We’re not there yet but the Mets are going to have to make some decisions about a positional logjam in the next one-to-three years. It was a point of emphasis by Sandy Alderson to acquire as much high-end shortstop talent as he could, especially in the international free agent market. And now those shortstops are bubbling up through the system. It’s a good problem to have but at the end of the day, it’s still a problem that will likely have a preferred solution, even if it’s not obvious right now.
Let’s look at two cases of how a team dealt with a similar problem. In the late 1960s-early 1970s, the Reds had two guys who were first basemen who both needed to play – Lee May and Tony Perez. They tried to make Perez a 3B, which probably worked as well as it could have but still wasn’t an ideal solution. So, after the 1971 season, the Reds traded May to the Astros in the blockbuster Joe Morgan deal. They got exceptional trade value from May and Perez put up a 133 OPS+ the next five years in Cincinnati while May had a 121 OPS+ in Houston and Baltimore. It’s difficult to imagine a logjam working out any better for a club.
In 1980-81, the Mets had two young relievers who both looked like they would be elite closers for many years in Neil Allen and Jeff Reardon. The Mets ended up trading Reardon for Ellis Valentine, the OF power bat they desperately needed, who was only available because he had been dogged by a variety of injuries which helped truncate his 147 OPS+ season in 1980. Valentine was on the DL when the Mets acquired him in early ’81. In parts of two seasons with the Mets, he posted a .661 OPS and blasted the Mets as the worst organization in baseball. Reardon went on to amass 359 Saves after he was traded by the Mets. Meanwhile, Allen eventually lost his closer’s job and was moved to the rotation in an effort to salvage his career. He wasn’t particularly effective as a starter but did enough to intrigue the Cardinals, who asked for him when they dealt Keith Hernandez to the Mets. So, it wasn’t a complete disaster but clearly the Mets chose the wrong guy when they attempted to solve their logjam with a trade of one of the players.
There are tons of these examples throughout MLB history. But let’s look at a few more from the Mets in the last decade. Early in the 2010 season, the Mets called up first-round pick Ike Davis, who put up a solid 115 OPS+ in 601 PA in a year where he was expected to spend most of it in the minors. Late in that same year they called up Lucas Duda, who got off to a miserable start in his first 13 games (1-33) but then had a .993 OPS over his final 55 PA. Davis got there first and was also the higher pick – Duda was a seventh-round pick – so he got to play 1B while Duda was asked to play the outfield. If you didn’t see Duda in the OF, consider yourself lucky.
Davis got off to a great start in 2011 but then what looked like a harmless collision with David Wright on an infield pop up turned into a season-ending injury. Duda got to play more at 1B because of the injury and responded with a 137 OPS+. Davis returned the following year and Duda was back in the OF. This time Davis got off to a terrible start but the Mets kept with him. He revamped his batting stance and had a strong second half. Davis ended the year with a 111 OPS+ compared to a 99 OPS+ from Duda, who made just four starts at 1B in the season. Davis returned as the starter in 2013 but the revamped stance was gone. He struggled to an 89 OPS+ swinging at every two-strike breaking ball, regardless of how far out of the strike zone it was. Duda saw more time in the OF than 1B but saw more action in the infield than he did the previous season and put up a 118 OPS+. The Mets still did not have clarity in who they wanted to play first base long term entering 2014. Rumors had both guys being traded and it seemed from the outside that whoever brought back the bigger package would be the one to go. Finally, early in the ’14 season, Davis was dealt for two minor leaguers who never saw the majors with the Mets. He bounced around, foing from the Mets to the Pirates to the A’s to the Yankees but never came close to his early promise. Duda ended up getting some MVP consideration in 2014, which he finished with a 137 OPS+. He added two more seasons with the Mets with an OPS+ in the 130s. The Mets clearly traded the right guy but by waiting too long they didn’t get much in return.
They didn’t realize it at the time but the Mets had two excellent defensive center fielders in their system at the start of the 2013 season. Matt den Dekker was turning heads with his play in Spring Training that year but then an injury kept him from making the team. While he was recovering, Juan Lagares leapfrogged him in the pecking order and earned a promotion to the majors. The conventional wisdom was that Lagares would hit for a good AVG and be able to play CF in a pinch. But he turned out to be a tremendous defensive player, winning a deserved Gold Glove Award in 2014. Following that season, where he was nearly league-average offensively for the position, the Mets gave him a long-term deal.
Meanwhile, den Dekker didn’t hit much at all in either 2013 or at first in 2014, either. But during that season, he overhauled his offensive approach, trading power for OBP. In his final 84 PA in 2014, den Dekker put up a .329/.440/.429 line. The Mets could have played both Lagares and den Dekker in the OF in 2015. But they opted to sign Michael Cuddyer as a free agent and ended up trading den Dekker for Jerry Blevins. Injuries kept both Cuddyer and Blevins from contributing much to the Mets’ World Series team in 2015, one that didn’t really take off until the Mets replaced Lagares in CF with Yoenis Cespedes. Meanwhile, den Dekker was buried in Washington and reverted back to his power approach and never came close to his end of 2014 success. You can argue that the Mets traded the right guy. But the long-term contract they gave out to Lagares kept him on the roster for much longer than he deserved. Is it a win if you give a guy over 2,000 PA for a .659 OPS? If only they had waited a year and given a long-term deal to Jacob deGrom, instead.
Injuries and less than stellar production kept the catching battle between Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki from ever developing into a big thing. But there were plenty of backers for both backstops in the time they were on the Mets. When Brodie Van Wagenen took over, he ended whatever controversy may have been by signing Wilson Ramos and trading Plawecki. And he put the final nail in when he cut d’Arnaud after just 25 PA. Plawecki put up a 64 OPS+ in 174 PA last year. But d’Arnaud stayed relatively healthy last year and put up a 107 OPS+ with the Rays, where he winded up after a brief stop with the Dodgers after he left the Mets.
It looked like the Mets were going to have an abundance of SP in the 2015-2019 era. But injuries to Matt Harvey, Jeremy Hefner, Steven Matz, Rafael Montero and Zack Wheeler kept that quintet from ever having to fight with deGrom and Noah Syndergaard for spots in the rotation. Assuming the 2020 season eventually starts, the Mets will have that scenario with six starters vying for five spots. But the contract situation pretty much ensures that it won’t be a long-term issue with this particular bunch.
The Mets’ situation at shortstop is not a problem right now because Gavin Cecchini proved incapable of playing the position defensively, leaving Amed Rosario as the clear starter. Andres Gimenez might have been able to challenge him in 2020 but he had a miserable 198-PA stretch last year where he had just a .549 OPS, which ensures he’ll be in the minors at the start of this year, regardless of how well he performed in the Arizona Fall League and Spring Training.
Rosario has had stretches where he’s hit very well but he’s yet to do it over an entire season. But he’s made steady progress with the bat and few will be surprised if that trend continues in 2020. The sticking point may be his glove. He has trouble making plays going to his right. It’s hard to think of a good defensive shortstop who struggled making plays in the hole. For awhile there was talk of moving Rosario to CF. That talk died down once his hitting improved last year but with Gimenez breathing down his neck, it may start up again.
And Ronny Mauricio is considered a better long-term prospect than Gimenez. So, even if Rosario is able to hold off Gimenez and remain the club’s shortstop in 2021, there’s no guarantee that Mauricio won’t take the position late in 2022.
All three of these guys made top 100 prospect lists, with Rosario getting as high as #1 overall in a midseason list by Keith Law and Mauricio ranking #17 on Law’s most recent list, despite not yet playing one game above Lo-A. Maybe they can play all three of these guys at the same time. Perhaps Rosario moves to center and Mauricio takes over at third base while Gimenez holds down short.
But it seems more likely that one or more of them will be traded. And if that’s the case, we need to hope that Van Wagenen picks the right one(s) to deal, doesn’t wait too long to do it and gets a decent return. It’s a lot to hope for but it’s certainly not impossible, as the May-Perez scenario outlined above clearly shows.