If we can assume that Ryan Church is going to be the Mets' starting right-fielder in 2008, the Mets are in the (arguably) enviable position of having their Opening Day roster completely nailed down. Barring a trade of any of their everyday players, the eight guys they have slated to take the field in April are already signed and ready to go. It isn't exactly clear how catcher is going to shape up, but we can be pretty sure that it will be some manner of platoon situation with Ramon Castro and Brian Schneider.
One of the luxuries we have as fans when a team has all of their position players set is that we can begin to project performances, compare and contrast players with their prior selves as well as with the rest of the league, etc. Save a smattering of noble soothsayers, the vast majority of us have zero ability to actually see events that are to happen in the future. That certainly doesn't stop us from trying, though, and we're fortunate enough to have some intrepid individuals out there who take the time and energy to project baseball player performance into the coming year.
Everyone has their favorite projection system, and mine seems to vary with the wind. Today I'm going to use CHONE hitter projections for 2008 to see how the Mets' starting lineup compares to the rest of the league. Unfortunately, CHONE doesn't include position, so I am going to use 2007's National League positional averages as a baseline for comparison. League-wide performance surely varies from year-to-year, but I'm really just trying to have some fun with this exercise, not achieve cold fusion.
I took the CHONE projections for each of the Mets' principals and prorated them to a full season of at-bats based on 2007 positional averages. For example, CHONE projects Moises Alou to have 381 at-bats next year, but the average National League left fielder had 623 at-bats in 2007. I applied that difference to Alou's projected counting stats to arrive at normalized counts. The biggest flaw here is that prorating the regulars' at-bats is giving the Mets too much credit (especially in Alou's case), because the gap in playing time would normally be filled in by a reserve player, not a regular.
I have also included Runs Created (RC), and I used, for simplicity, Bill James's formula from The 1984 Baseball Abstract:
RC = ((H+BB-CS)*(TB+(.55*SB)))/(AB+BB)
With that out of the way, let's have some fun.
The projection for Alou seems pretty reasonable. He hit .341 last year, but I would expect that to dip much closer to his career .303 line next year. As great as his production was last year, based on his projection he only figures to be about as valuable as your average NL left fielder, and that's only if we give him credit for a full season's worth of at-bats. Given that he is likely to miss a couple hundred plate appearances due to injury, his usefulness becomes much more debatable. His runs created would be right around the league average for his position, but again that's assuming he plays the whole year. With his injury history, and the fact that he adds little in the way of baserunning and defensive value, the Mets will be lucky if they come out even in left field.
Once again, center field is a position of strength for the Mets, and Carlos Beltran figures to pace the NL center field crop in 2008. His projected runs created are almost 30% higher than the average NL centerfielder from last year, which puts the Mets at an incredible advantage relative to other teams in the league. With Aaron Rowand and his career year leaving for San Francisco and Andruw Jones likewise heading west, the Mets should have a leg-up on their NL East rivals with Beltran patrolling center.
Whatever value surplus the Mets enjoy in centerfield they are likely to give right back at first base. Carlos Delgado was mostly terrible in 2007 and his CHONE projections for 2008 aren't anything special, either. His forecast is a bit sunnier than his actual performance last year, but CHONE still thinks he'll be something less than an average offensive first-baseman. With the Braves and Phillies stocking big bats at first, the Mets will lose a lot of ground at the position unless Delgado can pull a 180 (or a 540, even).
Even if Jose Reyes doesn't become the superstar we all hope he will be, his regular production will still be substantially better than the average shortstop. Add in very good defense and we're definitely talking about a position of strength for the Mets. He's a better on-base guy than Jimmy Rollins, though Rollins has a substantial edge in the power department right now. Reyes almost certainly won't be traded this offseason, and 2008 will be a very important year in his development. I want to see him continue to improve his walk rate, refine (and shorten) his swing a bit, and hang in there for the whole season, not the four-month embarrassment he turned in last year. (Note: His final aggregate performance wasn't embarrassing, but his attitude and demeanor down the stretch certainly was).
What can you say? David Wright has developed into one of the best players in baseball, and there's no indication of that changing anytime soon. Given his age (25, tomorrow), he might actually get even better. His defense improved considerably last year, and his approach at the plate and understanding of the game are exceptional. He projects to be 40% more productive than the typical NL third-sacker and continues to solidify a position which has historically been one of transience for the Mets' franchise.
We know what Luis Castillo is: A good on-base guy with extra-base ability that approaches nil. If his knee is better, he should move around pretty well at second. He continues to have sure hands there even if his range has declined over the years. The Mets locked him up for four years and $25 million this offseason in absence of a better solution. He already projects to be worse than an average second baseman, and that valuation is only likely to decline over the life of his contract. The money isn't terrible, but the length of the deal is perplexing. David Eckstein for one year and $4.5 million would have been more sensible, if it were an option.
CHONE is not a fan of Ryan Church, who is projected to be worse than league average in right field next year. If anyone cares, Lastings Milledge is projected to hit .271/.352/.423 in 2008, which is actually better than Church (again, just projections). If Church can improve his work against lefties, and if the solid glovework he showed last year returns in 2008, he could be better than average in right field.
These numbers don't take defense into account, but I'm not sure that either Schneider or Castro are appreciably better/worse than an average catcher defensively right now. Offensively, Schneider figures to be a bit worse than average, Castro a bit better. Mash them together and we have a big, slow lump of averageness. If Schneider is really the defensive force that some would have us believe, a 50/50 playing time split for these two might make sense. If Schneider's defense is just average, giving the lion's share of plate appearances to Ramon Castro is the way to go, given his superior bat.
Soup-to-nuts, the Mets are average or better at every position, and exceedingly better than average in center and at third, with shortstop having a decent shot at that group, too.