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Finding free agent outfield help for the Mets, Part 1

Brandon Nimmo remains the centerpiece of the Mets’ outfield. but the team needs help in the corners.

World Series - Texas Rangers v. Arizona Diamondbacks - Game Five
Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Coming into the 2023 season, the Mets’ outfield looked like a strength. The team retained Brandon Nimmo, who had a great year in 2022. Starling Marte’s first season with the team had gone swimmingly, even if it ended with him being hurt for the final month of the season before returning for the team’s quick exit from the playoffs. Mark Canha was still in the fold, too, and while he hadn’t been quite as good as Nimmo or Marte in 2022, he had a nice season of his own. Jeff McNeil would likely spend some time in the outfield and was coming off an excellent season at the plate. And while he might not have been everyone’s top choice as a fourth outfielder when last offseason began, Tommy Pham was a perfectly reasonable signing for that role.

Nimmo had another great season this year, but Marte’s production plummeted as he never really looked fully healthy following offseason surgery. McNeil, who made a good number of appearances in both of the corner outfield spots, struggled mightily for most of the season before turning things around very late in the year. Pham turned out to be far better than anyone expected, and Canha was just slightly above league average as a hitter. When the Mets found themselves firmly out of the playoff picture by late July, Pham and Canha were traded for prospects.

DJ Stewart emerged as a significant contributor after the deadline, putting up the best stretch of his career at the plate. He made some relatively impressive plays in the outfield, too, though more agile outfielders likely would’ve made his best plays look routine.

The Mets have just five outfielders on the 40-man roster right now: Nimmo, Marte, Stewart, McNeil, and Alex Ramírez, a prospect who was recently added to that roster coming off a disappointing season in High-A Brooklyn that saw his prospect stock drop significantly.

Clearly, the Mets need to make improvements to the outfield. Marte shouldn’t be considered a lock to be healthy to start the season, and even if he is, he’ll have to prove that he’s capable of being a significant contributor again. Stewart probably shouldn’t play the outfield regularly, and at most, he should probably be battling for a bench spot on the team’s roster heading into spring training. And even if there were a strong desire to have McNeil playing the majority of his games in the outfield, that would likely mean handing the majority of the playing time at second base to one of Ronny Mauricio, waiver claim Zack Short and his career 58 wRC+, or one of the team’s top infield prospects, both of whom would be aggressive promotions to start the season: Luisangel Acuña or Jett Williams.

If the Mets want to get a little aggressive in promoting an outfield prospect to fill a corner spot, they could give Drew Gilbert a real shot at making the Opening Day roster. Acquired in the trade that sent Justin Verlander back to the Astros at the deadline, Gilbert recently turned 23 and is widely considered one of the best prospects in the Mets’ system and among the better prospects in the sport. And he was excellent after joining Double-A Binghamton following the trade, as he hit .325/.423/.561 in 154 plate appearances with the team.

With all of that said, we’ll focus this series on free agent outfielders, which are far from the only solution here. There’s an expectation that Juan Soto will be traded, and his impact is far greater than any of the free agent options. And with teams like the Twins prioritizing shedding payroll, there are surely other outfielders available on the trade market. Jung Hoo Lee is set to be posted sometime in the next few weeks, and he’s been a high-average hitter with a good on-base percentage and some flashes of home run power thus far in his career in Japan. For now, let’s dig in to the current group of free agent outfielders by their 2023 fWAR.

Cody Bellinger: By fWAR, Bellinger leads this pack by a wide margin, having finished the year with 4.1. Following a couple of dreadful seasons in 2021 and 2022, the 2017 National League Rookie of the Year and 2019 MVP bounced back significantly this season on a one-year contract with the Cubs. Bellinger was given a qualifying offer following a season in which he hit .307/.356/.525 with 26 home runs and a 131 wRC+, and to no one’s surprise, he declined it. Entering his age-28 season next year, the projections over at FanGraphs have him getting a six-year deal worth somewhere in the range of $24 million per season. There’s a lot of risk in that sort of contract given his performance over the past few years, and he has very little experience in the corner outfield spots, having played the vast majority of his outfield innings in center.

Kevin Kiermaier: Long famous for his defensive capabilities as a member of the Rays, Kiermaier hit free agency following the 2022 season and signed with the Blue Jays. Hitting has never really been his strength, but in his best years, he’s been a bit better than league average with the bat, as he was this year with a .265/.322/.419 line and a 104 wRC+. Thanks to that decent performance at the plate and his defense, he tallied 2.2 fWAR on the season. Like Bellinger, he has very little experience in the corner outfield spots, and with a career 98 wRC+, his bat wouldn’t be up to the task, even if his defense in a new position were outstanding.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr.: Having spent his first five seasons with the Blue Jays, Gurriel was traded to the Diamondbacks following the 2022 season, and he split his time in Arizona between left field and designated hitter. He’s hit above league average by wRC+ in every season of his major league career, though he had just a 106 wRC+ this year as a result of his .261/.309/.463 line. He hit 24 home runs this year and finished with 2.1 fWAR, both of which were the highest single-season marks of his career. The FanGraphs projections have him getting something along the lines of a three-year, $36 million deal, and entering his age-30 season, maybe the Mets would see him as a fit in that range.

Jorge Soler: Following a three-season stretch from 2020 through 2022 in which he totaled a 99 wRC+, Soler’s second season with the Marlins went very well this year. In 580 plate appearances, Soler hit .250/.341/.512 with 36 home runs and a 126 wRC+. He played the vast majority of his games at DH, though, and hasn’t ever cracked 1,000 innings in the outfield in any of his seasons in the big leagues. The Mets do need help at DH, though, and having one who could occasionally play a corner spot could be useful—if they buy that Soler is capable of consistently giving them some much-needed power in the middle of their lineup.