Winter Report Card: New York Mets
With little less than four weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 results: 79-83 (.488), tied for 2nd place in NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
While the Mets finished below .500 for the sixth straight season in 2014, they did show signs of progress: their 79 wins were their most since 2010, and thanks to the Braves' sudden collapse and the Phillies' reluctance to rebuild, New York actually finished tied with the Braves for second place in the NL East —17 games back, sure, but closer to the top than in any season since 2008. With Matt Harvey set to return from October 2013 Tommy John surgery that kept him out all of last year, thereby fortifying a maturing rotation, the Mets entered the offseason only a few moves away from returning to contention.
Instead, what their fans have had to endure is another winter of head-scratching moves while the organization gives every sign that it is still mired in its post-Madoff financial morass. General manager Sandy Alderson said in December that while payroll would increase from about $85 million (25th in the majors) to around $100 million — "Might be a little lower, might be at that level… I don’t expect it to go up too much, if at all,” he told the New York Times — even that now appears optimistic. New York has $82.9 million committed to just 10 players and another $6-8 million earmarked for the arbitration eligible Lucas Duda and Jenrry Mejia, but expectations are that either Dillon Gee or Jon Niese will be traded, leaving payroll in the $90-95 million range, a paltry figure for a team in the country's largest market and one that looks significantly short of improving a roster to the point where it could contend for a postseason berth.
That didn't seem like it would be the case back on Nov. 10, when the Mets made the offseason's first major free agent signing by inking Michael Cuddyer to a two-year, $21 million contract. Alas, that appearance of a more aggressive tack, one in which the team was securing a complementary piece to upgrade an offense that managed to rank eighth in the league in scoring while receiving an abysmal .219/.306/.309 showing from its leftfielders, still had its problems. While Cuddyer is just a year removed from winning the NL batting title and hit a sizzling .332/.376/.579 for a 149 OPS+ with the Rockies in 2014, that showing came in all of 205 plate appearances, as he served stints on the disabled list for strains in both hamstrings plus a fracture of the glenoid socket in his non-throwing shoulder. He turns 36 on March 27, has averaged just 93 games per year over the last three and cost New York what would have been the 15th pick of this year's amateur draft. For a club that's rebuilding (regardless of their stated intentions and self-perception), there was no reason for the Mets to give up that pick unless doing so brought a game-changing piece to the Big Apple, and Cuddyer isn't that.
Further evidence of this team's lack of will to change its circumstances is its inability (or refusal) to upgrade at shortstop. Alderson flirted with the possibility of trading for Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki (who has five years and $118 million remaining on his contract) or Washington's Ian Desmond (owed $11 million in his final year before free agency), but balked at an asking price that included pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. A 22-year-old righty, Snydergaard came into last year ranked 16th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list but scuffled his way to a 4.60 ERA, albeit with 9.8 strikeouts per nine, at Triple A Las Vegas.
To be sure, both Tulowitzki and Desmond have drawbacks. The former has topped 140 games just three times in his eight full seasons, and the latter has made demands about a $100 million contract. Still, given the in-house alternatives of 23-year-old former prospect Wilmer Flores (.251/.286/.378 in 274 PA) and 25-year-old Ruben Tejada (.237/.342/.310), plus a free agent market that featured Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew and Hanley Ramirez and a trade market that saw inexpensive pieces such as Yunel Escobar, Didi Gregorius, Jimmy Rollins and Eugenio Suarez all moved, it's not as though potential upgrades weren't available. Yes, many of those players also have their flaws — if they didn't, they wouldn't be available — but none would have required trading Syndergaard. Gregorious and Suarez, for instance, both have years of club control ahead of them yet were moved this offseason to the Yankees and Tigers, respectively, for non-star pitchers Shane Green and Alfredo Simon.
Instead the Mets have a pair cheap players whom they've jerked around the organziation for years. Few outside of New York believe that Flores — who was moved off the position in the minors in 2011 — is good enough to play shortstop regularly because of his limited range. That goes double on a team whose path to winning is through pitching and defense rather than a high-powered offense, and in an infield where second baseman Daniel Murphy is no great shakes with the glove, either.
As for the moves they did make, gone are outfielders Bobby Abreu (retired), Andrew Brown (lost on waivers to the A's) and Eric Young Jr (non-tendered). Abreu's comeback amounted to 155 plate appearances and a .248/.342/.338 line, while Brown hit just .182/.245/.341 in 49 PA that were all downhill after his three-run homer off Stephen Strasburg on Opening Day and Young hit an abysmal .229/.299/.311 in 316 PA, mostly as their out-eating leftfielder. Also gone via free agency is pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who made nine starts and 25 relief appearances en route to a 3.89 ERA (90 ERA+) in 89 1/3 innings. Reliever Gonzalez German, who made 25 appearances totaling 30 1/3 innings, has bounced from the Mets to the Yankees to the Rangers to the Cubs in a suspense-filled waiver wire odyssey over the last six weeks. In other words, none of those players are great losses.
Arriving in Queens is backup outfielder/first baseman John Mayberry Jr., a 31-year-old righty who hit .212/.310/.425 with seven homers and a 104 OPS+ in 168 PA split between the Phillies and Blue Jays. He owns a career .269/.324/.533 line in 534 PA against lefties, making him a useful platoon complement to Duda (.212/.292/.317 in 470 career PA against southpaws). Via the Rule 5 draft comes 24-year-old lefty Sean Gilmartin, a 2011 first-round pick who split last year between the Twins' Double A and Triple A affiliates, posting a 3.71 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine in 145 2/3 innings as a starter; if he sticks, it will likely be as a situational reliever.
Unfinished business: Shortstop, rotation cleanup
In Harvey, Gee, Niese, Bartolo Colon, Zack Wheeler and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jake deGrom, New York has six starters plus prospects Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Rafael Montero waiting in the wings. That wealth of young pitching may be unequaled in the game today and it's clearly the future on which the team's competitive aspirations rest, but that doesn't mean the Mets should hoard it. Instead, they can use their surplus of arms to fill other needs. Aside from shortstop, second base might also be a priority given that Murphy is a year away from free agency and going-on-21-year-old prospect Dilson Herrera still needs more seasoning. Also, just because New York has expensive corner outfielders in Cuddyer and Curtis Granderson (owed $49 million through 2017) that doesn’t mean that it can win with those two in place.
Either Gee or Niese are likely to be moved before Opening Day. Gee, who turns 29 on April 28, pitched to a 4.00 ERA but just a 4.52 FIP in 137 1/3 innings. Given his career 93 ERA+ and his meager ability to miss bats (6.2 K/9 last year, 6.5 career), he's unlikely to bring back much more than a stopgap in a trade, but at least he's inexpensive. He's making $5.3 million this year and he has one more year of club control. Niese, a 28-year-old lefty, whiffed just 6.6 per nine in 2014 himself, but thanks to his ability to avoid the longball he put up a 3.40 ERA and 3.67 FIP in 187 2/3 innings. He's got as many as four more years of control via guaranteed salaries of $7 million in 2015 and $9 million in '16, with club options of $10 million and $11 million — both with just $500K buyouts — for 2017 and '18 as well. That's the kind of piece that can be used to bring back something beyond a placeholder.
Likewise, the 24-year-old Montero, who made eight starts and two relief appearances totaling 44 1/3 innings with the Mets and had a 3.60 ERA with 9.0 K/9 in 80 innings at Las Vegas, could be in play if Syndergaard and Matz aren't. Matz, by the way, is a 24-year-old lefty who split the year between High A and Double A and is now considered the team's second-best prospect.
Preliminary grade: D
New York modestly upgraded its offense but burned a draft pick on an aged, oft-injured player to do so. While the team hasn't squandered its pitching depth, it still has more than it can use -- even accounting for the inevitable injuries -- as well as a clear need at a key position. The Braves and Philies are rebuilding, creating an opportunity for this team to contend for a postseason spot, but whereas the Marlins have seized the initiative and bulked up significantly, the Mets haven't done the same — even while claiming that ticket sales are surging significantly. Yup, still business as usual in Queens.