Balanced Mets lineup sets example for MLB

The New York Mets’ recent acquisition of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco sent a welcome message to fans that Steve Cohen was not just an owner who would talk about winning, but would walk the walk. While other MLB teams have pointed to millions in lost revenue from 2020 and the free agent market has been notably sluggish, the Mets have established themselves in buying mode.

In addition to building a team that should be a legitimate pennant contender, Sandy Alderson and Jared Porter have put together a roster for 2021 that above all else will be fun to watch.

As an entire sport baseball has a problem. Even analytically-minded people like Theo Epstein agree. The rise of the three true outcomes hitter has turned baseball from an exciting, aesthetically-pleasing sport to a plodding game with a pronounced pace of play problem.

Epstein was just hired by MLB as a consultant regarding on-field matters, had this to say to reporters this week: “We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give the fans more of what they want.”

When he departed the Chicago Cubs front office late last year, Epstein took some of the blame for helping turn baseball into what it has become.

Of course you can point to the abundance of hard-throwing pitchers and different pitching and defensive philosophies that have helped baseball become this way, but sabermetrics has undoubtedly led to lineups with less diversity. A lot of players are just kind of – the same. It has made the game boring to the average fan. Home runs are exciting, but when they are the primary mode of run-scoring, they lose their luster.

As they stand on the morning of January 18, the 2021 Mets lineup has a chance to be one of the most exciting in baseball simply because it is not a monolith. Built on players with a diverse skill set, it has the potential to be one of the most-fun to watch in MLB.

Sluggers

Starting with what has become the most-common category of hitter in baseball, unlike most of their franchise history, the Mets are well-stocked with power hitters. Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith and Lindor are all threats to hit 30 home runs given a 162-game season and the presence of the DH in the National League. The Mets have never had a season where more than two players have mashed 30 round-trippers.

Both J.D. Davis and Jeff McNeil surpassed 20 home runs in 2019, and Brandon Nimmo’s career high is 17 in 2018. New catcher James McCann hit 18 during his all-star season in 2019 with the Chicago White Sox. The club record of 242 home runs in 2019 could very well be in play in 2021, but of course the whole point is that these Mets should be able to do it in many ways.

Speedsters

A fun trivia question is “Who is the last MLB player to steal more than 70 bases in a season?” The answer is Jose Reyes in 2007, when he swiped 78. In fact, nobody has stolen more than 50 in a season since Dee Gordon had 60 thefts with Miami in 2017. The stolen base has ebbed and flowed throughout baseball history – Dom DiMaggio led the American League with 15 in the 1950 season – but we are definitely in a down-swing now.

After swiping a whopping 57 bases in 2019, the Mets stole only 20 in the shortened 2020 season. In each of the last two full seasons (’18 and ’19) Lindor swiped a combined 47 bases and was caught 15 times. Paired with Nimmo, the Mets have a duo who get on base at a high clip and can fly, a combination they haven’t had much of in recent years (e.g. Billy Hamilton). Nimmo has never really been a base stealer in his professional career, but even if they don’t put up huge totals, the top of the Mets lineup will have the speed to create chaos on the bases.

High Average

The importance of batting average has been on the decline in recent years, and for good reason – we have more informative statistics available. Just take this example from the 2020 Mets: Alonso hit .231 while Wilson Ramos hit .239. Nobody could possibly make a good-faith argument that Ramos was the better hitter last year, though.

But that doesn’t mean a .300 hitter isn’t valuable to every lineup. McNeil is the kind of throwback hitter that has gone by the wayside over the past 30 years. He hits for a high average, has strong but unspectacular patience, and has gap-to-gap power. He limits strikeouts and puts the ball in play, creating action that the game needs.

How much of a throwback is McNeil? Baseball Reference similarity scores rank the 10 most similar hitters to him through age 28, and the top nine all played before World War II.

A Model Team?

As Epstein and MLB search for ways to bring more action into the game and make it more free-flowing and athletic, the Mets could very well serve as a team which achieves that style more naturally. While they explore the measures of banning the shift and putting an end to the ludicrous “opener” trend, the Mets have assembled a lineup filled with players with diverse skill sets.

While the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins feature lineups capable of whacking 300 home runs the Mets are looking like a more well-balanced offense. Even the “other” guys like McCann and Davis can be capable hitters. Should the Mets sign George Springer as well, you’re looking at a top three lineup in the game and one of the best in franchise history. And maybe, just maybe, they can be the model franchise for getting baseball back to a more exciting version of play.

Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (NYY, AAA) and Bucknell University. He hosts the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.

Where will Steve Cohen stand in labor fight?

There were seven work stoppages in Major League Baseball from 1972 through 1995. Since the disaster of the 94-95 strike ended, the sport has seen a 26-year window of peace, unprecedented in the times of unionized athletes. As profits surged throughout the late 90s and into the 2000s both players and owners were happy with the economics of baseball.

It is abundantly clear that peace time is over.

After enduring ugly and public fights with Minor League Baseball and the union throughout 2020, Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners are digging in for their next fight. Reports have leaked out in the past week that MLB is seeking to start the season late, so that the COVID-19 vaccine can have time to be deployed and fans can safely attend games. Players are pushing for a full 162-game season. They argue that they played safely without a vaccine in 2020, and they can do it again in 2021.

Much like the fight over the 2020 season, this clash has nothing to do with the pandemic – it has to do with money. Owners are seeking a way to not pay the players as their contracts stipulate, and the players are seeking full compensation. After all, they made major sacrifices in 2020 after fighting for longer seasons to eventually accept a 60-game schedule.

MLB’s problem in this particular fight is two-fold. First, when you sign a player to a contract, you assume all of the risks involved, including a pandemic that makes it impossible to have fans in the stands. If you say you are going to pay someone a certain amount for work performed, you have to honor that.

Second, while their argument for 2021 may be a good one, a long history of half-truths, lies and manipulation in labor disputes grants teams no benefit of the doubt. Just last month, Phillies owner John Middleton said the team lost $2 billion in 2020, only to walk it back and say they only lost $145 million after enough people had the common sense to know that was a lie.

That is not to brush aside a $145 million loss, that is very significant. But the idea that it was initially presented as nearly 1400% greater only breaks down public trust in what ownership says and causes automatic skepticism of all claims.

Even before the labor fights of 2020, there were rumblings that the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations would be contentious. The way free agency has progressed over the past three seasons has left many players furious. The luxury tax as structured in the last CBA has acted as the very salary cap that players struck against. It is likely that Tony Clark and the union will push back against the gains the owners have made, and that won’t be pretty.

With a new owner in place and this brewing labor dispute on the horizon, the main question is where will Steve Cohen come down? While he has been impressive during his short time in control of the team, ultimately the first real test of how good of an owner he will be comes at the end of the 2021 season when the CBA negotiations open up.

The first possibility is that he falls in line with the rest of owners and either holds the line where it is or joins a push for a hard salary cap. It is hard to imagine that Cohen would have been approved by MLB so resoundingly in his purchase of the team if they thought he was going to step out of line and go rogue in CBA negotiations.

But of course as the man who is by far the richest owner in baseball, a hard salary cap stands to hurt the Mets more than any other team. Cohen has the competitive advantage of being able to pay players more money than anybody else, so why would he fight to neutralize that? In 1994, Bud Selig was able to persuade George Steinbrenner to relent and support a cap, but will Manfred really have that same kind of power over Cohen?

Ultimately it will come down to answer to this question: “Does Cohen view his ownership of the Mets as an investment or is it fun?” Early indications say that he thinks of it more as fun than a business investment, and hopefully that is the case. But of course words are one thing, but actions are another. Let’s hope Cohen’s actions back up his words.

Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He is the host of the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.

Signing George Springer good for Mets on and off the field

Heading into 2005, Mets GM Omar Minaya made big strides toward turning the team into a true contender. Perhaps the move that signaled that more than any other was his signing of Carlos Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million contract to patrol center field. In the years since, the world learned who Bernard Madoff was, and the Mets haven’t landed the prime free agent on the market.

As the 2020 offseason stands, we know two things: one of the biggest needs for the New York Mets moving forward is center field, and the top free agent George Springer is a center fielder. With new owner Steve Cohen signaling a willingness to spend freely on a winner, the time is now for the Mets to make a splash in free agency and make a legitimate push to sign Springer.

There have been calls coming from all ends of the New York media and fans for the Mets to go after Springer this offseason, and for good reason. He has hit .273/.363/.500 and averaged 37 home runs per 162 games over the last five seasons, and is about to enter his age 31 season. While that is a touch on the older side, there is reason to believe Springer still has several productive seasons left in him. He gets on base, hits for power and plays solid defense in center, which is a combination of skills the Mets haven’t seen since Beltran.

Signing Springer, a Connecticut native, would send a message to the rest of Major League Baseball that the new Mets are not just talk, but that they mean business. Making this signing is the kind of thing a team does when it wants to win a title in the next two to three seasons, as Cohen said in his introductory news conference.

But just how much of an upgrade would Springer be for the Mets? Let’s take a look at what the past tells us.

Since Springer’s first year in the majors in 2015, Mets center fielders have hit .248/.334/.434 and have been worth 2.1 fWAR/150. Meanwhile Springer has hit .274/.363/.494 and has produced at a 5.2 fWAR/150 clip. So on average over the past three seasons, Springer would have been a 3-win improvement for the Mets in center field.

That was surprisingly open-and-close, but obviously it isn’t that simple. Springer is at the end of his prime, and that means age regression is coming. So what do the projection systems think? We’ll use ZiPS 3-year projections (which at this point only cover ‘21 and ’22) to compare Springer and incumbent center fielder Brandon Nimmo.

ZiPS sees Springer being worth 8.0 fWAR in the next two years (4.3 and 3.7, respectively), continuing his place as one of the best center fielders in baseball. A move from Minute Maid Park to Citi Field isn’t likely to make a meaningful impact on that projection.

Nimmo, however, is projected at 3.8 fWAR over the next two seasons (1.8 and 2.0). Part of that has to do with his inability to play a full season in the majors except for 2018 at the time of these projections. Of course some of it has to do with him being a subpar defender in center. As a corner outfielder, Nimmo’s outlook is probably more optimistic than that.

And that’s really the crux of the whole acquisition. Signing Springer isn’t about just sending a message, it is about improving the team, first and foremost. It doesn’t just improve the Mets in one position, it helps them out in three – center, left, and depth on the bench. Those are areas that the team has been sorely lacking in for a long time.

Bringing Springer into the fold immediately makes the Mets a better team, and one that is more capable of competing for a playoff spot. Money is only an object as it relates to the luxury tax penalties, but the Mets don’t have to worry about those for several years, and even at that point it is unknown what the new Collective Bargaining Agreement brings after the 2021 season.

By no means would that mean the Mets could rest on their laurels as a catcher and starting pitchers need to be brought in to create a well-balanced team. However, Springer would anchor the team’s outfield for years to come, and be the kind of signing that Beltran was for the Mets 15 years ago – one that signals that the team is ready to go all-in to win now.

Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He is the host of the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.

Should the Mets consider trading Jeff McNeil?

Since his call up in the 2017 season, Jeff McNeil has quickly made his mark on the New York Mets. Even as he has garnered headlinesnfor his strong hitting, knobless bat and defensive adventures around the diamond, it almost feels like he still is one of the more underrated players in the game.

In only 248 games played, McNeil has accumulated 9.2 bWAR, tied with Todd Hundley for 33rd all-time in Mets history. He is ahead of such names as Lucas Duda, Ron Hunt and Rusty Staub. His .319/.383/.501 career batting line is good for a 139 wRC+. He has been excellent, and one of the real bright spots on two Mets teams that have disappointed. There are no more questions if McNeil is the real deal.

Assuming an on-time start to the 2021 season, McNeil willmstill be only 28 on Opening Day, and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2025. He’s a high-end lefty hitter in his prime making a pre-arbitration salary who can passably play defense at three positions. Players like McNeil are not only on championship teams, but are the reason championship teams are championship teams.

It is obvious that McNeil fits in with the Mets moving forward, especially with the pending sale to Steve Cohen promising changes in how the team will try to compete. The question is how and where does he fit in?

McNeil’s primary defensive position for the past two years has been left field, but it’s hard to imagine keeping him there being the best thing for the team. That’s not necessarily a knock on his abilities, but rather more that left needs to be Brandon Nimmo’s home. With how Dominic Smith hit in 2020, it’s hard to imagine him not being penciled in as the DH in 2021, assuming that change is made permanent.

Even with Steve Cohen’s deep pockets, it’s hard to see the Mets benching Robinson Cano in favor of McNeil in 2021. That is especially true since Cano just put up his best offensive season since 2014 and is going to be chasing down 3,000 hits. As long as he can still be serviceable with the glove and he hits his weight, I don’t see Cano losing his starting role next year.

For the immediate future, third base seems to be the best choice for McNeil. He has shown the ability to handle the position defensively and has a bat which plays at third. J.D. Davis’ disappointing season in 2020 perfectly opens the door for a change, and outside of a 36-year-old Justin Turner there aren’t any intriguing names in free agency. That is unless the Mets go big and sign DJ LeMahieu and move him to the hot corner.

So, there it is, problem solved. McNeil is your everyday third baseman. But of course, it’s not that simple.
For the past several years, the Mets utter lack of pitching depth has come back to bite them. There are very good pitchers available both as starters and relievers as free agents this season. But if the Mets want to bring in a pitcher or two with a trade, it might be worth considering parting with McNeil.

Obviously, the Mets should not be in a rush to trade McNeil and should try to avoid doing so. But the very things that make him such a valuable player, make him an attractive trade piece. If a team wants to dump salary but bring in a low-salaried MLB player, it could be a solid match.

With Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario and J.D. Davis all in the picture for 2021, the Mets have options at third base, even if they are less attractive than McNeil. If the Mets have the opportunity to trade from a strength to fill a weakness, it would be reckless to not at least consider it.

The same stands if the Mets decide to go the other way for 2021 and build up a minor league system that has been gutted by Brodie Van Wagenen in pursuit of a playoff berth. McNeil is the type of player who could expedite that process and bring back two or three top 15 prospects. Being under team control until 2025 could help the Mets in dealing from a position of strength.

The hope is that a Cohen ownership with Sandy Alderson back in the picture would realize keeping McNeil is a smart idea, and that making the playoffs in 2021 is attainable. Since it was Alderson who drafted him back in 2013, that might help his case to stay put.

McNeil is a good and valuable player. But of all the Mets good hitter, he is the one they could most survive parting with and come out a stronger team on the other side of the deal. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Mets to test those waters.

Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He hosts the baseball documentary podcast, Secondary Lead.