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Staff AAOP: One does not simply walk into the playoffs

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A Lord of the Rings themed path to contention for the Mets.

Though they didn’t make the playoffs, the Mets had a reasonably successful 2019. Pete Alonso took home Rookie of the Year, Jacob deGrom won the Cy Young for a second straight year, and several other young players blossomed into major contributors. At the same time, there was plenty of bad, chief among them being the Braves winning the division and the Nationals winning the World Series while the Mets sat at home in October.

(Odd to make the Mets the evil Maiar in this analogy, but work with me here.) If the Mets want to get past their major obstacles on the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm in the NL East, some improvements will have to be made without much of a budget. Let’s get to work.

Arbitration:

The Mets have a very full arbitration class this year, with nine players eligible. Eight of those nine will be tendered contracts, with Joe Panik the lone non-tender. Panik was a useful piece down the stretch, but his offense has been extremely limited for several years, and a $5 million backup infielder is not in our budget.

Trades:

Wilson Ramos, Andres Gimenez, Mark Vientos, Stephen Nogosek to the Pirates
Starling Marte, Keone Kela to the Mets

For the second season in a row, the Mets will be trading away a big prospect package, though this time the position player is the bigger get. This time around, the Pirates are the dancing partner sending, Starling Marte and Keone Kela to Flushing in exchange for Andres Gimenez, Mark Vientos, Wilson Ramos, and Stephen Nogosek. It’s a hefty price to pay, but it’s a big upgrade for the Mets in two major areas of need.

Marte has been one of the most consistently good outfielders in baseball since he took over a starting role in 2013. Aside from a suspension-shortened 2017, Marte has posted 3-4.5 wins annually, providing a speed, defense, and more recently power while holding down either the cavernous left field in Pittsburgh or center field. His contract is a huge bargain, with club options essentially locking him in to a three-year, $34 million deal. At 31, he’s probably at the tail-end of his prime, but he’s a significant upgrade in center. Kela, meanwhile, has a well-earned reputation as something of a hot-head and likely played a role in the toxic clubhouse in Pittsburgh last season. He’s also a solid, affordable reliever, one who can generate a ton of strikeouts while working in a setup role and who will hopefully mature after last season’s blowups.

From the Pirates perspective, this is a realization of their current place on the competitive totem pole. After a 69-win season somehow got even worse due to late season controversies (including a fight in the bullpen and the arrest of their closer for reprehensible off-field actions), the Pirates trade their oldest core piece in exchange for a couple of top prospects, one who is just about ready to make a major league impact. Wilson Ramos heads to Pittsburgh as well, as the Mets pay a little bit extra in prospect capital for the Pirates to take on a one-year salary load. The Pirates could also use a body at catcher as well, so Ramos has at least some degree of utility for them.

Dominic Smith, Kevin Smith to the Rangers
Jose Leclerc to the Mets

This trade will likely be very unpopular among a small section of the Met fanbase, but I’m sticking to my guns. Dominic Smith’s bat showed promise in 2019, but he still has no place on the current Met roster and his offensive output may well have been a sole product of the juiced ball. He’d be better served on a team that can give him an everyday role as a starting first baseman, and the Mets need relief help.

Enter the Rangers. Ronald Guzman has yet to hit a lick (by 1B standards), leaving the first base job up for the taking. The short right-field porch in Arlington would benefit Dom greatly, as the Rangers acquire their potential first baseman of the future. Coming to the Mets is 25-year-old Jose Leclerc, an electric reliever that the Rangers locked up to a dirt cheap contract that goes through 2025 after his breakout in 2018. He slipped a bit in 2019, however, losing the closer’s role as his command came and went. The stuff is still elite -evidenced by a 13.11 K/9 in 2019 - and Leclerc is young and cheap, making him an ideal addition to the Met bullpen.

Free Agents:

Yasmani Grandal
Age: 31 | Bats: S | C

The first free agent addition is an obvious one. Yasmani Grandal is the best catcher in baseball, and the Mets made a huge mistake by not ponying up for his services last offseason. With Wilson Ramos traded, the way is cleared to rectify that error, and a 4-year, $70 million should be enough to massively upgrade their catching depth chart on both sides of the ball. It’s a risky proposition, handing a big contract to a catcher that extends into his mid 30’s, but Grandal just put up his best ever season at 30 and has shown no signs of slowing down.

Drew Pomeranz
Age: 30 | Throws: L | RP

Pomeranz went from disastrously awful starter in the first half to elite reliever in the second half, proving to be an integral part of Milwaukee’s bullpen down the stretch. By leaning on his two best offerings - a rising fastball and a dastardly curveball - Pomeranz blew hitters away for 26.1 innings, running a robust 15.4 K/9 and a patently absurd DRA- of 10 (90% better than league average). That run will likely pump up his market, but the Mets snag him here by offering a critical third guaranteed year.

Danny Salazar
Age: 29 | Throws: R | SP

Having used most of our budget on other acquisitions, the fifth rotation spot remains problematic. With only a few dollars left to spend, we swing for the fences, gambling on the health of Danny Salazar on a cheap, prove-it deal. Salazar has missed much of the last two seasons due to shoulder troubles - always a big concern for a pitcher - and opted for free agency rather than an assignment to the minor leagues. When he was on the mound, he had some of the best strikeout stuff of any starter, consistently running K/9’s in the high 9’s or low 10’s (10.47 for his career).

The health risk is very real, but the upside is potentially huge. Moreover, previous additions have given the Mets several other viable options for the 5th rotation spot. Leclerc saw time as an opener in 2019, Pomeranz has been a starter for much of his career, and Robert Gsellman was a starter as recently as two seasons ago. Any of these pitchers could work as openers or piggyback starters. It’s not an ideal scenario (that would be signing Gerrit Cole), but there are several viable, potentially strong backup plans in place if Salazar’s shoulder limits his innings, forces him to the bullpen, or prevents him from pitching entirely.

A conversation after realizing there’s no money for a bonafide 5th starter.

The Rule 5 Draft:

Note: two of these guys (Jones and Jefferies) got protected. I didn’t have time to adjust the graphics or the writeup, but here are a couple of interesting replacement names: Ljay Newsome, Brooks Kriske, Zack Brown, Eli White.

With the addition of the 26th roster spot, the Rule 5 draft becomes a more interesting exercise. A fifth spot on the bench will allow many squads to gamble on upside or simply hide a potential prospect for a whole season. The Mets should leverage this opportunity themselves, and there are several names worth highlighting:

Brett Cumberland
Age: 24 | Bats: S | C

Cumberland is a bat first catcher who missed much of 2019 due to injury. He’s hit at every level he’s been at so far, however, demonstrating both power and patience from both sides of the plate. There’s a decent chance he won’t stick there, but reports from the start of 2019 mentioned improved defense and some reasons for optimism. The Mets’ upper-minors catching depth chart is quite poor, with Tomas Nido and Ali Sanchez projected as the backup and third catchers currently. Cumberland’s upside makes him a worthwhile gamble, and he could survive the whole season as Grandal’s backup provided his defense isn’t catastrophically awful. He’d be my number one priority in the draft.

Jahmai Jones
Age: 22 | Bats: R | 2B

Jones has long been regarded as a highly athletic upside-play who just needed to put it together on the diamond. After two position changes and numerous swing changes, that hasn’t happened, and some combination of prospect fatigue and legitimate concern about his lack of development have lowered his stock. Jones could still be a sneaky stash play, and could be tossed into the competition for the final spot on the bench. If he sticks, the upside is significant. If he can’t hack it, the cost is minimal, and someone else takes the job.

Daulton Jefferies
Age: 24 | Throws: R | SP/RP

Another Cal standout, Jefferies hasn’t pitched much for the A’s since being drafted due to a litany of injuries, including Tommy John surgery. He was excellent in his first healthy season in 2019, however, befuddling Double-A hitters with his trademark changeup en-route to a 10.29 K/BB in 64 innings split between starting a relief. Jefferies would be an ideal candidate to compete for the bullpen or even the 5th spot in the rotation, and could push the Mets to option Robert Gsellman to Triple-A if he wins a spot out of spring training.

Minor League Free Agents:

I won’t talk too much in this section, as this area of roster building should largely be an exercise in patience and watching who the market forgets. The goal would be to find a 5th bench bat as well as upper minors depth. Priority options are highlighted in blue, with Dilson Herrera, Scooter Gennett, Alex Wood, and Matt Moore being of particular interest:

Final Roster:

The clubhouse staff’s reaction to all the new faces in Spring Training.

Here is our final roster. Two quick notes - first the potential Rule 5 options mentioned previously are not included here, as predicting exactly how protections, the draft, and spring training competition will play out is challenging. Second, Herrera’s spot is italicized as it will be the product of competition between internal options, Rule 5 picks, and minor league signings during spring training:

Our balance sheet is below, with returning players in black, arbitration players in orange, new players in blue, and the lone roster-hold in red:

Things are a bit tight, but we remain below our ceiling thanks to some backloading on major contracts. Grandal gives the Mets a third large long term contract, but it’s hardly an untenable financial situation, particularly for a New York team that has never gone beyond the luxury tax. As for the final product, the everyday lineup looks something like this:

CF - Starling Marte
3B - Jeff McNeil
RF - Michael Conforto
1B - Pete Alonso
C - Yasmani Grandal
2B - Robinson Cano
SS - Amed Rosario
LF - Brandon Nimmo

J.D. Davis, meanwhile, can get four starts a week, leveraging his and Jeff McNeil’s flexibility to get everyone at least one off day every other week. In this way, the skills of an already talented lineup can be maximized by keeping everyone healthy and fresh throughout the season. The strength of the front of the rotation speaks for itself, and the depth of a solid bullpen should help cover the weaknesses of the backend starters.

In closing, this team looks strong enough to take a crack at the defending champs and make a serious run in the NL East. Hopefully we all wind up as pleased as Gandalf by the end of 2020.