With the news that seemingly every non-R.A. Dickey, non-David Wright Met is available for the right price, the twittersphere has been aflame with speculation on who might be shipping out of town. Irate fan Journalist Adam Rubin seems to disagree with this tactic, but given the general averageness of the farm system, and the current lack of elite young talent on the major league roster, it's not completely unreasonable to at least listen to offers on the pre-arb talent that is likely to produce surplus value in the next few years. The better question is, what should the Mets be looking for in terms of a return? Since the rumors seem to be primarily swirling around Ike Davis and Jon Niese, I will tackle those two first.
We all like Ike, but I can kind of see an argument for moving him. The Mets have an in-house replacement with a similar skill set (Lucas Duda), who can probably produce about 80% of Davis' value. Duda is miscast as a RF, where he will see his defense eat into his overall value (a -43.2 UZR/150 in RF probably overstates how bad he is there, but he could be -20 for a full season). He's a better bet to hit .280 than Davis, and though he's a tick below in patience, power, and glove, it's just a tick. If you asked me who would be more valuable next year as a first baseman, I'd say 65/35 Davis. Over the long term, I think Davis will be better, but he also has more trade value. How much?
I plugged a rough projection for Davis' 2012 into FanGraphs player projector (example here using Wikipedia legend Sam Fuld.) It's not super scientific and I don't like having to project batting average, but it gives us something to work with. I regressed Davis' 2011 line a bit, to adjust for what might have been just a hot start, but gave him some gains over his 2010 performance and came out with a .269/.363/.477 line. Conservative, perhaps, but I think reasonable. With above average defense, that is a 3.5 win player in just under 600 PAs (coming off an injury, I am going to be conservative with playing time as well). I think that gives us a reasonable baseline.
According to Cot's Contracts, Davis will be a super two after the 2012 season, so the Mets will be trading away five years of team control, four of which will be arbitration years. If we assume a 3.5 average fWAR through his early peak years, that is 17.5 wins the Mets will be trading away. It's tough to say how that will play in arbitration, but I don't expect Davis to have huge HR or RBI totals, but even a string of 25 and 90 seasons would get him something like 3/5/10/12 in arbitration. Tack on a half million for the 2012 season and we can estimate Davis will be paid 30.5 million before reaching free agency. Using FanGraphs' linear dollars per win model, we can project Ike Davis to be worth 96.7 million dollars over those seasons, a surplus value of 66.2 million.
So what does that get you? Well, a lot, which is why I think it will be unlikely Davis gets traded. Using Victor Wang's research, that would be worth roughly one top 10 hitting prospect and two top 10 pitching prospects. Even if you ding him some for the uncertainty factor coming off the ankle injury, you are still looking at a mammoth haul. Cost-controlled players are just incredibly valuable, even one like Davis who I am projecting at above-average, but not All Star levels.
But that's no fun, right? So who would I ask for? The Mets allegedly asked the Pirates for Starling Marte and Brad Lincoln, which actually seems light to me. Lincoln is a ready-now back of the rotation starter, but he's merely solid. Marte projects as an above average defensive center fielder with a plus bat and a burgeoning speed/power combination, but he doesn't walk. He's an excellent prospect, but not quite an elite one. It also seems odd that those are the two players the Mets asked for, since the Pirates have a pair of intriguing power arms and a very good catching prospect in their farm system. Put whatever stock in the rumor you want, but personally I wouldn't move him for less than Jameson Taillon and Marte. Though I have a feeling if the Mets really only asked for Lincoln/Marte, this deal would be done. John Perotto covered the Pirates for years, so I am sure he has a ton of reliable sources, but this one just smells fishy.
This one is a little more complicated, but fortunately I've been given a bit of a road map today. Here are two career lines to peruse.
Pitcher 1: Age (2012): 24, 583 IP, 5.48 K/9, 3.35 BB/9, 1.00 HR/9, 3.91 ERA, 4.51 FIP, 4.23 xFIP
Pitcher 2: Age (2012): 25, 370.2 IP, 7.65 K/9, 2.99 BB/9, 0.90 HR/9, 4.39 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 3.64 xFIP
Pitcher 2 is, of course, Jon Niese, while Pitcher 1 is newly minted Diamondback Trevor Cahill. Now, this isn't really about which pitcher is better. Cahill's #s are skewed a bit by his horrible 2009 as a 21 year old, but even the last two years Niese has outperformed Cahill peripheral-wise. Cahill has been more durable, and extreme groundballers have been known to outperform their FIP. You actually get an extra year of team control on Cahill in the form of a 2016 option, but you also assume a contract that is likely to pay him a fair bit more than Niese will get. All things considered, I am comfortable calling the two a wash in terms of trade value, though that might be an unpopular opinion.
Cahill (along with Craig Breslow) brought back RHP Jarrod Parker, CF Collin Cowgill and potential future bullpen arm Ryan Cook. Parker is an excellent pitching prospect. I would put him on the same tier as Harvey and Wheeler, but he has an injury history and is a bit more risky. I don't think he's as good a prospect as Skaggs or Bauer, certainly, but he's a top 50ish guy with a #2 starter upside. He also could end up in the pen. Cowgill is a close to ready outfielder with some pop and some speed. You almost have to throw out his numbers at Reno this year, and he's a bit older, but I'd peg him as a B- or B type prospect. He might end up as a tweener in the bigs, but the scouting reports do suggest that he can handle center field.
I should give you a projection of Niese's surplus value here, but frankly, he confounds me a bit. 370 IP isn't really enough data to say whether or not he's going to be one of those guys who underperforms his peripherals or if he's instead now poised for a breakout year. I can tell you my FanGraphs projection came out to 3 wins in 168 IP, but remember, that is fWAR, which is FIP based.
So what would I want for Niese? Apparently the Rockies like Jon Niese a lot, so let's use them. If you want to go for the Jarrod Parker route, you could grab LHP Drew Pomeranz, who I like a lot as a pitching prospect, make-up concerns aside. And really, I am not going to go nuts about a young kid being loud coming out of a bar one night. Pomeranz's stuff/upside isn't quite as good as Parker's, but I think he is a tad less risky (TINSTAAPP and all that, of course). You could pair him with the MLB-ready 2B Chris Nelson and toss him into the 2B mix, or grab OF Charlie Blackmon. You could also try to fill an organizational need by grabbing C Wilin Rosario instead of Pomeranz.
But the issue with Niese, and one I think Kevin Goldstein is addressing obliquely, is one of perception. Niese simply doesn't have as much perceived value as Cahill does, regardless of who is actually the better pitcher. Combined with the fact that the Mets don't have much pitching depth and the potential for a breakout year from Niese, I think he is less likely to be traded. I would want a Cahill type package to make the deal, and if that isn't out there, I think you have to head into 2012 with Niese penciled in as your #3 starter.
There's a reason you rarely see pre-arb players traded: it's almost impossible to get equal value in return for them. The Mets FO is actually in a very good place. They can listen to offers, knowing it will take two very good prospects to pry either Niese or Davis loose, or they can hold onto them and reap the benefits of having two cheap, above average players on the 2012 roster. I think because of Ike's ankle injury and Niese's BABIP issues, now is a less than ideal time to trade either of them. Also, frankly, being a baseball fan for me isn't just about trying to rig a balance sheet for maximum returns, I like watching Ike's effortless power stroke and Niese's loopy slow curve. Rubin might sound like an irate WFAN caller, but he does have a point in there. There is some extra value to being able to root for homegrown talent. Its taps into the tribalism endemic to all sports fandom. That said, there are a couple pre-arb players I think the Mets should look into moving though, but I'll cover them in a separately in an upcoming post.