The Mets finished their 2011 season on an up note, as Miguel Batista pitched a complete game shutout to give the team a final record of 77-85. For a year that ended under .500 there are a number of things to recall fondly about 2011.
There’s Jose Reyes becoming the first Met to win a batting title. There was Carlos Beltran returning to form and finally earning some love from the fan base before being dealt for an impressive young arm. There was Sandy Alderson getting out from Francisco Rodriguez’ poisonous option clause. There was Lucas Duda establishing himself and Daniel Murphy reestablishing himself as major league starters.
But for me, the biggest thing about 2011, and what needs to be addressed going forward, is how the pieces just don’t fit.
There are four players on the roster – Ike Davis, Duda, Nick Evans and Murphy – whose best position is first base. If Reyes returns, there are three people who feel they should be starting at second base – Murphy, Ruben Tejada and Justin Turner – and two kids in the minors – Reese Havens and Jordany Valdespin – who deserve consideration. The outfield is a disaster. Jason Bay might be toast, Angel Pagan is a non-tender candidate and Duda had the worst UZR/150 (-41.6) of any outfielder in the majors with at least 300 innings.
The rotation lacks an ace and the best pitcher is a knuckleballer. Dillon Gee turned back into a pumpkin, Jonathon Niese again failed to pitch a full year and Chris Capuano and Mike Pelfrey are fourth starters. The bullpen is filled with guys whose upside appears to be 7th inning setup men and the first move was to re-sign Tim Byrdak, who will be older in 2012 (39) than his innings pitched in 2011 (38.2).
However, we try not to be too pessimistic here at Mets360. There is offensive talent on the club, as five of the projected starters (again, assuming Reyes returns) posted an OPS+ of 114 or above. While the team may not have an ace, it has five pitchers who threw 150+ innings plus the expected return of Johan Santana for next season. Manny Acosta and Bobby Parnell both throw really hard and one of them could grow into a closer.
It’s not all bleak. However, there is work to be done to better arrange the talent on hand.
If we travel back in time, we can see another team that finished under .500 despite having a talented squad. Now, this team is far from a perfect match for the 2011 Mets. This team had more talent than the Mets did and finished under .500 in part due to several players having down years.
But they are similar to the Mets in that the pieces didn’t fit. This team had a first baseman playing third base. They had a left fielder playing in center field. They had a second baseman who was nowhere near as good as his reputation. And they had a guy who finished the year at age 26 who could really hit but who was a defensive liability.
The team in question was the 1971 Reds, who finished 79-83 and in fourth place in the NL West.
In 1970, the Reds made the World Series. But Bobby Tolan got injured and missed the following season. Combined with drastic declines from Johnny Bench, Bernie Carbo and Dave Concepcion, the Reds fell on hard times in 1971. The Reds made it back to the World Series in 1972 because they made a killer trade in which they solved two of their roster configuration problems.
Before the 1972 season, the Reds traded first baseman Lee May and his 39 HR along with Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke and Joe Morgan.
This allowed them to move Tony Perez from third base to first and gave them a giant upgrade from Helms to Morgan at second base. Geronimo gave them another good defensive outfielder and Billingham led the team with 31 starts. This trade, along with the return of Tolan and a giant rebound season from Bench, led to a 95-win season in 1972, a 16-win improvement over the previous year.
The Mets need to trade either one or two of the following three players – Davis, Duda or Murphy. Only one of them can play first base for the Mets and fitting them in elsewhere has disaster written all over it. Murphy could play third base if the team didn’t already have David Wright manning the position. He could play the outfield, but the perception is that he is as bad in left field as Duda actually is.
I like all three of these players. I’m sure Reds fans in the early 1970s liked both May and Perez, too. But Sandy Alderson needs to move at least one of his first baseman and likely package another player, too. It could be one of the second basemen (assuming Reyes comes back) or it could be one of the pitchers – Gee, Niese or Pelfrey. It could even be Wright.
When first base is your main trading chit, it would appear to be tough to swing a deal. However, only 16 teams had a full-time first baseman who pulled down a fWAR of 2.0 or above, so it may be easier than you might think. Only 14 teams had a full-time second baseman with a fWAR of 2.0 or above. If the Mets put Wright on the table, or a team views Murphy as a third baseman, only nine teams had a full-time man at the hot corner with a WAR 2.0 or greater.
Also adding to the desirability of these players for other teams is their contract status. Davis, Duda, Evans, Gee, Murphy, Niese, Pelfrey, Tejada and Turner are all under team control and no one made more than the $3.925 million Pelfrey did in 2011. No team should be eliminated from trade talks with the Mets because the players they’re offering are too expensive.
Odds are against the Mets being able to pull off a killer deal like the Reds did in acquiring Morgan prior to the 1972 season. But the Mets should still follow that blueprint in looking to rearrange the talent on the roster for 2012. In the weeks ahead, we’ll look at potential trading partners for the Mets, trying to match up teams that need infielders and who have OF or pitching to trade to New York in return.