Taking the Athletics’ Plan to the Mets

You get a little more time to read in the offseason. Yesterday, I was reading some of the entries to Amazin’ Avenue’s classic AAOP competition, in which readers submit their offseason plan. And then, when Farhan Zaidi was hired by the Dodgers, I watched this video of Zaidi in 2013 at the Sloan Analytics conference. Then some synapses fired: considering Sandy Alderson’s roots, and the current financial state of the Mets ownership, doesn’t it make sense for the Mets to act just a little bit like the Athletics?

What would that look like, this offseason?

For whatever reason, it looks like the Mets are done pretending that free agents are a big part of the offseason plan. Since they are going to act a little bit like a smaller market team, let’s look at the Athletics as a model and, in particular, use some of the hints we’ve seen from their leadership to guide our offseason plan for the Mets.

From Zaidi:

“One way is to add at the top of the roster with stars, which for us [in Oakland] just isn’t an affordable strategy. The other way is to manage from the bottom and take players who are liabilities – even small liabilities – and say what does it do to the collective team at the end of 162 games if we can shave some of this off the bottom in terms of productivity. Whether it’s a backup catcher, or a utility infielder or the ninth or 10th bullpen arm you have who will be up and down all year. Really optimizing those positions for us became an important part about building a competitive team.”

This is something Dave Cameron has written about before, that the Athletics have built success with impressive depth. And when your general manager says that no free agent that costs a pick is coming, then you really want to look at depth pieces.

Of course, figuring out how to improve the team first requires projecting a roster. But we have the tools to do so at our disposal, and the projections to see where the weak links are. So let’s try to describe the team as it stands right now, with the extra up-and-down men included. Arbitration salaries come from MLBTradeRumors, and projected wins come from Steamer on this site.

P / Player Proj WAR $   P / Player Proj WAR $
C Travis d’Arnaud 2.8 0.5   SP Matt Harvey 2.9 0.5
C Anthony Recker 0.2 0.5   SP Jake deGrom 1.1 0.5
1B Lucas Duda 1.8 4.3   SP Zack Wheeler 1.3 0.5
2B Daniel Murphy 1.5 8.3   SP Jon Niese 0.9 7.1
SS Wilmer Flores 2.0 0.5   SP Bartolo Colon 0.9 11.0
3B David Wright 4.2 20.0   SP Dillon Gee 0.2 5.1
LF Matt den Dekker -0.1 0.5   SPRP Carlos Torres 0.1 0.5
CF Juan Lagares 2.9 0.5   RP Jenrry Mejia 0.3 3.1
RF Curtis Granderson 1.4 16.0   RP Bobby Parnell 0.1 3.7
OF Eric Young, JR 0.3 2.3   RP Jeurys Familia 0.1 0.5
OF Eric Campbell 0.0  0.5   RP Gonzalez Germen -0.2 0.5
INF Dilson Herrera 0.1 0.5   RP Josh Edgin -0.2 0.5
INF Ruben Tejada 0.6 1.7     7.5 33.5
  17.7 56.1        
U/D Cesar Puello       U/D Rafael Montero
U/D Matt Reynolds       U/D Vic Black
U/D Kirk Nieuwenhuis       U/D Noah Syndergaard

So right now, we’ve got a team projected for 73 wins that’ll cost $89.6 million. Considering they cut payroll down under ninety million last year, it’s a good bet that any moves they make will be salary neutral this year.

It’s tempting to look at the pitching side of the ledger, considering the low WAR totals, but that might be a miss because of a number that’s not listed there: age. If you take Bartolo Colon out of the pitching staff, you barely lose a win, and your average age is 27 years old. Most likely, Wheeler, Harvey, Montero and Syndergaard have better days in front of them. And personally, I’m convinced that we missed something on deGrom and that we shouldn’t project him so low in the future.

But, if you believe the projections, left field and the backup outfield positions are the problem. Perhaps the lefty reliever will be a problem, too. Let’s fix these cheaply.

1) Trade Eric Young, Jr. for anything you can get.
Age says that the 29-year-old is not likely to get better, and his career defensive stats suggest that more time in the field is only going to expose his problems further. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t have any power, his glove isn’t great… You might be able to sell a team on a switch-hitting backup outfielder with speed, though. Maybe a team like the Angels, who just lost J.B. Shuck to the waiver wire. If nobody wants him in November, don’t tender him a contract. This will net the Mets 2.3 million dollars in savings while only costing them a third of a win.

2) Invite Corey Hart, Ryan Ludwick, and Jonny Gomes to camp. Offer any of them $3m if you like them better than the rest (and they take it).
These three guys are all coming off of sub-replacement seasons and are in their mid-thirties, so it’s plausible that they’ll have to come to camp without major league deals. The Mets, like last year’s Orioles, can offer them more playing time and a chance to resurrect their careers for one more pay day. Only Hart is projected to be better than Young, but they do address one concern that could make the rest of this team better: they have right-handed power. Between the winner of this scrum and Campbell, the team might be able to squeeze more than two wins out of first base and left field, where the lefty starters have demonstrated platoon weaknesses. Righty Cesar Puello represents the backup plan, and his righty bat and toolsy skillset makes Young as expendable as the presence of these righty power bats does.

3) Invite Phil Coke, Joe Beimel, Scott Downs, and Josh Outman to camp.
Randy Choate has signed three major league contracts for less than $1 million each. He’s pitched to a 2.55 FIP against lefties and has never been below replacement. This isn’t saying that Josh Edgin is bad, it’s saying that as it’s currently projected, you might be able to squeeze as much as a half win out of this transaction. If one of the lefties comes to camp and impresses, you can easily send Edgin. If Edgin and one of these guys impresses, make room for both. Play the up and down game with a lefty reliever. Make the most out of your roster slots.

4) Offer Bobby Parnell a two-year, $5m contract.
He’s slated to get almost four million this year, but had surgery in April last season and is no lock to make the Opening Day roster. Offer him security in 2016 in exchange for $1.2 million this year, and he may bite.

If everything goes right with these moves, you might squeak the two extra wins out of your roster that Zaidi references when he says that a sabermetrically-inclined front office can get to 75 wins without too much of a problem. You’d also net a couple million in savings, which might come in handy in phase two.

A second aspect of the Athletics philosophy concerns controlling assets. Seemingly every winter, he trades away a player that is approaching free agency for a few players that are further away. If you look at 2016, you’ll see the Mets have been working with this procedure for a while — only Bobby Parnell, Bartolo Colon, and Daniel Murphy are set to become free agents at the end of the season. One is injured, one is over forty, and the other will be shopped all winter long. Ok, they’ll shop the pitcher too.

5) Offer the Red Sox Bartolo Colon and Daniel Murphy for Shane Victorino or prospects you like. Offer the Dodgers Bartolo Colon for Andre Ethier and $34m. If these fail, offer Colon to anyone that will take the money on his contract for any prospects whatsoever.
The Colon/Murphy package only offers about five million dollars in projected surplus value, so it’s not going to net a Jason Heyward or Justin Upton or even a Yoenis Cespedes, probably. And though Victorino doesn’t fit the years of control aspect, he would be a two-win player signed for less than $15m next year, and he would fit the team’s needs. The team would save six million dollars too. They may have to add money to get prospects, but if they could save six-to-seven million off of the Bartolo Colon contract alone, we’d have close to $10 million to spend. Ethier is left-handed but probably more of a bat than den Dekker, and with $34m shaved off the $64m owed to him over the next three years, he’d be a better fit than Colon on this year’s team. Because if you split 200 innings between Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, you’d get about a win (with upside). If all you get is a prospect and cost savings —

5b) Sign Nori Aoki for one year, $8m or two years, $16m.
Since you can get Colon’s production for $10m less from players under team control, use that free agency money to try and improve your biggest weakness: left field. By pushing den Dekker to a backup defensive outfielder, and inputting a corner outfielder that is projected for almost average work — do a simple MARCEL on Aoki and you get 1.5 wins, which is just below average but much better than the below replacement projection in LF currently — you’ll make the biggest splash the least amount of money. Dave Cameron already pointed out that Aoki is not that different from Nick Markakis, Aoki only made $1.5 million last year, and the world series wasn’t always so kind to his reputation. A few misplayed balls and some recency bias may make him seem like a worse defender than he is. Other names that could be signed here include Michael Morse (who might only give you half win) and the 39-year-old Torii Hunter, so this would be the best free agent fit.

And that’s about it. We’ve kept the payroll under $90 million, added some wins, worked around the edges, and traded some tradeable assets that aren’t under team control for much longer. If a team values Jon Niese despite the fact that he doesn’t really represent much surplus value on his contract, perhaps he goes instead of Colon, and perhaps the left field solution is more exciting and younger.

But we pushed this roster to 78 wins – 79 if you give the up/down guys a win — with reasonable versions of the moves listed above:

P / Player Proj WAR $   P / Player Proj WAR $
C Travis d’Arnaud 2.8 0.5   SP Matt Harvey 2.9 0.5
C Anthony Recker 0.2 0.5   SP Jake deGrom 1.1 0.5
1B Lucas Duda 1.8 4.3   SP Zack Wheeler 1.3 0.5
2B Daniel Murphy 1.5 8.3   SP Jon Niese 0.9 7.1
SS Wilmer Flores 2.0 0.5   SP Noah Syndergaard 1.0 0.5
3B David Wright 4.2 20   SP Dillon Gee 0.2 5.1
LF Nori Aoki 1.5 7.5   SPRP Rafael Montero 0.3 0.5
CF Juan Lagares 2.9 0.5   RP Jenrry Mejia 0.3 3.1
RF Curtis Granderson 1.4 16   RP Bobby Parnell 0.1 3.7
OF Matt den Dekker -0.1 0.5   RP Jeurys Familia 0.1 0.5
OF Corey Hart 1.0 3   RP Carlos Torres 0.1 0.5
INF Dilson Herrera 0.1 0.5   RP Joe Beimel 0.3 0.7
INF Ruben Tejada 0.6 1.7     9.1 22.1
  21 63.8        
U/D Cesar Puello       U/D Rafael Montero    
U/D Matt Reynolds       U/D Vic Black    
U/D Kirk Nieuwenhuis       U/D Josh Edgin    
        U/D Gabriel Ynoa    

Given that the Mets took the conservative plan with Matt Harvey and he won’t pitch competitively until more than 12 months after his surgery — those that take more time generally do better upon return — you could push Harvey’s projection without a complaint from me. Given the amount of development that changed deGrom substantially, and his age, you could push his projection to league average or beyond as well. With this sort of roster — and really, the left fielder can be anyone depending on how the league’s GMs evaluate Niese and Gee — it begins to look like a .500 team.

And though building a five hundred team doesn’t seem that exciting, it’s within earshot of 88 wins, and that can buy you the lottery ticket that is a wild card bid. As Dave Cameron pointed out earlier this offseason, mediocre is a lot sexier these days. In this case, it’s mediocre with an asterisk — a young pitching staff with good stuff, a good framing catcher with some offensive upside, a young cheap bullpen, a few minor league pieces that could work out, and three million dollars that could be used for to pay a deadline acquisition if the cookies crumble the right way.

Rinse, repeat, and work the edges again for the 2016 season — your roster will mostly be the same, and maybe a better year bought you some flexibility or new, interesting minor leaguers. It’s not like Brandon Nimmo is chopped liver.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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9 years ago

As a Mets fan, this article has made me depressed. We’re on the cusp of something good, but not being able to add to the payroll is going hold us back.

9 years ago
Reply to  jcutiger

As a Red Sox fan, I get worried when we throw $70 million at an unproven outfielder for an already crowded outfield, and I get even more worried about spending nine figures on a long-term contract for a decent but not HOF level starting pitcher.

In other words, it’s not a bad time to be looking at payroll limitations, cause the inflation this year looks awful. Best for the Mets to develop prospects and try to lock some of them up like the Braves have done.

9 years ago
Reply to  tz

Do we have money to lock up any of our young players? Doubtful. We probably can’t take on a contract reasonable contract like Cargo’s or him JUpton’s.

Mookie Wilson
9 years ago
Reply to  jcutiger

The Mets just spent about $95 million on offseason contracts last year, and the previous offseason retained their homegrown star for a nine-figure contract.

Why am I supposed to believe they’re penniless and all their stars are going to walk, again?

Maniel Durphy
9 years ago
Reply to  jcutiger

I’d say it’s just depressing that avenues for improvement are perceived to be this pathetic. In year 5 of the Alderson FO and we’re supposed to advocate for C & D level FAs, and trading for salary dump players or players coming off of surgeries..? good lord.

9 years ago
Reply to  Maniel Durphy

You stated the reason for my depression better. I hope for some out of the box thinking (Puig?) from the FO, but not counting on it.

9 years ago
Reply to  jcutiger

I guess you missed the whole point of the article, then.