Addressing 2010

mets-primary-copyYesterday, Jayson Stark wrote an absolute must-read about the Mets at ESPN.com.  Stark spoke with people around the game from scouts to executives who dish on the various and familiar problems for Mets fans.

Stark, given the shallow pool of free agent talent and the assumption that the Mets spending will be limited this coming off-season reasonably suggests that the Mets must improve via trade.

And Stark suggests not trading for talented players but “gritty” players:

Here’s where this gets complicated. This is a team that doesn’t just need to make a trade to patch a hole or two. It’s a team many baseball people think needs a massive chemistry transplant.

Let me be perfectly clear: this is wrong. The Mets lost in 2009 because they didn’t have enough talent to make up for their injured stars.  The Mets lost in 2008 because their bullpen would have been one of the worst in history for a playoff team.  Remember, Luis Ayala attempted to close games.  These are talent problems, not chemistry problems.  Would bringing in talented, gritty players help?  Absolutely.  Would bringing in gritty players help?  Not unless they’re really talented.

Stark also bounces the idea of trading one of the Mets core of Beltran, Wright, Reyes or Santana this off-season, concluding that Reyes or Beltran are the only viable options.  Imagining a scenario where the Mets can get a blockbuster package back for either player, with their value at its lowest point in years, is nearly impossible. This is simply not the time to sell on Reyes or Beltran.

At SNY.tv, Ted Berg, who I almost always agree with also tackles the Mets 2010 planning.  He argues that the Mets recent trades of youngsters (See: Santana, Putz) has left the team short on major league caliber players which forces the team into overspending to bring in role players like Alex Cora for $2.5 million.  There’s a minor fallacy here, I think in that, even after trading youngsters away, the Mets didn’t have to spend $2.5 million on Alex Cora; $1 million or so would have netted an equivalent substitute.

So, Ted argues, for the coming year, the Mets

“… should save their money, hold onto their prospects and spend 2010 figuring out which holes cannot be filled from within.”

This position strikes me as incomplete, although not Jayson Stark level irrational (trade Reyes or Beltran when neither has value). As I understand this argument, it goes: hope and more hope.  Given the Mets elite core, new stadium and narrowing window, standing pat should be unacceptable.  It means:

1. offering arbitration to Jeff Francoeur and hoping that he hits more like his .301/.323/.503 line for the Mets in 158 AB rather than his career .269/.309/.429 hitter over the first MLB 2,636 AB.  What rationale is there to believe that this is reasonable?  Francoeur’s walk rate as a Met has declined to a career worst 2.7%, while his BABIP as a Met is .327, his best since 2007.

2. handing the LF job to Fernando Martinez and hoping the 21-year-old 1. stays healthy for the first time in his career and becomes an adequate corner OF immediately.  Remember, Martinez’s high in games played was 90 in 2008 and that includes four rehab appearances in the GCL.  He played in 74 games in 2009, culminating in a .176/.242/.275 line in 91 AB at the MLB level.

3. hoping Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans or Chris Carter, if in fact he is the PTBNL in the Billy Wagner trade form some sort of acceptable firstbase platoon.

4. hoping that Josh Thole and Omir Santos form an acceptable catching tandem.  Of the first four hopes, this actually seems the most likely to happen.

5. hoping that John Maine, Oliver Perez and Jonathan Niese are healthy and effective enough to complement Johan Santana, and that Santana himself approximates the Santana of 2008.

6. hoping that Mike Pelfrey makes the improvements he hasn’t yet to be more than a back-end starter.

That’s a lot of hope for this author’s taste.

However, hope would be better than wildly overpaying for the services of Benji Molina or Jerrod Washburn to pick two potential 2010 free agents who will likely be paid much, much more than their worth.

The Money and the Window

If healthy, the Mets really still do have a championship-caliber core, and will through 2011.  To take advantage of that window, the Mets must do everything in their power, beyond wishing upon a little star, to create a World Series caliber team in 2010 and 2011.  Following the 2011 season, three members of the core, and five players- Beltran, Reyes, K-Rod, Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo and K-Rod will be free agents.  Assuming the Mets pick up Reyes’ 2011 option at $11 million dollars, those five will take up $60.488 million dollars in 2011.

According to the wonderful Cots, the Mets already have $90+ million dollars committed for 2010 with John Maine, Jeff Francoeur and Pedro Feliciano scheduled for arbitration.    If the Mets offer all three arbitration, the Mets’ payroll will likely sit north of $96 million to pay for a roster that has fallen short three years in a row, twice by the slimmest of margins, and one by a yawning chasm of injury-induced irrelevance.  The question is how best, given whatever budget ownership sets, to add the pieces that will make the Mets not just competitive, but championship caliber good in 2010 and 2011.

In part, a big part will be have to be a return to superstar level production by the Mets stars.

The second part cannot be answered alone by a series of hopes of varying degrees of far-fetchedness.


Is Free Agency the Answer?

Partly, but it’s a terrible class.

John Lackey says he wants AJ Burnett-type money (5 yrs/$82).  If he was pitching like 2005-2007 when he put up WARs of 5.9, 6.0 and 5.6, that would be worth it.  In 2009, John Lackey’s 2.9 WAR is equivalent to Randy Wolf’s.  He’s missed pieces of ’08 and ’09 with arm problems, this year with elbow troubles.  So, that would be $80 million for the age 31-35 seasons of a guy who has declined from his elite peak into a very good pitcher?  No thanks.  Such a contract would make the Mets better in 2010, and 2011 mind you, but the odds are that it would be an albatross at the back end.

With question marks at all three of the primary power positions, LF, RF, and 1B, the Mets would be well served to add a premium bat and there are two available:  Jason Bay’s .395 wOBA is fifth among MLB OF, while Matt Holliday’s .391 is sixth.  Bay, who will be 31 on Opening Day 2010, and Holliday who will be 30, will both want longterm deals at big money.  Both would be better five-year commitments than Lackey.  If the Mets are serious about playing playoff baseball in 2010, they must upgrade their production from the corners not manned by David Wright.    Holliday or Bay would meet this requirement.

Would Carlos Delgado come back on a short, incentive laden contract to play 1B?  Maybe.  Would he be productive after missing almost all of 2009?  Maybe.

The Minors

Lets take a look at a few of the guys close to the big leagues.

Pitching

Neither Brad Holt nor Jenrry Mejia have conquered AA in the manner that would make one think they could help early in 2010.  Although scouts have had good things to say about Mejia recently, the Mets just cannot count on either for 2010 in the majors.

LHP Adam Bostick has quietly been terrific out of the Buffalo bullpen (2.61 ERA, 41 K and 17 BB in 38 IP) and murder on lefties (.222/.300/.278 with just two XBH allowed in 36 AB).  It’s small beans, but the Mets should not need to sign a free agent or make a trade for another LOOGY this offseason, when a perfectly competent one is under team control.

Ike Davis has had a great 2009, clubbing an organizational best 20 HR between advanced-A and AA as part of a .298/.381/.524 year.  He should start 2010 in AAA, but his near-readyness should be a deterrent to spending too heavily or investing in a long-term contract at 1B.

OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ late-season surge which has taken him to AA, is not enough to place him in the MLB plans for 2010.

SS/2B Ruben Tejada is blocked by Jose Reyes and Luis Castillo and doesn’t offer the pop the Mets so desperately need.  Should either need to miss significant time in the coming years however, he might prove a capable stop-gap.

The Answer

Stark is right, to a degree: there’s no easy answer.  However, the fact that there are no easy answers doesn’t mean there are no answers. Free agency cannot be a complete answer, and the contracts signed there could be long-term burdens, just as the current Mets contracts are now.  Trades will be difficult. Standing pat is one answer but it carries its own significant risks with a questionable reward.

Given that this will be the current regime’s last without a playoff berth in 2010, a quiet off-season in Flushing seems highly unlikely.