Mets fans aren’t happy. I live in New York City, so perhaps I’m just overexposed to this, or maybe it’s because I was surrounded in close proximity by disappointed Mets fans at last week’s Pitch Talks event, or that I keep reading about fans trying to crowdsource a “sell the team” billboard, but the anger is clear. After six straight losing seasons, with multiple young pitching prospects ready now, with Matt Harvey on his way back and the Braves and Phillies on the way down, the sum of the off-season’s shopping has been a confusing contract for 36-year-old qualifying offer recipient Michael Cuddyer and the addition of John Mayberry for the bench.
That means no trade of an excess starter (though Dillon Gee is expected to go soon), no help for the bullpen, and, seemingly most egregious of all, no shortstop. Right now, the team is insisting they’ll be fine with 23-year-old Wilmer Flores, who may or may not be able to handle the position defensively, backed up by 25-year-old Ruben Tejada, who is generally despised by fans.
On Friday, one local beat writer vocalized the prevailing opinion:
The Wilpons obviously are too broke to find and pay a real shortstop, too cash-poor to have built on the signing of Michael Cuddyer.
No one is defending the mistakes of owner Fred Wilpon — other than MLB itself, since Wilpon was recently inexplicably named as the chairman of baseball’s finance committee (!) — because a New York team with less than $100 million on the books, even after arbitration is factored in, is obscene. But how true is that in regards to shortstop? Was there really something the Mets could have or should have done there? And is the current shortstop situation as dire as it seems? Let’s dig into that.
It’s probably worth starting with the projections, and realize that the combination of Steamer and our writer-curated depth charts don’t see the Mets shortstops as being the worst or second-worst or even tenth-worst:
That’s not good, but it’s not a disaster, either. It’s No. 18, and within spitting distance of No. 13. It’s within spitting distance of No. 24 as well, and that’s sort of the point — there’s a few teams with great answers, a few with total messes, and a huge swatch of baseball that feels “okay, I guess,” about their shortstops. The position just isn’t all that intriguing right now, especially with great bat/awful glove Hanley Ramirez moving to the outfield. It’s not that hard to be acceptable there.
For the Mets, the math that goes into that is 1.5 WAR for Flores over 420 plate appearances and 0.5 for Tejada over 245, plus a few token and unimportant appearances from 23-year-old Wilfredo Tovar. Were we to look at Steamer/600, or trying to project would each might do over a full season of play, Flores comes out to 2.0 WAR with a 94 wRC+, and Tejada with an 83 and 1.4 WAR. ZiPS sees it almost identicaly, with Flores at 2.1 and Tejada at 1.4. Again, none of this is all that impressive, it’s just not a sinkhole unlike any other in the big leagues, either.
It’s not even a sinkhole compared to the rest of the team, really. Looking at the non-pitching projections for the Mets, we see that three positions look like they’ll be strengths — catcher, third base, and center field, because yes, Juan Lagares really is that good. ZiPS likes Lucas Duda a little more, but otherwise the two projection systems largely agree — Curtis Granderson, Cuddyer, and the overrated Daniel Murphy are far more likely to be “adequate” than “difference-makers.”
That means that it’s less that the Mets need to add wins at shortstop, specifically, than it is that they need to add wins overall. One is not more valuable than the other, but obviously shortstop is the focus because they just added Cuddyer and aren’t suddenly going to toss out Granderson after one year. Shortstop is less the obvious problem than it is the easiest area to replace the incumbent.
That hasn’t happened, and the easy place to put blame is on the limited payroll the team is carrying. But how fair, really, is that? These are the shortstops who found homes this winter, either via free agency or trade:
- Ramirez, LAD to BOS, 4/$88M
- Stephen Drew, NYY, 1/$5M
- Jimmy Rollins, PHI to LAD, trade, 1/$11M
- Didi Gregorius, AZ to NYY, trade, minimum salary
- Jed Lowrie, OAK to HOU, 3/$23M
- Yunel Escobar, TB to OAK to WAS, 2/$13M
- Asdrubal Cabrera, WAS to TB, 1/$7.5M
- Marcus Semien, CHW to OAK, trade, minimum salary
That’s eight shortstops who the Mets in theory could have been in on, but we need to prune that list down first. Ramirez isn’t a shortstop any longer. Rollins reportedly refused to waive his no-trade clause to join the Mets, and therefore wasn’t even an option. Drew is coming off an awful season, isn’t projected to do any better than what the Mets already have, and is now a second baseman for the Yankees. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because almost exactly a year ago, I was here in this very same space writing about how signing Drew to replace Tejada seemed like “the obvious move,” even though the projections didn’t think Drew was really all that much better. Clearly, the projections won out on that one.
There’s reasons to dislike some of the others as well — Escobar, 32, was ranked as 2014’s worst regular defensive shortstop (unexpectedly, admittedly) and won’t even play shortstop in 2015, and both Lowrie and Cabrera come with serious defensive questions of their own — but we can still use them as comparison points.
|Steamer/600, 2015 projections||2014|
That sure is a grab bag of names, isn’t it? Exactly zero of them were particularly impressive in 2014. They’re all within a one-win projected Steamer/600 value in 2015, and of course the acquisition costs aren’t even accounted for here. In order to get Semien, the A’s had to give up a full year of Jeff Samardzija. For Gregorius, the Yankees had to surrender six years of Shane Greene, who was surprisingly effective in 14 starts last year. Escobar cost the Nationals one year of a very good reliever in Tyler Clippard, and his projection depends on last year’s terrible defense being a blip and not a cliff.
Again, the point isn’t that what the Mets have is all that great. There’s still massive questions about how Flores will look defensively, although Carson Cistulli attempted to show some positives last September. Tejada, despite a relatively decent offensive year in 2014 that looked a lot more like his adequate 2011 and ’12 than his disastrous 2013 and 3,000 innings of acceptable defense, appears to be completely on the outs, even though he’s only headed into his age-25 season. The point is that what’s out there just wasn’t all that much better. Rich team or poor, the available inventory is still the same, and the Mets obviously weren’t the only team in need of a shortstop.
We haven’t talked about the rumored conversations about Troy Tulowitzki, if only because he’s not really “available” in the sense that these other players were — he’s currently contracted to a team that has shown little willingness to move him for less than an out-of-this-world price that would probably defeat the purpose of trading for him in the first place. Maybe the rumors about interest in Ian Desmond were true and maybe they weren’t, but it’s not so clear that trading Noah Syndergaard’s entire career for a single year of Desmond was such a slam-dunk idea anyway. It’s unclear if Alexei Ramirez was ever available, but that ship sailed as soon as the White Sox started signing win-now players and dealt Semien to Oakland. Maybe there’s a lack of creativity here — there still seems to be a fit with the Cubs for Starlin Castro or others — but this isn’t entirely about money. It’s about options. There just weren’t many.
The problem isn’t so much what the Mets have right now at shortstop, because what they have could be perfectly acceptable compared to plenty of other teams. The problem is that the Mets hope to find themselves in a position where every added win — whether at short or any other position — is what potentially puts them into that second wild card. The problem is that just because you have a position you want to upgrade upon, it doesn’t mean that a solution is magically available. Shortstop is a problem for the Mets, but perhaps not entirely the problem everyone seems to think it is.