The Mets had some big holes at the trading deadline, as they were receiving sub-par production from catcher, third base and designated hitter. They had spent in the offseason to address 3B, that was the best production from the three trouble spots and they had two top prospects at that position in the high minors. So, they did nothing to address that position. Which left C and DH.
It was my opinion that the DH tandem of J.D. Davis and Dominic Smith would eventually come around, which meant that C was the position they needed to address, with Willson Contreras being an attractive trade option. The fact that Contreras was a pure rental would not have been a huge issue, as the Mets’ top prospect was a catcher tearing things up at Double-A.
But the Mets went in the other direction and addressed DH. They added lefty Daniel Vogelbach a few days before the deadline and later added righty Darin Ruf, trading the younger Davis along with three minor league pitchers in the deal.
On paper, it was a great platoon. Vogelbach was really ineffective versus LHP but with Ruf, who was solidly better against lefties around to pick up those ABs, it seemed like they would have a very potent DH, even if they had to use two roster spots to do so. And while you wouldn’t want Vogelbach on the field defensively, Ruf could fake it at 1B and the corner OF spots, so it wouldn’t be a complete disaster needing two guys to man the DH spot. Plus, it wasn’t significantly different from the Smith/Davis combo. Smith was a good defensive 1B but your wouldn’t want to see either of them in the field anywhere else.
The Vogelbach/Ruf combo got off to a great start, making GM Billy Eppler look like a genius. But after about a week, Ruf stopped hitting. It was unfortunate, but it was better that the short half of the platoon tanked rather than the side that would see the majority of the playing time.
But in another week or so, Vogelbach stopped hitting, too. In his first 18 games with the Mets, Vogelbach had a .986 OPS, which was outstanding. Unfortunately, it came with a .406 BABIP. It was only a matter of time until the hits stopped falling in for him. And that’s exactly what happened.
Over his next 78 PA, Vogelbach saw his BABIP drop to .200, which resulted in a .558 OPS. A strong walk rate of 17.9% kept this cold spell from being too awful. Still, with Ruf floundering at the same time, it meant that the DH spot wasn’t much improved from where it was prior to the trade deadline. And it didn’t help any that Davis was hitting well in his new home in San Francisco.
The more baseball you watch, the more you realize that every player has good spells and bad spells throughout the season. The question is how you manage the bad spells – both as an individual player and as a manager and GM, too. Buck Showalter had to decide who to write in the DH slot, a task made even more difficult with the injuries to Luis Guillorme and later Starling Marte. Eppler had to decide which minor leaguer to call up and also when to pull the trigger.
Eppler’s first move was to call up Brett Baty but that was more about giving Showalter a lefty bat to platoon with Eduardo Escobar at 3B, rather than a serious DH (potential) upgrade. Baty didn’t look overmatched but he didn’t really excel, either. And then he got hurt and lost to the team completely.
And then Eppler’s response was … not good. He promoted Deven Marrero to be the backup shortstop on a team that just about never uses a backup shortstop. And he added Terrance Gore, nominally an outfielder but in reality, a pinch-runner. Neither of these guys saw much playing time and they took a combined zero ABs as a DH.
As Ruf continued to flounder, Eppler finally called up Mark Vientos, to give Showalter another option as a RHB. Vientos had spent the entire season at Triple-A, where he destroyed LHB. While it wasn’t reasonable to expect him to continue to have a four-digit OPS against lefties, it was likely he would perform much better than Ruf had in a Mets uniform, with Ruf’s OPS hanging around the .300 mark.
But while it was good to have another option, it left Showalter in a tough spot. Ruf was a veteran with a track record. Was Showalter supposed to ignore that track record and give all of the righty ABs to a rookie with no MLB experience? It wasn’t the easy answer that many of us armchair managers would like to believe.
Further complicating matters is that at age 36, this may not be a simple slump for Ruf. It’s a real possibility that this is the end of the line. While he’s gotten a few hits in the last couple of days, Ruf still has just a .427 OPS as a Met. And he’s struck out 19 times in 69 PA, a 27.5 K%. You could live with that number if Ruf was delivering power. But with just three extra-base hits, all doubles, as a Met, it’s hard to say the power justified the whiffs.
Ruf has played RF the past two games and it hasn’t been pretty. He looked brutal in the field Saturday. While he didn’t fall down, he looked shaky on his chances and he bobbled balls, too. No one was expecting a Gold Glove type of performance. Instead, the hope was that he would get to the balls he could and not screw things up when he got there. One sloppy day wouldn’t ordinarily mean much. But when you’re performing way below sub-Plaweckian at the plate, it’s just not a good look to have a bad day in the field at age 36. It starts to give people ideas, bad ideas.
Meanwhile, Vientos hit his first MLB homer on Saturday, bring his OPS up to a borderline-respectable .619 in 28 PA. Vientos was not hitting and he has nine strikeouts. But he never gave the impression – at least to me – that he was in over his head. He looked like a guy getting acclimated to a higher level. With only nine games left in the regular season, there won’t be too many more ABs out there for Vientos. But it would be nice to see him make solid contact and maybe drive some balls when he does.
Clubs are playing with two extra players here in September, with the Mets having both an extra pitcher and an extra hitter. Plus, they still have Marte on the IL. It’s possible they’ll carry 14 hitters in the playoffs but the expectation should be a 13-13 hitter-pitcher split. Counting Marte, the Mets have 12 players who are essentially locks. That leaves Gore, Ruf and Vientos fighting for the final spot.
Some people are just crazy about the dimension that Gore gives the team. It’s well known that while chicks dig the long ball, dudes love speed. Would the Mets really enter the playoffs without a righty DH, just to carry a pinch-runner? That seems like a questionable use of resources.
But unless they go to 14 hitters, what else could they do? They need to carry a backup catcher so that leaves Luis Guillorme and Tyler Naquin as the other bench reserves. And it doesn’t seem likely that they would even consider not including Guillorme on the postseason roster, despite his .600 OPS over his last 158 PA.
And how could you not include Naquin? He has a 106 OPS+ as a Met and he’s the only one who’s a legitimate offensive threat off the bench. Naquin has 23 hits in a Mets uniform and 12 of those have gone for extra-bases. Plus, he’s solid defensively, too. If Naquin hit righty, it would solve a lot of problems. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And he has just a .493 OPS versus LHP this year.
The Mets need another bat versus lefties, someone who can make up for the loss of Vogelbach, who has a 140 OPS+ since the trade. Vogelbach’s slump is over and he now has an .834 OPS as a Met, with a much-more reasonable .314 BABIP. But what happens against LHP when Vogelbach hits the bench? Does Ruf or Vientos give the club their best chance for righty-hitting production? That’s the choice that Showalter and Eppler have to make, assuming they don’t opt for Gore’s speed. It was one thing to prefer the veteran in August. It’s another matter entirely in October.
Here’s hoping that Vientos drills the ball in whatever regular season ABs he has left, making it a relatively easy decision.