Why is Sandy Alderson a good general manager even if the results so far this year are similar to years past? Scott Hairston is why.
Every team needs their role players. Picking good role players is part of the general manager's job, even it's an unheralded one. Omar Minaya was an illustration in ineptitude when it came to this part of his job. Alex Cora. Mike Jacobs. Gary Mathews Jr. Cory Sullivan. Anderson Hernandez. Angel Berroa. Jeremy Reed. None of these role players was meant to be a savior, and yet none managed to be a useful part on a veteran team.
And that's the point. Veteran teams, and especially the Mets of recent vintage, lose productive players to the disabled list every year. The better teams have the depth to overcome those injuries. If those players don't come from your farm, they have to come from your bench.
Given almost no budget to speak of this past offseason, Alderson focused on role players that could step in and provide production in certain situations. Scott Hairston, as flawed a player as he is, was the culmination of a solid process.
Hairston is hitting .265/.339/.561 in 109 PAs and has been good for 0.8 WAR already this year. Since his salary was only $1.1 million, he has more than earned his contract even if his slugging percentage is a little inflated and his short-sample work is far and above his .246/.305/.442 career line. Even with some regression, it's likely that Hairston will have the best season by a part-time player on the Mets since the fluky season Fernando Tatis had when he was oft-used in 2009 (2.0 WAR, 379 PAs).
Tatis felt like a fluke, yes. Other than a 64-PA cup of coffee with the Orioles in 2006, he hadn't been useful to a major league team since 2001 in Montreal. Hairston, on the other hand, has been useful to most of his teams. He'd been a little overmatched when asked to play daily, and only once did he manage to perform better than an average major leaguer (2.2 WAR in 2008 with the Padres), but he still showed some bankable skills along the way.
Since it's always helpful to emphasize process over results, it's useful to wonder what those bankable skills were. They attracted Sandy to Hairston, most likely. One was power. While PetCo's power-suppressing abilities might be a little overstated (righty home runs are only suppressed 5%), Hairston managed to have show power even when he was struggling with the Padres last season. His career ISO (.196) is strong, and only once in his career did he receive regular at-bats and not end up within shouting distance of that number.
Another of Hairston's bankable skills was defense. In left field, his athleticism has led to a 6.4 UZR/150 in close to 2000 innings. In center, he's managed a 7.2 UZR/150 in almost 1000 innings. Even if you poo-poo the second number because of the sample size, he looks like a strong corner outfielder that can fake it in center.
One last 'skill' was handedness. Hairston is a right-handed hitter with a career .277/.331/.495 line against left-handers. In 2009 and 2010 combined, the Mets were 11th in the National League in offense (by wOBA) against southpaws. A fourth outfielder that could play center field and step in against left-handers was a clear need for this team. This year, Hairston's been 15% better than league average against lefties.
When you peruse the Mets' role players this year, you'll notice a lot of productivity. Hairston (0.8 WAR), Ronny Paulino (0.7 WAR), Jason Pridie (0.6 WAR), and Ruben Tejada (0.3 WAR) have all been better than replacement. Only Willie Harris has been given more than 50 PAs while showing a negative WAR, and he was brought in on a $800K contract that is only marginally higher than the league-minimum salary. These are useful role players for the most part.
Take a look around the Mets' bench. It looks a lot better than it has in a while, and that has a lot to do with Scott Hairston's skills and Sandy Alderson's approach to filling out a major league roster.