“The Mets right now are painted into a corner. They have too many big contracts to realistically rebuild. They have too little payroll room to make a major addition without touching their core.” That’s what our fearless leader, Brian Joura eloquently stated earlier this week. My takeaway is that in order to improve this team enough to win at least five more games in 2020 to make the playoffs, Brodie Van Wagenen and his front office team are going to need to get creative this off-season.
Gus Livaditis (nice to finally know your last name) did the math for us in his post. Anticipated arbitration raises will likely make up for any savings from expiring free agent contracts, so the Mets are not going to have a lot of wiggle room between their currently expected (and roughly estimated) payroll of about $180 million and the expected luxury tax threshold of $206 million. As much as Van Wagenen has a fresh new sports car smell for Mets ownership, it’s impossible to envision a scenario where they’d open the books much more.
The Mets have a solid core. How else do explain almost making the playoffs despite having the worst bullpen in baseball, a bad defense and a knuckle headed manager? Improve those three areas and this team should be able to cross that 92-win threshold that usually guarantees a playoff spot (don’t tell Cleveland). The trick is, how do you do that without adding much to the payroll? You get creative.
Step 1 – Engage the right trade partners
2019 Playoff teams are going to be concerned with keeping their teams together and filling in at the margins. Rebuilding teams are looking to cut payroll and stockpile prospects. Neither makes a good trade partner for the Mets. We need to look at the retooling teams, the ones with talent who had disappointing seasons and the ones who suddenly accepted they might have to tear it down but haven’t begun yet. The Red Sox are like an exaggerated version of the Mets with even more talent and a bigger payroll but with bigger holes to fill. They boast one of the scariest lineups in the game but with a weak bullpen, an injury prone but expensive rotation, and several pending free agents, they’d have to go way over the luxury tax threshold to fill out the roster enough to compete with the Yankees and Astros. They need a trade partner and the Mets might be a perfect fit. Both teams have a few core players they won’t part with, a few overpriced veterans they’d love to unload, and some interesting pieces in between. The Red Sox are secretly hoping their DH, J.D. Martinez opts out of his remaining contract so they have a prayer of resigning their best player Mookie Betts, who is entering his walk year and will command a king’s ransom. However it plays out, they won’t have both for long and they’ll be desperate for pre-arbitration players who are young, can hit and play multiple positions – players like J.D. Davis and Dominic Smith. The Sox, by the way, will be in the market for a first baseman.
The Pirates were perhaps the most disappointing team in the National League, despite having a fairly talented roster. A combination of underachieving and the fallout from the Felipe Vazquez scandal will lead this team to make some wholesale changes in the offseason. Their centerfielder, Starling Marte has speed, right-handed power and a gold glove at age 31 and has two years/$24 million left on his contract. That’s not a lot of money for a good centerfielder, but it is to a rebuilding team in a secondary market. Pitcher Chris Archer is also becoming too expensive for the Pirates, but although he’d be a cheaper alternative to Zack Wheeler, his numbers are on the decline.
Other teams with talent who may make for interesting trade partners include the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Indians.
Step 2- Cross off the bad options
Nearly everyone reading this has taken a peak at the available free agent list and probably salivated over a few names. Charlize Theron isn’t married. That doesn’t mean you have a chance. Forget about Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, who will each command and get long-term deals with AAV’s over $30 million. The next tier of players (including a few who may or may not be free agents depending on if they opt out of their current deals) will also be prohibitively expensive. It’s hard to envision the Mets doing what the Nationals did with Max Scherzer a few years back and breaking the bank to add to their already strong rotation. That means, forget about Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, or Hyun-Jin Ryu. As much as most of us would love to see Zack Wheeler remain with the team, we could still maintain a strong rotation by slotting Seth Lugo into his place and signing a new swing man to take his spot like our old friend Collin McHugh who is a free agent. There are other free agent rotation options, including Jake Odorizzi, Dallas Keuchel, Cole Hamels (as if), Wade Miley, and Tanner Roark, and it will be interesting to see how the game of musical chairs goes. Remember, Keuchel was left without a seat last year.
One interesting name at the top of the free agent list is Aroldis Chapman. A lefty closer would sure make a nice addition to our roster and word on the street is that the Cuban Missile is going to opt out of his Yankees contract. The 32-year-old fireballer has 2 years/$34.4 million remaining so it might take at least 3 years/$54 million just to open the conversation. Will the Yankees give him that and call it a day or will he test the waters and see if he can get something like 4 years/$72 million? This would be a heck of a splash for the Mets to make, as would going after the catcher who got away last year – Yasmani Grandal – should he opt out of his deal. The 31-year-old backstop turned down the Mets reported 4-year/$60 million offer to accept Milwaukee’s 1-year/$18.25 million offer with a $16 million player option for 2020, that he’ll likely turn down. Grandal is now a year older and the Mets have Wilson Ramos under contract for next year. The Mets fan writing this would go this route and trade Ramos.
Other available catchers are mostly part-timers, backups or getting on in years. Beyond Chapman, there are more than 60 free agent relievers to choose from, led by Will Harris, Will Smith, and Dellin Betances. Many of the names are familiar. Some are coming off good years, others off bad years. Some have been fighting injuries. There’s no telling which ones will be the 2020 Josh Hader. But there is strength in numbers. Rather than sign one guy to a $10 million deal who could fall on his face like Jeurys Familia, the smart play might be to wait out free agency and pick up three or four guys at bargain rates, including some former starters, and see where you can catch lightning in a bottle. The Mets can’t afford to go all in on one reliever and hope that he’ll be the difference maker.
Step 3- Find the diamonds in the rough
In addition to the expected free agents, there is a long list of players with contract options who could easily join this list. In some cases the team is looking to shed payroll and declines the team option. In other instances, the player opts out in hopes of getting a bigger contract. A few interesting names to keep an eye on include pitchers Jose Quintana, Andrew Cashner, Jake Diekman, Pat Neshek, Dan Otero, Shawn Kelley, Martin Perez, Tony Watson, and Adam Warren. In addition to Grandal, there are some other catchers in this category, like Tyler Flowers and Yan Gomes. Other hitters who could opt into free agency include Kole Calhoun, Freddy Galvis, Mike Moustakas, Nick Markakis, Eric Thames, and Edwin Encarnacion.
Van Wagenen needs to do his homework ahead of the winter meetings and know going in, who has useable spare parts, who’s facing a roster crunch and who’s looking to shake things up. Just as the Mets have too many second baseman and corner outfielders, other teams have an extra catcher, or a center fielder who’s gotten too expensive, or a veteran pitcher who needs to make way for a rookie.
Step 4 – Think outside the box
The Mets have players who, due to age, injury history and contract status, couldn’t be given away for free. They also have some players they wouldn’t give up at any price – the young building blocks. But then there are the guys without a position or clear future like Smith and Davis, and the guys they’re not married to who might have value elsewhere like Ramos. There are also guys getting closer to free agency who are at peak value – guys like Noah Syndergaard and Michael Conforto. Losing Wheeler might make trading Syndergaard a bad idea, as does the fact that he’s coming off a down year. But Conforto, who also has two years of control remaining, is coming off a good year and has a lot of value as a young slugger. Rather than trading away Davis and Smith for small parts, we could let those two platoon in the outfield, or we could trade for Marte or another centerfielder and let Brandon Nimmo take right field. Conforto is a good player and an easy guy to root for, but he’s streaky as heck and doesn’t seem to be blossoming into the second coming of Carlos Beltran as we expected. As a good, but not great player it will be too easy to let him walk in two years when his agent – Scott Boras – inevitably gets some sucker team to pony up a $200 million contract for a guy who frankly is not worth it. A Conforto trade could go a long way toward helping us rebuild the farm system, while giving us a little salary relief to put toward a real centerfielder or catcher.