The Mets' outfield looks pretty terrible right now. It was one of the worst in MLB in 2011, and that was with Scott Hairston, the lefty masher who recently signed with the Cubs for a reasonable two years, $5 million plus minor incentives. Outfield was a known trouble area for the Mets heading into the offseason and it's a little disheartening that the front office has seemingly ignored it. Yes, there were a few low-cost acquisitions in Collin Cowgill, Andrew Brown, and Marlon Byrd, but the team still lacks an outfielder who could be called a reliable, everyday player.
Barring any further additions, the Mets will head to spring training with a projected starting outfield of Lucas Duda in left field, Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field, and Mike Baxter in right field. Cowgill and Brown would likely platoon in center field and right field, respectively. Borrowing from the format of Chris McShane's more optimistic post, "The Mets' Outfield Could Be Better Than Expected", here is a position-by-position look at the three outfield spots.
Lucas Duda is an awful defensive outfielder. Not since Todd Hundley's ill-fated stint in left field has a Mets player inspired less confidence that a ball hit in his direction will be caught. Duda's range and throwing arm are woeful; the best that can be said about his defensive prowess is that it appears he's trying his best out there. Defensive metrics agree: from 2010-2012, no outfielder had a worse UZR/150 than Duda (-35.1 runs), minimum 1000 innings. The next worst was Ryan Spilborghs and his -24.1 runs. Duda's DRS and TotalZone marks line up with his UZR. I like defensive metrics as a supplement to the eye test, and in this case the approaches line up: Duda is a 6'4" 240 lbs. butcher with the glove.
Plenty of defensive laggards have managed to be useful contributors by making up for the deficiency with their bat. Matt Stairs comes to mind. The problem with Duda is that, even with an optimistic offensive projection, his defensive issues appear to be too much to overcome. The famously sanguine Bill James projection system pegs Duda for an OPS of .810. Combine that with a regressed fielding projection of -15 and Duda is something like a 1 WAR player over 500 plate appearances. That's not very good.
Unless Duda starts mashing like Adam Dunn in his prime, or the Mets open up a spot at first base by trading Ike Davis, it doesn't seem like the big guy has a long-term future with the club. I'm rooting for him to hit well out of the gate, piquing the interest of an American League team interested in slotting him in as a designated hitter.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis strikes out a ton, against both left-handed and right-handed pitching, but plays respectable defense at a premium position. The whiffs diminish hope that he can ever be a full-time player. It's true that he has hit better against righties than lefties in both the minors and majors. However, this isn't a David Wright-vs.-lefties scenario; Nieuwenhuis posted an OPS of .740 against righties in 2012. That might be too generous a projection if a platoon does come to pass, as platoon splits need to be regressed.
Collin Cowgill turns 27 years old this season, so he's on the clock in trying to prove that he's more than a four-A player. The switch hitter can take a walk, and can reportedly play passable defense in center field, but his power and contact skills are questionable. He did post an eye-popping .354/.430/.554 line at triple-A in 2011, but that was in the PCL, where one apparently must post an OPS north of 1.500 to be taken seriously. He fell off a bit in 2012, hitting .254/.312/.373 for the Oakland A's triple-A affiliate (which is also part of the PCL). In a small sample of major-league plate appearances, Cowgill has fared better against left-handed pitching, so he would be the right-handed batting half of a platoon with Nieuwenhuis. He'll probably get his chance to play but I can't shake the thought that he's an outfield version of Brad Emaus.
Mike Baxter is that great combination of folk hero and useful player. His heroics on 6/1/2012 will never be forgotten and he has proven himself as a solid-fielding, walk-taking fourth outfielder. It's not egregious that he might be part of a right field platoon. It is egregious that he could be the best outfielder on the roster.
Signing the right-handed batting Andrew Brown to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training was a fine idea. He has crushed lefties in the minors, which is apparently the reason why Paul DePodesta and the Mets' front office signed him:
Newest Met Andrew Brown is a career 321/414/612 against left-handers in the upper minors.— Paul DePodesta (@pdepo) January 2, 2013
Perhaps Brown is a late bloomer and can develop into a Ryan Ludwick-type player, as so many have suggested. If that happens, great, but until then I'll be skeptical that he's anything more than Mike Hessman. It is possible to like an acquisition while also not having confidence that it will yield any positive returns.
The Mets cornered the market on players with "Byrd" in their last name by signing 35-year-old Marlon Byrd to a minor-league deal this past week. There's no harm in this low-cost move; Byrd was a handy player from 2007-2011 before falling off a cliff in 2012. Maybe he'll show Mets brass something special at spring training and make the big club. If that's his goal, he should probably avoid Muay Thai, the martial art from Thailand. Via Byrd's Wikipedia page:
After the 2011 season Byrd began practicing Muay Thai and started a new diet, he has lost 40 pounds and expected to have his best season in 2012.
Byrd's 2012 season: .210/.243/.245 in 153 plate appearances
(hat tip Eric Simon)
What are the other in-house outfield options? Jordany Valdespin is still around. He might be just as useful as some of the players discussed above, if not moreso, but the front office doesn't seem too high on him and his Marlins-hat-wearing ways. It was reported that Justin Turner and Zach Lutz would get looks in the outfield, but that's like saying Miguel Batista will get a look as closer. In conclusion: this outfield is a turd. And rather than doing anything about it, Sandy Alderson seems content to crack wise about the crew he has assembled.
I didn't expect Nick Swisher at four years, $56 million. I didn't expect to give up the farm for Justin Upton. But the Mets couldn't even pony up $5 million for two years of Scott Hairston, an established right-handed batter who, by all accounts, has been a good soldier the last two years in Flushing? Maybe Alderson has a mystery trade in the works, but with time running out before spring training the Mets GM deserves poor marks for his outfield construction this offseason.