With spring training workouts set to begin in less than a month, the Mets may or may not make additional moves to bolster their roster. And while the bullpen is a glaring need that we’ve written about ad nauseam, if the season were to begin with the team’s current roster, its projected designated hitter is DJ Stewart.
An intriguing no-risk pickup just shy of a year ago, Stewart didn’t get a shot at major league playing time until the Mets were out of it last year. But in that limited time—185 plate appearances, to be exact—he excelled, hitting .244/.333/.506 with 11 home runs and a 130 wRC+. A left-handed hitter, Stewart destroyed right-handed pitchers at the major league level last year, though platoon splits in a sample that small shouldn’t be taken super seriously.
Over the course of his career, Stewart has a 114 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers and a 73 wRC+ against lefties. Even that sample isn’t exactly the biggest, as he has just 807 major league plate appearances to his name, but it’s fair to conclude that he’s much more useful against opposite-handed pitchers. And hey, it’s possible that he really turned a corner and could be a valuable major league DH in games that see opponents start right-handed pitchers against the Mets—which is to say the majority of them.
As free agency drags on and on and on, though, there are still designated hitters of varying capabilities on the market. At times over the course of this offseason, the Mets have been linked, albeit loosely, to some of them. Let’s take a quick look at the biggest three remaining options—with the biggest one on Shohei Ohtani having signed a $700 million deal with the Dodgers a few weeks ago.
In his first three years in the big leagues, starting in 2011, J.D. Martinez didn’t do much to establish himself with the Astros. In what turned out to be a relatively rare misstep in evaluating the organization’s internal talent, Houston released Martinez during spring training in 2014. A change of scenery proved to be very fruitful for him, though, as the Tigers signed him two days later. He went on to hit .315/.358/.553 with 23 home runs and a 154 wRC+.
From that season onward, Martinez never looked back. From 2015 through 2019, he hit 184 home runs and had a cumulative 150 wRC+. He eclipsed 40 home runs in two of those seasons, hit 36 and 38 in two others, and was generally one of the best hitters in baseball. The only blip on his stat sheets at FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference came in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, during which he put up just a 76 wRC+ in 237 plate appearances for the Red Sox.
Once baseball got back to playing full-length seasons, however, Martinez rebounded pretty well. In 2021, he had a 126 wRC+. The following year, he finished with a 119 wRC+. And as a member of the Dodgers last year, he hit 33 home runs and had a 135 wRC+ in his age-35 season. Martinez’s peak is pretty clearly behind him, but he’s been remarkably consistent when it comes to being a well-above-league-average hitter. And while he’s fared very well against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers over the course of his career, he has been particularly harsh on lefties. You wouldn’t be looking to bring him in to platoon with DJ Stewart, but if both players were on the roster, you could work any rest for Martinez around Stewart’s biggest strength.
The crowd-sourced projections at FanGraphs predict a one-year, $12 million contract for Martinez.
All these years later, Justin Turner looks like he’d be a very good fit for the Mets. Like Martinez, he saw his career take a major step forward after he was let go. In his case, it was the Mets who non-tendered him in 2013 following three years of just-shy-of-league-average production as a part-time player the major league level. Also like Martinez, he flourished immediately with a new team, which in Turner’s case was the Dodgers. And he routinely ranked among the best hitters in baseball over the course of his first several seasons in Los Angeles. From 2014 through 2020, he had a 141 wRC+.
Over the past three years, Turner has declined a bit, but he’s remained productive. His past three seasons by wRC+: 126, 124, and 114, respectively. Going into his age-39 season, it’s perhaps a bit concerning that last year was his least-good season as a hitter since the Mets sent him packing. But the track record is long enough that he could very well be as good as he was last year or even a bit better, even if there’s a risk of a total collapse at some point in the next few years.
Turner destroyed lefties last year, but over the course of his career, he doesn’t have significant platoon splits. Again, like Martinez, he could give way to Stewart for some games against right-handed starting pitchers, primarily to give the elder of the DH options a little extra rest.
The crowd-sourced projections at FanGraphs predict a one-year, $12 million deal for Turner, too.
We touched on Soler in looking at the Mets’ outfield options in free agency, but his defensive prowess, well, hasn’t really existed in recent years. Viewed strictly as a designated hitter, Soler was still great in 2023, hitting 36 home runs with a .250/.341/.512 slash line and a 126 wRC+. His Statcast numbers were particularly encouraging.
Heading into his age-32 season, Soler is significantly younger than Martinez and Turner. His track record, though, doesn’t come close to matching either of theirs. From 2020 through 2022, he had a 99 wRC+, a relatively prolonged period of struggle. His best work as a hitter over a sustained period of time came in 2018 and 2019 with the Royals, as he hit 57 home runs with a .265/.354/541 line and a 132 wRC+ in 936 plate appearances.
Given his age, it’s not surprising that the crowd-sourced projections at FanGraphs see Soler getting a three-year, $48 million deal.
Is is entirely possible that the Mets do nothing when it comes to their DH situation and this is all just a hypothetical exercise. With a starting rotation that shouldn’t be awful but also isn’t projected to be great, the Mets could up the odds of being in the mix for a Wild Card spot, though, by adding relievers and bringing in a more established designated hitter. And while fans shouldn’t be worried about Steve Cohen’s money, the fact that there are still several good options on the market could work in the team’s favor if it decides to go this route.