Dom Smith was a disaster at the major league level in 2017. He hit .198/.262/.395 in 183 PA, striking out 26.8% of the time en route to a 73 wRC+. Smith’s reputation as a strong defender didn’t carry over to the majors, either, as he often looked lost in the field. He struggled to recognize spin and struggled to handle velocity up in the zone. Essentially, every problem evaluators worried about in the minors came up in his two months on the major league roster.
It’s unfair to write Smith off entirely, of course. His average exit velocity (89.7 MPH) was solid, and though his rate of barrels was below average because he beats too many balls into the ground, there’s an obvious path to improvement if he can change his launch angle. That’s easier said than done, however, and the Mets’ window is now. Playing a below-average offensive first baseman who contributes nothing on the bases or in the field is not a winning strategy, and with generally falling prices for defensively-limited sluggers, the Mets could find themselves an upgrade at an affordable price.
The Best Options
The top of the first base market is nothing if not polarizing. On the one hand you have Eric Hosmer, perhaps the most consistently overrated player in baseball. Coming off his best ever season at age 28—a 4.1 fWAR year buoyed by a .351 BABIP—Hosmer and agent Scott Boras will be looking for a long contract worth more than $20 million per year, something that really doesn’t make sense for a player who has averaged less than two fWAR per season over the last four years. Boras reportedly will try to sell teams on Hosmer’s “intangibles,” and I think this tweet from Dan Szymborski sums up the correct response to that pitch:
Maybe they can intangibly compensate him for intangibles.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) October 12, 2017
On the other hand, you have Carlos Santana, an older, less flashy option who has nonetheless nearly doubled Hosmer’s production since 2014. Santana is an on-base machine who contributes good defense and solid power from both sides of the plate. Despite this disparity in tangible production, Santana is expected to receive a much smaller offer than Hosmer, with MLBTR predicting a three-year, $45 million deal. For a player who has never posted less than two wins in a full season, that’s a tremendous bargain.
If there’s any benefit to the Mets’ absurd salary restrictions this offseason, it’s that they won’t get sucked in to what will almost certainly be a terrible contract for Hosmer. On the other hand, management may feel holes elsewhere on the team prohibit them from allocating $15 million to first base—despite the sort of bargain that could get them in Santana.
The Breakout Performers
In the year of the juiced ball, two first baseman were at the forefront. Yonder Alonso, after years of failing to deliver on his prospect pedigree, totally changed his launch angle and approach and started hitting bombs en route to a 132 wRC+ with the A’s and Mariners. Logan Morison’s story is almost identical, as he hit a whopping 38 homers and posted a 130 wRC+ for the Rays.
Both Morrison and Alonso are 30 years old, and both are expected to receive significant contracts (3/$36 million for Morrison, 2/$22 million for Alonso per MLBTR). At that price range, which is essentially a third of the Mets’ offseason budget, both offer significant regression risk due to their nonexistent track record. At the same time, either player would be a bargain at that price if they can reproduce their 2017 production. Debate over the sustainability of these breakouts will be one of the more interesting topics of the offseason.
A Familiar Face
Lucas Duda, aka the Good first baseman, is a free agent as well. He struggled after being traded to Tampa Bay, ending the season with his worst offensive performance since 2012, discounting his injury-shortened 2016. Lingering back issues have continued to plague Duda, and it seems unlikely that he’ll rebound to his 2014/15 levels of offense.
That being said, Duda should come fairly cheaply, with MLBTR predicting a one year, $6 million contract. For that low of a cost, Duda would be a solid gamble, offering potentially huge cost-to-value if he can have a bounce back year. With the budget being what it is, the Mets likely need to hit on a couple such signings in order to be competitive, making Duda at least a semi-interesting option.
Fringe Veteran Options
Should the Mets decide to take a platoon approach at first with Wilmer Flores providing the right-handed half, there are some interesting options. Adam Lind has a long track record of mashing right handed pitching and is coming off a strong season with the Nationals. Tyler Moore and John Jaso are less accomplished players in the same mold.
The Mets could also opt to use Flores elsewhere on the infield and grab a right-handed caddie for Smith. Mark Reynolds is coming off a couple of solid seasons in Colorado, though he showed some reverse platoon splits. Danny Valencia has bounced around for years as a lefty-killer, and he had another strong year in that role in Seattle. Any of these platoon options could likely be signed at an affordable cost, even by the Mets’ standards.