Making Sense of the Recent Big League Roster Churn

arrows2So, the Eric Young Era has begun in Queens. It’s almost as momentous as the Zack Wheeler era. Ok, of course that is untrue, but actually, it might matter too.

I made the chart below in part to make sure I understood what was going on the backend of the Mets’ roster in the last few days.

DateInOut40-Man Implications?
16-JunCollin McHughYes.
16-JunCarlos TorresGreg BurkeYes. Torres subs for McHugh spot
18-JunScott AtchisonJustin TurnerNo. Turner to 15-Day DL (L intercostal Strain)
18-JunZack WheelerAwesome
19-JunZack WheelerHe will be back.
19-JunCollin CowgillYes. Designated
19-JunAndrew BrownScott AtchisonNo. Brown on 40-man. Atchison to the DL (sore right groin)
19-JunEric YoungCollin McHughYes. Young subs for Cowgill

Again, to summarize, Carlos Torres replaced Greg Burke, who was optioned to Las Vegas, and remains in the organization. The cost to this move, was that the Mets had to clear space on the 40-man roster by designating Collin McHugh for assignment. It was easy to be negative about designating McHugh but turning him into Eric Young, as the team did three days later is a net win.

Scott Atchison came and went, injuring himself without throwing a pitch, poor guy. Originally, Atchison replaced Justin Turner on the roster, but Atchison was eventually replaced by Andrew Brown.

To add Eric Young to the roster, the Mets cleared space by designating Collin Cowgill for assignment. I like the Eric Young acquisition, even for the price of McHugh and Cowgill, a whole lot more than I expected.

In 2013, MLB centerfielders have average a .258/.321/.405 batting line. The Mets have hit .193/.234/.328 (!) placing #30 among the 30 MLB franchises in OPS at .563. This is not about the leadoff spot. This is about a position performing and failing. The Mets tried one stopgap in Rick Ankiel, and that was a waste.

Young, who turned 28 at the end of May, and was designated by the Rockies, is fast and most importantly, was a useful hitter as far back as a season ago, achieving a level of production in center field that exceeded the contributions of every other member of the 2013 Mets. In 2012, Young hit a career-best .316/.377/.448 on his way to a 1.7 WAR in 98 games. Of course, that line was supported by an unsustainable .367 batting average on balls in play. As a speedy guy, Young should have a higher than average BABIP, but not that well.

Fast-forward to 2013, and Young got himself designated for assignment by hitting .243/.289/.349. His performance indicates a little decline from last year as his walk rate has slipped a touch from 6.6% to 6.0%, his strikeout rate has inched up from 15.8% to 18.% and his isolated slugging has slipped from .132 to .107 this year year. But the key component is that his BABIP dropped from .367 all the way to .299. His line drive percentage is essentially unchanged at 19%, but his groundball percentage is up 5%, taking a similar bite out of his flyball rate. Basically, Young is a few flyballs, and thus a few flyballs dropping in for hits away from last year’s viable production.

Was 2012 a one-year aberation for Young? Well, yeah. He hit .247/.342/.298 in 229 PA in the big leagues in 2011. Still, 2012, when Young was an average enough MLB centerfielder (115 wRC+), happened. Adding Young at the cost of McHugh is a fine risk.

I was initially disappointed when the Mets’ designated McHugh. He is an easy guy to root for: he’s as nice a guy as you will meet in baseball, he writes well, and his tweets are funny. Here’s the problem: he has not been a good big league pitcher. Over 28.1 innings, an admittedly small sample, he’s allowed 39 hits, seven (!) homeruns and 29 runs overall, 26 earned on the way to a 8.26 ERA. His combined performance in AAA (mixing Buffalo and Las Vegas) is significantly better: 3.19 ERA, 3.4 K/BB ratio is much better. McHugh averages 90.8 mph on his fastball. He mixes in a 89 mph two-seamer, a cutter at 85 mph, a slider at 83 mph and a curve at 75 mph (all averages). That arsenal, thus far, has been enough to keep AAA hitters off-balance, but not big leaguers. He just cannot make a mistake anywhere near the middle of the plate with his pure stuff. Big leaguers even hit some of his reasonably well-located pitches hard.

In the abstract, if the Mets purely needed to create a 40-man roster spot, dropping McHugh and keeping both Hansel Robles and Gonzelez Germen seemed like the team was keeping two inferior players. Even swapping out the 25-year old Burke from the active roster and McHugh from the 40-man roster for the 30-year-old Torres, who own a career 5.71 MLB ERA in 99.1 innings did not seem like an obvious improvement. After all, Torres has walked 53 (11.9%) of his 447 MLB batters. A few nice starts in AAA Vegas aside, he hardly looks like an important piece of a winning bullpen. Greg Burke has pitched better at the big league level more recently. I would suggest that eventually, he will replace Torres at the back end of the bullpen.

However, if the choice is between holding McHugh on the team’s 40-man roster and turning him into a guy who was a staring caliber outfielder for one year, and can help the Mets address their black hole in centerfield, that sure seems like a win. Even if Young, who has performed more like a fourth/fifth outfielder performance over a his entire big league tenure becomes that, well, that too addresses a Mets’ weakness for relatively little cost.

The other roster casualty was Collin Cowgill and his .180/.206/.311 performance in 63 plate appearances. Overall, in 279 MLB plate appearances, Cowgill, who just turned 27, has hit .237/.294/.311 for a 67 wRC+. That’s not really a major league hitter.

 

So again, in terms of 40-man allocation the Mets went from McHugh/Cowgill to Torres/Young. That looks like a small marginal improvement. Of course, it might be no improvement at all or so small as to be imperceptible, but it is worth a shot.

All of this is starting to look like the Mets are entering a phase of their rebuilding where they are not just jettisoning the useless, but looking to acquire players who can help on the cheap. Most of the time it has not worked (Ankiel, Cowgill), but the churn, and the team’s willingness to walk away from mistakes, gives them chances to find something useful.