The other day in the New York Post, Joel Sherman wrote a column entitled "Cost-Friendly Ways Mets Can Deepen Their Roster", which sounded like a reasonable enough premise to put aside my mild aversion to mainstream sports writing and see what Sherman was getting at. The gist is that the Mets figure to have limited payroll flexibility in 2010 but must find a way to field a contender without razing whatever minor league depth they have. It's a legitimate challenge, one that Omar Minaya and his staff should already be holding serious -- ideally shirtless -- brainstorming (!) sessions to find a tenable solution. I've got my shirt on and funny money to spend, so this becomes an academic exercise instead of one upon which the fate of many jobs doubtless rest.
The bottom line is this:
You must create better 25- and 40-man roster depth. Why? Well, the common theme to explain how the Mets faltered in September 2007 and 2008 was lack of character. Maybe. But it was more about lack of talent. It is the same reason that 2009 has gone awry. The skill level beyond the elite players has been horrendous.
I'm not sure if that "character" bit was tongue-in-cheek; I'm guessing not. The second part is right: the Mets fell short because they weren't good enough, and apart from having a few of the best players in baseball they haven't had much of a supporting cast. This year has been no better, as very few of the Mets' injury reinforcements have managed even replacement-level production.
"You have to be strong 11-to-30 on your roster or 11-to-40 on your roster," a rival NL executive said. "The Phillies are. The Mets aren't."
This is a fair criticism. At least it's pointing out that the Phillies are better than the Mets because they have better players and not because Shane Victorino's batting helmet has a hollowed-out earflap filled with magic pixie dust. My only quibble is that this quote seems to imply that the Mets are somehow strong 1-10 on their active roster, which is probably giving them a bit too much credit.
The Mets are not going to be able to afford to go too high on the Type-A list anyway for a Matt Holliday or John Lackey. They need to spread around what funds they have and again be thinking about deepening their roster. Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright have lost value in 2009, so the Mets can't trade them now at a low point.
I actually think the Mets could be competitive for Matt Holliday if they were inclined to pursue him; I'm not sure they would, and with the free agent crop looking a bit thin this year I would imagine some team will overpay to pull the most attractive name off the list. I'd probably greenlight a serious courtship of Holliday, who is a great hitter (Coors Field or no) and a very good fielder and should be worth $15 million a year over the next 4-5 years.
More fair points about the Mets' big three, though. Reyes and Beltran have both been injured and Wright has seen his homeruns fall off a cliff; it doesn't matter to most people that Citi Field may have caused much of the dropoff. None of them are untouchable, nor is any likely to be traded anytime soon, bad season or not.
The Mets then should augment with good, versatile players. Both Mark DeRosa and Chone Figgins are free agents. Both are on the borderline between Type-A and B, and the Mets would like them to fall into Type-B, so the Mets can protect their first two rounds of picks.
My rudimentary guess is two years at $10 million for DeRosa and three years at $24 million for Figgins.
So, at full health, the Mets would have Figgins in left and DeRosa at first. But the beauty is that if an injury hit anywhere other than catcher (and maybe shortstop) and the Mets did not have a suitable replacement, Figgins and/or DeRosa could shift over.
I'll bite. DeRosa will be 35 next year; Figgins 32. Those salaries aren't outrageous: Figgins has been worth $12.5 million, $11 million and $17.3 million (so far) over the past three seasons according to WAR valuations. $8 million a season could be a bargain. Figgins plays a lot of positions, which is good; unfortunately, UZR thinks he's terrible at all of them except for third, where the Mets need no help.
Figgins has spent most of his career playing in the infield, primarily at third but he also has some experience at second and a few chances at short. Figgins is a valuable player at those positions because his offense compares very favorably with others infielders. Sherman wants to put Figgins in left field, where his bat will be sub-standard. Not Daniel Murphy or Fernando Tatis bad, but worse than the average left-fielder. If Wright or Luis Castillo misses significant time then Figgins's value goes up as a fill-in, but then you still have to find someone to play left field, and if he's as bad as whomever would have taken over the injured infielder instead of Figgins then you're back where you started.
Figgins would be an outstanding bench option, but he's really underutilized in that spot and someone is going to rightfully pay him to play full-time. Even in left, Figgins would be an upgrade over what the Mets have now, but at $8 million I think the Mets need to look for a better hitter (or fielder) to play a corner outfield spot every day.
DeRosa is another player who is eminently useful, but he's also a better fit as an infielder than a corner outfielder or, as Sherman projects, a first-baseman. As a reminder, first base is traditionally the easiest position at which to find passable offense. This may be surprising considering some of the offensive sinkholes the Mets have played at first over the years (see: 2009), but it's generally true. As a fairly crude illustration of this, here are the 2009 National League OPS splits by position:
And for good measure, Bill James's defensive spectrum looks like this (ease of finding offense decreases from left-to-right):
[ 1B - LF - RF - 3B - CF - 2B - SS - C ]
Centerfield and third base are swapped, but everything else is where it should be. By a vast sum, NL first basemen have paced the rest of the diamond in OPS, and you can be sure that more advanced metrics will echo these results. Given this, let's stop pretending that all positions are created equal and that it makes any sense to move a decent-hitting second-baseman to first base.
If DeRosa is a Type B and he only costs $10 million over two years, he's not a bad gamble to take. His bat is probably strong enough to carry in right field, and UZR likes him a lot better as a corner outfielder than as an infielder. It should be sufficient to say that DeRosa is a better option than Jeff Francoeur, and, despite the disparity in their ages, I'd much sooner have DeRosa for the next two years.
The Mets have a lot of holes and, it seems, not a lot of money with which to fill them. Looking for undervalued Type B free agents like Figgins and DeRosa is a good place to start, but it's important to keep in mind the context of their past performances and whether it makes sense to sign up for their versatility only to use them in the least effective ways possible.
You've heard Sherman's plan. What's yours?