Seemingly out of the blue, the Mets signed Jed Lowrie to a 2 year, $20 million contract on Thursday. The 35-year old infielder and former Brodie Van Wagenen client is a bit of an odd fit, making this one of the more interesting transactions of the offseason to break down.
After close to a decade of being a talented but oft injured infielder for the Red Sox, Astros, and A’s, Lowrie has been a different player over the last two seasons. He posted a 112 DRC+ in 2017 and was even better last year, with a 121 mark. More importantly, he’s played more than 150 games in both seasons, leading 2.4 and 3.6 BWARP. That made him one of the better second baseman in baseball last season, and one of the more underrated players of the past two seasons.
A two to three BWARP pace over the next two seasons is a perfectly reasonable expectation for Lowrie, even when factoring in what is still significant injury potential (unless repairing a deviated septum and sleeping better is the key to having more durable ligaments). The Mets are paying him for less than three wins over the next two seasons in total, so this is a very solid acquisition in a vacuum.
Free agents aren’t signed in a vacuum, however, and Lowrie is an odd fit on this team. Robinson Cano is entrenched at second base and is reportedly unwilling to move off the keystone. Lowrie isn’t a real option at shortstop at 35 - no matter what the Mets say - so he won’t be displacing Amed Rosario. Todd Frazier, Jeff McNeil, Peter Alonso, and the recently acquired J.D. Davis create a logjam at the corner infield spots, and there won’t be many takers if the Mets try to offload Frazier’s contract. Even more odd is that the Mets still have holes elsewhere on the roster, most notably in center field and in the bullpen, but chose to allocate $10 million to another infielder while also repeatedly leaking that they’re out of money.
So how does this odd fit work out? Assuming that Lowrie has been promised playing time, he would optimally start at third base. Todd Frazier would hold down first base until being replaced by Peter Alonso, while Robinson Cano and Amed Rosario would remain in the middle infield. That leaves Jeff McNeil and a hole in center field, and he honestly might be the starter there at this point. Unless he simply can’t track fly balls (and there’s no reason to think he can’t), McNeil has the physical tools to hold down a spot in the outfield, either in center or in a corner that would bump Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo to center. We have no defensive statistics to back this up, but I’m reasonably confident McNeil would be a competent outfielder, and the Lowrie signing allows him to fill the final hole in the Mets lineup.
Under that framework, this signing seems like a prudent move, acquiring a cheaper, healthier, better-hitting option than a free agent outfielder like A.J. Pollock while leveraging Jeff McNeil to create a flexible, deep group of position players. If the Mets wind up throwing McNeil away however, thinking they have adequate infield depth and using the promising infielder as a method of clearing salary (by attaching him to Juan Lagares’s contract, for instance), this move is a net negative.
His missteps with the Davis and Plawecki trades aside, Brodie Van Wagenen has done a good job within the ridiculous constraints of the Wilpons, and he’s earned some level of trust from fans. Because of that, I’ll assume that he isn’t planning to replace McNeil with Lowrie, but rather supplement him to create a very good, flexible lineup with solid depth throughout. That’s a move deserving of an A.