Are the Mets Squandering a Billion Dollar Opportunity?

The New York Mets are coming off of a very pleasantly surprising season in 2015, making a thrilling run to the World Series after not previously making the playoffs since 2006. They also have plenty of cause for optimism in the future, with a young and still improving pitching rotation that could already be considered the best in baseball. However, some of the moves (and non-moves) they’ve made this offseason have the fanbase scratching their heads and even calling for the owners to sell the team. Why?

It’s no secret that much of the Mets faithful wants slugger Yoenis Cespedes back in blue and orange for the long term. In his short stint with the team this past season, his offense (and surprisingly, defense) were invaluable in turning a .500 club to one that swept the NLCS on its way to the National League pennant. Cespedes had a career year with both the bat and glove, hitting .291 with a whopping 35 home runs on his way to contributing 6.1 wins above a replacement player per Fangraphs, by which measure he was the 7th-best player in all of MLB. His excellent range and near-ridiculous arm in the outfield made him a plus defender as well, and he surprised many with his ability to seamlessly fit in as a near-full-time center fielder after playing left previously. Having just turned 30 in October, Cespedes will be looking for a long-term deal that reportedly could be in the 5-7 year range. It’s no secret the Mets don’t think such a deal would be prudent (even with the money saved by Michael Cuddyer’s surprise retirement), and they’re probably right to a certain extent, as Cespedes is likely to never repeat the success of 2015, and a player that relies on athleticism like he does will see his skills steadily decline over the years to where he could become a liability on the contract books as soon as 3 or 4 years into his deal. But is that the price worth paying?

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Yoenis Cespedes (left) and young pitchers like Noah Syndergaard were both huge contributing factors to the Mets’ 2015 run, but one of these two may not be back next season.

The Mets currently have five young stud pitchers under rookie contracts. Between Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, the Mets are paying roughly $8 million next season for a rotation some scouts value at – literally – a billion dollars. Taking their ages and abilities into account, one NL head of baseball operations said that all but the recovering Wheeler would be more attractive on this free agent market than most, if not all, other available pitchers, in a market where David Price just made $217 million at age 30. Joel Sherman of the New York Post projects that Harvey (26 years old), deGrom (27), and Syndergaard (23) would all command deals in the $250 million range, while Matz (24) and Wheeler (25) would see $100 and $150 million respectively. A rotation of this youth and ability is unprecedented, probably in MLB history. The quartet of Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, and Matz provided 14.3 WAR in just 89 of the Mets’ 162 games last season, as neither Syndergaard nor Matz spent the whole season in the majors, and Harvey and deGrom skipped starts whether for rest or controversial innings limits. Per Steamer projections, with Wheeler coming back in time for 11 starts, the rotation has a projected value of about 16.4 WAR in 2016, which, if it pans out exactly, would give the Mets a near-ridiculous value of under $500k per win. By comparison, their new acquisition Alejandro de Aza is making just under $6 million next season as a projected 0.2 WAR player (effectively no better than a replacement player called up from the minors; in the case of the Mets, prospect Brandon Nimmo or recently-waived Kirk Nieuwenhuis, both lefties like de Aza, could fit the bill for far less money).

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Many Mets fans have taken issue with the latest signing of Alejandro de Aza, and their complaints haven’t been completely unfounded.

This is a big part of why the Mets fanbase is frustrated despite just coming off a hugely exciting World Series run. An ownership still clearly strapped for cash after their Bernie Madoff disaster is unwilling to shell out money for the likes of Cespedes, but will allot $6 million of payroll to a player like de Aza and just under $10 million a year to Asdrubal Cabrera, who is also a confusing fit any way you tilt your head. According to CBS insider Jon Heyman, de Aza is the Mets’ plan to platoon in center field with Juan Lagares, and being a lefty, de Aza figures to be the long end of the platoon unless Lagares gets a share of the starts against righties. This would most likely be a disaster – de Aza only started one game in center field all of last season, and was a below-average fielder in left by both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs defensive metrics. What happens when you start a below average left fielder in center field for a large chunk of games, especially when that player isn’t by any vantage point an offensive difference maker? From an opportunity cost perspective, it all looks even worse when considering that could be Yoenis Cespedes instead. Even Denard Span would be a great second option if the Mets were unwilling to pay Cespedes – Steamer projects Span to be over 2 wins more valuable than de Aza next season, by account of his above average defense and .300 average/20 stolen bases potential. He also fits the Mets’ perceived plan of a left-handed center fielder to share time with Lagares, and wouldn’t command the kind of long deal that Cespedes is seeking.

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Denard Span has been on the Mets’ radar this offseason, and looks like a great fit on paper, but now seems unlikely to be wearing orange and blue in 2016.

The Cabrera signing is also a head scratcher. Strapped-for-cash “big market” New York is paying him $18.5 million over 2 years, with a third year team option, to presumably start at shortstop. Last season, the majority of the starts went to 24-year-old Wilmer Flores, who might be most famous for crying, but had a more than solid season with 16 home runs and a .263 average from the shortstop position. Flores has the reputation around the league as a terrible defensive player, but the numbers reject that notion – Fangraphs pegs him as an above-average defensive shortstop in each of his three career seasons. Steamer sees the still young and improving Flores as a 1.3 WAR player next season in just 350 plate appearances (85 games), while the 30 year old and declining (yet already a defensive liability) Cabrera figures to provide only 1 win in 530 appearances. Ruben Tejada, another capable shortstop, is also still on the roster, with the Mets’ best middle infield prospect, Dilson Herrera, by all indications ready to contribute at the major league level. The Cabrera signing will not only hinder the future progressions of Herrera and Flores, but provide little value to the Mets on the field this year (let alone the following years on his deal), as Flores by many indicators was already the better player last season. One explanation for the signing is depth, as third baseman David Wright is a wild card with his pressing injuries, but Cabrera has never started a game at third base in his entire career, while Flores hasn’t started there since 25 games his rookie year.

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Wilmer Flores became a Mets hero last season, but management is relegating him to a backup role with Asdrubal Cabrera joining a crowded Mets middle infield.

Of course, with the kind of insane value the Mets are getting from their starting rotation, many of these concerns look a little nitpicky, and they’re probably still the favorites in the NL East. Their pitching depth (and the return of cult hero Bartolo Colon) allowed them to trade solid but expendable Jon Niese for a year of Neil Walker, who is most likely an upgrade over playoff darling Daniel Murphy on both sides of the ball – the last time the Mets had a 3-WAR second baseman, it was 2006 and Jose Valentin was manning the position. Additionally, a lot of things broke wrong for the Mets last season that could be better this time around. Injuries to David Wright and emerging star catcher Travis d’Arnaud plagued the team for much of the season. Michael Conforto wasn’t up in the majors for the full year, but was excellent in his short time, and at just 22, figures to be a much bigger part of the offense last season. The returns and callups of these players, along with Steven Matz, were as big a part of the team’s huge resurgence midseason as was the acquisition of Cespedes. However, in order for New York to compete at a level near what they did last season, the pressure is on these oft-injured and young players to consistently contribute at a high level. 34-year old Curtis Granderson had a career renaissance last season in the leadoff spot, but figures to regress at least slightly, while the downgrade in center field continues to stick out like a sore thumb. The best case scenario there would probably be a bounceback year from Juan Lagares, whose sudden inability to touch right-handed pitching and throwing issues made him a 1 WAR player last year after providing 3 and 4 WAR respectively the previous two seasons. If the 26-year-old former Gold Glover can prove last season an outlier, it would be a solid chaser for the bitter taste of the absence of Cespedes.

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One reason for Mets optimism is the health and development of Travis d’Arnaud (left) and Michael Conforto.

When it comes down to it, the reality for the Mets is, though their starters are all young and improving, their best chance to compete is now, while those arms are all not only under contract, but under contract for chump change. Even young position players like Michael Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud figure to be in store for big time raises in due time. In the few years before all of this talent can either leave for free agency or take up a huge chunk of payroll, New York should be devoting resources to complementary players. It’s a harsh but true realization that with Wright and Granderson aging and no way to keep all of these high-potential youngsters long-term, the Mets have a window of a few years to have a real shot at their first championship since 1986, which slipped just out of their grasp last year after a promising run to the pennant. They have shown thus far this offseason (though granted, the offseason is not over) that they are unwilling to spend big to make that happen – though a Cespedes contract would assuredly look ugly in a few years, it could be well worth it if he puts this team over the hump and brings a ring to Queens in the span before then. Even if New York wanted to stay low-cost and low-risk with their investments, they could clearly make more optimal allocations of their money toward good fits like Denard Span and away from de Aza and Cabrera, who look like square puzzle pieces being jammed into triangle spaces.

The Mets’ biggest struggles against the Royals in this past World Series were in late innings on defense and in the bullpen. Defensively, they’ve probably gotten worse on aggregate, with Granderson and Wright a year older, and de Aza replacing Cespedes in center field (unless Juan Lagares can turn things around), with the lone upgrade being Walker at second base.  In the ‘pen, lefty specialist Jerry Blevins is back, but they’ve yet to re-sign free agent setup men Addison Reed or Tyler Clippard (likely because they’re again unwilling to offer multi-year deals), and there is already a lot of pressure on Jeurys Familia to repeat his otherworldly 2015, where he posted a 1.85 ERA that was probably slightly deflated considering his 2.74 FIP. It’s hard to see how the Mets have addressed either of these concerns.

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This poor throw home by Lucas Duda was one of many defensive gaffes that contributed to the Mets’ defeat in the Fall Classic.

Perhaps because of conditioning from the Mets’ history, their fans have a tendency to always see the negatives in bold next to many very encouraging positives. If certain pieces stay healthy while young pieces continue to improve, they should very well be in great position to make another deep playoff run, and Sandy Alderson can always make a midseason trade to address any concerns that come to fruition with the roster, as he did last season with Cespedes. But while their newfound rivals in Chicago have made every effort to go for it all this offseason with big fish like Jason Heyward, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist, it’s easy to look at the Mets’ combination of unwillingness to spend big and inability to allocate what they do spend to the right spots with a bit of disappointment.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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