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Load Management and the Designated Hitter: Mets edition

When the lockout ends, the Mets need to approach the DH with flexibility in mind.

New York Mets v New York Yankees - Game Two Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

While Major League Baseball is currently embroiled in a lockout that has the beginning of the 2022 season in peril, we know one thing about the future of baseball: It will include the universal designated hitter, bringing the position to the National League on a permanent basis.

Naturally, that considerably affects the Mets and general manager Billy Eppler’s roster construction, whenever the lockout ends. While the simple solution would be to just sign a designated hitter-type bat—Nelson Cruz—and call it a day, that would not provide much roster flexibility. And that’s something this Mets roster actually needs to be in search of, even with all their high profile additions in the pre-lockout offseason.

Obviously, adding an elite bat like Cruz or a DH-only type will lengthen a lineup that is far from a finished product. The Mets need to be aggressive in adding another impact bat, but it should be a player with more positional flexibility than a DH-only type. A lot of that comes down to the players already on the roster, their injury histories, and the overall limited defensive capabilities.

Brandon Nimmo was a center fielder last year, and statistically a good one, netting a +4 DRS at the position after having a -4 DRS in 2020. But the Mets had to position him in the home run apple in order to get that out of him. He likely profiles more as a corner outfielder for that reason and also because it seems like his body cannot handle the physical demands that center field requires.

While he stayed healthy during the shortened 60-game 2020 season, he has largely been unable to stay on the field in his major league career. Since he became a major league regular in 2018, the Mets have played in 546 regular season baseball games. Nimmo has appeared in 356 of them, and 140 of those came in 2018. The injury issues with Nimmo cannot be denied, and the Mets could and likely would benefit from load managing Nimmo with regular trips to the designated hitter’s spot in the lineup.

Jeff McNeil would also benefit from some load management, though his injury concerns are not as significant as Nimmo’s. He has been on the injured list because of hamstring issues throughout his major league career, dating back to his first full season in 2019 – he was also very clearly hampered by his hamstring well after returning from the injured list last year. While those are concerning, a bigger concern is his minor league injury history.

He played just three games in 2016 due to a torn hip labrum, and he played just 47 games in 2017 due to a groin injury. While that is a lifetime ago in baseball terms, he has had persistent leg issues that have crept into his major league career, and getting out in front of them by load managing a bit would be good for everyone involved.

Robinson Canó is clearly the biggest wild card among the position players coming into the 2022 season. Coming into the year, Canó is a 39 year old coming off a year-long suspension due to performance enhancing drugs that wiped his 2021 season away. It’s not what you want.

His Mets career has been, in a word, interesting, to date. He started off poorly, hitting .240/.287/.360 (73 wRC+) in the first half of 2019, but was great in the second half the year, hitting .284/.339/.541 (127 wRC+). He continued that second half performance into the shortened 2020 season, hitting .316/.352/.544 (142 wRC+), which was quickly followed up by a failed drug test in the offseason. While the offensive performance has been more good than bad as a Met, it is frankly impossible to know what kind of player he will be in 2022. If he can still hit, he should factor into the designated hitter spot for the Mets, though probably not on a full time basis. If he cannot hit, he might be DFA’d before the season starts. Regardless, as of now, Canó has to be at least peripherally considered among the candidates for designated hitter.

The injury issues are not specific to incumbent Mets. Newly signed Mark Canha has had his fair share of injury concerns over his career, dating back to 2016 where he played a whopping 16 games due to hip surgery. After a poor 2017 that saw him spend most of the year in Triple-A, he became a good regular for the A’s until last year, bouncing around the diamond and generally being a Dude™ on some competitive teams in Oakland.

Canha had a good 2021, ending the year with a 115 wRC+ (.231/.358/.387), but there are some concerns. His slugging percentage dipped below .408 for the first time since that poor 2017 campaign, and he had some stark splits. He started off on a torrid pace, hitting .255/.375/.450 (134 wRC+) in the first half, but fell off a cliff in the second half, struggling to a .206/.340/.319 (95 wRC+). In late June of last year, he was placed on the injured list with a hip impingement—something you absolutely do not want to see considering his prior hip issues earlier in his career—and while he obviously came back and played through it, he clearly was not his typical self while doing so. Canha, who just turned 33 last week, will absolutely have to be load managed if they want the best out of him, and the DH spot is a perfect way to do that.

On top of the myriad of injury management the Mets will likely have to do to keep everyone on the diamond in 2022, they do not exactly have stellar depth across their bench, either. Luis Guillorme is likely their backup, well, everything in the infield, and while he is a very skilled defender, his offensive prowess leaves a lot to be desired. They currently do not have a fourth outfielder on the roster, as all of Starling Marte, Canha, and Nimmo have to be penciled into starting roles as of now, and two of those players have legitimate injury concerns. Dom Smith and J.D. Davis are both currently Mets and offer little defensive versatility if someone would get hurt.

The Mets position player depth is an underrated issue, and their injury histories across the roster exacerbate it. While the roster is far from set, Eppler and company would be making a mistake by signing a non-versatile DH-only type to lengthen the lineup – that likely keeps players who need to be managed out on the field too frequently, and would push backups into everyday roles should they get hurt (again). With free agents like Kris Bryant (who can play every day at third and stand in the outfield if need be), and Kyle Schwarber (someone who will DH more often than not and is a bad fielder, but a regular bad fielder not a oh no he is completely unplayable bad fielder who can stand in left field for a few days a week) available, the Mets should not settle for an inflexible player to lengthen their lineup.