Mike Baxter and Scott Hairston could be a very good value for the Mets in a strict platoon next year.
Heading into 2013, the Mets are obviously looking for better production in the outfield. As a group, the Mets' outfield hit .239/.309/.386, significantly below the National League average of .263/.330/.427. That sort of thing will happen when Andres Torres, Jason Bay, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis combine for 963 plate appearances, over forty percent of the outfield's total.
Looking ahead, the Mets control all three of the aforementioned outfielders plus Lucas Duda — if Duda can be considered an outfielder at this point — but not lefty-killer Scott Hairston, whose contract expired at the end of the season. While it looks like the team might non-tender Torres, who is due for his final year of arbitration, they certainly figure to make an effort to bring back Hairston.
Whether or not the Mets will be able to bring Hairston back next year is still very much up in the air, depending on the market for a platoon outfielder with a track record of destroying left-handed pitching. If, for example, the Dodgers realize Andre Ethier should really be platooned on a regular basis, they could easily take the Mets out of the bidding with an offer that far exceeds the $1.1 million Hairston earned in 2011 and again in 2012.
But if the Mets are able to retain Hairston for next year, would they be wise to simply plan on platooning him with Whitestone's own Mike Baxter in either one of the corner outfield spots?
Judging by both wOBA and wRC+, the latter of which is park-adjusted, Hairston had the best year of his career this year. He lived up to his lefty-mashing reputation, too, to say the least. Despite a .317 OBP against southpaws, he slugged .550, good enough for a very good .368 wOBA against them. He wasn't nearly as good against right-handed pitching, and his overall stat line looks less impressive because he faced left- and right-handed pitchers the exact same number of times. But his splits are very much in line with his career totals, which is why the Mets signed him as a free agent in the first place.
In a strict platoon, Hairston would see significantly less playing time than he did this year since left-handed pitchers are far less common than right-handed pitchers. if not for the huge chunk of the season that Baxter missed after making the catch that saved Johan Santana's no-hitter, the Hairston-Baxter platoon might have been in full effect for most of the year. Since it wasn't, though, we're left with a tiny sample of data about Baxter's ability in the big leagues.
A left-handed hitter, Baxter looked inept against left-handed pitchers this year, but like Hairston, he fared very well against pitchers who threw from the opposite side. His .359 wOBA against them came as a result of an excellent .386 OBP and good .450 SLG. Again, he did so in just 189 plate appearances, the smallest of small samples, so there's no guarantee that he could live up to that production next year.
But let's assume for the sake of this exercise that both Hairston and Baxter continue to exhibit similar splits next year but at a slightly lower level of production. In a strict platoon, we'll call their combined production a .345 wOBA, which is perhaps a best-case scenario for the affordable duo. How would that compare to the rest of the pack? Let's take a look at the wOBA leaders among NL outfielders in 2012:
So the reasonably best-case scenario of Hairston-Baxter — call him Bairston or Haxster, as Patrick Flood suggests on Twitter — would be the equivalent the 2012 version of Martin Prado and just a shade below Alfonso Soriano and, appropriately enough, Andre Ethier. That's not elite, but it'd be a lot better than what the Mets got out of any of their outfield positions this year. Both players are also capable, if unspectacular, defenders in the outfield and could cover in center field in a pinch without embarrassing themselves.
The Mets need three outfielders, not just one platoon, but given the fact that the team's budget will automatically take them out of the running for players like Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn, they could do a whole lot worse than a Hairston-Baxter platoon in one of the corners.
If Scott Hairston is willing to sign another one-year deal that fits within the Mets' budget, the team should roll the dice on this platoon. There's some risk involved, but with a payroll budget that's likely to be below $100 million and approximately $73 million committed to David Wright, R.A. Dickey, Jason Bay, Johan Santana, Frank Francisco, and Jon Niese, there's bound to be some risk involved throughout the rest of the roster.