After the conclusion of the 2018 season, it was abundantly clear that the Mets needed to make some major changes if they were going to make any noise in 2019. Brodie Van Wagenen took over as GM, and he very quickly started changing the dynamic of the team. The area that he took aim at the most was the infield, where he made significant changes and added immense depth.
Last year, the team went into Opening Day with Todd Frazier, Amed Rosario, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Adrian Gonzalez as the starters around the diamond. Wilmer Flores and Jose Reyes were the reserve infielders, and Kevin Plawecki and Travis d’Arnaud were supposed to platoon at catcher. Needless to say, that infield alignment did not hold up over the course of the season.
d’Arnaud got hurt in the second week of April, Gonzalez was released in June, Cabrera was traded in August, Reyes was one of the worst players in baseball, and while Frazier, Rosario, and Flores didn't have terrible years, they weren’t particularly great, either. Jay Bruce played lots of first base after Gonzalez was released, Jose Lobaton wound up in 22 games, and Jack Reinheimer was receiving an appreciable amount of playing time by the end of the year. Jeff McNeil was called up in July to play second base, and in 63 games accrued more fWAR than any other infielder had over the entire year. By season’s end, it was clear that the infield needed to be improved quite a bit.
So Van Wagenen went to work and overhauled nearly the entire infield. Reyes, Bruce, Flores, and Plawecki are all gone. There are new additions or prospects at every position besides shortstop, and there is more depth and versatility now than there ever was under Sandy Alderson.
Amed Rosario is the only real constant from last year to this year. The young shortstop enters his second full season manning short for the Mets after making significant strides last year. While an 85 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR in 154 games doesn’t exactly jump off the page, a 102 wRC+ after August 1 does raise some hope for the talented 23-year-old. At the very least, if his 2018 output is around his floor, then he will probably be a fine starting shortstop for several years.
Behind him on the depth chart, Luis Guillorme and the newly added Adeiny Hechavarria make up rather solid shortstop depth. While neither would be confused for a starting player on a winning team, both are great second or third options to have. Both players can be above replacement-level just for their defense alone. Guillorme will likely start the year in the big leagues after a great spring training, but Hechavarria also figures to spend a good amount of time in Flushing this year. The skill sets of both players are quite similar, though Hechavarria is probably a slightly safer bet offensively after Guillorme struggled to a 53 wRC+ in his brief MLB stint last year.
Over at third base, Todd Frazier returns after a season last year in which he played in 115 games—his fewest total since becoming a full-time player at the MLB level—and posted the worst wRC+ of his career at 93. He was still worth 1.5 fWAR because of his defense, but that’s not enough to render him a reliable starting third baseman. That’s why Van Wagenen brought in Jed Lowrie this offseason, who looks to get most of the reps at third base once he recovers from his oblique issue that kept him out of all of spring training.
Lowrie has been worth 8.5 fWAR over the last two seasons, and just had a career-best 122 wRC+ at age 34 in 2018. Turning 35 in a few weeks, Lowrie may not replicate his offensive success of the last few years, but if he’s healthy, he should be above-average both offensively and defensively, and should be a boon to the Mets’ lineup. He will likely push Frazier to more of a bench/utility role once both players are healthy.
For depth at third, the Mets will have J.D. Davis, who was acquired in a trade over the offseason. Davis will start the year as a bench player, but he is a fine backup option. Fangraphs ranked him as the Astros’ ninth-best prospect before 2018. While he has struggled to hit in the big leagues so far and his defense at third isn’t great, he still possesses plus-plus raw power and sported a 156 wRC+ at Triple-A last year, so there is still a bit of promise there.
With both Frazier and Lowrie on the IL to start the year, it looked early on in spring training like Davis could be the Opening Day third baseman. However, that honor looks to be going to McNeil instead, and he’ll likely get most of the reps there until either Lowrie or Frazier is ready to come off the IL.
McNeil is looking to build off a torrid rookie season in which he hit .329/.381/.471. He didn’t exactly show signs of slowing down this spring, either. McNeil only played in four games at the hot corner last year, but he has appeared in 151 career games there in the minor leagues so his defense there should not be an issue.
As mentioned, McNeil played most of his games last year at second base, and at the start of the offseason, it looked like McNeil would simply assume his role there for 2019. But those plans were quickly foiled once the Mets traded for Robinson Cano. The eight-time All-Star is going to be locked in at the keystone position for the Mets for several years, and the only way anyone else plays second base this year is if Cano needs a day off (and he does not take many), or if the he gets hurt.
And if that happens, the Mets seemingly have second base depth coming out of their eyeballs. Lowrie or McNeil could both easily slide over and play second at a moment’s notice, and behind them, the Mets possess plenty of options on the bench and in the minors as well. Guillorme, Hechavarria, Danny Espinosa, Gavin Cecchini, Dilson Herrera, and even Ruben Tejada are all emergency second base options that could be called upon if needed. Now, none of those are names you want to see in the starting lineup everyday, but most of them have a good chance of being better than the Reinheimers, Matt Reynolds, and Danny Munos of the world that the Mets have relied on in recent years when they needed an emergency infielder.
Meanwhile, the biggest story of Mets spring training has been the first base battle between Dominic Smith and Peter Alonso. Since both players have had great springs, it looks very likely that the Mets will bypass manipulating Alonso’s service time and will call up both players to start the year. However, since the Mets don’t have a DH and neither Alonso or Smith can play anywhere else besides first base, it’s unclear how the team plans on deploying its two young first basemen.
Smith has struggled in his big league career to the tune of a 70 wRC+ and -1.0 fWAR in 105 games over the last two seasons. There can’t be a large leash for him now, as Alonso easily has the higher upside of the two and has put on a display of raw power throughout spring training that has made everyone to drool over his potential. Alonso has the offensive tools to be a star, so it’s very possible for him to run away with the job on a full-time basis and render Smith redundant on the roster. If Alonso struggles to adapt to MLB pitching, though, look for him to be sent down to recoup the service time and for Smith to get the everyday chance once again. And if Smith struggles too, there are still options beyond him as well. Frazier can move over to first when he is healthy, and Davis can also be called upon to get some time there.
Behind the plate, Wilson Ramos joins the Mets after years of being a nemesis with the Nationals. Ramos hit for a 131 wRC+ for the Rays last year and was worth 2.1 fWAR with FanGraphs’ new framing metric, which is more value than all of the Mets’ catchers combined for in total last year. Unfortunately, Ramos’s biggest flaw is his lack of ability to stay on the field, playing in only 111 games last year and 64 the year before, which is why the Mets were very careful to stock up on catching depth.
Plawecki may have been traded, but Travis d’Arnaud is back and seemingly healthy after Tommy John surgery last year. Despite that, it looks like he will start the year on the IL just to get him more acclimated to catching and throwing in rehab or extended spring training. As such, Tomas Nido will presumably start the year in the big leagues. Nido’s profile is simple: he’s a great defender who frames very well and calls a good game, but his offense still needs tons of work; he hit for just a 20 wRC+ in 94 MLB plate appearances last year. But this time, the alternative options are much better than Lobaton.
The fourth catcher was supposed to be Devin Mesoraco, who re-joined the Mets on a minor-league deal, but was under the impression that he was above Nido on the depth chart and would start the year in the big leagues. He was not, after all, and he did not want to go to the minors without seeing what other options he had. He requested his release, which the Mets have not yet granted. If they choose not to release him, Mesoraco plans to retire.
In response to that fiasco, the team went out this week and picked up an old friend, Rene Rivera, to replace Mesoraco in the organization. Rivera was released by the Giants last week. He had spent the 2018 season in Anaheim and put up a 90 wRC+ in 33 games for the Angels. He’s still the same player that he was in 2016 and 2017 for the Mets: a very good defender that pitchers like throwing to, and he isn’t a complete sinkhole offensively. He’s a fine backup to have on board and should be with the big league club at some point.
All in all, the Mets have made drastic changes at second base, third base, and catcher. They should be significantly improved at each position, with depth in spades and lots of versatility in case of injury or underperformance. Alonso and/or Smith should boon the first base offense, and Rosario will continue to grow as a shortstop. If the Mets are going to make the playoffs this year, the additions to the infield will likely be a big reason why.