In some unexpected and unfortunate news, Robinson Cano was suspended for the entirety of the 2021 season after testing positive for a PED. Cano quietly had an excellent 2020, rebounding to a .316/.352/.544 line good for a 141 wRC+ in 182 plate appearances during his second season in Queens. His defense remained solid at second base, and it seemed like he was a safe bet to post 3-4 wins for the 2021 Mets. That value would have more than justified his $20 million salary—$4 million is still being paid by the Mariners, remember.
Needless to say, this news throws a major wrench into this offseason’s plans, adding second base to center field, catcher, and pitching as positions of need. The immediate internal solution would be to slide Jeff McNeil to second and make J.D. Davis the full time starter at third rather than the first bat off the bench. That’s not an awful solution, but it’d leave the infield depth chart paper-thin, a problem that could be compounded if Davis winds up being traded in a deal for Francisco Lindor.
Moreover, the Mets should be aiming higher anyway if they’re intent on shaking off a well earned, longstanding reputation as cheapskates and building a true contender. Thankfully, there are plenty of creative ways to allocate $20 million in this year’s super soft market. Because of just how many options there are, there are several broad avenues the Mets could go.
Sign a second or third baseman
A direct solution would be to sign a free agent second or third baseman, playing McNeil at the other spot and bumping Davis back to the bench. DJ LeMahieu and Justin Turner are the obvious “high end” solutions, though both strike me as free agent land mines. Kolten Wong and Tommy La Stella each provide 2-3 wins of value—albeit in different ways—and are both projected for a two-year deal in the $15-$18 million range. Cesar Hernandez would be a slightly worse, slightly cheaper option, while Jurickson Profar would be cheaper but riskier swing on upside.
An additional advantage to this avenue: the extra money left over. Outside of LeMaheiu and Turner, none of these players should command an AAV over $10 million, meaning the Mets would still have at least half of Cano’s money to allocate to something else. That’d cover the cost of Brad Hand or possibly Charlie Morton, or it could go towards another big free agent. The downside is that if any of Wong, La Stella, or any of the other infield options wind up as one of the three or four biggest moves of the offseason, it will have been an extremely underwhelming slate of additions.
Sign a shortstop
Thinking more outside-the-box, the Mets could forego a pursuit of Francisco Lindor and instead sign a free agent shortstop to bump Andres Gimenez to second. Ha-Seong Kim would be an exciting swing at long term upside given his impressive KBO performance, age, and underlying skills. Marcus Semien would be an intriguing bet on his MVP-caliber 2019, a gamble that could pay huge dividends at an AAV in the low-teens. Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons would also be intriguing options in this vein, albeit ones with less upside.
Similar to the previous solution, adding a shortstop would also likely leave a bit of Cano’s money left over, though not near as much. Still, $5 million on this market could very well be enough for a quality reliever like Trevor May or Kirby Yates. There’s also the additional complication of what to do with Cano if and when he returns in 2022, as all these players would require deals longer than a single season.
Do nothing in the infield
As we discussed, having McNeil and Davis on the roster means the Mets in theory have a viable replacement for Cano on hand. With perhaps a cheap bench addition or two—Jedd Gyorko and/or Jonathan Villar, for instance—the infield group would be tenable if not elite. Perhaps increased prospect capital allows the Mets to hold on to Davis in a Lindor deal, or maybe the organization just rolls into the season with Gimenez as the starter.
Doing nothing means additions have to be made elsewhere though. Cano’s cash could be used to sign both of George Springer and J.T. Realmuto rather than only one of them, for instance. Alternatively, dumping that money into more quality pitching could also make up for Cano’s lost contributions. This avenue feels underwhelming but could still be viable if the Mets are willing to spend big in a depressed market.
Swing a trade
If the Mets are unimpressed by any of the potential free agent solutions, there are some notable trade candidates. The Cubs seem poised to tear things down and have Kris Bryant due about $19 million in his final year of arbitration. Bryant had a miserable 2020 and some concerning struggles with a shoulder injury, but the star level upside is apparent. He could also make sense as a long-term extension candidate (in place of or, in an unlikely situation, in addition to Lindor) if he’s healthy and bounces back. He could also work as a rental piece if the Mets intend for Cano to be part of the organization in the final two years of his contract.
Nolan Arenado is another name that would make sense, though the financial commitment would be bigger and more challenging. Arenado has six years at roughly a $33 million AAV remaining on a deal that takes him through his age-36 season—a fair contract for someone of his talent level—but also has a 2021 opt-out that makes surrendering a large trade package somewhat unappealing. He also obviously costs more than Cano would have this season and could create a complicated financial situation in 2022 if Cano returns to the team.
A modified proposal for Lindor also merits discussion. While most speculative frameworks have centered around Andres Gimenez, Davis, and a top prospect like Matthew Allan or Francisco Alvarez, perhaps that could be tweaked. For instance, maybe the Indians take Amed Rosario instead of Gimenez if another high-end prospect is included, allowing Gimenez to slide to second for a season. This seems sub-optimal given that another trade would likely be necessary in the future to get maximum value out of Gimenez, but could be viable in the short term.
In the end, there are enough options that losing Cano doesn’t actually have to hurt the Mets for 2021. Given how cheap quality players are right now, it’s possible and perhaps even probable that his $20 million can be spent more effectively. That doesn’t erase the sting of this news, and we’ve yet to get any real evidence that the new ownership group will spend, but if their money is where their mouth is, the Mets can overcome this obstacle without much difficulty.