David Wright: Extend, Trade, or Wait?

A few weeks ago, David Wright told Jon Heyman that he was “extremely optimistic” about the chances of reaching a long term contract extension with the Mets, and said all the right things about loyalty, about the franchise heading in the right direction, and about idolizing Cal Ripken because he stayed with one team for his entire career. Generally, when you have a 29-year-old posting a +6.7 WAR season who is openly talking about wanting to finish his career with your franchise, you’d be rushing to the table to get him locked up. And a few months ago, that looked like the easy call, as Wright was re-establishing himself as one of the league’s best players.

However, something funny has happened on the way to Wright and the Mets agreeing to a new contract that would keep him in Queens for the remainder of his career – for the last few months, David Wright has been pretty bad.

Wright’s season numbers still look great, but almost all of his season value was accumulated in the first half of the year. Here’s Wright’s splits by month in 2012:

Mar/Apr 0.389 0.494 0.569 177 1.4
May 0.347 0.439 0.561 172 1.7
Jun 0.340 0.426 0.563 162 1.7
Jul 0.255 0.333 0.520 131 1.1
Aug 0.272 0.361 0.359 88 0.6
Sept/Oct 0.282 0.317 0.308 82 0.2

Wright was an offensive monster early in the season, but his bat has trended downwards all season, and lately, he’s been hitting more like a slick-fielding shortstop than any kind of slugging clean-up hitter. Perhaps more troubling is that the slump is essentially due a complete reversal of his core skills, and isn’t just one of those BABIP-correction slumps that everyone goes through.

Mar/Apr 18.0% 15.7% 0.181 0.446
May 14.0% 14.0% 0.214 0.400
Jun 13.1% 9.0% 0.223 0.344
Jul 9.9% 24.3% 0.265 0.277
Aug 12.6% 19.3% 0.087 0.338
Sept/Oct 4.9% 19.5% 0.026 0.355

His walk rate has gone down, his strikeout rate is way up, and his power has evaporated. And, unfortunately, the Mets have seen this version of David Wright before.

2011 11.6% 21.7% 0.172 0.302
Last Three Months 10.3% 21.4% 0.151 0.316

Since July 1st, Wright has basically been the exact same hitter he was last year, which was the worst season of his career. His first few months showed that he still has the ability to be significantly better than that, but his inability to sustain those improved contact and power rates have to be somewhat worrisome. It was always unrealistic to expect him to keep running out a wRC+ of 170 like h he did in the first two months of the year, but simply showing some of these core skills over the rest of the season likely would have gone a long way to answering the “fluke or real decline” question that 2011 brought. Instead, Wright is on his way to finishing the season looking like the decent-but-not-great player player he was last year, and again reminding everyone why they haven’t already locked him up for the rest of his career .

In general, monthly splits and in-season trends aren’t as useful as simply looking at larger samples of data over a full season, and of course Wright’s full season data is very good. Every hitter goes through peaks and valleys, and the fact that Wright started hot and then cooled off isn’t necessarily more significant than if he had started slowly and caught fire at the end of the season. His first three months happened, and they can’t just be ignored.

However, Wright turns 30 a few days before Christmas, so any kind of long term contract is going to carry the Mets well into his decline years, and if they’re going to make that kind of commitment, they have to know that they’re going to get some real production in the short term to justify paying significant salaries when he’s in his mid-30s. And, based on his inconsistent production, it’s hard to know exactly what kind of hitter Wright is going to be going forward.

If we just go with a very basic baseline of the past three calendar years, Wright has hit .285/.366/.475, good for a 128 wRC+ and +12.6 WAR, or essentially +4 WAR per season. Other players with similar numbers over three full seasons include Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Willingham, Jayson Werth, and Aramis Ramirez. Good numbers, but not quite elite with the bat, and while Wright will get credit for playing third base, he hasn’t always been very good over there, and his defensive contributions in his thirties probably won’t be all that valuable.

So, what does this kind of player cost to sign to an extension? Well, we know Zimmerman got 6/100 for his age 29-34 seasons, but he had two years left before he was eligible for free agency and was coming off a down season that included shoulder problems, neither of which is true in Wright’s case. Andre Ethier (123 wRC+ over last three calendar years) got 5/90 to forego free agency this summer, though as a right fielder, the bat isn’t quite as valuable as it is at third base. Wright should be able to do better than either, perhaps pointing to Matt Kemp’s 8/160 extension as a better comparison for his career track record. Kemp, however, is two years younger than Wright and plays center field, and his monstrous 2011 season didn’t come with a second half tailspin, so that might be a little out of reach.

If we split the difference between Wright and Zimmerman, that would put an extension cost at around $130 million over seven years, covering Wright’s age 30-36 seasons. How good would Wright have to be to justify that kind of contract?

If we assume Wright is a true talent +4.5 win player who will age normally going forward, then $130 million over seven years requires a $5.3 million cost per win this winter with 10% annual inflation, which is probably not a crazy assumption given the influx of new television money the sport has seen in the last year. Of course, that’s market price for a free agent, which Wright is not, so extending
him is not the only option.

The Mets could simply exercise his $16 million option for 2013 and have a significantly underpaid asset for next year, gather more information about whether he’s more first half Wright or second half Wright, and then make the decision whether to sign him long term or not at some point next year. Or, if they’re convinced that his recent slump and his 2011 performance are indicative of what’s to come, they could pick up his option and trade him, taking advantage of a seller’s market in a year where the best free agent third baseman might be Jeff Keppinger.

There is merit to all three decisions. Given how good Wright has been overall in 2012 and the fact that monthly trends aren’t all that predictive, just locking him up now could be the right choice, and give the team a franchise player to re-build around. On the other hand, his recent performance and his 2011 did happen, and so telling Wright that they want to see a full, consistent season out of him before they commit to a long term might be the more prudent approach. After all, his price tag isn’t likely to rise dramatically over the next year, as he’s going to be hard pressed to top his 2012 season numbers, and he’ll be a 31-year-old hitting the market next winter if the Mets go with the wait-and-see approach. Is saving a potential $30-$40 million over seven years worth the risk of second half Wright being a legitimate red flag, putting another albatross on the books while the team is trying to start fresh?

Or, should the Mets just look at the Nationals, Braves, and Phillies and decide that contending in 2013 is still unlikely, and take advantage of the fact that Wright would become the marquee acquisition of the winter if they put him on the blocks, and attempt to land an impressive haul of young talent and rebuild around guys like Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler instead?

I’m not sure there’s an obvious right answer here. A few months ago, extending Wright was a no-brainer, but his second half struggles have put his inconsistency back in the spotlight, and the reality is that the Mets don’t have to lock Wright up long term this winter. Given his wild swings in performance and their position in the standings, either waiting another year to make that decision or letting someone else decide to make that commitment — after surrendering some shiny prospects — might be in the team’s best interests.

Personally, I think I’d probably just exercise the option and gather more information, but I can see a case for any of the three options. What would you do if you were Sandy Alderson?

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Bryan Grosnickmember
9 years ago

I vote for extend – with the caveat being that it was on “reasonable” financial terms … like the 7/$130M that Dave posits. It’s probably a slight overpay for his performance, but there are plenty of intangible benefits (for me, not the team), that I’d get from seeing David Wright play third base for the next seven years third base for the next three years, then first base for four years. Third base still seems to be kind of a hairy position, and I’m not sure what the Dodgers / Angels / Yankees would give up for Wright in a trade.