Posted by Reese Kaplan at 2:00 PM
Here's a guy coming off of both a physical and bacterial problem that had most of the fan base pondering his inevitable shuffle off to Buffalo, yet something strange happened. That .160 hitting guy remembered his power stroke and had a torrid (well, for him, anyway) second half, finishing with 32 HRs and 91 RBIs while logging 519 ABs. His previous year he was on pace for a .302 average with superior power numbers until his mysterious ankle injury occurred on that collision. In 2010 in 523 ABs he hit 19 HRs and 71 RBIs. The point here is he has improved each season. Now if he can string together a healthy 2013, there's no reason to believe he won't eclipse 35 HRs and 100 RBIs -- which puts him in some heady company in Mets' history -- Wright (when he was at his best), Beltran, Delgado....
He was just named one of the top 10 second basemen in baseball in what for him was an off year. Yes, he did hit a very respectable .291 and sports a career .292 average. However, his modest power eluded him with just 6 dingers but he did manage to drive home 65 while mostly batting in the 2-hole (helped, no doubt, by his impressive 40 doubles). He added a dimension of speed last year with 10 SBs and was not the horror show we expected at 2B when it came to fielding his position. Now in the year when he led the team in HRs with a paltry 12 he also saw his average dip to .266. I think the high batting average and on base percentage are what the team would like to see more than power. In either case, he's a solid player who can either have a great future or be packaged for someone else who will.
Underestimating the little Panamanian has become something of a sucker's bet. He's small, not especially fast, doesn't have much power and looked totally overmatched during his emergency call-ups to sub for an injured Jose Reyes. Yet what has he done since then? In 2011 he batted .284 and then after being asked to replace the hugely popular batting champion who fled (temporarily) to Florida, he followed that up with a 2012 campaign in which he improved slightly to .289. A .300 average in the future no longer looks like a pipe dream. Yes, he has no power. Yes, he has no speed. However, how many shortstops in all of baseball have a realistic shot of hitting .300 while fielding the position respectably? They had better think about locking him up a'la Niese (though for probably less money).
In this particular case the team zigged when it should have zagged. The penny pinching empire did not strike back in this case, but instead handed out the richest contract in the club's history. To some extent they're paying for past performance and to another extent they probably felt they couldn't withstand the PR hit of losing Reyes and Wright in consecutive years (though the haul for Wright probably would have even eclipsed what Dickey brought the team from Toronto). Still, he's not going to embarrass you in the tabloids, he'll play at or near All Star level for at least half of the contract and it puts Wilmer Flores into the position of valuable trading chip since Wright now has 3B locked up for the foreseeable future.
I won't address the warm bodies filling in until the service time clock deadline occurs and the baton passes to the centerpiece of the Dickey trade. PCL or not, his numbers were pretty gaudy and if you can get a guy who hits like, say, A.J. Pierzynski then the club will have a great catching option for years to come. If he hits like Bench or Carter or Piazza, so much the better.
If you write off last year as an aberration and focus on his last couple of years in the minors and his first taste of the majors, the big furniture mover can hit. What was most impressive about his 2011 half-season was not the power that he showed, but the .292 batting average and just 57 strikeouts. Power hitters that can do more than swing wildly for the fences are a rare find. Last year he fell into that trap. The average dipped. The Ks increased. And the less said about his glove, the better. He's one of those players like Kevin McReynolds who seems to be greatly affected by crowd support and the 2012 boo birds were pretty vocal towards the man lumbering around right field. Maybe it was the change of position that did him in as he is a natural (if ungifted) first baseman during his successful 2011. Left field is somewhat more natural for him, so maybe he can rediscover his mojo (and stop moving furniture) in 2013.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis/Collin Cowgill
Platoons are always a tricky thing because you're admitting up front that both players are incomplete in their skill sets. Captain Kirk last year got exposed the more he played -- and he did play quite a bit out of necessity due to an early season injury to Andres Torres. Now Sandy Alderson blew it big time with last year's ill-fated San Francisco trade, so there are any number of cynics already condemning the prospect of these two players sharing CF duties. They are not the same types of players. Nieuwenhuis is more of a modest power hitter with aggressive speed (rather than being a flat out burner). He hit for high averages in short samples, so you're not really sure what you're going to get since so much of his career has been sidelined by injuries. Having a right handed counterpart in Collin Cowgill might allow Captain Kirk time to refine his game and demonstrate he's more than the K machine who closed out his first taste of the big leagues. Cowgill didn't shine in his short sample in the big leagues but the little guy (5'9") hit for similar power in the minors plus as many as 30 SBs in a season. He could be a good complement to Matt den Dekker, too, should he adjust quickly to the AAA level as he also hits from the left side. Like Nieuwenhuis, Cowgill has that "run through a fence for you" type of energy. Sometimes it works -- Wally Backman -- and sometimes it doesn't. I'm guessing with some luck you'll get a 20 HR/20 SB production from CF.
Mike Baxter/Andrew Brown
This platoon actually seems less risky than the one in CF. Baxter showed he could draw walks and hit well as a reserve player and pinch hitter. Andrew Brown has put up some gaudy numbers in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but if you go back to his two years prior to arriving there you can see he demonstrated even better production -- 35 HRs and 105 RBIs in 624 AA at-bats. He's apparently lead footed having never stolen more than 4 bases in a season despite having a lean 185 pound frame on a 6 foot body. The potential output from these two players could be something on the 20/80 range without major steps forward by either one of them.
Here you may go forward with Justin Turner for 2B/3B, Brandon Hicks taking the Ronnie Cedeño role and Jordany Valdespin as a floater between IF and OF. Anthony Recker seems to be the placeholder as backup catcher. If you carry 8 starters plus the 2 platoon outfielders and the 4 bench players, that allows for an 11 man pitching staff to start the season. I'm not sure the team would go in this direction as the season progresses, but with off-days and rainouts in April it could be a workable start.
You're very solid with Jon Niese. Unfortunately after him you have some major question marks. Is Johan Santana healthy? If so, he demonstrated in the first half last year he's still capable of pitching like an ace. Is Matt Harvey going to hit bumps in the road or will he just keep rolling and finish with a sub 3.50 ERA as one of the starters? If so, that's a great trio heading the rotation. Next you have Dillon Gee. He's proven to be, when healthy, a more consistent version of what the Mets thought they had with Mike Pelfrey -- a guy who will give you 6 decent innings per start. Unfortunately he doesn't have any single pitch that is outstanding but he seems to make the most of his talent. The real variable in play is the 5th starter. The in-house options are most likely Jenrry Mejia who seems to be recovering very slowly from his arm woes, Collin McHugh who offers up the same basic skills as Dillon Gee but who isn't as consistent, and Jeremy Hefner who seems like the proverbial AAAA type of pitcher typified by Chris Schwinden or Pat Misch -- good enough for the occasional spot start but exposed in regular doses. In short, unless they are ready to commit to Mejia (and assuming he proves completely healthy), they may need to reach outside the organization to hold down the fort until Zack Wheeler is deemed ready to ascend to The Show.
Frank Francisco is what he is. Unfortunately what he is right now is hurt and not expected until May, so that leaves the already thin bullpen with more question marks than answers. Assume for the moment that Bobby Parnell, Josh Edgin and Robert Carson are locks to make the pen. That still leaves 3 or more slots open for a group that includes Elvin Ramirez, Greg Burke and Jeurys Familia. The season isn't starting tomorrow so it's hard to say who the players will be that will earn a spot out of Spring Training. Personally I think Familia hasn't had enough time in the pen and Ramirez was too inconsistent. Both should start the year in Las Vegas. Burke's numbers look pretty impressive and I'd pencil him in for one of the open slots. That still leaves two or more roles to come from outside the current list of in-house options.
So What Changes Would Help Most?
Based upon what we see here, even with the most optimistic projections, they need major help in the bullpen and perhaps in centerfield. Any deal that would involve packaging players like Nieuwenhuis, den Dekker, Baxter, Familia and Ramirez wouldn't fundamentally hurt the team, but none of these players -- even in bulk aggregate -- are likely to bring back anyone of any consequence. Some of the lower minors pitching prospects like Fulmer or even the gaudy numbers of Leathersich might pry loose a centerfielder. There is no one in the minors who screams "can't miss" in the outfield at all (and truly not in CF). The big chip on the table is Wilmer Flores and I keep wondering what team has a glut in the OF who would flip their biggest OF prospect for Flores. These types of deals wouldn't cost much money which, despite reassurances to the contrary and budget flexibility that's never been exercised, the Mets don't seem to have.
If they ARE actually going to write some checks it perhaps should be for bullpen arms. Francisco is a sunk cost who won't be here in 2014, so it makes sense to look at options who might. They already missed the boat on Joakim Soria who signed for a very reasonable 2 years/$8 million. That's $2 million per year LESS than the Mets are paying fat Frankie. They missed out on a great many other reasonably priced options like Jonathan Broxton and Mike Gonzalez who might have preferred to close rather than setting up. There were some truly stellar middle relievers available like Mike Adams and Grant Balfour but the conventional wisdom is you don't spend big for that role -- and you see what happens when instead you select the D.J. Carrasco's and Ryota Igarashi's of this world. There are still quite a few serviceable arms out there -- Matt Capps, Matt Lindstrom, Brandon Lyon and Brian Wilson among them. Francisco Cordero might be a lightning-in-a-bottle candidate as could LaTroy Hawkins (though neither are long term solutions).
Instead of Justin Upton...
Finally, has anyone noticed that a 27 year old right handed outfielder who produces on average 16 HRs, 89 RBIs and a .284 average has not had a single mention in the media? Granted, Mr. Anger Management, Delmon Young, is far from a great "citizen", but that level of production and his age would suggest his price might be severely depressed from the $6.75 million he earned in Detroit last year. He needs a year of incident-free production to reestablish his value and perhaps could be gotten for around $5 million or less. Food for thought? In 2010 for Minnesota he hit 21 HRs, 112 RBIs and hit .298 for the Twins. Do the Mets have anyone in their OF who can even come close to these numbers? I'd certainly talk to the man with a contract with a big salary bump option for 2014. That contract would perhaps be enticing to Young while giving the Mets an easy out if they find he either doesn't produce or causes controversy. You could even structure something like $5 million for 2013, $7.5 for 2014 and $10 for 2015. If you guarantee him just the $5 million with a buyout of $1 million, your total exposure is $6 million and he can hit free agency again at just 28. If he DOES produce, then exercise his 2014 option and average his pay at a bargain rate of $6.25 per year for 2 years. Even if his 3rd year option kicked in, he would cost an average of about $7.5 million per year.
Take a look now at Justin Upton who would cost 4 prospects to land and an average of about $12.5 million guaranteed for the next three years. His 162 game average is 24 HRs, 80 RBIs and a .278 average. The bonuses he brings to the table are speed and defense, but you're looking at a huge delta in salary plus blue chip prospects. In his best season he clubbed 31 HRs, but still just 88 RBIs and .289. While the Mets definitely lack power, the name of the game is runs and the fact is that Young is a more prolific run producer than is Justin Upton.
Of course, the first choice for any Mets fan would be Giancarlo Stanton who is getting better each season. Last year at age 22 he hit 37 HRs, drove in 86 with pretty much no lineup protection and hit .290. If the Marlins are crazy enough to move him, you do sell the farm for his type of talent -- giving back Wheeler or Harvey, Syndergaard or Fulmer, and Flores as a starting point. You'd be getting a premier slugger pre-arbitration at age 23. That's a much better bet going forward than Upton, too.