Sandy Alderson has taken steps in the past few years to put the Mets in a position in which they are just a few key acquisitions away from competing for a playoff spot. They have a strong farm system and players to build around at key positions at the major league level. However, the Mets' financial limitations and their desire not to gut their farm system for an individual player are holding them back from once again becoming relevant.
Presented in this article is a blueprint outlining how the Mets can realistically build a contending team in 2015 and beyond. Some of the steps may seem obvious, while others are more subjective. They don’t suggest acquiring a specific player in trades or free agency because their price in prospects or money is unknown; instead, it suggests realistic acquisitions that could become more or less realistic depending on how the market develops in the offseason.
Via Cot’s Contracts, the Mets’ 2014 payroll is just shy of $85 million, less than it was in 2001. While Alderson has openly stated that he has financial flexibility from the Wilpons, it’s hard to believe until he actually adds payroll. In this theoretical blueprint, they would raise their payroll to $95 million (although, admittedly, it's hard to imagine it break the $90 million plateau).
Step One: Establish who is worth keeping
The Mets have a number of players on their current roster who can contribute to a major league winner, but that doesn’t mean that any of them have business starting for a playoff team. There are a number of players who will be a part of the Mets in the next few years regardless of what they do. David Wright will be the third baseman and Curtis Granderson will be in the outfield; but, other than that, there is plenty of fluidity.
The Mets' pitching depth has been well documented, and while most teams will be looking to acquire pitching this offseason, the Mets could be looking to sell it. The Mets currently have the good problem of not having enough spots in their rotation for all their starters, and they have put together an exciting back-end of the bullpen led by Vic Black, Jeurys Familia, and Jenrry Mejia. They could look to acquire a pitcher for the right price, although they should focus their resources on fixing their offense.
Like most teams—notably the Athletics—the Mets have been searching for bargain major league players with flaws. While they failed miserably with Chris Young, it appears they have struck gold after years of waiting with Lucas Duda; and with Duda's outbreak season and what it would cost to get a better first baseman on the open market, he isn’t going anywhere.
The Mets are currently trying to find bargain major leaguers in their farm system, and are right to give Matt den Dekker and Eric Campbell opportunities the rest of the way. Both have intriguing qualities, like den Dekker's defense and Campbell’s ability to hit lefties, but neither has any business being in a starting lineup of a playoff team.
Juan Lagares continues to break WAR with his amazing defensive play in the outfield. He is far from perfect at the plate, but even if he fails to improve or even regresses, his defense should make him a mainstay.
The Mets are set at catcher with Travis d’Arnaud, who, even if he continues performing inconsistently, will be a solid major league catcher. The Mets also have insurance for d’Arnaud in Kevin Plawecki. D’Arnaud has had health problems in the past, and having a solid option to replace him in Plawecki means the Mets should have no desire to target a catcher this offseason.
Ruben Tejada shouldn’t be in consideration for anything but a backup role, and Wilmer Flores isn’t the shortstop of the future—although that doesn’t mean he isn’t a part of the team’s plans (more on him later).
Daniel Murphy has proven himself as an offensive force at second base. However, for a number of reasons, he shouldn’t be a part of the future, which leads to step two…
Step Two: Clear salary by trading Daniel Murphy and Bartolo Colon
In order to make the necessary improvements in other areas, the Mets need to clear money in areas of strength.
This step has very little to do with Daniel Murphy the player, but instead with Daniel Murphy the contract. Murphy is currently a bargain at $5.7 million this year, but he is due a tremendous increase in arbitration this offseason—even with his late-season DL stint—and he will be a free agent following 2015.
Murphy is far from a perfect player, but on a team desperate for offense, he is one of the few consistent forces in the lineup. For all his flaws on the field and the basepaths, he is a very important part of the roster. That being said, the current Mets team is not close to making the playoffs with him in the lineup. Adding talent becomes tremendously more difficult with him on the roster, as the Mets will have trouble adding salary after paying Murphy's impending raise.
Trading Murphy also makes sense because of the other options the Mets have at the position. In almost no situation should a team leave a position available with the expectation that a prospect will come in and shine immediately; yet, the Mets have multiple other promising options at second base.
Wilmer Flores is not the shortstop of the future, and his bat that was so lauded in the minors has been lackluster in the majors. However, he is far from a lost cause, as he is still a young player whose offensive struggles can be attributed to many factors, like playing a difficult position he isn’t capable of playing and being thrown junk in the eighth hole. He has shown that he can handle second base defensively and is quite adept at turning the double play on occasion; and despite his underwhelming performance this year, he is a solid replacement option with upside.
Putting Flores at second base could work out for the Mets, but it comes with risk. Despite this risk, the Mets should still deal Murphy as they have two other solid options they could use at second base if Flores struggles: the newly promoted Dilson Herrera and Triple-A shortstop Matt Reynolds. Both are far from sure things, the same way that Flores becoming a plus big league hitter isn’t a sure thing; but the combined risk-reward potential of the three makes dealing Murphy a gamble the Mets should make.
Last season, Murphy tallied an fWAR of 3.0, and in a career year 2014, he has accumulated 3.1 fWAR. It is possible that one of Flores, Herrera, or Reynolds can accumulate that value on a seasonal basis. Even if just one of them ends up as a 1.5–2.0 annual fWAR player, the difference in their cost to the team could allow the Mets to spend that money in more necessary areas, making the overall roster better.
In almost every circumstance, assuming a position will be filled by a prospect is bad business. But considering the multiple options the Mets have, as well as the financial limitations they have in other areas, they are better off taking the risk of trying to replace Murphy so they can use the money to fill in elsewhere.
It’s a similar situation with Bartolo Colon, who could be dealt in the coming days. The rotund righty has solid value next year at $11 million, but the Mets have a number of young pitchers who could take his spot in the rotation and provide similar production. Colon is effective and fun to watch, but if the Mets want to improve significantly, the $11 million owed to Colon would be much better spent on other areas of the roster.
The Mets could potentially get a solid return for each player, although they shouldn’t expect the world—like they did when they reportedly asked the Orioles for Dylan Bundy in a trade for Murphy. Still, even if the Mets value a return slightly less than the player they are trading, the salary relief could make the trade worth it. Going into free agency having only roughly $70 million versus potentially over $90 million (pending Murphy’s raise) is a huge difference, and would give the Mets the ability to actually spend money.
Step Three: Acquire a shortstop
As established above, the Mets currently do not have the shortstop of the future on their roster; Flores can’t handle the position and Tejada can’t handle baseball. The Mets have some options in the minors, but they either are far away (Gavin Cecchini, Amed Rosario) or close to the majors but lacking an impact ceiling (Matt Reynolds).
With no great options available within the organization, the Mets must look outside of the organization to find a capable shortstop.
Last week, Amazin’ Avenue’s Chris McShane looked at the possible free agent shortstops the Mets could add. He notes that Asdrubal Cabrera and Stephen Drew would be enticing to the Mets because they are coming off down years and wouldn’t cost the team a draft pick. While these two would be realistic signings considering the Mets' budget, it is questionable as to whether either would actually shift the needle enough for the Mets to evolve from mediocre to relevant.
J.J. Hardy and Jed Lowrie are also listed as possibilities, yet both are in the second halves of their careers and have notable flaws. Both would also likely cost the Mets significantly due to their positional value. Hardy has been an underrated player throughout his career, averaging 3.4 fWAR over the last four years. While that consistency will likely garner him a long-term contract, it's a risky proposition as he is 32 and in the latter half of his career. Lowrie is two years younger and has been less consistent, but would likely gain interest in free agency due to his success in Oakland (despite a relatively down year in 2014).
While these free agents are possible targets, the more enticing options will be on the trade market. As I wrote previously, the Mets have a surplus of pitching depth and need to take advantage of it on the trade market before pitchers go down with injuries and lose their value.
An obvious and well-documented match for a trade seems to be with the Chicago Cubs, as they are primed for success in the near future, yet lack pitching and have an excess of shortstops. A blockbuster deal involving the two teams is possible, although the high price of players such as Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell could scare the pragmatic Alderson away.
Another team with an excess of young shortstops is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have unfortunately for the Mets decided to stick with Chris Owings as their future everyday shortstop. This leaves Didi Gregorius and Nick Ahmed, who are both much less exciting than the Cubs’ shortstops, but also much less expensive.
Regardless of the approach the Mets take this offseason, they still must acquire a shortstop that makes their team significantly better.
Step Four: Acquire a corner outfielder
The Mets took this step last season when they acquired Curtis Granderson, but that still left a gaping hole in their lineup from a position where most teams have a slugger.
Last offseason said a lot about the market for corner outfielders, although there isn’t likely to be a bargain quite like the one the Orioles got with Nelson Cruz. Signing veteran outfielders is far from a sure thing, as the contracts to the likes of Granderson and Shin-Soo Choo have proven. The Mets won’t be in the bidding for a player demanding Choo- or Jacoby Ellsbury-type of money, so their goal will be to find solid value from a good-but-not-great player.
One way they could do this is to go after an older player with a history of production, but who wouldn’t demand a long-term contract because of his age. Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter will both be free agents who fit this mold. Both would be risky targets because of their age, but they would be within the Mets' financial constraints and would significantly improve the Mets in 2015 if they could replicate any of their prior performance. Signing an older player to a short-term deal would also make sense, as it would allow the team’s big outfield prospects, Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto, more time to develop while giving the Mets more time to evaluate whether they will be stars or expendable pieces.
There are also outfielders available like Melky Cabrera, who have enticing qualities yet checkered histories that could lower their price tag. Nick Markakis is another intriguing outfielder who could be available as a free agent, pending either the Orioles not picking up his option or Markakis voiding his buyout and going on the open market.
The Mets could also dip into their starting pitching depth and trade for a corner outfielder. Carlos Gonzalez’s name has been mentioned in rumors involving the Mets, but his scary injury history (which has only gotten worse this season) would make it seemingly impossible for the Mets and Rockies to agree on his actual value.
If the Mets want to win in 2015, they cannot begin the season with den Dekker, Campbell, or a similar player in left field. They must fill the position with someone who could contribute immediately in order to compete against the rest of the National League.
Step Five: Fire Terry Collins
This step is much more subjective and less of a necessity than the others, as the manager has much less of an influence on a team’s success than do the players on the field. It is also an uncomfortable proposition to call for someone to lose their job—something fans and media often do without taking into account the hardship losing one's job has on a person.
That being said, Terry Collins should not be the manager of the Mets. While the front office has backed him all season, Collins commits the managerial cardinal sin of doing way too much. His in-game decisions hurt the team, whether it is leaving in a pitcher for way too long, bunting in ridiculous situations, or batting young and aggressive hitters in the eight-hole, putting them in a situation to fail.
While things like bunting in certain situations are frustrating, it isn’t as much an issue as some fans make it out to be—almost every manager in baseball adheres to the notion of bunting runners into scoring position. It is quite likely that the next manager of the Mets does many of the frustrating things that Collins does. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he has to go.
Collins is currently the oldest manager in the major leagues. He has presided over the Mets during their rebuilding years, and while one could argue that he has gotten the most out of some players, it doesn’t change how many players have underperformed for him while the team has struggled. While the idea of having a winning culture is completely subjective, the Mets have had a losing culture under Collins; and with 2015 being a year in which the team can realistically compete, it is time for the franchise to head in a new direction under a different leader.
Building a contender with financial limitations is difficult and especially frustrating considering the market in which the Mets play. However, by building a young roster with depth in their farm system, the Mets have already taken some of the necessary steps to build a contender. And yet, they are still a few steps away. Those steps can be completed this offseason and are much, much easier said than done; but contention is within the Mets' grasp. Now, Alderson must act and complete the plan, as sitting idle will ensure that the Mets remaining irrelevant.