Going into 2013, the Mets possess an outfield only in the purely academic sense. They have some players who can be counted on to jog out to those positions every half inning and jog back to the dugout when it's their turn to bat. If the Mets' outfield was a car, it would be riding on three spares, and all signs point to the team continuing to rely on the positional equivalents of donuts.
Early this offseason, the team reached an agreement with last year's Left Fielder By Default, Jason Bay, that allowed him to relocate to the greener pastures of Not The Mets. But Bay was only part of problem in the corners in 2012. The Mets also pressed Lucas Duda, purported to be a natural first baseman, into right field duty for the first half of the season, then were all but forced to demote him when his bat proved a poor substitute for his quote-unquote glove. Hopes that a chastised Duda might rebound in 2013 were complicated when he wound up breaking his wrist while moving furniture. (In the annals of bad luck injuries, not quite Clint Barmes, but close.)
With Bay given his walking papers, Duda might be able to play left field instead, a position he at which he is marginally less terrible. The Bill James Handbook projects Duda for 18 homers and 69 RBIs next season. For a corner outfielder, that kind of output would make him slightly better than replacement level. Considering his injury, even these modest stats may be optimistic.
Whether Duda plays right or left, though, there's still one open corner position the Mets will have to fill, or else risk giving up lots of triples. Last season, after Duda was demoted and Bay finally sent to ride the pine, the Mets used Scott Hairston often against lefties. They also gave rookies Jordany Valdespin and Kirk Nieuwenhuis some time in right and left (31 and 43 appearances in the corners, respectively) and dabbled with the likes of Fred Lewis and Mike Baxter. Valdy's pinch hitting heroics aside, none of these proved a permanent fix. The depths of the Mets' corner outfield issues are summed up by the fact that the best thing to happen to any of these players in 2012 was Baxter breaking his collarbone to save Johan Santana's no hitter.
Minor Leagues: Help on the Way?
If you look in the right places and squint strategically, there is some hope for the corner outfield situation, but none of it is likely to arrive in 2013. Juan Lagares had a decent year for double-A Binghamton in 2012 (.283/.334/.389), though it was a decided step down from the .350 he put up the year before, and he hasn't flashed the kind of power you expect from a corner position. Lagares does have speed, however, a commodity in short supply on the Mets these days.
Cory Vaughn, a 2010 fourth rounder, has a more traditional corner outfield profile, as he smacked 23 homers and stole 21 bases for Port St. Lucie last season, while also posting a .219 ISO. Mets fans who saw him knock the ball around in spring training last March may have high hopes for his imminent arrival in Queens. Unfortunately, he's also put up a 21 percent strike out rate, and is a tad too old (23 years old) to explain such free swinging away with growing pains. In other words, we're not likely to see him in the bigs next year, unless he puts up monster numbers and hits his way there, or the Mets' current options hit their way out of it.
AA's Rob Castellano provided the vital intelligence for these prospects.
In years past, the Mets would have at least made a play for a big name free agent, but there aren't many of those on the market this winter, and even fewer at corner positions. That's just as well, since the state of the Wilpons' pocketbook makes the odds of the Mets spending much dough unlikely, especially if they sign R.A. Dickey to a contract extension. Players like Raul Ibanez, (god help me) Cody Ross, or (ditto) Nick Swisher would be decided improvements over the Mets' current options at the corners, but will command more money than the team can swing at the moment. On Tuesday, the New York Post reported the Mets were "kicking the tires" on Ross, but he can and probably will command more money than they can spare. Plus, an outfielder with tires will make so much extra work for the groundskeepers.
If the Mets do go FA shopping, they will be confined to the bargain bin. Any outfielder they pick up before spring training is likely to be a part-timer looking for a regular gig, like Rick Ankiel, or a player coming off a down season, like Matt Diaz. Grady Sizemore looked to be an interesting reclamation project until he had microfracture surgery that will prevent him from being ready for opening day. There's also the trade route, but the Mets are unlikely to get much of value unless they deal Dickey for a prospect like the Rangers' Mike Olt (a third baseman who could be moved further north). Jon Niese, also rumored to be on the trading block, would net far less.
Best Option for 2013
I'm not sure if the Mets will extend Dickey, but I find it hard to believe even they would trade last year's Cy Young Award winner. (File this under Famous Last Words if you have to.) This, combined with the state of their finances and the unlikelihood of contending next year, leads me to believe the Mets will muddle through the corner positions much as they did last year.
The silver lining is that at least in 2013, there will be no obligation to wring blood from Jason Bay's stone of a contract. Though Duda can technically play left, I believe the Mets will place him back in right while crossing their fingers, then resign Hairston to split time in left with the trio of Captain Kirk, Valdy, and Whitestone's Own. There is a slim chance Vaughn tears it up down on the farm and we see him this season, but I wouldn't count on it, and I doubt the front office is counting on it, either.
It won't be pretty, but...I don't really have a positive postscript to add to that. It won't be pretty, period. Sorry, everybody.