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Mets Offseason Position Player Preview: Second Base

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Neil Walker had a nice season for the Mets in 2016, but will they pay to bring him back or look elsewhere?

Arizona Diamondbacks v New York Mets

Daniel Murphy’s unexpected MVP-caliber campaign with the Nationals was a tough pill to swallow, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the season Neil Walker put up as his replacement. While Murphy was having a career year, Walker was in the midst of his own before a herniated disk shut him down. As discussed in our first base offseason preview, back injuries are concerning for power hitters. At the same time, the fact that Walker was able to play at a high level while acknowledging he was likely at around 60 percent seems like a positive sign, as does the high success rate of microdiscectomy surgery.

Season Team G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2014 Pirates 137 571 23 74 76 2 7.9 % 15.4 % .195 .288 .271 .342 .467 .356 130
2015 Pirates 151 603 16 69 71 4 7.3 % 18.2 % .158 .306 .269 .328 .427 .325 108
2016 Mets 113 458 23 57 55 3 9.2 % 18.3 % .194 .302 .282 .347 .476 .351 122

Walker will become a free agent this winter and he is the free agent second base market. Thus, despite the surgery, he’s likely going to get a nice contract even if it might be less than we thought a few months back. Should the Mets be the team to pay Walker that money? And are they willing to shell out big dollars for both Walker and Yoenis Cespedes?

The good news is that the Mets have a number of options at second base if they decide to let Walker go elsewhere. Having options is comforting but that could be a double-edged sword, in a way, because the likelihood is that none of those options are as good as Neil Walker was this past season or will be in 2017. An injury here, a disappointing performance or two there, and suddenly the Mets find themselves shopping for a second baseman at the trade deadline to shore up the position.

At the very least, offering Walker the qualifying offer is a no-brainer given that he’s easily the best option on the market. Even if he does accept, having him around on a one-year contract is only a positive unless his recovery goes so wrong that he can’t play at all. We’ll take a look at the rest of the options the Mets have at second base, though my preference is for Walker to return on a two- or three-year contract.

Wilmer Flores and Jose Reyes

If Walker leaves, my top option to replace him at second would be Wilmer Flores and here’s why: Despite being around for what feels like forever, Flores is only 25 years old. He’s improved offensively in every season in which he’s played in the majors, exhibiting more power and a far more acceptable walk rate in 2016. These are great signs for a hitter who already has such a natural knack for consistently making contact. He’s the exceedingly rare and valuable “low-strikeout, high-power” hitter (Flores struck out in 14.3% of his plate appearances this year, compared to the National League average of 21.5%).

SEASON G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG WOBA WRC+
2014 78 274 6 28 29 1 4.4 % 11.3 % .127 .265 .251 .286 .378 .291 87
2015 137 510 16 55 59 3.7 % 12.4 % .145 .273 .263 .295 .408 .304 94
2016 103 335 16 38 49 1 6.9 % 14.3 % .202 .268 .267 .319 .469 .336 112

Flores’s biggest strength this past season was in demolishing left-handed pitching, hitting .340/.383/.710 with 11 of his home runs. This naturally suggests that his splits against righties are much worse ,and they are, but he’s not going to improve against them without getting at-bats. At 25, he’s three years younger than T.J. Rivera and thus still young enough to figure that aspect out. He even had some success against righties in 2014 when he hit .290/.309/.440 against them.

Given all of that plus his ability to play other positions, Flores might be the most undervalued player on the Mets’ roster since he already has a valuable role and is still young enough to build on that. He’ll just need at-bats to get there and hopefully that happens with the Mets and not elsewhere.

The other versatile infielder on the Mets’ roster is Jose Reyes, and given the success he had after returning to the team, he’s going to have to play somewhere. I just don’t believe it should be at second base.

Season Team G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2014 Blue Jays 143 655 9 94 51 30 5.8 % 11.1 % .111 .312 .287 .328 .398 .321 104
2015 2 Teams 116 519 7 57 53 24 5.0 % 11.9 % .104 .301 .274 .310 .378 .300 80
2016 Mets 60 279 8 45 24 9 8.2 % 17.6 % .176 .302 .267 .326 .443 .329 108

Reyes flashed the tools to succeed at third base. Sure, he was a little rough around the edges with the nuances, as the defensive metrics show, but that’s to be expected given he was learning on the job. Ultimately, his range and arm appeared to play well there. To me, playing Reyes at second base wastes his arm strength, it exposes him to further injury around the bag on double plays, and he’s also the best option on the roster to cover for David Wright should he get hurt again or need time off. That’s why I’d prefer to see him used in a Ben Zobrist-type utility role, splitting third base with Wright, playing some shortstop, and even getting work in the outfield.

Despite all that, I’d be more comfortable handing second base to Reyes on Opening Day than...

T.J. Rivera and Gavin Cecchini

Rivera was a lifesaver down the stretch, running with the second base job after both Walker and Flores got hurt late in the season. His hot stretch should obviously be commended, as the Mets might not have gotten to the Wild Card game without his contributions. He looked the part of a great hitter in that short period of time.

Season Level G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2014 A+ 61 274 4 42 47 2 5.1 % 13.5 % .111 .383 .341 .383 .452 .383 139
2014 AA 54 221 1 28 28 1 5.0 % 12.2 % .080 .399 .358 .394 .438 .373 132
2015 AA 56 234 5 37 27 1 5.1 % 9.4 % .114 .363 .341 .380 .455 .382 144
2015 AAA 54 196 2 26 21 3.6 % 12.8 % .137 .346 .306 .345 .443 .352 111
2016 AAA 105 442 11 67 85 3 5.2 % 12.2 % .163 .383 .353 .393 .516 .398 142
2016 MLB 33 113 3 10 16 2.7 % 15.0 % .143 .360 .333 .345 .476 .346 119

The problem is that it was just 113 plate appearances and 33 games. That’s nowhere near enough time for MLB pitchers to adjust, and as the old saying goes, “don’t believe what you see in March and September.” Rivera showcased an ability to find the barrel of the bat, but his lack of plate discipline is a legitimate issue. For a player with a relatively low strikeout rate, Rivera still swung and missed at a 12.1% rate, sandwiching him in between strikeout machines David Wright (12.4%) and Matt Reynolds (11.9%) on the Mets roster (Rivera is fourth-highest on the team behind Jay Bruce, Rene Rivera, and Wright). Even though it’s a small sample, that’s a terrifying sign.

Given his lack of plate discipline and power, Rivera has to hit for a very high average to have value close to what Walker provides. Rivera hit .333 and ran a .360 BABIP, which if he did that over a full season would essentially make him one of the best batting-average hitters in baseball. Rivera is a 28-year-old rookie who wasn’t very highly regarded to begin with. Can we really expect him to hit anywhere close to that over a full season? We’ve seen players have a hot 100 at-bats in the majors; remember the late-season dominance of Mike Jacobs in 2005?

When Rivera’s hitting .333/.345/.476, you’ve got a really nice player, but say he’s more like a .283/.295/.426 hitter? That’s bordering on an offensive liability. And what if he ends up being closer to a .260 hitter? You might not believe that can happen, but nobody saw Michael Conforto hitting .220 this past season either and he was also a great hitter in the minors, not to mention a far more heralded prospect.

Rivera might well prove himself to be a viable big leaguer this coming season and should have the inside track for a bench spot on Opening Day, but to hand him the starting second base job on a playoff contender seems rash especially when a proven, above-average major leaguer like Neil Walker could be brought back for cash alone. It’s easy to undervalue proven veteran performers like Walker over the allure of the young unknown, but realize you do so at your own peril.

Cecchini falls into a similar risk bucket as Rivera, with his prospect pedigree closing the gap on Rivera’s big league experience. Cecchini is a similar hitter to Rivera in style, though he’s shown better bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline in Double-A and Triple-A. The biggest concern with Cecchini has been on defense, where his scattershot arm is moving him off shortstop. He doesn’t have experience at second base beyond the Arizona Fall League, so we’ll have to see how he adjusts this year. Given the multiple options ahead of him, that shouldn’t happen in the majors initially, but he’ll likely see big league time this year.

Season Level G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2015 AA 109 485 7 64 51 3 8.7 % 11.3 % .125 .348 .317 .377 .442 .375 139
2016 AAA 117 499 8 71 55 4 9.6 % 11.0 % .123 .357 .325 .390 .448 .377 128
2016 MLB 4 7 2 2 0.0 % 28.6 % .333 .500 .333 .429 .667 .458 194

Brian Dozier and Ian Kinsler

Second base was a deep position around the majors this year and there could actually be a number of solid veteran second basemen on the trade market. If the Mets decide not to pursue Walker but still want more of a sure thing at second base, Brian Dozier would be a nice pickup. The Twins slugger became more of a household name this year but has quietly been a quality starting second baseman since 2013.

Season G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2014 156 707 23 112 71 21 12.6 % 18.2 % .174 .269 .242 .345 .416 .340 117
2015 157 704 28 101 77 12 8.7 % 21.0 % .209 .261 .236 .307 .444 .323 102
2016 155 691 42 104 99 18 8.8 % 20.0 % .278 .280 .268 .340 .546 .370 132

He’ll cost a bit in a trade coming off his best season, but the nice thing about Dozier is that he’s just 29 years old and is signed very affordably through 2018 at just $6 million and $9 million for the next two seasons. He’s also a quality all-around player, rating positively as both a defender and a baserunner. Another positive is that Dozier put up his big power numbers in Target Field, which is not a bandbox in the slightest, so his power should play at Citi Field. Given his salary and his 42 home runs in 2016, he’d command a hefty return if the Twins could even be persuaded to part with him.

With the Tigers reportedly looking to get younger, Ian Kinsler could be a trade chip for them. Kinsler has long been one of the best second basemen in the majors and even at 34 years old, he’s still going strong.

Season G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2014 161 726 17 100 92 15 4.0 % 10.9 % .145 .288 .275 .307 .420 .319 103
2015 154 675 11 94 73 10 6.4 % 11.9 % .131 .323 .296 .342 .428 .335 111
2016 153 679 28 117 83 14 6.6 % 16.9 % .196 .314 .288 .348 .484 .356 123

Kinsler is basically what many Mets fans seem to think T.J. Rivera actually is. Not only is Kinsler still an excellent hitter but he’s also a plus defender and baserunner, and he’s making a relatively reasonable $11 million in 2017, only half a million more than Neil Walker made in 2016, with an option for 2018. The question will be what the trade package costs, but Kinsler would be a nice acquisition and could be an improvement over what the Mets got from Walker last season.

The Mets have lots of directions they can go with second base. Should they pay up and bring back Neil Walker? Should they stay in house and hope to make up the difference with what they have? Or should they make a trade for a veteran? Whatever they end up doing, second base is going to be a very important position for the Mets this winter.