June 8, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Mets center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis (9) and second baseman Jordany Valdespin (1) misplay a fly ball off of New York Yankees shortstop Jayson Nix (not pictured) during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. Yankees won 9-1. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

The Outfield Situation & Potential Targets for 2014

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The Outfield Saga-

The 2013 season hasn’t begun, but it appears that the Mets may head into it with Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Collin Cowgill, Mike Baxter, and Andrew Brown as their group of outfielders.  Instead of sinking into self loathing and despair, let’s quickly go over how the Mets got here before examining what’s likely to happen.

After observing the since concluded Justin Upton situation, there are a few reasons to believe that Sandy Alderson had more than one toe in the pool as far as a potential trade was concerned.  The Mets didn’t re-sign Scott Hairston due in large part to the fact that they wouldn’t guarantee him more than a part time role.  In addition, Alderson kept hinting in interviews that while he wouldn’t guarantee it, he expected an outfield addition before spring training.  Lastly, the Mets engaged the Diamondbacks several different times to discuss a potential deal for Upton.

However, according to MLB.Com’s Anthony DiComo, the Diamondbacks held firm and refused to deal Upton to the Mets for any package that didn’t include Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, or Travis d’Arnaud.  It’s likely that Alderson attempted to either build a deal around Jonathon Niese and/or a package of other prospects, but Arizona preferred to deal Upton for a player who’s a free agent after the year (Martin Prado) and four non-impact prospects.  In my opinion, Kevin Towers made a foolish mistake.  Earlier in the offseason, Alderson attempted to pry outfield prospect Wil Myers from the Royals for R.A. Dickey, but they too balked and eventually dealt Myers to Tampa Bay.

I understand that fans are growing frustrated, both with the pace of the Mets’ rebuilding process, and with Sandy Alderson’s often ill-timed one liners about the state of the outfield.  The jokes may rub some people the wrong way, but levity can be a good thing sometimes.  Here’s how I see it: Aside from Josh Hamilton, there were no can’t miss outfield bats out there this off-season (I’m not counting B.J. Upton and his .298 OBP).  With the Mets unlikely to contend in 2013, there really wasn’t a reason for them to sign a stopgap such as Ryan Ludwick.  So, Alderson attempted to make a high upside move (Justin Upton, Wil Myers) that would’ve improved the club both this year and for the long haul.  It didn’t happen.

What should the plan be from here?

Making predictions often results in the prediction maker looking foolish, but I’ll give it a whirl.  With the Mets likely set for the near term in both the infield and starting rotation, their main area of need going into 2014 will probably still be the outfield.  There’s a chance that Lucas Duda has a breakout offensive year in 2013.  Even if he does, he’ll still be a defensive liability while doing it.  Kirk Nieuwenhuis flashed a playable glove in center last year, but was over-matched at the plate as the season went on.  Collin Cowgill is an interesting pickup, but likely no more than a solid bench piece.  Like Cowgill, Andrew Brown and Mike Baxter are unlikely to develop into anything more than role players.  I’d love for all of them or even one of them to prove me wrong, but the odds are against that happening.

Aside from the five players above, Terry Collins discussed the possibility of trying Justin Turner and Zach Lutz in the outfield during spring training.  There’s also a chance they again give the toolsy but at times maddening Jordany Valdespin another chance out there.  Like Cowgill and Co., the chances of any of those three sticking in the outfield are slim.

The outfielders the Mets have in the minors aren’t highly thought of or close to contributing in the majors.  Like Nieuwenhuis, Matt den Dekker has an above average glove in center, but hasn’t even proven that he can hit in AAA.  Cory Vaughn has some above average tools, but is nowhere near ready.  Brandon Nimmo (the only one who may develop into an impact bat) is years away.  Everyone keeps begging for the Mets to move Wilmer Flores to the oufield, but he simply isn’t fast enough to be passable out there.

Presently, the Mets have only $33.5 million committed to player salaries for 2014.  There are six players who are arbitration eligible, and who will likely get raises if the Mets keep them.  Still, the team should have a significant amount of money to spend on free agents after 2013.  In the event that none of the Mets distinguish themselves in the outfield this year, the front office would likely dive head first into the free agent pool.

Now, some people think that the Mets are years away from contending, and that throwing money at free agent outfielders after 2013 won’t make them contenders.  I’m not one of those people.  Their starting rotation and infield are both solid to above average.  The bullpen is in a bit of disarray, but could be bolstered by a bunch of promising young arms including Josh Edgin, Jeurys Familia, and Jenrry Mejia.  The key to contention in 2014 and beyond is strengthening the outfield, and the pieces to reel in will be out there for the taking after this season.

Who should the targets be after 2013?

I went over a list of the outfielders who are likely to be free agents after 2013.  There are lots of interesting names, but only four that stood out to me as players the Mets should go after.  There are those who may want the Mets to go after Mike Morse, Martin Prado, and/or Curtis Granderson, but I would steer clear of all three of them.

Morse is a butcher defensively, has had only one impressive season to date, and will be 32 heading into 2014.  Prado is a great guy to have as a jack of all trades, but a team in the Mets’ position shouldn’t be interested in him as a full time outfield solution.  His defense out there isn’t elite, and he doesn’t have plus speed to make up for his lack of power.  Granderson is interesting, and his home/road splits aren’t too glaring, but they’re evident.  He’s a career .262 hitter who struck out 195 times last year, and he’ll be looking to cash in after the season at 33 years of age.  Whoever pays him will likely regret it.  I don’t want the Mets to be that team.

So, assuming the Mets don’t sign Michael Bourn in the next few weeks, who should they look into signing after the season ends?

Jacoby Ellsbury – He was hampered by injuries in 2010 and 2012, but from 2007 to 2009 and in 2011, Ellsbury showed everyone just how dynamic he can be.  For his career, Ellsbury’s 162 game average has resulted in a .297 batting average, 107 runs scored, 193 hits, 17 home runs, 35 doubles, 53 stolen bases, and 73 RBI’s.  The Mets should selfishly hope for Ellsbury to show that his injuries are behind him in 2013, while at the same time not having an explosive offensive season.  If he has a tremendous year, his agent Scott Boras will demand an absurd amount of money on behalf of his client.  Ellsbury will be 30 heading into 2014, but as a player who’d hit leadoff and slot into center field, he should be at the top of the Mets’ list.

Carlos Gomez- In the event that Ellsbury has injury woes again in 2013, or commands a contract that’s outlandish, Gomez (28 years old heading into 2014 and another Boras client) would be a solid fallback option.  One of the players the Mets dealt to Minnesota in the Johan Santana trade, Gomez has established himself as an elite defensive center fielder.  It’s taken a while for Gomez’ offense to catch up to his defense, but he made huge strides in 2012.  For his career, he’s still only a .247 hitter with a .294 OBP, but he flashed above average power last year (cracking 19 home runs) while upping his average to .260.  Another Boras client, the Mets should be open to bringing Gomez back and sticking him in center field if Ellsbury isn’t brought in.

Shin-Soo Choo- Choo will be 31 going into 2014.  Yet another Boras client, Choo has flown a bit under the radar in Cleveland.  Since 2008, though, he’s been extremely impressive.  He hits for average, gets on base at a great clip (career .381 OBP), and has averaged 38 doubles and 90 runs per year over the course of his career.  He strikes out a lot (147 times on average), and doesn’t stand out in right field as much as Ellsbury and Gomez do in center.  Still, Choo should be another player the Mets look into after 2013.

Carlos Beltran- Yes, Carlos Beltran.  The player who many fans blame for the Mets not making the World Series in 2006.  The guy who won Game 1 of the NLCS by himself, but had the gall to be unable to hit an un-hittable curveball in the 9th inning of Game 7.  The best all around outfielder the Mets ever had.  Beltran will be 37 heading into 2014, but is still very productive.  He’s no longer elite defensively, but his offensive game is still there.  He hit .269 with 32 home runs and 97 RBI’s for St Louis last year, and should be available for a reasonable one or two year deal after this season.  If his 2013 resembles his 2012, the Mets should ponder bringing him back as a second piece that complements the addition of either Ellsbury, Gomez, or Choo.

…Now, perhaps Lucas Duda develops into such a monster at the plate that his defensive shortcomings turn into a blip on the radar screen.  Maybe Kirk Niuewenhuis and Collin Cowgill will turn into Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson.  Perhaps Andrew Brown emerges, or Jordany Valdespin puts it all together.

If any or all of the above things happen, I’ll be pleasantly surprised and the Mets may not have to turn to free agency to address their outfield situation.  That’d be nice, but don’t expect it to happen.  In the likeliest scenario, the Mets will have both the need for external help in the outfield and the money available to bring those players in.  This off-season wasn’t the time to be bold.  Next off-season should be a different story.

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