–Originally posted November 8, 2015–
With what is the likely departure of Daniel Murphy, the Mets are faced with a choice on how to proceed at the position, either by filling their need internally or going to the markets and looking for a solution either in free agency or trade.
But the Mets might also need to consider bulking up at shortstop, especially if they decide to fill their need at second base internally.
Simply put, the Mets middle infield defense was utterly dreadful in 2015.
How bad was it? If the Mets had even league average defense at those two positions, it might have been enough to win the World Series.
Mets shortstops were tenth in the league with a 2.9 WAR, largely being carried by their offense as they were 26th in the league with a -9.0 ultimate zone rating (UZR) and dead last with -26 defensive runs saved (DRS).
That along with -10 DRS from Mets second basemen – fifth worst in the league – and a 2.9 UZR – 15th best – make for a dire need to upgrade their middle infield defense in general.
They could also stand to get a little more right-handed/versatile at the plate to limit a weakness late in games and force the opposing manager’s hand with their bullpen more often.
Here’s a look at how the Mets might choose to upgrade their middle infield…
Re-sign Daniel Murphy.
Nobody will question Murphy’s love for the Mets, his offensive prowess, and his postseason heroics against the Dodgers and Cubs which helped get the Mets to the World Series.
Without Murphy, none of that happens. Period.
But it’s Murphy’s defense which helped lead to the Mets demise against the Royals in the World Series. He made a critical error in Game 4 which should have resulted in an out, but instead everybody was safe and the Royals eventually went on to win and deliver a critical blow to the Mets chances of winning the World Series.
But it’s not that error which will deter the Mets from re-signing him. That error is a microcosm of what Murphy is – a self-admitted offensive second baseman.
Murphy’s defensive issues have been discussed ad nauseum since he was made the club’s second baseman in 2012. It is what it is. If the Mets had a full-time opening at third base or even first base, the Mets might be more apt to bring Murphy back, as he is far superior at those positions than he is at second base.
But for a couple of years now, nobody in the organization has talked about the future of second base having mentioned Murphy’s name. That alone is a tell tale sign of what they think the direction of the position will take.
And say the Mets re-signed Murphy for a market value deal at four years and around $52 million. It would simply be more of the same at a higher cost. Can the Mets find better value either within or from another player?
Again, nobody has mentioned Murphy’s name regarding the future of second base. So in reading the tea leaves, it certainly seems that the Mets think they can be better by going in another direction.
For the last couple of years, the Mets have envisioned Dilson Herrera graduating to the Major Leagues and taking on second base full-time when Murphy departs. He is athletic, he’s fast, he has a top-of-the-order bat capable of producing both power and contact, and he can eventually be an upgrade to Murphy with time and some polishing on both sides of the ball.
He tore of the Pacific Coast League in 2015, hitting .327/.382/.511 with 167 total bases in 81 games. He had 23 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs and 50 RBI with 13 stolen bases, all representative of five-tool capabilities.
But going with Herrera will unquestionably come with growing pains at the big league level, something he’s shown in a few opportunities already over the last couple of years. The National League East is no Pacific Coast League by any means, and he would have to get used to the speed of the game here, big league breaking balls, and the bright lights of New York and the expectations that come with it.
But there’s no denying what Herrera can eventually be given his skill set. And he’ll only be 22 next season – he’s still growing, still learning, and still learning how to reach his exciting potential.
The question is, are the Mets in a position now to be teaching and to be patient with their prospects? Or do they want a more established and stable presence at the moment?
Acquire a shortstop.
This seems like the popular choice among fans, although Sandy Alderson has maintained a modest level of satisfaction at shortstop. This option would either shift Wilmer Flores to second base full-time and leave Ruben Tejada as their middle infield utility player, or create a tryout among Flores, Tejada and Herrera at second base to open the year, with Tejada seemingly the underdog since he could ultimately be the super-utility middle infielder he’s better suited to be anyway.
Desmond is coming off a down year on both sides of the ball. But the Mets were interested in acquiring him from the Nationals in a trade last January, and now that it would only cost money and potentially an under-market deal, the Mets could bet on a big bounce back season from Desmond in a short-term deal.
His prior history suggests he’s a below league average shortstop, but can be one of the most prolific offensive shortstops in the game.
The problem with Desmond is he received a qualifying offer. So if the Mets signed him, they would not only be taking a significant bet, but also relinquish their first round pick in the 2016 draft, marking the second consecutive year the Mets would be doing that. That does not seem like a move this front office would make regardless and with Desmond especially.
None the less, the Mets are considering Desmond to play shortstop again, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, which if they sign him, that move would pit Flores against Herrera for the primary second base job on Opening Day.
The Mets could consider signing Alexei Ramirez. But like Desmond, Ramirez is coming off a disappointing season and he has seen his defense diminish for the last two seasons.
Ramirez posted just a .642 OPS with 79 wRC+ in 2015. To put that in perspective, the league average among shortstops was .681, and the average wRC+ was 85.
Flores produced a .703 OPS and 95 wRC+. Tejada produced a .688 OPS and 95 wRC+.
Ramirez would come with less risk than Desmond, but the Mets might be able to get similar, if not better production out of the position with players they already have.
Make a trade?
Considering the free agent class isn’t particularly inspiring, the Mets might consider the trade route to make improvements.
There’s always the possibility of a trade, with the Mets and Cubs once again lining up nicely for a deal. Chicago has an excess of position players, specifically on the middle infield, and Theo Epstein has already been open about his need to acquire more starting pitching.
The Mets like Addison Russell and Javier Baez a lot, with some in the organization preferring Baez because of his immense power potential. And Baez in particular would give the Mets some flexibility as he’s capable of playing both second base and shortstop. But as he showed during the National League Championship Series, his big, one-dimensional swing could be a liability in a lineup already featuring a lot of swing-and-misses.
And the cost to acquire one of these players would unquestionably be in one of their big five (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Zack Wheeler). There’s some buzz and speculation the Mets might consider moving one of them, and last winter, the Mets considered moving one of their big arms for a Cubs infielder. But things have changed, and the Mets don’t seem eager to move these starting pitchers after coming so close to a championship so quickly with them.
And even if the Mets look elsewhere from Chicago (which might be wise anyway), the price could very well circle around their starting pitching no matter what.
Acquire a second baseman.
This seems like the obvious choice, and is also a popular choice among Mets fans. But if the Mets choose this route, they automatically create a predicament for Herrera, regardless of who they acquire.
Assuming the Mets do choose this path, there are no shortage of veteran solutions for them, none of which being perfect, either.
The veteran super-utility player hits from both sides of the plate, makes a lot of contact and plays seven positions reasonably well. The Mets like Zobrist – they tried to acquire him this past summer.
All things being equal, Zobrist would provide stability up the middle, he would help transform the top of their lineup from swing-and-miss to more contact with an ability to get on-base, and be another solid, veteran leader for the clubhouse as they endeavor to win their first World Championship since 1986.
But all things are not equal with Zobrist.
He’s entering his age-35 season in 2016. While that might mean he will settle for a short-term deal, his skills will undoubtedly start to diminish, if they haven’t done so already. That means his foot speed might slow down and his bat speed might be reduced.
He’s also expressed a lot of interest to stay in Kansas City. He’s the perfect player for their system, and he fit right into their organization and helped make their World Championship possible. At this stage of his career, he could consider taking a lesser deal to remain with the Royals, rather than explore a new frontier with a team like the Mets or the other teams who will undoubtedly try and recruit him.
Then there’s Howie Kendrick, who would probably serve as a modest upgrade defensively to Murphy (although he didn’t have a good year defensively in 2015), but certainly a downgrade offensively. He had an injury-shortened season with the Dodgers in 2015, but while he hit .295, he only produced a .336 on-base percentage thanks to only drawing 27 walks and striking out 82 times. He swings at over 50 percent of the pitches he sees and doesn’t hit for much power.
In other words, Kendrick is not really the kind of player this front office prefers. If the Mets were to consider Kendrick, they might as well re-sign Murphy.
The Mets could consider taking a low-risk flyer on someone like Steve Pearce, who is coming off a down year with the Orioles. He has seen his power blossom over the last two years and he’s basically a league average second baseman, which of course would be an upgrade over Murphy defensively.
There’s also the possibility of re-signing Kelly Johnson, which is conceivable regardless thanks to his ability to play multiple positions, his left-handed power off the bench, and his clubhouse presence. But it’s hard to see the Mets giving Johnson the starting job at second base. Rather, he is more valuable playing multiple positions as an everyday backup, and not sitting static at any one place on the field.
However, the Mets could use Johnson and Tejada as a lefty-righty platoon at second base to keep second base warm for Herrera, and eventually transition Johnson back into that super-utility role once they’re comfortable Herrera can take on the position full-time.