After top first base prospect Dominic Smith‘s poor first major league showing last year, the Mets entered this offseason with a clear plan to hedge their bets at first base. Jay Bruce was added with the idea that he could play the position if needed, and Wilmer Flores and Todd Frazier also offer flexibility at the position. But the Mets decided, before signing Frazier, that still wasn’t enough and opted to ink veteran Adrian Gonzalez to a one-year deal for the major league minimum.
It’s probably worth it to recap how Gonzalez, once one of the game’s most prolific hitters, has gotten to this point. From 2006 to 2015, the first baseman totaled a 133 wRC+, 38.5 fWAR, and 283 home runs over 6,786 plate appearances between the Padres, Red Sox, and Dodgers. In addition to that elite production, he was never hurt, playing in over 150 games in every single one of those ten seasons. In total, he made five All-Star appearances while winning two Silver Slugger awards and four Gold Gloves.
But in 2016, his age-34 season, Gonzalez’s career started to take a downturn. While he still posted a respectable 111 wRC+ that year, it was his lowest wRC+ since 2005, and his fWAR of just 1.2 was also his worst since that season. Things didn’t get much better for Gonzalez in 2017, either. He struggled with back issues the whole year, only playing in 71 games, while posting a not-so-nice 69 wRC+ and a career-worst -1.1 fWAR. He was supplanted by Cody Bellinger at first base for the Dodgers and was eventually left off the postseason roster, which led to his taking a controversial trip to Italy while his team played in the World Series.
Along with his offense, Gonzalez’s defense has taken a nosedive in recent years as well. Once a staunch first base defender, he posted UZR/150’s in the negatives in both 2016 and 2017 (-0.6 and -5.9, respectively). While those numbers aren’t awful, he hadn’t gone consecutive seasons with a UZR/150 below zero since 2007 and 2008.
This winter, the Dodgers, having no use for Gonzalez anymore, traded him in a salary dump to the Braves, who immediately designated him for assignment and eventually released him. That’s when the Mets swooped in and signed Gonzalez for the minimum, which he was willing to accept due to the fact that he will still recieve $21.5 million from the Braves this season.
Gonzalez will enter spring training in a competition with Smith for the full-time gig at first base, but the expectation seems to be that Gonzalez will probably be the Mets’ first baseman to start the season. But given his age, recent history, and contract status, the team will probably have a very short leash with the veteran. If he struggles out of the gate, his MLB-minimum salary makes it very easy to cut ties with him.
The ceiling with the former All-Star is obviously very high, and if he can somehow rekindle his pre-2016 level of production, then the Mets may have struck gold for a bargain price. But the chances of that happening are slim. Either way, the Mets have a lot of options at first base, so they are not bound to Gonzalez by any means. If he flounders, the Mets should waste little time calling up Smith or moving Bruce or Flores to the position on a full-time basis.