As we inch closer to the start of spring training, the Mets began rounding out their bench, adding Albert Almora and Jonathan Villar on modest deals over the past few days. Corey Oswalt and Brad Brach were DFA’d to make room on the 40-man roster for the new additions.
We’ll start with Almora, who was non-tendered by the Cubs earlier this offseason. Once a top prospect, Almora was a below average but playable hitter early in his career who could play a decent centerfield. The defense is still roughly there, but his offense has significantly declined in the last three years. His exit velocity (which was never particularly strong to begin with) and LD% both slipped in 2018 and 2019, and his 2020 was a total disaster as he unsuccessfully tried to lift the ball more and just wound up striking out instead.
Is his offensive profile salvageable? Possibly, but expecting anything more than a DRC+ in the 90-95 range from Almora is unreasonable at this point, even if he was once a prospect of some regard. It’s worth noting that his best season with the Cubs came under Chili Davis, who is now the Mets’ hitting coach; perhaps that connection is a reason for optimism. Almora has also historically hit lefties better than righties, a platoon split that should prove useful given the Mets’ left-hand heavy outfield mix.
Villar is the more interesting signing of the two, simply because he has an elite skill - speed. Since he became a full time player in 2016, only Billy Hamilton has stolen more bases than Villar, who has swiped 176 bags with nearly an 80% success rate over the past half-decade. He’s shown no signs of decline in that department as he’s moved into his late 20’s either, registering 56 steals in 70 tries over the past two seasons.
The rest of Villar’s production is much more a mixed bag. He’s been a viable hitter at times - 101 DRC+ in 2016, 94 in 2019 - and a disaster at others - 63 in 2020, 64 in 2017. He hits for occasional power, but has a career ISO under .150. Nominally, he can play both middle infield spots and saw some time in centerfield last year for the Marlins, but he’s a negative defender anywhere but second base (though it’s worth noting the sample size for his CF defense is extremely small).
It’s those warts that have led to Villar being traded three times in the last three seasons, then left out in the cold in free agency. At the same time, those warts make Villar a compelling bench option. Worst case, he brings defensive flexibility and a single elite skill that can be leveraged off the bench. Beyond that, there’s the 3-WARP level upside he’s demonstrated if everything clicks, making him someone who could more than adequately fill in in case of injury or even potentially push for a starting spot if an incumbent is struggling.
We could get further into the weeds profiling both these players, but that’s likely superfluous when discussing additions of this nature. As a high-level summary, they Mets spent just over $5 million to add both a reasonable backup CF and an exciting utility option who brings an element of speed that the roster was sorely lacking. Having Almora (and possibly Villar, depending on what you think of his defensive potential in center) as the only true center fielder(s) on the roster isn’t ideal, but that’s more a quibble with the overarching strategy of the offseason rather than these moves specifically.
The Villar signing is an easy A, a cheap gamble on upside with utility even if things don’t work out. As for Almora, the grade isn’t quite as good. Other options were better defensively (Jake Marisnick) or brought more usable offensive skills to the table, be that speed (Delino DeShields Jr.), a more leverageable platoon split (Kevin Pillar), or just a generally better bat (David Dahl). A lot of this comes down to personal preference or your opinion on what Almora’s upside is, and ultimately these are minor concerns over a marginal roster spot. Because of that, the Almora signing still earns a B-.