Finally, the hot stove season is here! While not ablaze just yet, the gas has been turned on and the water’s heating up. As New York Mets fans, we’re plenty excited to see what Sandy Alderson is going to do with the new-found cash. Of course, given the Mets’ past financial issues, there’s always the worry that the payroll will fail to rise, or even fall below 2013’s $90 Million (give or take).
On one hand, it’s a fair point. The 2010 payroll had been upward of $140 Million, and a team still developing young talent needs to spend to bring in free agents to complement the talent on hand. On the other hand, payroll isn’t necessarily correlated to winning. Look at Oakland and Tampa Bay for example, who are regular contenders despite the strictest of payrolls. Worth noting, of course, are their excellent farm systems, something the Mets haven’t quite established just yet (Alderson has done an excellent job developing).
In any case, the point I’m making here is that, while it’d be nice, the Mets don’t *need* to rapidly expand payroll in order to build a contending team. The goal for the front office shouldn’t necessarily be to spend on the biggest names, but improve on their biggest weaknesses. In some cases, they both line up (Stephen Drew, Shin-Soo Choo). But in some cases, they don’t. For every Shaun Marcum or Brandon Lyon the Mets have signed, they’ve found themselves a Marlon Byrd or LaTroy Hawkins.
I’m not suggesting they continue bargain-basement shopping (of course, I’ll never suggest they stop doing so). But trying to maximize the bang for the Wilpons’ buck is a reasonable goal, and one that could greatly improve the Mets.
Without dragging this on, here’s a list of easy steps they can take:
1. Sign where they’re weakest
I’ve written about the optimism for Ruben Tejada‘s rebound next season, but shortstop represents one of the best chances for improvement. Both Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta could significantly improve what the Mets got offensively at the position. Drew in particular, who is a very good defender, could be a great fit for the Mets. As a left-handed hitter, he has excelled against right handed pitching (.263/.348/.431 over the past three seasons). His numbers against lefties aren’t nearly as good, but that’s where Ruben Tejada comes in. Tejada has hit .296/.366/.371 against lefties, so their combined numbers (which will vary depending on the ratio of at bats) resemble a line of .273/.353/.414, which is a great step above the .215/.285/.276 posted in 2013.
2. Don’t commit significant money to pitching
The starting rotation is often the most important piece of a team. And without Matt Harvey for 2014, there’s a need for a quality innings-eater to anchor a young rotation. However, with multiple high-impact arms expected to come up next year, allocating a multiple year contract and/or significant funds could do less to help the team than otherwise. While Bronson Arroyo would be a good addition to the rotation, he could tie up resources that could be better allocated elsewhere.
We’ve seen this in the past with Shaun Marcum (not to mention Oliver Perez), as well as in the bullpen where Frank Francisco and Brandon Lyon earned a combined $10.5M to produce a net -0.1 fWAR. Given the Mets’ stock of young relievers and upcoming impact rotation arms, monies allocated to pitching may be better used on low-risk, high-reward signings.
3. Don’t spend on First Base
As many Mets fans will attest, the inconsistencies of Ike Davis the past two seasons have left first base anything but settled. It showed in 2013, when Davis hit a meager .161/.242/.258 before being demoted in early June. Neither Josh Satin or Lucas Duda did much to place confidence in Mets brass in his stead. Ike came back and was much better before injuring his oblique on August 31st. While he wasn’t hitting many home runs after his return, he was getting on base at an excellent clip and showing great plate discipline.
The top free agent first basemen are likely Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart (I’d include Mike Napoli on this list, but it seems unlikely he leaves Boston). Hart, while a very good hitter, missed all of 2013 with consecutive knee injuries and will be 32 by opening day next year, and Morales’ cost may be too high for what may not be dramatic improvement.
More importantly, though, is this: while Ike’s gotten off to a slow start each of the past two seasons, he has hit a very solid .252/.362/.503 since June 1st each of the past two seasons (in a total of 605 plate appearances). Were that a single season, it would be the 9th best performance by a first baseman (by wOBA) over the past two seasons, narrowly edging Paul Konerko‘s 2012 season.
Beyond that, the presence of players like Josh Satin and Andrew Brown offers protection against tough lefties, which would help to increase productivity.
4. Target rebound players
Sometimes good players have bad years, and the reason jumps right out at you. Jeff Francoeur in 2009/10 provides a decent example of this – in ’09 his line drive rate with the Mets was above 23% and he was striking out in just under 15% of his plate appearances. In 2010, the line drive rate plummeted to a terrible 13.5% and the strikeouts notched up.
Sometimes good players have bad years, and there really isn’t a good explanation. Below is a breakdown of a player who had a particularly down 2013:
As you can see, the changes between 2012 and 2013 don’t seem dramatic. His batted ball profile stayed relatively similar (and both seasons were better than in 2011), but his BABIP took a dramatic tumble in 2013. Between track record and sheer luck, it stands to reason that this player should bounce back next year, barring injury. 2013 should have been much more similar to 2010; though he walked and struck out a bit less, he made nearly identical contact with the ball and suffered unreasonable luck.
The player? Texas Rangers’ outfielder David Murphy, who is now a free agent. He turned 32 last month, but probably won’t get much of a raise above his $5.8M salary in 2013. On a two or three year contract, Murphy could be a solid outfield piece for the Mets. While he won’t be a star, he could be a reasonably safe bet to outpace 2012’s .243/.327/.374 in left field.
5. Find mid-level trades
When “Mets” and “Trades” appear in the same sentence, it often speaks of lofty goals – Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, among others. Such blockbuster trades are uncommon. For starters, the Mets don’t have the top shelf talent to spare; such trades would include some combination of Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Rafael Montero, and/or Travis d’Arnaud. Though Syndergaard and Montero have yet to reach the majors, all four are expected to play significant parts in the Mets’ future. Trades that could avoid moving them would be ideal.
Sandy Alderson has proven himself the master of trades – swapping Carlos Beltran for Wheeler, R.A. Dickey for d’Arnaud and Syndergaard, non-prospect Jefry Marte for Collin Cowgill (and then Cowgill for potential prospect Kyle Johnson), and six weeks of Marlon Byrd and John Buck for promising reliever Vic Black and a potential impact second base prospect in Dilson Herrera. Alderson is expected to be active in trades, and will likely be able to make the team better.
The pieces that may be had for less than a boon include Rockies OF Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer is unlikely to repeat a 2013 that saw him make the All-Star Game, but he hit a solid .274/.337/.469 over 2009-2013. That could make him a solid bat for the Mets in 2014. Tampa Bay’s Matt Joyce could be another solid addition. Though he hasn’t been mentioned in rumors this year, he fits the profile of someone who the Rays would want to move. He’ll be 29 next season, is coming off somewhat of a down year, and will be entering his second season of arbitration. As his cost begins to rise, the Rays will likely want to replace him with someone less expensive. Further, with Wil Myers and Desmond Jennings expected to play every day next year, the Rays can also fit either Kelly Johnson or Ben Zobrist in left to round out their outfield.
Making these, or any trades, will of course cost the Mets their own talent (I mean, Clayton Kershaw for Jordany Valdespin would be highway robbery for the Dodgers – how many walk off home runs has Clayton hit?). The Mets have a glut of first basemen (Lucas Duda, Davis, Satin) and plenty of young pitching prospects that could be attractive to teams, but it’s unlikely the Mets will be able to acquire major league talent without surrendering major league talent.
There’s no guarantee that any move will make the Mets better. The marquee signing of this offseason could be the next Jason Bay, and a non-roster invite could end up being the next R.A. Dickey. What we have an idea of is this: the New York Mets are in a position, for the first time in a few years, to be assertive in the market this winter, and already have some pieces they can hope to build around. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring (probably not much, for what it’s worth), but we know that as of tomorrow, anything is possible.
And, as always, ya gotta believe!