1. For starters, 2009 & 2010 were better than you remember
In 239 games during the 2009 & 2010 seasons, Pagan hit .296/.344/.448 (.792 OPS) over 1009 plate appearances. Playing all 3 OF positions, but mostly CF, Pagan earned a UZR of +22.7 in 1952.1 defensive innings. All told, in a year and a half’s worth of games, Pagan was worth 8.4 WAR. And before you write that stretch off as a fluke or an anomaly, consider that more than 50% of Pagan’s career plate appearances and more than 50% of Pagan’s career defensive innings came in 2009 & 2010. Over this 2 year period, Pagan was not only one of the most productive Mets, but one of the most productive outfielders in baseball, ranking 10th in the Majors in WAR. And while it’s certainly true that he took a step back last year…
2. 2011 wasn’t as bad as you think (at least with the bat)
In 2011, Pagan struggled to meet the lofty expectations established by his breakout year and a half. He began the year in an awful funk, hitting just .159/.259/.246 (.506 OPS) in 19 games before landing on the DL with a pulled oblique. After a month on the DL, Pagan returned and hit .279/.333/.394 (.727 OPS) over the remaining 104 games of the 2011 season. His numbers from the last 85% of the season, while a step back from his excellence of the prior 2 years, still represented solid offensive production. While you can’t just write off those first 19 games, looking at the split adds some perspective to his full season numbers. Defensively, he was awful. No way of sugarcoating it. However, the good news is that fielding is fickle. He was a plus defensive OF in 2010. There’s no reason he can’t be again in 2012. Which brings me to…
3. Pagan is primed for a rebound year
Defensively, Pagan just needs to play better. Of course that’s obvious, but consider that prior to 2011, Pagan had a career UZR/150 of +13.1 in LF, +9.4 in CF, and +22.6 in RF. He was an above average to plus defensive outfielder. And then in 2011, he was a train wreck. That’s the year that’s fresh in our minds, but we don’t have to dig too far to see that his miserable defensive play in 2011 doesn’t necessarily predict miserable defensive play in 2012. After all, his good defensive play from 2006-2010 didn’t mean he was a lock for good defensive play last year.
Offensively, Pagan had an unlucky year at the plate. His career BABIP entering 2011 was .325. His BABIP last season was just .285, a departure of 40 points from his career norm. And that drop came despite Pagan posting a career best 24% line drive percentage. In fact, Pagan’s batted ball profile suggests that his 2011 BABIP should have been much higher. Based on this formula from Beyond the Boxscore coupled with Pagan’s career batted ball distribution, his expected career BABIP was .307 coming into the 2011 season. However, his actual career BABIP was .325. The difference can be largely accounted for by his plus speed (which would result in more hits, particularly on ground balls, than the average player). Historically, Pagan had outperformed his BABIP expectations by almost 6%. In 2011, Pagan’s batted ball distribution produced an expected BABIP of .332. Applying his historical outperformance factor, we arrive at an expected 2011 BABIP of .352 for Pagan. As it turns out, that was a full 67 points higher than his actual 2011 BABIP. What this indicates is that with neutral luck, Pagan would have had an additional 28 hits over the course of the 2011 season. What effect would that have had on his overall numbers? Well, even if all 28 hits had been singles, he’d have seen his triple slash jump from .262/.322/.372 to .320/.375/.431. I wonder if we’d be talking about a non-tender then (spoiler: we wouldn’t).
But even if you don’t buy that Pagan is well-positioned for a bounce-back…
4. The Mets aren’t exactly swimming in in-house alternatives
The only CF candidate currently with the franchise who has even a semi-decent amount of Major League experience in center is Jason Pridie, whose contract can be renewed for roughly the league minimum. Pridie hit .231/.309/.370 in 2011, his first ML season with more than 6 plate appearances. Defensively, he was adequate (UZR has him a shade below neutral). Nothing in his Major or minor league history (aside from half a season in AAA back in 2007) suggest that he’s anything more than a 4th or 5th OF.
Prospect-wise, the Mets have Kirk Nieuwenhuis in AAA and Matt den Dekker in AA. Nieuwenhuis (2008, 3rd rd) was off to a hot start last year, hitting .298/.403/.505 in the season’s first 53 games. While the walks and power were very encouraging, his numbers were partially the product of an unsustainably high .407 BABIP. He also struck out at a fiendish 26.7% clip. There’s some question as to whether he’ll be able to handle CF defensively, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in that area. However, the big reason he’s not a serious option (at least right out of the gate) is that he missed the last two thirds of the season with a shoulder injury. He may well become an option midyear, but there will be too much rust to expect him to immediately make the jump to the Major League level. Den Dekker (2010, 5th rd) is an outstanding defender, and in 2011 he started making some noise with the bat. A .296/.362/.494 first half in St. Lucie earned him a midseason promotion to AA, where he continued to hit for power, clubbing 11 HR in 72 games and maintaining an ISO above .190. However, his BABIP fell from .369 to .305, and his K-rate spiked from a high 21.5% to a dangerously high 29.0%, leading to a AA triple slash of .235/.312/.426. If he can cut down the Ks without losing the power, he could also be in the CF conversation. However, given that he’s only logged half a season in AA and clearly has some things to work on, 2013 seems a far likelier ETA for him.
Without any viable internal alternatives, the Mets are forced to turn to…
5. A weak free agent pool
The 2012 free agent class of centerfielders is mediocre at best. Here’s how the group, including Pagan, has fared over the past 3 years:
The most attractive external option is probably David DeJesus. However, DeJesus made $6M last year as part of a contract he signed before he was even eligible for arbitration. I don’t expect that he could be had on a one-year deal, especially not at a pay cut. Coco Crisp made $5.75M last year and will also likely be looking for a multi-year deal. Cody Ross made $6.3M in 2011 in his final arbitration year and is a free agent for the first time. Grady Sizemore is a wild card, due to his former status as a young superstar and the injury-riddled mess the past few years of his career. There’s speculation he’s likely to sign for close to the $8.5M option his former team declined. Further down the talent ladder, we find guys like Rick Ankiel and Nate McLouth. They’re likely to be inexpensive, but they’re also not likely to produce much. Meanwhile, Angel Pagan, who has the highest 3-year WAR of the bunch, can be retained on a one-year commitment for an estimated $4.7M. A one-year contract costing $4.7M comes with a WAR expectation of roughly 1.0, and that’s without even considering…
6. Draft Pick Compensation*
If Angel Pagan had been eligible for free agency this offseason, he would have been a Type B free agent. In fact, he would have been the 3rd highest ranking Type B free agent in his group (NL 1B/OF), just barely missing Type A status. Compensation is based on the past 2 years of service, so Pagan would need to perform at 2010 levels in the requisite Elias categories (PA, AVG, OBP, HR, RBI) to have a shot at Type A. However, there’s a significant gap between where he is now and the bottom of the Type B qualifiers. So even with just a moderate bounce-back in some of those categories, Type B compensation seems entirely plausable. Victor Wang, in a fantastic series of articles for The Hardball Times, estimated the expected surplus value of a sandwich round draft pick (the compensation for a Type B free agent) to be roughly $2.6M, or a little more than half of the salary Pagan is expected to earn through the arbitration process.
* Note – As of this writing, the terms of the new CBA have not been finalized. It is possible the structure or formula for determining draft compensation will change.
Bottom Line: I’ve offered these 6 reasons that the Mets should tender Pagan a contract and use him as their 2012 centerfielder. I think that given the Mets’ other deficiencies and constraints, he represents their best choice. However that doesn’t mean the Mets shouldn’t be looking at other options. They should absolutely be checking in on young, controllable CFs on other teams. They should perform due diligence on the high risk, high reward, outside-the-box options, like Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. They should be looking at guys like Andres Torres, who the Giants may nontender, and they should remain aware of the markets for the other FA centerfielders out there, in case there are any late offseason bargains to be had (if not as a starter, then as a capable backup). But the point is, on a 1 year, ~$4.7M deal, Pagan has value. So even if something better comes along, internally or externally, the Mets should have no trouble moving him. And even if they can’t move him and he’s terrible, it’s a one-year, low money deal that they can be rid of by next October. Despite his warts (and he’s certainly not without them), Angel Pagan an asset. And as far as I’m concerned, the Mets aren’t in a position to just dump assets.
If you’re interested in Major League transactions, rules, and procedures, or if you just want to know which Mets have options left and what picks the Mets will get if Jose Reyes signs elsewhere, be sure to check out http://tpgmets.blogspot.com and follow me on Twitter @tpgMets.