With general manager Sandy Alderson reiterating (again) that Wilmer Flores is the Mets' solution at shortstop for the upcoming season, it's looking more and more like the 2014-15 offseason will heretofore be known as the Winter of Michael Cuddyer. That's not a very reassuring sentence for a team and fan base that has been targeting 2015 as a "contention year" since deciding to tear it all down and hire a sort of rebuild-the-right-way master in Alderson in 2010.
Yet, despite fans' dissatisfaction with the Mets' offseason haul, the team managed to vastly improve its starting pitching, bullpen, and offense from 2014 to 2015. Let's review all the ways the Mets will be better in 2015.
Bloomers with the Bat
It's not often pointed out, but the Mets didn't lose a single valuable player from a 2014 roster that scored 12 more runs than it allowed. Thanks in part to Alderson's slavish devotion to patience and holding on to assets, the Mets have a trio of young hitters that finished 2015 with their own versions of offensive explosions: Travis d'Arnaud, Flores, and Juan Lagares.
The least offensively promising of these is Lagares. The Gold Glove center fielder posted a pleasantly surprising .281/.321/.382 last season, but his .341 BABIP screams regression, a sentiment reflected in Steamer's .249/.291/.352 projection for Lagares in 2015. Where he did show some unexpected potential is in the stolen base department. After swiping just 10 bags in his first 219 big league games, Lagares had nine steals in 18 games to close out the year, and was caught just once in that span. With no obvious leadoff hitter on the team's roster, don't be surprised to see Lagares slotted in that role early in the season, though he'll have to show an improvement in his ability to get on base in order to stick there—he drew just 20 walks in 2014.
Flores finished 2015 on a high note. Starting at shortstop and playing in 51 of the team's remaining 55 games, he hit .262/.301/.419 with five home runs and 22 RBI in 184 at-bats. The concern with Flores has never really been about his offense; if he can manage shortstop or second base on defense, he's a productive player. The question is whether he can manage shortstop or second base. (For a deeper exploration into the future production of Flores—an apparently popular topic of debate—click here and here.)
After a rough start resulted in his being sent down to the minors, d'Arnaud came back to the Mets in a big way in the second half of 2015. From his return on June 24 to the end of the season, d'Arnaud hit an impressive .272/.319/.486 with 10 home runs, 19 doubles, and 32 RBI in 69 games. Steamer projects d'Arnaud to be effective but not durable in 2015: .251/.313/.428 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI in just 121 games. While Noah Syndergaard remains the crown jewel of the R.A. Dickey trade, a 25-year-old catcher who has already exhibited 20-homer potential is not something many teams can claim to have.
As promising as their bats look, this trio of youngsters still has a lot to prove in the majors, and one, some, or all three may fail. But if even one of them takes a big step forward this year and as they get older—something that seems likely—that adds a lot to a team that was surprisingly competitive in 2014.
Addition by Recovery
The Mets also added significantly to both their starting pitcher and relief corps by sitting on their hands and watching modern medicine and mother nature hard at work. Not that Mets fans need a reminder, but Matt Harvey is pitching in 2015. Given the front office-mandated time off and successful history of Tommy John surgery (a few recent examples of elite pitchers to remain that way after the procedure: Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Carpenter, and, of course, Jacob deGrom), it's fair to assume the Mets will have a top-flight starter in 2015 that gave them zero production the season prior.
The marriage of Harvey's return and Alderson's refusal to exchange Dillon Gee for what the GM deems is under market value provides a happy accident of sorts: Gee likely moving to the team's bullpen. Though he's proven to be an effective back-of-the-rotation starter, his true calling may be as a long man and spot starter in the bullpen. He's only pitched into the eighth inning 15 times in 106 career starts, and hitters tend to start feasting on him after 75 pitches:
With his average fastball velocity consistently around 89 MPH for his career, a move to the bullpen and less concern about stamina could push that number into the 90s. While a shift in a player's role never assures continued effectiveness, Gee could benefit from the shorter outings and give the Mets a pitcher to take the ball if a starter is scratched late or pulled early. In turn, Carlos Torres would be used less often in multiple-inning situations a season after exerting himself to the tune 97 innings in 73 appearances. Though there's a good chance Alderson finds a suitor for Gee either before or during the season, he'll be a useful player until that happens.
Joining Gee in the bullpen and also returning from Tommy John surgery: Bobby Parnell. While he won't be ready for Opening Day, the hard-throwing reliever is expected to be available for a majority of the season and was a revelation for the closer-starved Mets in 2013, posting a 2.16 ERA in 49 appearances and collecting 22 saves. Regardless of whether or not Parnell wrests the closer role upon his return, he'll join a bullpen that already features a fleet of fireballing arms in Vic Black, Jenrry Mejia, and Jeurys Familia.
A less reliable source of improvement-by-health comes in the form of David Wright. By almost every measure, 2014 was the worst offensive season of his career, thanks in large part to a shoulder injury he sustained while sliding in June. Before the injury, Wright hit .277/.333/.396 while appearing in all 79 of the team's games. Though he was on pace to crack just 13 homers over the course of a full season, he was also on track to hit 42 doubles and drive in 85 runs—not the terror at the plate Mets fans remember form the late 2000s, but formidable nonetheless. After missing seven games, Wright finished the season weakly, hitting .257/.310/.341 with two home runs in 55 games before calling it a season with 18 contests left.
In fear of having Wright miss the 2015 season opener, he and the Mets elected against surgery and in favor of rehab. Whether or not that was the right decision remains to be seen, despite what any reports regarding the third baseman's fitness may indicate. Mets fans have seen Wright bounce back from rough seasons before—hitting .306/.391/.492 in 2012 after a short and ugly 2011; blasting 29 home runs and collecting 103 RBI in 2010 after his 2009 power outage—and spent 2014 wishing the team could add a threatening bat to support Luca Duda. In Wright, that bat could be returning in 2015.
The Actual Additions
The Mets went into the offseason with an obvious hole at corner outfield and were terrible against left-handed pitching in 2014, collectively hitting just .230/.305/.328. With that in mind, the team's "haul" of two went a long way in addressing two of the team's biggest weaknesses.
Michael Cuddyer hits lefties at a .291/.378/.504 clip for his career, and is coming off a three-year stint with the Rockies in which he was potent when healthy. While his .307/.362/.505 mark in Colorado can be attributed to Coors Field's offensive advantages, he also hit a substantial .286/.332/.463 on the road with the Rockies. The Mets had to forfeit a 15th overall pick to land the 2013 NL batting champion, a loss that is slightly mitigated by the fact that the pick is the only real asset the Mets gave up all summer, despite demands for pieces of their organizational depth.
As far as corner outfielders who hit lefties hard go, Cuddyer is close to the best the Mets were going to do without paying significantly more than his $21 million over two years. Guys like Nelson Cruz (four years, $57 million), Melky Cabrera (three years, $42 million), and Yasmany Tomas (10 years, $68 million) appear to have been well outside the front office's feeble price range, and the Mets are beyond their reclamation project days (someone like Corey Hart, for instance), which succeeded with Marlon Byrd but failed miserably with Chris Young.
If the Mets could do it all over again, they may have preferred to hold out for Alex Rios, who has a .290/.334/.466 career mark against lefties and signed a more team-friendly deal with the Kansas City Royals on December 19, worth $9.5 million in 2015 and $12.5 million the next year with a $1.5 million buyout. The Mets were put in a tough position, given a week to agree with Cuddyer after the Rockies extended his qualifying offer to him. Beyond Cuddyer and Rios, there were limited options within the team's price range, and the Mets would have been without options had they passed on Cuddyer and had Rios agreed to sign elsewhere.
To continue the strategy of improving against lefty pitching, and to soften the blow of Cuddyer's poor outfield defense, Alderson signed John Mayberry Jr. to a one-year, $1.45 million deal. In theory, when the Mets face left-handed starters, Mayberry and his .269/.324/.533 career mark against southpaws would replace Duda's .212/.292/.317 line against the same, while also pushing Cuddyer out of the outfield and to first base for a more palatable defensive lineup.
Speaking of defense ...
The One Area in which the Mets Got Worse
By most available reliable metrics, the Mets were a hair above average in the field in 2014. Their 17 DRS was good for 12th in the majors, and they posted a UZR/150 of 1.3 (ninth) and a 0.9 in Fangraphs's Def statistic (15th). Unfortunately, all those numbers are likely to take a hit in 2015.
Flores's defense has been discussed at length for years, but his defensive ceiling at shortstop is competency, so a full season of his manning the position is a considerable downgrade after 2014 saw Ruben Tejada play the lion's share of innings there. This step back is only magnified by the unconventional Daniel Murphy handling defensive duties on the other side of second base.
Cuddyer's outfield defense is also a massive regression from the Eric Young, Chris Young, Matt den Dekker, Kirk Nieuwenhuis hodgepodge that played opposite Curtis Granderson in 2014. The offseason's biggest acquisition owns an outfield UZR/150 of -7.7 and a DRS of -64 in 7,569.2 career outfield innings. Thankfully, Cuddyer's platoon partner Mayberry is a considerable improvement when the team faces lefties. Though Mayberry's overall defensive metrics are hurt by the Phillies' misuse of him in center field (where he posted a DRS of -17 and a UZR of -15.4 in 1,153 innings), he's effective in the corner outfield positions, where he owns a DRS of -2 and UZR of 2.8 in 1,324 career innings.
The hope for the Mets is that this regression in the field will be overtaken by the increase in talent to their pitching staff. Regardless of whether that hope comes to fruition or not, the Mets may still have a chance to increase their defensive efficiency, thanks to their ...
Flexibility Going Forward
While the Mets gained just an injury risk of an outfielder and a right-handed platoon bat in the trade and free agency market, they gained something else by both being stubborn with their pitching prospect asking price and deciding to see what they have in Wilmer Flores: flexibility and opportunity.
By doing so, the Mets enter 2015 with a surplus of starting pitchers, both at the major league level and in the minors, and three middle infielders that the team has at least shown a willingness to start everyday. As the season wears on, the Mets will have a better grasp of what they have in Flores as well as a better idea of any needs that might reveal themselves, either due to performance or injury.
If the Flores experiment implodes, the team still has a depth of pitching to exchange for an upgrade at shortstop if one becomes available during the changing tides of the long season. If that experiment succeeds in every measure, that same depth could be used to help the Mets in the bullpen or an unforeseen area of concern. And if Flores has success with the bat but proves himself more of a second baseman, the Mets have the option of including Daniel Murphy in a trade for a shortstop, or using Murphy to improve organizational depth or in that same unforeseen area of concern, with Tejada taking over everyday shortstop duties.
By standing pat with their assets and limited funds, Alderson placed the Mets in a position to address the team's needs as they become evident in a season with many possible outcomes, rather than rushing to perfect the roster for its big Opening Day reveal.
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Say what you want about Alderson's passiveness in free agency, but it's not his fault the Mets don't have money to spend, a team in the nation's largest market with an obscenely low payroll. With that fact in mind, his strategy of talent-hoarding and patience has been the most prudent path, despite how indifferent it may seem at times.
With big names signing even bigger contracts with different teams around the league, it's easy to forget Alderson is responsible for acquiring the likes of Zack Wheeler, Syndergaard, d'Arnaud, Dilson Herrera, and Vic Black for next to nothing (less than half a season of Marlon Byrd and Carlos Beltran, and a season of R.A. Dickey) in order to contend in 2015 and beyond, and the years he spent rebuilding the roster yielded significant growth from the likes of Duda, Lagares, Familia, Mejia, and possibly Flores to the same end.
Sure, Alderson would probably love the luxury of being able to shower someone like Nelson Cruz with $60 million to play in Flushing, but even if the Wilpons could afford that kind of salary (they can't), it's the type of free spending that placed the Mets in a position to have to start from scratch in the first place.
While, no, Alderson didn't do a lot this offseason, the team will be a lot better, in part because rebuilding a team doesn't happen in one season, and the GM has been getting the Mets better each year in preparation for 2015.