The 2021 Mets are one of the most fascinatingly constructed teams in recent memory, due to their abundance of offensive prowess and their absolute lack of outfield defense. Because of not wanting to shell out big bucks to either George Springer or, as of yet, Jackie Bradley Jr, the Mets are likely going to be relying on an everyday outfield of Dominic Smith in left, Brandon Nimmo in center, and Michael Conforto in right. This is not ideal, though offensively it would be one of the strongest outfields in baseball.
It is because of this outfield that the Mets’ bench is so important this year. While yes, they need guys who can take reps at all the other positions as well, the outfield bench spots are likely to be the most valuable.
The two players who seem like a lock for both the bench and some outfield playing time are the newly signed Kevin Pillar and the only-slightly-less-newly signed Jonathan Villar. Pillar had a strong 2020, and while not the Gold Glove caliber defender he once was, is a solid center fielder and a clear upgrade over the in-house options. Pillar is also right handed, and will likely see starts whenever the Mets face a lefty. He has consistently hit lefties pretty well; over the last five seasons, only in the 2018 season did he not have a significant platoon advantage against southpaws.
Villar is a switch-hitting utility player who could likely fake it anywhere other than catcher or pitcher for the Mets this year. He has logged a little time in center field, and will likely get a few looks there during spring training to ascertain how useful he could be in that role, if need be. With Pillar on the roster, Villar’s center field time is likely cut down, but that is not a bad thing at all, as his versatility will find him reps all over the diamond.
The Mets did sign another outfielder earlier this month, inking Albert Almora Jr to a major league contract. Almora seems like, at best, a fifth outfielder for the Mets and, due to his still having a minor league option left, a good candidate to begin the year in Syracuse. The $1.25 million contract shouldn’t be so rich that it can’t be eaten for some outfield depth for the upper minors, or as a pure defensive replacement late in games.
And then, there is the curious case of Jose Martinez. While technically listed on the Mets’ depth chart at both corner outfield positions, as well as first base, Martinez is essentially their right handed masher off the bench who, mercifully, will see little time in the field. Martinez signed a split contract, and so it would not be surprising to see him spend a fair amount of time in Syracuse when the Mets have more pressing bench needs. That said, he mashes lefties and is a right handed complement to a very left handed lineup, and so may stick around Queens just for that pop off the bench.
A consistent presence on the Mets’ bench is Luis Guillorme, a defense first player who, when given the opportunity to play more, has shown some signs of life with his bat as well. Guillorme is the primary backup shortstop - a role that Villar could also handle in a pinch - and will likely see playing time at second and third base as well. Guillorme’s playing time may be a little lessened this year with the durable Francisco Lindor manning shortstop and Villar able to fill in elsewhere in the infield, but his role on the big league club seems secure, especially as a potential defensive replacement for J.D. Davis late in games.
That leaves backup catcher Tomas Nido as the final man on the bench. Nido, who is inconveniently out of minor league options, has never really impressed on either side of the ball for the Mets. However, Sandy Alderson has been reluctant to cut players with no benefit, and so it doesn’t seem like the Mets are going to add a better backup catcher before the start of the season.
That’s a bad thing, because James McCann is neither as young nor as durable as you’d like a catcher with a backup of Nido to be. McCann has never caught in more than 114 games in a season, which means that we may be looking at 50 or so starts from Nido. With Tyler Flowers still out there, it seems silly to not take a flier on a guy with far more MLB success under his belt when you may need nearly a third of the season from your backup. The fact that so many catchers who got significant at-bats in 2019 and 2020 signed minor league deals this offseason (Tony Wolters, Kevan Smith, Sandy Leon, Bryan Holaday, Drew Butera, Wellington Castillo, Bruce Maxwell) is a real damning hole in the Mets’ winter. Compound that with losing Ali Sanchez due to a 40-Man Roster crunch, and the Mets could really use some catching help.
Despite the catching situation, the bench actually looks fairly solid. There is no one on the bench, save Nido, who would likely need to step into a long term role where the team would be at a huge disadvantage. If injuries hit any of their infielders, the versatility of the roster would plug in the hole relatively easily, at least on a short term basis. While Pillar is no one’s choice for an everyday player, he doesn’t represent the drop off in production that Almora does if he needs to log significant playing time.
Could the Mets do more? Absolutely; a backup catcher and perhaps another player or two on split or minor league deals to supplement the bench may not be the sexiest moves of the offseason, but will either pay off in spades down the road or simply be upper minors depth. Neither is a bad outcome, and with a team that could really use another starter or two, another reliever or two, and maybe an everyday center fielder, the ability to pick up some of that load from the bench is key to a successful 2021.