The Mets have had a strong off season thus far. They have brought in enough outfielders to turn the outfield from a massive weak link to a group of players with the potential to make that part of the team a strong suit. They’ve added a veteran starter to help bridge the gap while Matt Harvey recovers from Tommy John Surgery. They haven’t dumped Daniel Murphy for pennies on the dollar as many people were afraid they were going to do. They’ve also added some players on minor league deals, such as Joel Carreno, that could be solid, under the radar acquisitions, gotten rid of bad contracts and jettisoned some of the flotsam and jetsam that was clogging up the 40-man roster. All in all, it’s been an offseason that gives the Met fan something to look forward to as the season approaches.
Unfortunately, all the good feeling this offseason has engendered could be lost if two major problems aren’t rectified sooner rather than later. Those are the problems at shortstop and first base. These two problems can be quantified in three names: Lucas Duda, Ike Davis and Ruben Tejada. One would think that these problems are distinct, but they are actually interconnected in ways that could undermine the team moving forward.
Let’s start at first base. The Duda, Davis debate has been going on since Davis got off to his second straight horrendous first half in 2013, while at the same time, Duda proved, without a doubt, that he couldn’t play the outfield. Simply put, it became obvious during the 2013 season that the Mets had a logjam at first base and, unlike a team that had two strong options to choose from, the Mets had two flawed ones.
This has led the Mets to shop both players this offseason, with a much stronger focus on Davis, leading to the feeling that the Mets preferred Duda to Davis. It’s fairly easy to see why. Davis has higher end potential, as his 32 home run campaign in 2012 shows. Davis is also the better defender, as he has shown the ability to have a game changing glove which Duda has not. Duda has been more consistent. Duda is more consistent in his approach at the plate, whereas Davis seems to have a different approach and batting stance every other game. Duda has also shown more consistent power and more consistent effectiveness against lefties. Although neither player’s numbers look good against lefties, Davis has proven especially inept against lefties over the past two years. In 2012, Davis batted 174 with a 335 SLG against lefties. Part of that number was due to a 28.1% strike out rate and a low walk rate (6.2%), but it was also because, even when Davis put his bat on the ball, he didn’t have much success. On balls in play, Davis hit 248 with a 479 SLG. That left him with a nice ISO of 231, helping to explain the 32 home runs. However, his numbers dipped significantly in 2013 against lefties. Not only did he only hit 145 with a 298 SLG, but even when the ball hit his bat, he only hit 213 with a 298 SLG, leading to a minute ISO of 85. Duda’s numbers against lefties don’t look good on the surface (239 AVG, 358 SLG in 2012, 183 AVG, 301SLG in 2013) but, unlike Davis, when Duda made contact, the ball went somewhere. In 2012, Duda hit 386 against lefties when he didn’t strike out and had a 578 SLG with a nice 192 ISO. In 2013 those numbers slipped, but he still hit 304 when he got wood on the baseball with a 500 SLG. The consistent thing was his ISO, which went from the aforementioned 192 to 196 in 2013, despite a lower batting average and SLG.
What does that all mean? Basically that Mets have a tough choice on their hands. Do they go with the more consistent Duda, who has a lower ceiling, or the higher ceiling, wildly inconsistent Davis? The decision is a difficult one, but it needs to be made, and soon. The teams search for a shortstop has been delayed by the first base indecision and the longer the team waits, the more difficult it’s going to be to move either Duda or Davis. The offseason began with five teams that clearly needed first base help: the Rays, the Rockies, the Orioles, the Brewers and the Pirates. The Rays and Rockies have solved there issues via free agency. The Pirates acquired a low level platoon player from the Rangers. The Orioles would like to add a first baseman to share time with Chris Davis, but aren’t jumping to do so and the Brewers are balking at the Mets demands. Not to mention the fact that Kendrys Morales is still on the market, to be had by any team for money and a draft pick.
So what should the Mets do? They could have both players on the major league roster, but that causes big problems. Say both players break camp with the team. The Mets would have two roster spots filled by, in essence, the same player with the same level of inflexibility. Bench players need to be flexible by trade. Unless you’re in the American league and can afford to have Duda or Davis be the designated hitter, all the Mets have done is create roster inflexibility by losing a spot they could use for a flexible fifth outfielder or a multi-position infielder.
The team could put one in the minor leagues, but that causes a domino effect in the system. The Mets have two solid first base prospects lower in the system in Dominic Smith and Jayce Boyd. They also have Allan Dykstra who has languished in Double-A because they haven’t had room for him in Triple-A. Also, don’t forget that they signed Brandon Allen to a minor league contract and have the position less Wilmer Flores, who one would presume will also get some looks at first base. Basically, sticking Duda or Davis in Las Vegas stunts the system. If one of them is blocking out first base, that means that Allen is probably the backup, which means that Flores isn’t getting time at first. It also means that Dykstra stays in Double-A, which stops Boyd from advancing to Double-A, which based on his numbers from high A Port St. Lucie, should be a destination that he could reach in 2014. It also means that Smith could be blocked from Hi-A if he tears up Brooklyn or Lo-A Savannah.
Let’s also not forget that the Mets would be paying either Davis or Duda a fairly significant salary to play in Las Vegas and will have totally killed any trade value that either player had, especially if the one at the major league level bombs out. The plan should be to trade Davis or Duda, and if the one that remains doesn’t play well, the Mets have potential temporary fixes in Josh Satin, Dykstra, Allen or Flores, with Boyd not far behind in Double-A.
The first base situation has put the shortstop situation on hold, which causes problems from the opposite side of the spectrum. Tejada is a totally unknown quantity, and if the Mets leave spring training with Tejada as the starting shortstop, they are taking a massive risk. The Mets have the exact opposite amount of depth at first base as they have at shortstop. Only Wilfredo Tovar is potentially a back up option to Tejada in the system. Gavin Cecchini and Ahmed Rosario are decent prospects, but are way too far away to count on for anything this or next season. That means, if Tejada flops, the Mets will be required to either deal with his mediocre to poor play, rely on the unproven Tovar or rely on whatever over the hill or below average veteran (remember Omar Quintanilla) that they sign to be an extra infielder. That is, if they can make such a signing since they could be stuck with Duda and Davis on the major league roster.
The roster situation is a problem. Only two of these players should be on the team when the Mets break camp and if Tejada is one of those two, he should be the extra backup infielder, to go along with a backup catcher, Eric Young Jr., Josh Satin and a player like Andrew Brown or an unknown left hand hitter. If they’re stuck with Duda and Davis, the Mets will have to either create the aforementioned logjam in the minors or sacrifice a valuable bench spot for a player that will barely play. It’s a bad situation that could totally undermine the club. Say they can’t sign Stephen Drew because of Davis and Duda’s salaries, or they don’t trade for a solid young shortstop because they can’t unload Davis or Duda for the pitcher they want to replace the one they’d have to trade for a Chris Owings or a Didi Gregorius type, they would then be stuck with a situation in which they are not only stunting their system, but potentially leaving a large hole in their lineup from the shortstop perspective that would undermine the lineup.
The bottom line is, this team is two moves away from walking out of spring training with a quality team that could potentially compete for a wild card spot. They need to trade Davis or Duda, and since Davis seems to have the most interest, it probably should be him. I get holding out for what they want, but Sandy Alderson may need to be flexible on this one for the greater good of the franchise. If Davis hits 30 home runs a year for the Brewers, then so be it as I believe the Mets have better overall players in Smith and Boyd in the system that aren’t that far away. They could make due in the mean time, have better roster flexibility and get the shortstop they need. It’s really a no-brainer and could be the difference between a contending team and another 74-win season.