The Mets have made the winter's first major free-agent signing, inking outfielder Michael Cuddyer to a two-year, $21 million deal. The move comes on the same day that Cuddyer could have potentially become the first player to accept a one-year qualifying offer. This thereby turns what had been a puzzling decision by the Rockies into a modest windfall, as they'll receive a compensatory draft pick. Now the question marks surround the Mets, who on their limited budget have signed a fairly limited player, albeit one who may represent just the first of several moves.
Cuddyer hit a sizzling .332/.376/.579 with 10 homers for the Rockies in 2014, albeit in just 49 games and 205 plate appearances. He served three separate stints on the disabled list, one apiece for hamstring strains in each leg (32 days in April and May for the left, 15 days in August and September for the right) plus one for a fracture of the glenoid socket in his left (non-throwing) shoulder (72 days from June to August). Coming off that limited availability — and a total of just 280 games played over the span of his three-year, $31.5 million deal with Colorado — he appeared to be a legitimate threat to accept the Rockies' one-year, $15.3 million offer.
Had he done so, Cuddyer would have become the first such player in the three-year history of the qualifying offer system to accept, with 33 players (including the other 11 this year, as it turns out) having turned them down. Sometimes — as in the cases of Nelson Cruz and Stephen Drew, both of whom played for significantly less than last year's qualifying figure — it was to their detriment. What looked like a miscalculation at the time, particularly given the Rockies' glut of outfielders, now becomes a supplemental first-round pick in addition to the No. 3 overall pick given Colorado's 66-96 finish.
The righty Cuddyer hit a combined .307/.362/.525 with 46 homers and a 126 OPS+ in his three years with the Rockies. He won the NL batting title with a .331 average in 2013 while cracking his league’s top 10 lists in slugging (.530, fourth) and on-base percentage (.389, ninth) for the first time in his career. He earned All-Star honors that year for just the second time in his 14-year career, the first 11 of which (2001-2011) were spent with the Twins. As you'd expect, his time with the Rockies included a substantial home/road split: .329/.393/.591 with 26 homers in 555 plate appearances at Coors Field, .286/.332/.463 with 20 homers in 584 PA elsewhere.
The latter line must look positively Ruthian to the Mets, whose left fielders (mainly Chris Young, Eric Young Jr. and Matt den Dekker) hit a combined .219/.306/.309 with six homers en route to the NL's lowest OPS from the position. The Mets' regular right fielder, Curtis Granderson, also hit a modest .227/.326/.388 with 20 homers in the first year of a four-year, $60 million deal. It's not clear which of the two corner outfield positions Cuddyer will play; he's got just three starts and 38 total innings of major league experience in left field, with two innings from 2006 his only time there in the past decade. Granderson has a total of 22 starts and 222 innings there, including eight starts for the Mets in 2014.
At either corner, the Mets will have to hope that Cuddyer's defensive play is better than what it's been elsewhere. According to Defensive Runs Saved, he was 16 runs below average in 118 games in right in 2013 and is 66 below average for his career, 10 below average per 1,200 innings (roughly 135 games). Via Ultimate Zone Rating's standard prorated metric, he's eight runs below average per 150 games. He does have substantial experience (234 starts) at first base, where he could potentially see time against southpaw starters given Lucas Duda's ongoing platoon issues (.180/.264/.252 in 125 PA against them in 2014, .212/.292/.317 in 470 PA career).
The structure of Cuddyer’s contract calls for him to be paid $8.5 million in in 2015, with a bump to $12.5 million in 2016. Given that he's been worth an average of 1.2 WAR over the past three seasons, and 1.4 over the past six (his thirties, basically), it's a long shot that Cuddyer proves to be an out-and-out bargain. But if the current free-agent market value of a win is $6 million, he only has to be worth about 3.5 WAR over the two-year deal to break even.
That back-of-the-envelope math is without considering the cost of the lost draft pick. In signing a qualifying offer free agent, the Mets will forfeit the 15th pick of the 2015 draft. While that would seem to be a bad thing for a team on a rebuilding path, the reality is that the slot hasn't yielded much of value in the past two decades aside from Chase Utley (61.5 WAR since being taken there in 2000). Breaking down the past 21 picks at number 15 dating back to 1994:
• 10 have never played in the majors, including the last five, on whom the jury should quite rightly remain out.
• Six have generated no more than 0.3 WAR for their entire careers, with five of them in the red.
• Two have produced between 4.0 and 5.0 WAR, namely Gabe Gross (2001) and the still-active Devin Mesoraco (2007).
• Two have been worth between 15 and 20 WAR, namely Scott Kazmir (2002, by the Mets) and Stephen Drew (2004).
Pending the arrivals of the more recent picks — most notably Diamondbacks 2012 pick Braden Shipley, who has cracked Top 100 prospect lists — that's five substantial contributors out of 21. Not nothing, but hardly a guarantee of future value. Though when one considers that Utley skews the average yield to 4.9 WAR (worth $29.4 million in free agent dollars), such a price looks a whole lot steeper.
Presumably still operating on a budget constrained by the team’s ongoing financial morass — a budget that kept the 2014 team to an $84.5 million payroll, 24th in the majors despite playing in its largest market — general manager Sandy Alderson and staff weighed the cost of signing Cuddyer and losing that pick against other alternatives, such as the risks of signing a younger, pricier free agent such as Melky Cabrera, Nick Markakis or Michael Morse to a longer-term deal, or surrendering significant value by using a prospect or prospects to trading for an upgrade. In the final analysis, this may beat dealing somebody over whom the team has six years of club control, such as a legitimate prospect like Rafael Montero or Noah Syndergaard.
Given reports that the Mets have discussed a potential trade for Troy Tulowitzki that would presumably include some of their young pitching — if not Syndergaard or Montero then Zack Wheeler and/or NL Rookie of the Year winner Jacob deGrom — and that they may need at least one of those players to land a lesser shortstop like Alexei Ramirez, the Cuddyer deal keeps those options in play. With the signing, the team has about $62.5 million committed to just five players for 2015, and $57.5 million to four players for 2016. The team’s seven potential arbitration cases made around $21.7 million in 2014, so it already appears that either their budget will increase significantly, or that players will have to be moved in order to trim payroll. By the rough math of ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, the Mets are back above $100 million:
Still, given that last year’s additions of Granderson (four years, $60 million) and Bartolo Colon (two years, $20 million) represented the team’s first big free-agent signings since 2009, it’s going to take more than the Cuddyer move to suggest that the Mets are serious about increasing their spending.
By itself, the addition of Cuddyer won’t significantly improve the Mets’ chances of contending in 2015, but it does shore up an area of weakness while at least hinting that the team’s purse strings have loosened, even at the expense of sacrificing a piece of the future in the form of a first-round pick. For a fan base that’s seen the Mets post six straight sub-.500 seasons, the signing offers a glimmer of hope in the form of what may be to follow, but Alderson still has plenty of work to do to put his team back in the playoff picture.