For years, all we heard about was the trouble the Mets had finding a third baseman. Then Howard Johnson (807 games) and David Wright (1,571) showed up and we don’t hear much about that any more. Still, 162 people have played at least one game at third base in franchise history. What doesn’t get talked about nearly as much is second base, where 147 different guys have suited up and no one has as many games there as Johnson, much less Wright.
The Mets said goodbye to one of their second base stalwarts in Daniel Murphy, who played 500 lifetime games at the position for the club, last year. They traded for Neil Walker, who had one year before free agency. Walker seemed like a one-year option, until top prospect Dilson Herrera was viewed as ready to step in and take over. But Herrera was slowed all year by a shoulder injury before being dealt at the trade deadline and Walker turned out better than anyone expected, both at the plate where he had his best year yet hitting southpaws and in the field where he seemed like a big upgrade from Murphy.
So, now the Mets are in a similar situation that they were a year ago. Should they try to re-sign their second baseman in his walk year and if so, is he worthy of extending the Qualifying Offer (QO)? Murphy had been a solid performer for years for the team and then down the stretch in 2015 and in the NLDS and NLCS, he turned it up to a different level. The Mets did decide to give the QO, which Murphy turned down, thinking he would get a long-term offer from someone, hopefully the Mets.
When the Mets acquired Walker, the conventional thinking was that they would do the same thing with him – extend him the QO, have him decline it and then walk away with an extra supplemental first-round pick. But it’s not so easy this time around. Walker was in the middle of a hot streak when he went down with a season-ending back injury which required surgery. He’s supposed to be ready for Spring Training but you never want to go into free agency coming off surgery.
The first three years of the QO system, each of the players declined the offer and became free agents, thinking they would get a multi-year deal without a problem. But we saw teams often reluctant to sign guys who weren’t superstars who had the QO attached to them because they would, if they didn’t have one of the 10-worst records in the league, have to surrender their first-round pick in order to do so.
Last year was the first time that a free agent accepted a QO, as three of the 20 who were extended it came back to their clubs on a one-year deal. And no doubt a few of the other 17 wish they had accepted the QO, too. And among those who probably wish they had made a different decision were middle infielders.
In the four years of the QO system, there were five middle infielders who received the offer. In 2013 Robinson Cano and Stephen Drew got QOs and last year it was Ian Desmond, Howie Kendrick and Murphy. Of the five, only Cano ended up with a multi-year deal at an average annual value above the QO. The other four had varying levels of regret at declining the offer.
Perhaps no one was hurt by the QO system more than Drew, who was coming off a year with a 111 OPS+ as a solid defender with a 6.7 UZR/150 at SS. He seemed primed to get a contract north of $50 million and the Mets were among the suitors interested in him. But no one pulled the trigger and not only was Drew unsigned before Spring Training started, he was still a free agent on Opening Day. It wasn’t until late May when he re-signed with the Red Sox for a pro-rated salary of the QO he turned down previously. Drew lost 241 points of OPS from the previous season and in the three years since, he has not matched in any season the 501 PA he amassed in 2013.
Desmond appeared to be in line for the same fate as Drew. But he read the market better and accepted a one-year, $8 million deal, slightly over half the QO, to become an OF with the Rangers. Desmond rebounded with the bat and has a chance to try for a multi-year deal again this year, but it’s unlikely he’ll get another 7-year, $107 million offer like he turned down before his first foray into free agency.
Kendrick and Murphy each ended up with multi-year deals last year, but both fell short of the yearly value of the $15.8 million QO that they rejected. Kendrick signed a deal for two years and $20 million while Murphy got three years and $37.5 million. Perhaps the security of the multi-year deal makes up for the money they left on the table. But if Murphy had accepted the Mets’ one-year offer and went into free agency this year with a top five MVP season, he undoubtedly would end up a much richer man.
Now, the Mets and Walker each face a tough decision. While the Mets no longer have Herrera, they do have options at the position, including Gavin Cecchini, Wilmer Flores and T.J. Rivera. They could even potentially split time with one of the above and Kelly Johnson and still save over $12 million. But they could gamble that Walker would turn down the offer and still give him the QO, hoping to land the extra pick.
And if you’re Walker and the Mets extend the QO – how do you not take it? At one point, it seemed that the success of Murphy would bode well for Walker. Throughout their careers, Walker had been a better player. And while no club would expect to receive Murphy’s 2016 production, perhaps that would encourage them to offer a multi-year deal at a rate much closer to the QO. But the surgery throws a huge wrench into the equation. Do you open the vault for a guy coming off back surgery? More than a few teams will be scared away by that.
MLBTR estimates that the QO will be $16.7 million this year, up nearly a million dollars from a season ago.
The Mets don’t have a ton of salary coming off the books and they potentially have 12 arbitration cases looming. And they have to decide whether or not to pick up the option on Jay Bruce. Plus it seems near certain that Yoenis Cespedes will opt out of his deal and there will be more teams interested in giving him a multi-year deal than there was last offseason.
After they pulled the trigger on the Bruce deal, it seemed that he would be the Mets’ Plan B for 2017 if Cespedes left for greener pastures. But now it seems that Walker is in that equation, too. Bruce and Walker will likely cost the club just shy of $30 million in 2017. Will the Mets go for all three guys or do a Cespedes versus Bruce + Walker, since the cost will likely be similar?
The options are confusing enough but then you have to consider that the decisions are due shortly after the completion of the World Series. Clearly Sandy Alderson has his work cut out for him. Last year, he was content to let Cespedes leave without offering a big deal. But can he make that same decision after seeing him have success for a full season, rather than just two months?
If the Mets are somehow able to retain Cespedes, my choice as GM would be not to offer Walker the QO. But if Cespedes opts out and gives every indication that he’s not signing less than a five-year deal, then I offer Walker the QO and am happy with either outcome.