For a while now, people have been arguing that if the Mets are to be built around pitching, they should have a strong defense up the middle. Meanwhile, the powers that be haven’t exactly subscribed to this idea. Playing guys like Asdrubal Cabrera and Wilmer Flores in the middle infield didn’t lead to Gold Gloves and their one star defensive player in the middle, Juan Lagares, couldn’t stay healthy. And it’s not like the catchers wowed people with their defensive work, either.
Many blamed Sandy Alderson for this lack of emphasis on defense. But Alderson’s gone and what do we see? With Wilson Ramos, they’ve got a guy who’s more known for his offense than his defense. At second base they’ve got Robinson Cano, who has sure hands and a strong arm but who in his last full season put up a 0 DRS and a 0.1 UZR and who will be 36 in 2019. At shortstop, they hope Amed Rosario will continue to make strides defensively. The new GM was extremely reluctant to deal Rosario, despite the fact he put up a (-16) DRS and a (-5.2) UZR last year.
Which brings us to center field. Which reminds me – who’s going to play CF for the 2019 Mets? Maybe this will be the year that Lagares puts it all together. Or perhaps they convert Jeff McNeil to an outfielder and play Brandon Nimmo in the middle. Or maybe the rumors of a deal with A.J. Pollock come true and he plays center for 140 or so games.
Pollock has visions of a big contract floating in his head. Which would be understandable if he had played in at least 115 games more than once in the last five seasons. The one time he did play a full season, back in 2015, he appeared in 157 games and put up a 6.8 fWAR. It would be terrific to see that type of production for the Mets, especially since he had a +14 DRS and a 9.7 UZR in CF that season. Unfortunately, in the three years since that monster season, Pollock has combined for 237 games and a 5.2 fWAR.
Two years ago, there was a CF available in free agency who was dogged with questions about his ability to stay healthy. The Cardinals handed him a big deal and Dexter Fowler has played 118 and 90 games in 2017 and 2018, respectively. St. Louis would be thrilled to be rid of the 3/$49.5 million he has left to go on his contract.
Last year Lorenzo Cain was the big CF prize available in free agency. He didn’t have quite the checkered injury history that Fowler did, having played 155 games in his last year with the Royals. He ended up signing a similar deal to Fowler, as he got 5/$80 from the Brewers. Cain appeared in 141 games and put up a 5.7 fWAR last year. You may be shocked to hear this, but the Brewers made the playoffs last year while the Cardinals did not.
Many stumped for the Mets to get Cain last offseason. And in 2018 he justified that faith, as his numbers included a career-best +20 DRS at age 32. Still, the question remains if he’ll be able to be a plus defender in the middle as he ages. Since 2002, there have been only 36 seasons by 19 different players where a guy age 33 or above qualified for the FanGraphs leaderboards in center field. And not one of those seasons did a player record a +10 DRS, much less a +20. Defense peaks much younger than offense and very few players can handle the demands of playing center field full time in their mid-30s and virtually no one excels at it.
Maybe Cain breaks the mold.
Pollock will be entering his age 31 season in 2019. He’s been an asset defensively when healthy. But as he goes deeper into his 30s, he has to hope to remain healthy and hope that his defense doesn’t go into a rapid decline. It seems a shaky bet to make, especially at the rumored $15 million per year that he’s seeking.
Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like Pollock is a front-burner issue for the Mets right now. It would be fine to revisit the issue in late January, if Pollock is still on the board and willing to come down quite a bit from his current salary demands. A Ramos-like contract, 2/$19 with a club option, would make him an interesting get. But a five-year contract should be an automatic deal killer.