When the 2011 season ended, the Mets seemed to have their outfield for the following season all set. The starters appeared to be Jason Bay, Lucas Duda and Angel Pagan while the reserves figured to be Nick Evans and Jason Pridie.
Evans finally seemed ready to take up a permanent spot on the club, after years of getting jerked around, thanks to a solid second half in which he posted a .738 OPS in 170 PA. Pridie was not as good offensively, but he filled the need for a backup center fielder and the Mets were 20-12 last year in games he started in CF.
But both players were cut loose by the Mets, as the club faced something of a 40-man roster crunch. In order to protect up-and-coming youngsters like Jeurys Familia and Wilmer Flores – and to be fair others like Armando Rodriguez and Josh Stinson – the Mets bid adieu to two players who seemed to have a spot on the 2012 club.
So, who will be the team’s backup outfielders this year?
Once again, let’s look at the 40-man roster. Currently, there are 39 spots filled but the one open position is for free agent pickup Frank Francisco, who has yet to officially sign the contract he agreed to at the Winter Meetings. Once that deal goes through, the Mets are at the limit.
At that point, barring a deal, they essentially have two options. The Mets can either select their backup outfielders from players who are already on the 40-man or they can bring people into Spring Training on minor league contracts and then open up a spot on the 40-man at the latest date possible, hoping that they don’t lose whoever they remove from the roster, as other clubs will also be scrambling for roster positions.
Last year the Mets brought in Scott Hairston and Willie Harris on minor league deals and both made the club out of Spring Training. It’s certainly a possibility they could use that same approach in 2012 and it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see one or both of those players back in camp, provided they don’t get a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
But if the Mets continue to pinch pennies and look for minimum wage guys to fill out the last few spots, they likely will look for an in-house solution. And there are only four outfielders listed and two of them are not realistic options. Let’s look at these four alphabetically:
Juan Lagares – Opened eyes last year by posting an .873 OPS in the Florida State League and performing even better after a promotion to Binghamton, where he notched a .903 OPS in 170 PA. Lagares is a corner outfielder who can play center in a pinch.
Fernando Martinez – Once considered the crown jewel of the farm system, Martinez has been unable to stay healthy and has yet to put up monster numbers. In 727 PA in Triple-A over parts of three seasons, Martinez has a .265/.326/.465 line.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis – An unheralded prospect, all Nieuwenhuis has done in his time in the minors is hit. Unfortunately, his development hit a detour last year after he was limited to 221 PA by a shoulder injury. Nieuwenhuis is unlikely to make the club out of Spring Training but if all goes well with his recovery he should make his MLB debut at some time in 2012.
Cesar Puello – The Mets hope for big things from Puello in the future, but he did not overwhelm in his first season in Hi-A ball. He’s likely a few years away from the majors.
So, it’s possible that the Mets break camp with Lagares and Martinez as their reserve outfielders. It’s far from ideal, as both players could use consistent at-bats that they would get in the minors. But this is the corner that Sandy Alderson has positioned himself.
And before you declare that they will certainly go with the minor league free agent, consider that there’s not a true backup shortstop on the 40-man roster, either. Justin Turner could play there in a pinch and Jordany Valdespin spent the majority of 2011 as a SS but many view him as a 2B on the major league level.
But even if they do go the minor league free agent route, how likely are they to wind up with options better and cheaper than Evans and Pridie, who were both pre-arbitration players? Last year they spent $1.9 million on Hairston and Harris and they figure to have to spend a similar amount in 2012 if they go this route.
Meanwhile, both Evans and Pridie would have cost less than $1 million combined.
So, this roster set up could be Martinez’ ticket to the majors. It’s not the way that Mets fans pictured it when they signed him as a 16 year old to great fanfare. Back then, we had visions of Martinez putting up 30-30 seasons at this point. Now he could be a defensive caddy for Duda and lefty pinch-hitter.
I would have preferred having Evans and Pridie back, with the extra development time given to Lagares and Martinez in the minors. And if that path led to the loss of Rodriguez and Stinson – I would not have lost one minute of sleep over that.
Besides, how likely was it that either of those pitchers would have been selected and kept all year by the other team? Rodriguez was in A-ball at age 23 last year and was limited to 16 games and 75 IP due to a strained oblique. There are encouraging things in his profile as he has 396 Ks in 381.1 IP in the low minors. But it seems unlikely that he would have been kept an entire year by another club.
We saw Stinson in the majors last year and he was not overly impressive, as he allowed 7 BB and 10 ER in 13 IP. His minor league record is not much more to get excited about, as he has a 4.20 ERA and a 1.422 WHIP in six seasons in the farm system.
Maybe Rodriguez breaks out this year. Perhaps Stinson settles down in a return trip to Triple-A to become a bullpen option in 2013. But we already knew what Evans and Pridie could do in the majors. Evans could play either corner and be a lefty masher. Pridie could provide a necessary CF option in case Andres Torres didn’t pan out.
It’s unlikely Rodriguez and Stinson come close to matching that type of value. And because the Mets chose those two pitchers, we seem likely to have Martinez in the majors, getting 10 PA per week. Oh well, maybe he won’t get hurt this way.