project the team with confidence. They could win 95 games and the NL East, and they could win 82 and fade softly from the wild-card race in September. They could end up even worse if none of the pitching works out. Where they are right now, though, starting both Murphy and Pagan, is not good enough. They have the money and they have the needs, and they should use one to fill the other, knowing that they're not nearly as bad as they looked in '09 and that their core, returning healthy in '10, matches up with their competition.