The Mets walked away from the winter meetings with some questions answered. They have a veteran starting pitcher in Bartolo Colon. They have to outfielders with some pop in their bats in Chris Young and Curtis Granderson. They are actively looking for back end of the bullpen relievers (connected to Chris Perez, Mitchell Boggs, John Axford and Kevin Gregg) and will trade Ike Davis (it’s just a matter of time).
However, with all of this movement, one part of their team remains a massive question mark, and that’s who will bat leadoff.
Looking at who will receive regular or semi-regular at bat’s on this team, there are really only four candidates to bat leadoff; Juan Lagares, Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada and Eric Young Jr. Yes, Granderson and Young have experience batting leadoff, but the way the team is set up, the Mets need those two players extra base hit ability in the middle of the order, backing up David Wright. Of the four candidates mentioned, Lagares needs to be eliminated immediately. Lagares hasn’t shown he can hit well enough to hit at the top of the order and make up for his lack of plate discipline. He shouldn’t be hitting anywhere other than in the seven or eight spots in the batting order, so that he can continue to develop and possibly turn into a higher in the order type hitter. That leaves Murphy, Tejada and Young Jr. In order to adequately compare these players, since Murphy doesn’t have much experience batting in the leadoff spot, we have to compare how all three players bat in lead off situations. Those situations can be defined as any time they got up with nobody on base and zero, one or two outs. In Tejada’s case, we’ll look at what he did in 2012 as the 2013 season was a lost one for him.
Murphy – PA: 398 AB: 380 AVG: .292 OBP: .324 SLG: .424 OPS: 748 BB%: 4.0 SO%: 14.3
Tejada – PA: 361 AB: 338 AVG: .293 OBP: .334 SLG: .358 OPS: 692 BB%: 5.3 SO%: 14.1
Young Jr. – PA: 286 AB: 258 AVG: .275 OBP: .346 SLG: .311 OPS: 657 BB%: 9.1 SO%: 18.2
What does the above say? It’s confusing. Murphy is clearly the best hitter, with the best OPS, but he has the worst walk rate and OBP. Young Jr. has the best OBP and walk rate, but also has the highest strike out rate, the lowest average and the lowest OPS. Tejada has the best AVG (by a point), but is in the middle in the other categories. Adding in stolen bases only further complicates the matter as Young Jr. has elite speed, Murphy has “smart” speed (meaning his ability to steal bases is more about getting good jumps and reading pitchers than speed) and Tejada has shown no consistent ability to steal bases in the majors, even though he did have a good history of it in the minor leagues. When you add in that Murphy’s stolen base ability is more about guile than speed, it leaves one to believe that those stolen base totals can’t be counted on.
On top of the numbers, there are other complications to the leadoff equation:
1. Murphy’s status – Murphy was made available during the winter meetings and there were teams that called. Reportedly, the Mets were seeking a lot in return for Murphy, leading most insiders to believe he won’t be traded. That’s my belief as well, but the offseason is a tricky thing to judge. If a team needing a second baseman decides to meet the Mets asking price, who’s to say Murphy won’t be dealt. If he is, then Young Jr. becomes your leadoff hitter as he would probably slot into Murphy’s position at second base.
2. The shortstop dilemma – Right now, Tejada is the Mets shortstop, but Sandy Alderson has been working hard on alternatives, such as Stephen Drew. Drew doesn’t look like he’s coming here as the Mets are only willing to offer a two year deal, which matches what the Red Sox are offering. In that scenario, it’s believed that Drew will rejoin the Red Sox. The Diamondbacks have an excess at the position as well, but that might go into any trade for David Price, or the Diamondbacks might just hold onto their excess in case one of their shortstops doesn’t progress as they think they should. Jed Lowrie is probably able to be had, but Billy Beane has no reason to trade him and the asking price is probably high. Yunel Escobar could be a possibility, but just like with Beane, the Rays have no need to trade him. Jose Reyes and Elvis Andrus could also probably be had, but they have big, long contracts (especially Andrus) and will cost in players and prospects. This factor could totally change the leadoff spot as some of the players mentioned could hit leadoff (Andrus and Reyes), hit in the middle of the order (Drew and Lowrie) or claim a strangle hold on the two or eight spots in the order (Escobar or anyone from Arizona). It’s also conceivable that Murphy could be involved in a trade bringing back some of these players (Reyes, Lowrie, Escobar) that would also change the dynamic.
3. Juan Lagares – If Lagares hits, his glove will keep him as a regular in the lineup. If he doesn’t hit, Young or Granderson will move over to centerfield, opening a spot in the order for Young Jr. in leftfield. If that occurs, Young Jr. becomes the leadoff hitter. There has also been chatter from the Mets about starting Young Jr. in leftfield from the start. That’s a mistake, as Lagares is too good as a fielder to be ignored, unless his bat is totally abysmal.
So, what’s the final conclusion from all of this? If the Mets stay status quo with everyday players, their best option would be a bit of a revolving door in the leadoff spot. Assuming Tejada is your everyday shortstop and Lagares is your regular centerfielder, Young Jr. will be slotted into the leadoff spot approximately half the time, giving days off to all three outfielders and filling in for Murphy at second when he either gets a day off or has to fill in at another position (first base or third base) to give that player a day off. When Young Jr. isn’t in the lineup, Tejada should hit there, as long as Tejada hits like he did in 2011 or 2012 as opposed to 2013.
There is some evidence that Tejada could get back to that point. Tejada’s strike out rate in leadoff situations in 2013 was only 12.7%, the lowest in the last three years. His walk rate in those situations was 7.0%, higher than in 2012 and only 2.1 points behind his rate in 2011, 9.1%. This seems to indicate that he was extremely unlucky in 2013, leaving hope that if he can stay healthy, which is part of the reason the Mets have him in fitness camp, he can return to his 2011-2012 form.
None of this is ideal, but it’s one of those situations that the Mets will have to live with in 2014. With the potential power they now have in the lineup, I think it’s something that, if managed correctly, will not be a major hole in the order. Of course, that also means that Tejada and Young Jr., if they are the primary leadoff guys, will have to play their part. Since this season could be a make or break for both of them, regarding their roles in the future, there is probably a good chance they will succeed. We’ll see. Let’s just hope that the leadoff spot doesn’t become what it was last year before Young Jr. arrived, which was an unmitigated disaster. That would put a team that now looks like a competitive club for the first time in several years, back into the 74 win team they have been two years running.