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Staff AAOP 2018-2019: Bite my shiny metal WINZ

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Bear with my lack of artistic creativity as I put together a competitive Mets’ team.

Every year, the AAOP contest is one of the highlights of the offseason (particularly when the Mets don’t do anything fun or good). This year, a group of writers wanted to get in on the action, and put together our own AAOPs. The judgement criteria are the same - and you can read them here - and you, the readers, get to vote on which writer put together the most well executed and entertaining plan. We’ll be publishing four staff AAOPs today, and putting out a poll tomorrow morning.


The Mets haven’t made the playoffs in two seasons, and they haven’t had a particularly good team since 2015. Despite that, management has continually brought back the same players, running it back each year instead of trying to fix any of the glaring holes in the roster. The results, predictably, have only gotten worse, and window to win with the current core won’t be open much longer.

Rather than wasting guys like Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Jeff McNeil (much like the Mets did with Jose Reyes and David Wright), we’re going to build a real contender for 2019. No more veteran retreads or re-signings of the same square pegs that still don’t fit the round holes in the Met roster.

So bear with me, my walls of text, and my lack of PAINTZ (aside from that terrible starter image), and let’s get this show on the road, as we try to avoid the ignominious fate of going a whole millennium without a championship.

Needs

  • Embrace Homegrown Stars - Give us McNeil...and also Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Noah Syndergaard. All of these guys have earned starting spots, and we won’t be replacing them with retreads or trading them away for scraps.
  • Right Handed Bat - Yoenis Cespedes can not be relied on in 2019, even if a reasonable recovery timeline has him returning in the second half. The risk of setbacks is far too real, and it’s entirely possible he’s never the same player again. That leaves the Mets with a very lefty-heavy lineup; Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Jeff McNeil, the three best hitters on the team, all bat from the left side. Peter Alonso could help here in theory, but relying outright on a rookie to be a central part of your offense is not something a smart team does.
  • CF/OF, C, 1B - On a more position specific note, the Mets have several holes. Jay Bruce could cover either a corner outfield spot or 1B, but he’s not particularly good, and ideally he’s not on the team next year (we’ll get to that in a moment). Brandon Nimmo or Michael Conforto can play an adequate CF, allowing flexibility to add a corner outfielder instead. Additional 1B depth to hedge against Alonso struggling would be great. Lastly, there’s plenty of room to upgrade at C, and a plethora of options on the market.
  • Bullpen - Simply put, the Mets need almost an entire bullpen. Almost none of the fringey reliever prospects that they’ve traded for over the past two seasons have panned out, and Robert Gsellman hasn’t developed as hoped. That leaves Seth Lugo as the only reliable reliever, a role he’s arguably wasted in if not deployed as a multi-inning fireman.
  • Starting Pitching depth - deGrom, Thor, and Wheeler make for a fearsome top 3, but Wheeler has a long history of injuries. The same goes for Steven Matz, the presumptive #4 starter. Jason Vargas was a disaster for much of the season, and the depth behind him isn’t great (Chris Flexen, possible Justin Dunn and David Peterson if they’re developmental timelines are sped up, Lugo from the bullpen). The rotation doesn’t need a star addition, but it could use some reinforcement.

Non-Tenders

Our first move of the offseason will be to non-tender Wilmer Flores. That’s sad to hear, since he’s one of the most loved players on the roster, but he’s a right-handed (mostly) platoon bat that shouldn’t be playing anywhere other than first base and has arthritic knees. That’s not a particularly useful player, and it’s definitely not worth $4.7 million.

We’ll also cut loose Travis d’Arnaud, who I’ve long been a fan of. However, he just has never been able to stay healthy, and he hasn’t been a particularly good hitter since 2015. Kevin Plawecki, meanwhile, has demonstrated that he’s a serviceable option at roughly a third of the price. If either of these guys would accept minor league deals to serve as depth, the Mets should pounce, as they’re both useful bench pieces at lower prices. More than likely, another team will give them major league opportunities, and the Mets will have to look elsewhere.

Trade 1:

Jay Bruce, Robert Gsellman to the Rockies
Jon Gray, Bryan Shaw to the Mets

The Rockies have a really solid pitching staff, and no that’s not a typo. Anchored by Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, and Wade Davis, Colorado has a rotation and bullpen worthy of a contender. One of the guys left on the outside looking in is Jon Gray, the #3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, who wound up in the minors for a portion of the season, and finished with a 5.12 ERA. Shaw, meanwhile, signed a 3 year, $27 million deal last offseason and was a disaster, posting a 5.93 ERA and a 4.92 FIP.

Shaw is an albatross in an area of strength for Colorado, while Bruce is a rough contract in an area that the Rockies actually need help in. The Rockies’ first base depth chart was the second worst in the majors (ahead of only the Orioles) in 2018, and Bruce should provide a steady, slightly above average offensive option there that will deepen a surprisingly thin Rockies’ lineup. Gsellman, meanwhile, is a similarly disappointing pitching prospect to Gray, but one with a ground ball heavy approach that has historically appealed to the Rockies’ decision makers.

For the Mets, this moves gives them a chance to unlock the potential of Gray, who posted brilliant peripherals despite the ugly ERA. Looking past the surface level results (which seems to be what the Rockies care most about), Gray has fantastic strikeout stuff, and would be a high upside #4 in the rotation. With Shaw, the Mets would be banking on reuniting the former Indian with his old pitching coach, Mickey Callaway. In Cleveland, Shaw was one of the better setup men in baseball, and a bounceback would give the Mets a solid 7th inning arm.

Trade 2:

Jarred Kelenic, Andres Gimenez, Ronny Mauricio, Steven Matz to the Mariners
Mitch Haniger to the Mets

Suffice to say, Mitch Haniger is a beast; over the past two seasons he’s posted a 135 wRC+ and more than 7 fWAR over roughly 1000 PA. If the Mariners are really blowing up their roster and Haniger is available, there’s very little in the Mets farm system that the Mets shouldn’t move for a 27-year old, pre-arb, right-handed masher in the outfield who plays solid defense. Haniger fits perfectly in the middle of the lineup, breaking up the Mets’ bevvy of strong lefty bats, and slots nicely into RF, where his above average defense can hopefully pick up some of the slack for Brandon Nimmo in center.

The price here is steep; Matz is a cost-controlled, serviceable starter with upside for more, albeit with an extremely checkered injury history. Gimenez has grown from Ruben Tejada v2.0 into a top 40 prospect, but his utility to the Mets will be limited with Jeff McNeil and Amed Rosario in the middle infield for the foreseeable future. Kelenic, the Mets’ first round selection in the 2018 draft, is a very exciting high school outfielder, but he’s years away from making a major league impact, as is Ronny Mauricio. This is a hefty package, but it’s the cost to acquire an elite, cost-controlled outfielder in his prime, and Haniger is exactly the kind of player you empty the farm for.

Free Agency

Wireless Joe Jackson is off the market, but there are still plenty of useful bats out there to add. We start by rounding out our position players with one big signing and another mid-tier addition:

Yasmani Grandal
Age: 30 | Bats: S | C
4 years, $52 million: $10 million, $14 million, $14 million, $14 million

After J.T. Realmuto, Grandal is far and away the best catcher in baseball. He’s no spring chicken, but he’s an elite hitter for a catcher who hits for power from both sides of the plate. He’s also the best pitch-framer in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’s metrics, as well as the best defensive catcher overall.

There’s certainly risk here. A big contract that runs through age-34 for a catcher is frightening, and some argue that Grandal is not a particularly good game caller. The upside, however, is the best catcher the Mets have had since Piazza. For a team built around it’s pitching, an elite framer who can also help out on the other side of the ball is a perfect fit, and well worth investing in.

Steve Pearce
Age: 35 | Bats: R | 1B/OF
1 year, $8 million

Peter Alonso has spent the better part of the last two seasons annihilating baseballs, and he’s probably just about ready for prime time. Depth is important, however, and the Mets would be well served bringing in a serviceable 1B option who can hold down the job if Alonso struggles or flex around the field if he’s pushed to a bench role.

Enter Steve Pearce, a 35-year-old lefty masher who can hold his own against righties too. He’s coming off a huge year split between the Blue Jays and Red Sox, and has a long track record as a very solid bat. He can also play passable corner outfield defense and, in a pinch, slot in at third base. In an ideal world, he’s the perfect first bat off the bench in the second half of the season once Alonso wrests the 1B job away from him.


With our position player needs addressed and a strong lineup in place, we turn to the more challenging portion of free agency; the pitching. Predicting which relievers will be successful on a year-to-year basis is almost impossible, and historically, ‘cheap’ free agent relievers have been equal or better to their more expensive piers.

This is not an excuse to not spend, and we’ll still start the pitching reinforcements off with a relatively big splash. Rather than continuing at the top of the market, however, we’ll fill out the rest of the bullpen and rotation depth with a handful of more modest signings, building a deep group that won’t crumble with one injury or down year.

Andrew Miller
Age: 34 | Throws: L | RP
2 years, $24 million: $10 million, $12 million, $12 million mutual option with $2 million buyout

Miller’s 2018 was extremely disappointing, with knee, hamstring, and shoulder injuries limiting him to just 34 inning. Miller’s dominance from ‘14-’17 cannot be overstated, however; pitching for the Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, and Indians, Miller racked up four straight seasons of more than 2 fWAR (9.6 in total), with a 1.84 FIP over 260.1 innings. It’s possible the injuries prevent Miller from ever regaining that form, but performing even half as well would still make Miller one of the best relievers in baseball. He’s well worth the risky big contract splash to anchor a shaky bullpen.

Joakim Soria
Age: 34 | Throws: R | RP
2 years, $16 million: $8 million, $8 million

Soria has been around forever it feels like, but 2018 was one of his best seasons ever. With a rejuvenated fastball, the right-hander posted his highest strikeout rate since 2009, leading to a sterling 2.44 FIP. Even better, Soria has a wide arsenal, one that should theoretically let him stay effective even if he can’t sustain his boosted fastball velocity from 2018. He has more than adequate experience as a closer, which will allow Miller to serve as a true fireman, and he’ll also probably cost less than other options who really aren’t any better (like Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, and David Robertson).

Trevor Cahill
Age: 30 | Throws: R | SP/RP
2 years, $14 million: $7 million, $7 million

Cahill was quietly excellent in the first half of 2017, before a shoulder injury derailed his second half with the Royals. Nonetheless, I was banging the table for him last offseason, but the A’s snagged him for next to nothing, and Cahill rewarded them by putting up his best season since 2012. Working mostly as a starter, Cahill posted a 3.76 ERA and a 3.54 FIP over 110 innings, striking out a healthy number of batters and inducing a ton of ground balls. He missed some time with injury (this is Trevor Cahill, remember), and rarely tossed more than five innings, but he was extremely effective when on the mound.

For the Mets, Cahill would serve as a sixth starter and long man out of the bullpen. With Jason Vargas (who is bad) and Zack Wheeler (who is often hurt) penciled into the rotation, there will almost certainly be opportunities to slot into the rotation throughout the season, and starting in the bullpen will allow the Mets to control the workload of a pitcher who hasn’t tossed more than 110 innings in a season since 2013.

Turanga Leela
Age: 27 | Throws: R | RP
1 year, $5 million

A one-eyed sewer mutant from the year 3000, Leela has very little control but an extremely live arm. If her wildness can be reigned in, her blernsball skills would translate nicely to the back-end of the bullpen. If not, she serves as a weapon if intimidation, striking fear into the hearts of opposing batter because she’s going to hit you in the head more likely than not. I’ve been informed time travel is not yet possible, so I’ll have to get bullpen reinforcements from elsewhere.

Carson Smith
Age: 29 | Throws: R | RP
2 years, $4 million: $2 million, $2 million

Smith is very much a gamble based on health. After missing most of 2016 and 2017 while recovering from Tommy John Surgery, smith returned to toss 6.2 excellent innings down the stretch of 2017 and 14.1 solid innings to start 2018. Unfortunately, he then suffered a shoulder subluxation while throwing his glove in frustration, and surgery cut another season short. Now a free agent after the Red Sox outrighted him to the minors, Smith has tantalizing upside - his career strikeout rate (11.38 K/9) and FIP (2.33) are both elite, and he doesn’t need to reach those highs to be a very effective reliever. Giving Smith a short deal that allows him to rebuild his health and value while still giving him a chance to hit free agency relatively young works for both sides, and it’s another potential late inning arm at a very low cost.

Tony Barnette
Age: 35 | Throws: R | RP
1 year, $2 million

Yeah, this one came out of left field a bit. Barnette is anything but a household name, but he’s been solid for the Rangers over the past two seasons after 5 seasons in Japan. Barnette’s season was cut short by a lat strain, but that’s not an injury that leads to or implies many complications. Further, Barnette should be relatively cheap due to his advanced age and limited major league track record. There’s every chance that his reduced walk rate from last season isn’t sustainable and he turns back into a filler arm at best, but gambling $2 million on another potential setup arm is a great way to add additional bullpen depth.

Minor League Free Agents

We’ll separate possible minor league contracts into two tiers. The ‘Priority’ tier contains guys that can directly compete for the final spot on the bench or a spot in the bullpen. These guys might get major league contracts elsewhere, but if they slip through the cracks, we can foster competition in Spring Training by signing some of these guys and perhaps stumble upon a valuable piece.

Beyond these high priority players, there are a bevy of other useful and interesting options to invest in. In particular, the Mets need high minors OF depth and a veteran C to pair with Tomas Nido at Triple-A. More pitching is also always a positive. The table below contains potential minor league signings of interest, with the ‘Priority’ guys highlighted in blue:

Combined with competition from internal options like T.J. Rivera and any potential Rule 5 draft picks, I expect the final bench bat to come from one of these signings. Ideally, this is a short term situation, as Peter Alonso will be called up after the Super 2 deadline and take the starting 1B job, pushing Pearce to the bench.

In terms of looking for sleepers, I won’t go too deep. Finding gems (such as Max Muncy, though he’s an extreme case) is very much dependent on what your scouts and player development guys think they can improve in a player. In general, I’d target any player with a strong walk rate and a good enough contact rate that they can afford to drop a couple percentage points through more aggressive swings. and I’d want my player development team put together a plan on how they’d go about making those adjustments. Something of a non-answer, but making blind acquisitions without communicating with your player development staff is a waste of time and resources.

Conclusions

The Mets’ new four-year balance sheet, with additions highlighted in orange. You’ll notice that there are still very few long term commitments, something that the Wilpons and/or their financiers have always been stingy with:

And now the depth chart, with presumptive minor league depth options listed below their major league roles:

Now that’s a team that looks like a contender on paper. The rotation features a surefire ace, two others who have recent track records of ace-level performance, and another starter who has extremely high upside and fantastic stuff. The bullpen is deep, with two elite arms at the top and a bevvy of veterans with performance or health related bounceback potential. Lugo and Cahill provide depth for the rotation, with a couple other options that won’t sink the Mets’ season (hopefully) in the minors. For the offense, imagine this lineup by midseason:

CF - Brandon Nimmo
2B - Jeff McNeil
RF - Mitch Haniger
LF - Michael Conforto
1B - Peter Alonso
C - Yasmani Grandal
3B - Todd Frazier
SS - Amed Rosario

Yeah, that’ll play. The bench is something of an offensive weak spot, though Guillorme and Lagares are excellent defensive replacements. Pearce being bumped to the bench will provide a boost, as would Yoenis Cespedes potentially returning down the stretch. Bench bats are also fairly cheap to acquire at the trade deadline, so this hole could be addressed further in-season if necessary.

So there you have it - a Met team that has a chance to be legitimately great, with a really fun core of young stars an to root for and enjoy, and we did it all without necessitating a buyout by the Hedonism Bot.

I believe this team would be the best in the division, and at the very least would be a serious wild card contender, and it should remain a strong team for 2020 as well. Sounds like a lot more WINZ to me.