Projecting a 2018 Opening Day roster in November is a fool’s errand. There are so many variables in the MLB offseason that the armchair GMs around the country can do try as they may, but they’ll never nail to a T.
Still, with free agency open and the offseason officially underway, I’ve taken up the task of throwing together a plan for Sandy Alderson and his lieutenants to return the Mets to contender status in 2018.
Will it go down this way? Probably not. But here’s a plan that would put together a team Mets fans would be excited about on March 29. All estimated arbitration figures are courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. All projected contracts are culled together from expert projections and adjusted based on my personal inferences.
Travis d’Arnaud (~$3.4m), Kevin Plawecki (pre-Arb)
Alderson has basically told Mets fans to expect this duo back this year, and frankly, the Mets could do worse.
I know d’Arnaud has worn on a lot of fans’ patience, but there was enough about his 2017 campaign to be encouraged by, like his career highs in homers (16) and RBIs (57). A lot of that came in September (six homers, 19 RBI, .297/.343/.656), so maybe some of it was piling on against call ups, but with no discernibly better options available in free agency, I’d like to see these two push each other in a true platoon.
I know it feels like Plawecki has been around forever, but he’ll be just 27 on Opening Day and is a former first round pick. He was worth 0.6 WAR in just 100 at bats last year, and was 23-for-76 with seven extra base hits after his second half recall.
More than any other area of this team, the Mets desperately need to address the infield. The defense was absolutely abysmal last year, and when you have a team built around young pitching, you’re not doing it any favors fielding this nightmare. As a team, the Mets were worth -47 defensive runs saved in 2017. Jose Reyes (-25), Asdrubal Cabrera (-13), and Wilmer Flores (-12) were the worst offenders.
Having an actual shortstop on the roster will help, but the Mets should find a way to upgrade on both offense and defensive at second and third base. At this point in his career, Cabrera needs to be the “super sub” teams have begun to covet, and as much as Reyes has something left to give offensive (2.1 oWAR), his defense makes it that the Mets might be better off not bringing him back.
Todd Frazier (projected three-year, $33 million deal), Amed Rosario (pre-Arb), Dee Gordon ($10.8m), Dom Smith (pre-Arb), Wilmer Flores (~$3.7m), Asdrubal Cabrera ($8m), David Wright+ ($20m)
I know a lot of people are going to point to Frazier’s batting average decline (.225 in 2016, .213 in 2017) as a reason to steer clear, but when I look closer, there is plenty to be optimistic about.
First, Frazier had a comically-low BABIP the past two seasons (.236 and .226, respectively), while the percentage of balls he hit hard was right around his career average (31.3% and 32.2%. His career average is 33%). What does that mean? That he’s hitting the ball hard just as often as the years he hit .250 or higher, but he’s getting less hits on those balls in play, which implies some really bad luck. What’s more, Frazier’s chase rate was the lowest of his career last season. He swung at just 25.1% of pitches out of the strike zone (32.3% career average), which resulted in his a career-best walk rate (14.4 walk percentage) and on-base percentage (.344).
Defensively, there is no comparison to Frazier and mish mash the Mets fielded there in 2017. In 1107.2 innings at third base, Frazier was worth 10 defensive runs saved, the best of his career (30 DRS over the course seven seasons). Add it all up and, low average and all, Frazier was worth 3.4 WAR last season. Only two Mets were worth more in 2017: Jacob deGrom (5.0) and Michael Conforto (3.6). He’d be a huge upgrade.
Gordon would be added in a trade with the rebuilding Marlins. For the sake of the argument, let’s say the Mets send Steven Matz and a prospect back the other way. It would allow Miami to get a team-controlled pitcher with upside and shed Gordon’s deal (he’s due $51.9 million through the 2021 season, which includes a team option that can automatically vest based on plate appearances from 2019-20, or 2020 alone). In Gordon, the Mets get a true leadoff man, break away from the station-to-station style of play they’ve relied on for the better part of the Alderson era, and add some range to the infield.
That would leave Cabrera as your primary infield reserve. His best position at this stage in his career, by far and away, is third base (1 DRS in ’17). Flores will play against lefties (primarily at first), with Smith easing his way into a full-time role. Rivera fills out the rest of the infield bench, while T.J. Rivera and Gavin Cecchini play the Matt Reynolds frequent flier role between Vegas to Flushing. The financial burden of the acquisitions is offset by recouping 75 percent of Wright’s salary, should he endure another lengthy stint on the DL (which seems like a given). Also, get the captain a first baseman’s glove for Spring Training, please.
Yoenis Cespedes ($29m), Juan Lagares ($6.5m), Brandon Nimmo (pre-Arb), Michael Conforto+(pre-Arb), Jon Jay (projected one-year, $10 million deal w/player option)
Here’s the most challenging part of this plan: Entering the season with the assumption that Conforto won’t miss too much time. If he’s ready to go on Opening Day, or even in early May, it’s fine. He’ll come back, assume right field, and the Mets will have mashers at the corner outfield positions. But what if May turns into Memorial Day, then June, then suddenly, the All Star break? Shoulder capsule surgery in a hitter is pretty rare, and no one knows for sure how long it will take Conforto to round back into form. So how can the Mets safeguard against a Conforto injury?
There are a few outfielders out there than can make a difference, but Jay jibes with what the Mets like to do offensively: He gets on base. Jay’s .374 OBP (over 433 plate appearances) last season for the Cubs would be perfect to slot into the lineup while the Mets wait on Conforto. It leaves the Mets a little drained of power until Conforto returns, and if the Mets want a little more pop, they could opt to bring back old friend Curtis Granderson. Grandy’s market will probably be softer than Jay’s, and as lost as he looked in the postseason, Granderson was worth 1.7 WAR last year, is still an above average right fielder defensively, and could slide nicely into a mentor role similar to the one Carlos Beltran played for the world champion Houston Astros.
Lagares is free to roam the outfield and take extra base hits away from opposing batters, and the Mets (with the upgrades in the infield and the assumption that Conforto doesn’t miss much time) should be able to live with him offensively. On the other side of the CF coin, Nimmo is serviceable defensively in center, but it’s tantalizing to find out if that .379 OBP in 215 PA in 2017 can translate over a full season. The Mets could get creative here, and package Lagares to a team that has enough offense and wants a center fielder that can just go get it. But I think he has a lot more value to the Mets as they try to find ways to put less stress on the rotation by upgrading their defense.
Jacob deGrom (~$9.2m), Noah Syndergaard (~$1.9m), Matt Harvey (~$5.9m), Zack Wheeler (~$1.9m), Seth Lugo (pre-Arb)
Sure, the Mets can explore the free agent market and flirt with the likes of Jason Vargas, or explore another roll of the dice on Bartolo Colon. But even if the starting staff isn’t the “Five Aces” we’ve been promised, based on the law of averages alone, they should be in line for a bounce back. DeGrom is a legitimate ace, as is Syndergaard. Trading Matz would mean more pressure on Wheeler to stay healthy, but it’s time to get a definitive answer to that question anyway. And Lugo sets the nod here as the fifth starter over Gsellman thanks to Lugo’s ability to thrive later in games. Opponents have his .329 against Gsellman the third time through the order throughout his career, and Lugo’s elite spin rate on his curveball probably allows him to get away with more a little later in starts.
Trading Matz would also mean no lefty in the rotation, and that might not be preferable, especially with the reigning NL East champions boasting two pretty big bats you may have heard of: Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. But I’d rather spend the money on a lefty for the bullpen for high leverage spots to take some of the wear and tear off Jerry Blevins.
We know all the caveats that exist with sticking with the same group: They need to stay healthy, and make sure to avoid Cinco de Mayo ragers. But one thing is near-certain: After turning in their worst staff ERA in 2017 since their inaugural, 120-loss 1962 season, the Mets’ pitchers have to be better.
Jeurys Familia (~$7.4m), A.J. Ramos (~$9.2m), Jerry Blevins ($7m), Mike Minor (projected three year, $25 million deal), Hansel Robles (~$1m), Rafael Montero (pre-Arb), Robert Gsellman (pre-Arb)
Familia, Ramos, and Blevins are a fantastic starting point, but the Mets are still in the market for back end help, and they need another lefty for Callaway to turn to. Once a very good starter in Atlanta, Minor remade himself post-Tommy John with the Royals, as he hurled 77.2 innings last season en route to a 2.55 ERA and a 1.017 WHIP. A three-year deal may seem like a lot, but the way bullpen help is valued nowadays, it’s a sound investment. If they whiff on Minor, I’d check in with Tony Watson, a former closer in Pittsburgh and a bit of a forgotten man in the Dodgers’ pen.
Montero is the long man, and Gsellman is the swing man, who can be used in either high leverage spots or for multiple innings. I know people will shake their head at Robles’ inclusion, but he was actually much better from August on (.205 opposing batting average in the second half) with a still has the stuff to succeed. If Callaway can make a big difference with someone, it could be Robles.
The Mets would take on roughly $40 million in new player salaries (Gordon, Frazier, Jay, Minor). Add up all the raises in arbitration, the new salaries, and existing contracts (while taking a $550,000 average for all pre-arbitration players), and you have an Opening Day payroll of $159.1 million, but that includes Wright’s salary. If he isn’t able to go and misses more than 60 games, the Mets collect 75 percent of his pay until he returns. So if insurance paid out $15 million, you’re looking something in the neighborhood of $145 million.