So they say you’re supposed to start with a joke, so let’s try this one: Two bears are walking in the woods when one turns to the other and says, "Did you hear about the Mets’ outfield?"
Waka waka. Maybe it still needs work. But how about that Mets outfield indeed, an uninspiring collection of overperforming C-grade prospects, other teams’ sixth outfielders, and Marlon Byrd? Have you heard about this at all?
We can start with what all but the most optimistic know: The Mets’ outfield is probably going to be below-average. The outfield was a weak spot last season, and the best outfielder left for the Cubs this winter. The outlook is anything but sunny. But there’s a big difference between atrocious and merely meh, and I’ll wager that this Mets outfield is going to surprise many by being merely meh.
It seems to me that the cause for this springtime malaise can be condensed into three ideas: Lucas Duda is the left fielder, Lucas Duda is seemingly the only outfielder set for an everyday job, and Lucas Duda maybe isn’t very good. Argal, the other outfielders are probably worse, and the outfield as a whole is terrible.
And there are very good reasons for believing these things. Duda is possibly the least-mobile regular outfielder in the majors, and he struggled so much last season that he was demoted to the minors for two months so the Mets could give at-bats to an infielder who couldn’t play the infield and a pre-retired left fielder. While that was going on, Duda hit .260/.327/.396 in Triple-A. Also, Duda is recovering from an offseason wrist injury, wrist injuries being the sort of thing that sap a hitter’s power. And he’s already 27, not exactly the age at which hitters with patience/power games start learning new tricks. Even if Duda recovers his 2011 form -- when he walked, doubled, and homered his way to a starting job the next season – that version of Duda was just barely making up with his bat for the tranquilized-grizzly-bear defense.
Duda is the only outfielder guaranteed a full-time job on Opening Day, making him the outfielder in whom the Mets place the most faith, or in whom they lack the most doubt, or just the one without a natural platoon buddy. But when Duda is the outfield ace, it’s a short leap to assume the Mets’ other outfield spots will be voids.
Only the other spots in the Mets' outfield should be better this season than last. Scott Hairston, the Mets’ best outfielder and second- or third-best position player last season, is gone and will be missed. But lest we forget, Jason Bay, Andres Torres, and Duda made up the Mets’ Opening Day outfield last season. Torres wound up the best of that bunch, which is to say the Mets’ outfield was horrible last season. But now Bay and Torres are gone, and Duda has moved to left field, where everyone claims he’ll defend better even though the only difference I see is that he now chases after balls hit into a different corner. But overall, removing negatives like Bay makes for a net gain.
The argument being that with a moderate improvement from Duda – say, a .420 slugging percentage – the remaining outfielding Alderbots need only to be passable for the outfield to improve as a group. And passable they can be.
Center fielders Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Collin Cowgill look capable of platooning their way to average hitting and below-average fielding. And every good sabermetrician with a working WAR calculator in her head knows that average hitting and passable fielding from a center fielder adds up to an average baseball player. And behind Nieuwenhuis and Cowgill is Matt den Dekker, who strikes out often, but covers from second base to the wall such that his bat might be an afterthought. Jordany Valdespin also lurks as a middle-class man’s Juan Uribe in center field and a budding self-photographer off the field.
Over in right, Marlon Byrd and Andrew Brown are competing for the fifth outfield spot and the right-handed role in a platoon with Mike Baxter. Byrd, who was a PED suspension waiting to happen even before last season, is still only a year and some chemical enhancement removed from being a useful player. Brown was tied for second in home runs in the PCL last season, and hit five more in the majors with the Rockies. Along with Jamie Hoffmann, the right-handed right fielders make for a trio of lottery tickets – soaked, stepped on, already scratched lottery tickets found in a gas station’s parking lot – but if the Mets hit on one, their outfield has a shot at becoming unremarkable.
And then there’s Mike Baxter, probably the best of the bunch. He does everything moderately well – hits doubles, fields the outfield corners, gets on-base, hits .270-.280 – without doing anything spectacularly. He doesn’t field well enough to force his way into center, and doesn’t hit for enough power to force his way into left or right. Baxter looks and plays like an extra in a baseball film. But he’s played well with sporadic opportunity, and these fourth-outfielder/non-prospect types can thrive with regular use, as Baxter did in spurts last season. Sometimes these types end up like Angel Pagan, dismissed as fourth outfielders until they’re suddenly signing $40-million deals with the Giants. And sometimes these guys lurk on the fringes until they disappear. But I’d take Baxter as the best outfielder currently on the Mets’ roster.
Duda, Nieuwenhuis, Cowgill, Brown, Byrd, and Baxter – yes, again, not exactly a group that’s filled up Baseball-Reference pages. But the Mets’ Opening Day outfield from last season included, ultimately, two of the 15 worst outfielders in baseball. This group doesn’t have to play all that well to represent a step forward. The Mets’ outfield will be passable this season, though certainly not great. But not great is better than horrendous and depressing. There exists a range between simply bad or good, and this outfield should inch closer to the latter.