The Mets are in an unenviable position going into the 2013 season. Though the team’s $100 million budget will still rank in the top half of MLB payrolls, large sums of money are tied up in a handful of players.
The Mets owe Johan Santana $25.5 million, Jason Bay $18.25 million, and David Wright — assuming they pick up his option and do not trade him — $16 million. Frank Francisco and R.A. Dickey are owed $6.5 million and $5 million, respectively, and Jon Niese is due $3 million in the second year of the five-year deal he signed before the 2012 season. That’s a total of about $74 million tied up in six players.
That leaves the Mets with less than $30 million to address arbitration raises to players who are likely to be retained — Daniel Murphy, Bobby Parnell, Manny Acosta, Ike Davis, and Andres Torres — and free-agent acquisitions. In short, the Mets will not be big spenders this winter.
As a result, the minor leagues would be the obvious place to find cheap players to fill in the holes that exist on the roster that might, in better financial times, be filled with more expensive free agents. While the Mets have quite a bit of pitching depth in the minors, ranging from potential aces to back-of-the-rotation starters, the team’s stock of position palyers is fairly bare bones. Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Jordany Valdespin represent the only young, unestablished, on-the-cusp position player talent in the system. Other, possibly better players, exist, but they are still too young and unrefined to be counted upon for Opening Day next year.
This leaves the team stuck between a rock and a hard place, not necessarily having the money to fill roster holes with worthwhile free agents while not necessarily having the ripe farm system products to fill roster holes internally. Where might the team be able to obtain talent that is more advanced and ready than prospects, but cheap enough that they won’t break the bank?
Minor league free agents are certainly an option, but those players are generally retreads that aren’t good enough to be big-league starters or bench players — for every one or two that renew themselves periodically and experience renaissance seasons, another seven or eight have another AAAA season.
There exists one other alternative, one that is a bit more intriguing, in that is might present players who have the potential to be better than theoretical minor league free agents, at a fraction of the price that established big leaguers make: international free agents.
This past offseason, the Yakult Swallows posted 30-year-old outfielder Norichika Aoki on the market. The Milwaukee Brewers won the bidding process and signed him to a two year, $2.5 million contract with a $1.5 million team option for 2014. In his rookie year, Aoki hit .288/.355/.433 while playing solid defense in left field and racking up a 2.9 WAR for the season.
At the same time, 26-year-old pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, already an international free agent because of a clause inserted into his contract with the Chunichi Dragons, was signed by the Baltimore Orioles for three years, $11 million, with a $4.75 million team option for 2015. In his rookie year, Chen went 12-11 over 192.2 innings with a 4.02 ERA and 4.42 FIP. He posted a 7.19 K/9 rate and a 2.66 BB/9 rate and was worth 2.2 WAR.
Last but not least, 30-year-old pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, also an international free agent, was signed by the Seattle Mariners for a one year, $1.5 million dollar deal. He went 9-5 with the Mariners, throwing 125.1 innings to the tune of a 3.16 ERA and 4.44 FIP, 7.25 K/9, and 3.09 BB/9 rate. Iawkuma was worth 0.8 WAR in the process.
All three deals provided, to varying degrees, surplus value, in terms of the stats put up and the money paid for those performances. Could the Mets finagle something similar? A group of talented international players are waiting in the wings, and they have either definitively stated or strongly hinted that they will be coming to the Major League Baseball.
I’ve profiled three of the players the Mets have signed, the first of whom is Hiroyuki Nakajima, a 30-year-old shortstop. Check back tomorrow and Friday for profiles of Takashi Toritani and Kyuji Fujikawa.
Hiroyuki Nakajima (SS)
Hiroyuki Nakajima, who turns 31 next July, was posted by the Saitama Seibu Lions in 2012, and the bidding rights to acquire his services were won by the Yankees at the cost of $2.5 million. The two sides were not able to come to an agreement because Nakajima was looking to come to MLB as a full-time player — and, in the prime of his athletic career, why wouldn’t he? — and not as a bench piece. With Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano firmly entrenched in the middle infield, the Yankees were not the best fit for Nakajima. The two sides were unable to agree on a contract, and Nakajima returned to the Lions.
In 136 games in 2012, he proceeded to just barely miss winning the Pacific League batting championship, hitting .311/.382./.451. Katsuya Kakunaka of the Chiba Lotte Marines edged Nakajima out, hitting .313/.367./.416, though, undoubtedly, Nakajima was the better all-around offensive player, getting on base more and hitting for more power. Looking at his entire career, his .311/.382./.451 line for 2012 and .297/.354/.433 in 2011 are comparable to his career batting line of .302/.371/.472. The new NPB hasn’t completely inflated or deflated his numbers and, therefore, his potential value. His stats over the last five years are as follows:
His stolen bases in 2012 were down from 2011 and his lowest mark since he swiped just seven bags in 2007. This might just be a statistical blip, or it might demonstrate his speed slowing as age begins catching up with him. Given that Nakajima has never particularly been a speed demon on the basepaths, I don’t think there is too much stock to be put into the lack of stolen bases now.
But speed has generally always been part of his game. In 2010, a major league scout called him "Michael Young with more speed." Despite the drop in stolen bases, his infield hit and GIDP numbers are more or less in line with his career numbers, and those two stats would be more telling of a slowdown than anything else. Those numbers, along with BABIP, have slowly been trending down, however, this year notwithstanding.
Nakajima is a shortstop by trade, but he has limited experience at third base, too. At short, he is a passable fielder but isn’t exactly someone who is going to raise eyebrows in a good way. Never known to be a butcher, per se, he improved his glove enough that he won a Mitsui Golden Glove Award in 2008. As we know, however, awards given for defensive merit are often awarded based on offensive capability, and it’s no surprise that 2008 was Nakajima’s best year with the bat. The fielding statistics that are available are both incomplete and represent only fielding percentage so it’s tough to judge his defense from afar.
According to scouts, Nakajima isn’t completely lost when fielding at short, but he isn’t exactly an elite fielder, either. He has a propensity to get sloppy with his throws, but his natural athleticism makes up for a lot of the fundamentals that he lacks when it comes to manning the bag. As a player who is getting older, this could be a concern. What really concerns me, though, are that his two biggest fielding comps are Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Kaz Matsui. Both were slick fielding shortstops in Japan, and neither played particularly good defense in MLB. Japanese stadiums use AstroTurf, whereas the majority of MLB stadiums obviously do not.
An anonymous MLB scout seems to concur, saying, "I don't think he's a shortstop in the big leagues....He can probably play there from time to time, maybe for a team that's struggling. I think his best value is probably as a utility guy, playing third, short, second, and probably seeing most of his time at second base." Another compares him to Martin Prado, saying, "He'll probably hit about .280 with 10 to 12 [home runs]…If he's playing a bunch of different positions, that's a lot of value."
Does He Make Sense For The Mets?
As things stand right now, going after Hiroyuki Nakajima wouldn’t make too much sense for the Mets. He refused to come to contractual terms with the Yankees last winter because he wanted a starting role, and after a very good 2012 in Japan, there’s no reason to think he would be willing to sit on the bench now. With David Wright as the incumbent third baseman and Ruben Tejada as the incumbent shortstop, there aren’t any open positions for Nakajima to slot into. If David Wright were to be traded, however, Nakajima could be an intriguing replacement.
The Mets don’t have an heir apparent at third without shuffling players like Daniel Murphy, who are already established at other positions, around. Justin Turner and Josh Satin are bench/depth filler in reality, and while Zach Lutz is the closest player to an heir apparent at third, his injury history makes him too risky a bet to rely on.
Norichika Aoki’s good season transitioning to MLB helps Nakajima’s price, as does Nakajima’s MVP-caliber season. Even so, with Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s failure fresh on executives’ minds, I don’t think that Nakajima will exactly be priced out of the Mets’ range. He could probably command something around $4 million dollars per year, which is both reasonable and realistic.