This is Part 1 of SI MLB's "Spend to Contend" series, identifying which teams should open up their pocketbooks and make a run at a playoff spot.
Every year, a team (or two) arrives in the playoffs that spent the previous one losing a lot and playing before shrinking crowds in early August. Last year, that team was the Diamondbacks, who palindromed their 2016 record not by overhauling their entire team but instead by identifying their immediate weaknesses. As the free agent freeze continues into February, over 100 free agents remain unsigned. With so few teams having substantially improved this winter and so many apparently consigning themselves to rebuilding or also-ran status, our “Spend to Contend” series examines those teams, whom like last year’s Diamondbacks, could best benefit from a significant dip into the market rather than a complete teardown.
First up? The Mickey Callaway-led and Ray Ramirez-free New York Mets:
Two seasons after reaching the World Series, the Mets were unwatchable in 2017. Noah Syndergaard was limited to seven starts because he refused an MRI and tore his lat in April. Matt Harvey battled injuries for a second consecutive season and compiled one of the worst months by any starter in recent memory (11.28 ERA and a .422 batting-average-against in 22 September innings). Neither Steven Matz (6.08 ERA in 13 starts) nor Zack Wheeler (5.21 ERA in 17 starts) was any better. Add injuries to Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto and Lucas Duda (who would be traded in July), and the Mets ended the season with a host of mostly anonymous players to stumble their way to 70 wins. They responded by firing manager Terry Collins and hiring the 42-year-old Callaway, who spent 2017 as the Indians pitching coach.
Everyone knows at this point that expecting Mets ownership to spend big money is foolish, but the inactivity of the 2017–18 free agent market gives it a chance to do what it has always done: try to acquire high-priced free agents for below market value and compete for a title. The Brewers, a team that usually has a payroll below $100 million, has liberally spent this offseason to acquire some of the free agent and trade market’s best players (Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain) because they can afford them and make a run for the NL pennant. The Mets retain one of the league’s most fearsome front ends to any starting rotation (Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom), two talented but injury-prone and inconsistent starters (Harvey and Matz) and two potential franchise cornerstones (Conforto, who won’t return until May, and shortstop Amed Rosario). It’s a team that can reach 90 wins, even if the fan base doesn’t think so.
Usually one of the most restrained teams in free agency, the Mets have already brought back outfielder Jay Bruce on a three-year, $39 million contract, signed first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a one-year deal (the Braves are on the hook for $21.8 million of his $22.4 million contract), and bolstered their bullpen with a two-year, $14 million deal for reliever Anthony Swarzak.
Bruce still has plenty of power (he hit 36 homers between New York and Cleveland in 2017), but remains a defensive liability. The Mets also received a promising 69 games from 24-year-old outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who posted a .379 OBP and 112 OPS+ in his first extended Major League action, making the Bruce signing even more confusing. The aging Gonzalez is a risk-free signing since Atlanta is paying him; he’s long been one of the game’s most consistent hitters and he can ease the pressure on top prospect Dominic Smith, who posted a .198 average in 49 games last year. The pessimist's view of the signing is that Gonzalez is now blocking Smith, who is the anointed first baseman of the future. While Gonzalez battled injuries last year, he might have one good year left in his bat. It's an easy risk for the Mets to take.
Swarzak, who finished with a 2.33 ERA over 77.1 innings with the White Sox and Brewers in 2017, should shore up a bullpen that couldn’t find a bridge to closer Jeurys Familia. Callaway indicated that he doesn’t plan on entering spring training with a closer—Familia missed most of last season with an injury—and Swarzak figures to compete for the job.
The Marlins and Braves won’t be pushing for a division title, but if the Mets want to contend with the Washington Nationals for the NL East title, they’ll need to shell out a bit more.
So how can the Mets mimic the 2017 Diamondbacks? Spend on depth.
— Sign Neil Walker to a one-year contract: Walker was good to the Mets in 2016 and ‘17. He posted 23 homers in 2016 and managed 10 bombs and a 105 OPS+ despite nagging injuries. He’s a bit limited defensively, but he’s the best player on a thin second base market. Fans may grumble that the front office is doing their best to recreate a forgettable 2016 team, but Walker retains a high floor and can still hit.
— Sign Andrew Cashner: Cashner never lived up to the hype that accompanied him when the Padres acquired him for Anthony Rizzo, but he’s reprogrammed himself into an effective sinkerballer. Entering his age-31 season, he’s striking out fewer batters than ever (4.6 K/9 last year), but he posted a career-best 139 ERA+ (in hitter-friendly Texas, no less) in 28 starts for the Rangers.
After years of relying heavily on his 95+ MPH fastball, Cashner commanded his sinker in 2017 to control much of what hounded him in the past. He also learned how to exit the first inning without much trouble. After posting first-inning ERAs of 7.18 in 2016 and 5.23 in 2015, Cashner ended 2017 with a 0.96 ERA in the first frame. The Mets have the power bats to provide Cashner some run support, so he’s a sensible, if unsexy signing.
If the market allows the Mets to sign Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, then they should opt for one of those starters. But this is the Mets we’re talking about. They should be able to ink Cashner at a bargain price around two years and $22 million.
— Wait out the third base market: This is the hard part. Beloved as David Wright may be, the Mets can no longer depend on their oft-injured third baseman after he underwent offseason back surgery. And of the free agents who were expecting paydays this year, Todd Frazier and Mike Moustakas are two players who may not find any demand for their services. Frazier and Moustakas are high-power, medium-to-low contact options who are passable defenders. After a year with more home runs than ever before, power is a cheap commodity. When Paul DeJong, who hit 22 homers in 132 AA games, hits 25 homers in 108 big league games, there’s little reason to pay a power-first corner infielder.
Thus, the Mets need to hope that Frazier and Moustakas’s markets dry up like Ian Desmond’s did entering the 2016 offseason. Desmond turned down a nine-figure offer from the Nationals in 2014, only to find himself signing a one-year, $8 million guaranteed deal with the Rangers at the tail end of February 2016. The Yankees remain a good match for Frazier, who became a popular clubhouse figure during the playoff run last season, but Moustakas’s market is more opaque. The Cardinals look like a good fit, but they’re likely more interested in bidding on Josh Donaldson or Manny Machado in 2018 than signing Moustakas to a four-year deal. The Mets can make an attractive pitch to Moustakas: Come to a lineup where you'll receive plenty of protection and enhance your free-agent value for next year. If the market freeze continues, Moustakas may have no other choice.
— Free Brandon Nimmo: Once one of their top prospects, Nimmo enters his age-25 season as the likely fourth outfielder. Since Michael Conforto will be out with an anterior capsule injury until at least May, Nimmo should play every day until the 2017 All-Star returns. Nimmo’s power may be underwhelming, but he posted a .379 on-base percentage in 215 plate appearances last year. The Mets showcased plenty of power last season (they tied for seventh in the league with 224 home runs), but were less adept at reaching base (.320 OBP was 18th). Patience will be required for the team to win next year, and Nimmo will be a good player to keep in the lineup.
For the Mets to reach the playoffs, they’ll need Harvey and Matz to rebound from career-worst seasons and avoid the injury bug that plagued them last year, but the ceiling is legitimately high. The most cynical fan base in the big leagues has reason for hope, even if the team won’t look that different from the one that disappointed in 2017.