Now that Ben Zobrist has chosen the Cubs, what’s next for the Mets?
The best-laid plans often go awry, and that’s precisely what happened to the Mets on Tuesday night.
The Mets were focused on their pursuit of Ben Zobrist for the better part of the last month, but lost him to the Cubs as he reportedly signed a four-year, $56 million deal with them, leaving the Mets both stunned and disappointed.
But the Mets need to pick up the pieces, move on and figure out how to augment the roster in other ways. They still must consider upgrading their middle infield, build more depth and insurance, get some pieces for the bullpen and find a quality outfielder who can at least platoon with Juan Lagares, if not start on a full-time basis.
It’s worth mentioning that right now, the Mets have a third baseman with a bad back, one of two shortstops with broken bones in their legs, and a prospect slated to start on their infield on Opening Day.
Even though it’s still early December, that’s both sobering and alarming.
On Tuesday night, Mets assistant GM John Ricco said the club doesn’t intend to stand pat despite their top free agent target choosing a different destination, and is prepared to allocate the resources they had budgeted for Zobrist elsewhere.
But while the Mets envisioned an offense that made better contact in 2016, the Mets suddenly have to be more open-minded as to how their offense is designed next season, now that their top free agent choice is off the board and not in Flushing.
Here’s a look at some of the paths the Mets can take from a position player perspective as the markets are becoming more defined…
Following Zobrist’s deal with the Cubs, the market for free agent infielders is rather thin and certainly a drop-off from Zobrist’ caliber across the board.
Daniel Murphy is probably the next best option for the Mets to consider, but it just doesn’t seem likely the Mets will ultimately sign him. Ricco insists the Mets remain in contact with his agents, but if the Mets were really interested in signing him, they had years to do so, even as he became more expensive through arbitration.
That never happened, and the Mets clearly valued Zobrist higher than Murphy through the first part of the off-season.
Murphy is a very good hitter, he knows New York and obviously knows how to handle the pressures of New York. He’s also younger than Zobrist and his postseason performance was one for the ages. But this is not a front office that makes decisions on small sample sizes, so his performance in October should be discounted statistically. His issues defensively and on the bases have been well well documented over the years and that unquestionably hinders his value as a player, especially since he doesn’t really excel anywhere on the field.
This is what led them in a different direction to begin with.
Other options include Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera and Ian Desmond.
Kendrick is really an older version of Murphy at the plate, with a little less power. Like Murphy, he doesn’t walk very much but also doesn’t strikeout very much either. He’s a slightly above average hitter overall who has a little speed, and he can be counted on for 30 doubles a year when healthy.
He had a rough year defensively with the Dodgers, but that’s atypical based on the metrics throughout his career. He’s been a well regarded defensive second baseman in his career until 2015, and while he might be showing signs of regression, he should be better defensively in 2016 than he was last season.
But Kendrick is tied to draft compensation, which likely rules him out.
Desmond is certainly more appealing than Cabrera and probably more appealing than Kendrick. He is said to be an excellent clubhouse presence, he’s durable, has speed and he’s capable of providing difference-making power at a premium position on the infield. He struggled badly in the first half of the 2015 season, but really turned things around in the second half and turned in very similar numbers to that from his 2014 season, when he was a coveted asset in trade last winter.
Signing Desmond would allow the Mets to shift Wilmer Flores to second base, a position Terry Collins feels he’s far more comfortable playing.
But Desmond is not a very good defensive shortstop, although he’s a lot better than what he showed in the first half of 2015. He also strikes out a ton and set a career-high with 187 strikeouts in 2015. That’s an immediate turn off for a team trying to evolve their offense into a more contact-oriented unit and eliminate strikeouts.
Desmond’s also tied to draft compensation, and that could be the ultimate deal breaker for the Mets. It’s difficult to see this club relinquishing two consecutive first round draft choices, especially after trading away so much talent to acquire Yoenis Cespedes and Tyler Clippard at the trade deadline.
But the Mets have been interested in acquiring Desmond in the past, so it would be unfair to discount this as a possibility.
As for Cabrera, the Mets have reportedly shown interest in him this winter as a contingency to Zobrist, and the Mets may be forced to consider him even if he’s a huge drop-off to both Zobrist, Desmond and Murphy.
Cabrera has always had decent power, which of course is his best asset. He doesn’t walk a lot and strikes out quite a bit as well, but he can be counted on for 25+ doubles and 10-15 home runs per season, making him a mostly league average to slightly below league average producer at the plate.
The problem is Cabrera’s defense. He can play both second base and shortstop, but he isn’t very good at either, although he seems to be a better second baseman than he is a shortstop. He performed similarly to Wilmer Flores at shortstop this past season, which really wasn’t unusual for him considering his track record. Cabrera has trouble turning double plays, and for a team which struggled to do just that throughout the course of 2015, they should be endeavoring to improve upon that, and not maintain the status quo at best.
No matter what, the Mets need to consider bringing Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson back. They need a legitimate backup solution for David Wright and someone who can step in not only every couple of days, but potentially a longer period of time in the event Wright needs to go on the disabled list. Signing Uribe provides that contingency and signing Johnson would create quality secondary depth on the infield as well. Both are good clubhouse guys, proven playoff success stories, and do a lot of little things to help teams win.
The Mets know first hand about that.
What about the outfield?
No matter what happened with Zobrist, the Mets always needed to address their center field situation.
The free agent outfield class is much deeper than the class for free agent infielders, and the Mets might be better suited to invest their resources there, as they could find much better values and better quality at that.
Ricco has said signing Cespedes is unlikely, given his current price point. Presumably, that price point is in the six-year range and between $20-25 million per season. But his market has not really developed, and logical suitors such as the Angels and Tigers don’t appear interested at the moment, and the Giants are reportedly prioritizing other outfielders over Cespedes as well.
He isn’t a logical fit with the Dodgers, the Padres are trying to trade a high priced outfielder in Matt Kemp, the Yankees don’t appear to be in the market for high-priced free agents, the Red Sox and Mariners don’t seem like they’re interested either.
The point is, it’s going to be hard for Cespedes’ market to develop in the way he might have envisioned before the off-season began.
If that helps drive his price down to five-years, the Mets should definitely consider signing Cespedes. The Mets don’t typically sign players to long-term deals, and the money will certainly be in a range that normally makes them uncomfortable. But a five-year deal for a player of this ilk is not unreasonable in an era that lacks a lot of quality, right-handed power. And he’s not tied to draft compensation either, giving the Mets another incentive to try and retain him going forward.
Of course, whether that happens and it draws the Mets in remains to be seen. And, if his demands come down, other teams – such as the Angels and Giants – will try to sign him.
The Mets have been connected to Dexter Fowler, but he is tied to draft compensation, he strikes out a lot and actually hit left-handed hitters better than right-handed hitters in 2015, although that’s not indicative of his career marks. He could best be described as average to slightly below average. Those weaknesses could be further exposed in a bigger ballpark than that of Wrigley Field and Minute Maid Park, the two places he’s called home in recent years. And given the Mets need to improve their team-wide defense, having a below average defender up the middle out there on a regular basis does not help in the run prevention department.
In the end, he just doesn’t seem likely to be signed by the Mets, and he could have a hard time signing with a team that doesn’t have a protected pick at that.
None of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, or Alex Gordon are natural fits, aside from the fact that they’re unrealistic free agent targets for the Mets.
The most logical, and probably most realistic candidate is Denard Span.
Span is a catalyst for the top of the lineup. He doesn’t draw a lot of walks, but he makes contact, has first-to-third speed, and when he’s healthy, can be counted on for 200-plus total bases thanks to his ability to take advantage of big ballparks with his triples speed.
Acquiring Span would go a long way towards improving the team’s on-base percentage, and it would allow Curtis Granderson to be moved towards the middle of the lineup as well where his power could be much more valuable.
Certainly, someone like Span doesn’t account for the power lost from Yoenis Cespedes, but he provides a different kind of production with his speed, ability to create run scoring opportunities and ability to make contact. That can only help the swing-and-miss bats in David Wright and Lucas Duda see more strikes and get more fastballs to hit, and along with growth from Michael Conforto a full season of Travis d’Arnaud and utilizing Granderson’s bat in the middle of the lineup, that could also help account for the loss of Cespedes.
But he’s coming off major hip surgery at age-32, and it remains to be seen how it affects him and whether or not it leads to his skills deteriorating quickly as a result.
However, it’s worth mentioning the Nationals were 36-25 when Span played in 2015, 47-54 when he did not play.
They might also consider signing Gerardo Parra, a player they’ve liked for a long time and someone they tried to acquire at the trade deadline.
He isn’t tied to draft compensation, and is a premier defensive player who might have overachieved at the plate to a degree in 2015.
He set a career-high with 14 home runs, a .517 slugging percentage, OPS+ of 139 and 247 total bases. Parra is also a phenomenal defensive player.
Parra struggled at the plate after being traded from the Brewers to the Orioles, but again he otherwise had a fabulous year at the plate. But if the Mets were to acquire him, it’s hard to imagine he could replicate his production from this past season in the pitcher-friendly National League East, although defense never slumps and again, he is a fantastic outfielder.
Parra is not a natural fit in centerfield, having played the bulk of his career in both corner outfield spots. It’s also not clear he would want to shift positions and be in a platoon at age 28. There are certainly more natural fits for him elsewhere on the market, and if he can get a 3-4 year deal with those teams, it seems logical for him to pursue those opportunities.
But Parra is not tied to draft compensation for the Mets or any other interested team who might want to sign him.
In addition to the Orioles and Mets, the Royals, Cubs and Giants have expressed interest in Parra so far this winter, and has a three-year offer in-hand now, according to Chris Cotillo of SB Nation.
Let’s make a deal.
The Mets could also explore the trade market to find some of their offense.
They’ve recently been linked to Neil Walker, and for a while had been linked to Starlin Castro, but he was dealt to the Yankees seemingly moments after the Cubs signed Zobrist.
Walker, 30, is under team control until 2017, as he’s entering his third year of arbitration eligibility this winter. He was a super-two player in 2014, which gave him four years of arbitration. He earned $8 million in 2015, and he could earn between $9-11 million in 2016 through arbitration.
Walker would probably be considered a moderate downgrade to Murphy offensively, only because he strikes out more. But he’s still an above average offensive player who is a switch hitter with good power from the left side.
The Mets don’t expect deal for Walker to materialize, according to Marc Carig of Newsday.
He struggles defensively, as he’s consistently a below average second baseman year after year. He doesn’t commit a lot of errors, but he lacks in both range and foot speed, much like Wilmer Flores does at both second base and shortstop. That alone could be a deal breaker considering the Mets have enough problems on the other side of second base.
Having said that, beggars can’t be choosers, and if the Mets aren’t ready to commit to Herrera (and their pursuit of Zobrist is an indication of that), then the Mets need to make any and all considerations.
Javier Baez has reportedly been connected in deals with both the Braves for Shelby Miller and the Rays for Alex Cobb. With Zobrist in the fold, the Cubs still have quite a bit of excess on the infield, but it would appear the price in trade for Baez is still pretty high, and would cost the Mets players they’re not prepared to part with, such as their big starting pitchers or perhaps Michael Conforto.
Still, Baez is a player some in the Mets organization really like. He’s a guy with a big swing and is prone to the strikeout, but has tantalizing power and can quickly become a star in this league as a result.
Time will tell as to how the Cubs deal with their excess, but the Mets and Cubs always seem matchup well for a trade.
There’s also Brett Lawrie, who the A’s have reportedly made available. But he’s not the kind of player the Mets typically covet. His strikeout rate is on the rise, he doesn’t get on-base very much and he’s struggled to stay on the field consistently lately as well.
But Lawrie is still pretty young, he can play both second base and third base, and presumably still teachable. But it’s hard to see him being a primary target by the Mets.