Welcome to an interesting Mets’ off-season where they hired a new GM who was an agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, acquired not one, but two starting second basemen, a starting catcher, a center fielder, and two closers, not to mention some other bullpen parts. That’s the kind of off-season that gets a fan base worked up because the team is doing something instead of standing in place and hoping things will work out. Just because your team does something doesn’t necessarily mean they did the right things to turn them into a playoff team, but the Mets, under Van Wagenen, have definitely done something to change their fortunes for better or worse, especially on the infield. So let’s take a look at the impact of the guys who surround the pitchers on the dirt part of the field.
The catching position once appeared to be a strength for the Mets because they had Travis d’Arnaud back there and homeboy could hit home runs, and maybe more importantly, he could catch and throw. What d’Arnaud appears unable to do is stay healthy. Only once has he reached 400 plate appearances and that was in 2014 when he stepped into the batter’s box 421 times. in 2018 d’Arnaud made 16 plate appearances in what was a lost season. Now 29, it will be interesting to see what he can do to contribute to the team as the backup catcher to Wilson Ramos, one of the new acquisitions that Van Wagenen signed as a free agent. Ramos is a better version of what d’Arnaud looked like he might be. Ramos is a good hitter – excellent for a catcher – and a decent defensive catcher who posts solid pitch framing numbers and slightly less solid numbers for throwing and pitch blocking. Ramos is possibly the best hitting catcher in the majors not named J.T. Realmuto, and last year bested all the catchers with his wRC+ of 131 – to 126 for Realmuto who did it over 531 plate appearances to Ramos’ 416 PA’s. Ramos has had more surgeries than even d’Arnaud who had TJ surgery last season, so expecting 500 plate appearances out of either of them is foolishness. The hope is that the two of them together can form one relatively healthy catcher. Adding Ramos is a definite upgrade over the other catchers the Mets ran out there in d’Arnaud’s absence. If one of the tandem falters, then Mets’ fans can expect to see a fair amount of someone like Tomas Nido, who has shown some pretty great framing skills and won a batting title in the minors. That said, it is unclear that he will hit enough in the majors to be more than the short defensive end of a catching platoon. For the season to go well for the Mets, they have to hope Ramos and d’Arnaud combine for 600+ plate appearances.
Spring training should determine the starter for the Mets at first. Peter Alonso is 24 and Baseball America just ranked him as the #48 prospect in all the land. He is a big man with huge power who also takes walks, hits for a decent average, and plays poor defense according to reports. Alonso hit 36 homers to go with 76 walks across two levels last season. He struck out 128 times too, but that is a manageable rate if he can continue to draw walks. He seems to be limited to first base and the Mets will deal with his defensive limitations if he hits a bunch of bombs and manages to carry an OBP over .320. His projections expect him to hit 20-25 home runs, bat around .240 with an OBP of .320 or so. That would be a fine rookie season. Anything more than that from Alonso and the Mets are in a good place. Less than that and he likely won’t play if his glove and arm are truly as bad as the scouts say.
J.D. Davis is Peter Alonso-light with the bat. He hits lots of home runs, but not quite as many as Alonso. He gets on base, but doesn’t walk as much as Alonso, and he strikes out more than Alonso. Defensively, Davis is more versatile than Alonso with a huge arm – enough for third base or right field, but without great range or a great glove so you probably don’t want to start him in either spot. Davis has crushed lefties in the minors – OPS north of 1220 in each of his last three stops – so a platoon with Alonso at first might work, although Alonso hits lefties just fine. It is hard to see the Mets carrying both players due to their defensive limitations so again – spring training will tell us a lot about the plan for 2019.
Todd Frazier is a good defensive third baseman but appears to have lost the ability to hit. He can still drive the ball over the fence from time to time – 18 homers in 2018 – but has back-to-back seasons hitting .213. To his credit, Frazier walks a lot so his OBP nudges past .300 every season – but just barely in three of the last four seasons – so he makes a lot of outs. Still, Frazier has been a three to four WAR player in all but two of the last six campaigns. His power does appear to be on the decline accounting for his first sub-two WAR season and his first wRC+ season below 100 since his rookie cup of coffee call up. 2018 was a 1.5 WAR season for Frazier. He is turning 33 before the start of spring training and it looks like his decline might be steep. If he starts, it will likely be at third, although he played a little first base in the majors. If the Mets carry him but don’t start him, then he is likely to see time at third, first, and maybe in the outfield where he hasn’t played since 2013. If he comes out of the gate hitting then the Mets will have a hard time finding spots for all their infielders to play because they have three guys who are second basemen and who will need to play almost everyday because of their bats. One of those three guys could move to first, but realistically the other two need to play either second or third based on their experience. More on that later, but the point is that Frazier could get squeezed out or flat out become a bench bat in 2019, the last year of his contract.
Shortstop is the most settled of the positions, with rookie and former top prospect Amed Rosario set to play everyday. Rosario is well thought of as a defender but didn’t put up good numbers according to DRS or UZR although those same metrics were good in 2017. So we will have to see what Rosario does with the glove in 2019. At this point in his development, his best tool is his speed and in the second half of last season he ran more often and more effectively stealing 18 bags in 24 attempts. He also hit 22 points better in the second half than in the first half, but he just doesn’t walk (4.9%) and he strikes out too much (20.1%) so his speed doesn’t get showcased enough since he isn’t on base often – a .295 OBP. Rosario just turned 23 so there is still likely some growth there and a 1.5 WAR season from a rookie shortstop with tools isn’t a disaster. The anti-Rosario came up last season – Luis Guillorme could step in if Rosario starts off frigid at the plate. Guillorme walks a ton, doesn’t strike out much, has no power to speak of, and is a wizard with the glove. His minor league slash line is .287/.363/.338 so in spite of the on base skills, he will likely transition to versatile glove man in the majors as his projections pessimistically agree on an OPS in the .500s. It will be interesting to see how he develops as he performed well with the bat at Double-A and Triple-A basically rising to the level of the competition. His glove will definitely push Rosario to perform.
Second base is where the logjam resides. Let’s start with the incumbent, Jeff McNeil. McNeil came up about midway through last season and flat out raked – a .329/.381/.471 slap line. He put up 2.7 WAR in half a season based in part on his wRC+ of 137, but also because of his solid work at second base – his primary position with the Mets, and his excellent work on the bases (7 of 8 stealing bases). In the minors, McNeil has been almost exclusively an infielder getting most of his time at second, followed closely by third base, then shortstop a distant third. He has played a total of 8 games in his professional career in the outfield. So it seems logical that he would get more time at second base or maybe third if you found a second baseman you just couldn’t pass up. Reports are that the Mets will try him in the outfield, but we will see what spring training brings. McNeil can hit for average, and found his power stroke in 2018 with 22 homers between double-A, triple-A, and the majors. If his bat is for real, then McNeil needs to be in the lineup everyday. His BABIP was on the high side at .359 but some players have high BABIPs regularly and it isn’t a sign of impending regression. McNeil has carried high BABIPs through most of his career so it will be interesting to see if he is one of those guys, or last season was lucky and he is really a .270 hitter with 10 home run power.
Robinson Cano was acquired this off-season in one of those deals where giant, lumbering contracts are exchanged. The difference with this deal was that the Mets also got a great closer in Edwin Diaz when they took on Cano’s gargantuan contract. This deal is interesting because Cano is coming off a suspension for PEDs in 2018, is 36, and before the suspension was still hitting like a 3-hole hitter. There is a small amount of data now on players’ performance after PED suspension and it doesn’t appear that most of them go in the tank when they are forced to play clean. Is that because the impact of the steroids lingers even after they stop taking them? Do they get better at hiding their transgressions? Were the steroids really helping them that much? Hard to know really, but 36 is 36 and Cano is due for some decline, although decline from perennial All-Star and potential Hall of Fame candidate at least starts out pretty high. His numbers show that he is still a good second baseman even if he isn’t a Gold Glove second baseman anymore. He had his knee scoped in the off-season so he should be at full health in spring training. Not surprisingly, considering that whole multiple Gold Glove thing at second base, Cano has played second base almost exclusively throughout his career getting his first innings at third and first last season. He contributed 4 DRS at second in 2018 despite missing half the season. Moving him to another position in spite of his continued ability to play the position well seems like a mistake and I would imagine he might bristle at the idea although that is hard to know from the outside.
In case you were thinking that two second basemen wasn’t quite enough, the Mets also signed Jed Lowrie from the A’s. Lowrie is coming off his best season in the majors (with 4.9 WAR and a wRC+ of 122) and his best back-to-back seasons in the majors in part because he stayed healthy. Injuries have cost Jed a lot of time in the past and he turns 35 the first month of the season. Last year he looked like an excellent defensive second baseman as he contributed 5.6 wins according to UZR/150. It seems possible that putting him in one position and leaving him there for two seasons has had a positive impact on his defense which intuitively makes sense. So the Mets have signed him and claim that their intention is to move him around the infield like a Ben Zobrist or a Marwyn Gonzalez. That type of player has value, and Lowrie can definitely do it, but is that the best way to get the most out of Jed? He has certainly done that in the past, but his recent experience, coming off the best two season stretch of his career, implies that he does best when he gets to play everyday and play second base, or at least the same position everyday. His numbers certainly don’t paint him as a good third baseman or shortstop and he is no longer in his prime. That is not a knock on Lowrie at all. He was the A’s MVP last year and received some AL MVP votes, but he is a human and as such it makes sense to look at the context in which he has succeeded the most and try to capitalize on that. But the Mets have made their roster bed so let’s see what they can do to maximize the situation that they have created.
McNeil is the youngster in the “I’m a second baseman but we can’t ALL play here” mix and he has a decent amount of experience at third and wheels enough that it seems he could learn to play the outfield, so it seems that if anyone is going to be the super sub it should be him. Since it appears that Jed Lowrie had a lot of success playing one position everyday and has played third in his career, he should be the everyday third baseman. That means Todd Frazier either moves or sits. Ideally Frazier would have a hot spring and the Mets could trade him for something of some value, otherwise they spot start him and hope he shows enough to make him more interesting to another team or a depth piece for the Mets if they are in contention. He still has value, but his age and his downward spiraling batting average will likely scare some teams away. Rosario has star potential, but Guillorme needs to play enough to see if he can hit as it is already clear that he is an excellent defender. Rosario should be the starter but Guillorme, who hits righties better than Rosario (at least last season), should get spot starts against righties, and be a late inning defensive replacement. Robinson Cano should be the starting second baseman at least until it seems he can’t handle the position. He should probably also bat in the middle of the lineup – probably third – as it appears he is still a three WAR guy or better. That leaves first base to Peter Alonso. The Mets might want to start 2019 with Alonso in the short end of a righty/lefty platoon with Frazier, which would give the rookie time to break in and allow him to hit to his strength. At the same time it would showcase Frazier for a trade. Health will likely have a lot to do with the starting catching decision, although, barring a huge spring from d’Arnaud, Wilson Ramos will likely get the lion’s share of starts. I wonder if d’Arnaud can play second base?
The Mets shouldn’t rule out a couple more deals to either decrease or, God forbid, increase the crowding in the infield. It is never a bad thing to have extra talent sitting around so you can’t feel bad about the depth of the Mets infield, especially when at least three of the infielders are in their 30s. Without getting too deep into the outfield situation, the Mets are pretty set in the corners so it will be tough to find room for one of the infielders to play much out there. Brandon Nimmo, the right fielder, is coming off a 4.5 WAR season and looks like an excellent leadoff hitter. In left, Michael Conforto saw a bit of a drop off from 2017 from a 4.4 War season to a 3.0 WAR season, but is still clearly the starter with some star potential. Yoenis Cespedes is a complete mystery after heel surgery and may or may not even be in the mix this season. If he is healthy then he, Nimmo, and Conforto will split time in the corners with the Nimmo and Conforto spelling Keon Braxton and Juan Lugares who will likely platoon in center. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of room in the outfield for McNeil or anyone else and I won’t even mention the 4th outfielder contenders. Suffice it to say that Manager Mickey Callaway has his work cut out for him making sure that he maximizes that talent and keeps his roster sharp and rested at the same time. Get ready for an interesting spring training with lots of speculation in the sports pages in New York!