Hi. You might know me as Internet Baseball Personality “Prospect Hate Man” or from my Twitter at @ihateprospects. I wanted to talk a little about some things the Mets might do in the next two weeks, at a greater length than 140 characters. A much greater length. In this posting I will discuss plausible major upgrades to the Mets, who entering play on Friday 7/17 sat two games behind the Washington Nationals in the NL East and one game behind the Chicago Cubs for the National League’s second Wild Card slot.
Before I get into the substance about trade and internal options for the Mets, here’s a disclaimer: Mets ownership has gotten really cheap. The Mets ran payrolls in the $140-150 million range for years when that meant something, and now are trying to contend with under $100 million when that means nothing.
For the sake of sanity, I am assuming that Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and the rest of his gang are capable of spending at the deadline, given both promises made by the team and the recuperation of a tenth or more of the team’s planned 2015 payroll through insurance on David Wright’s contract. It may turn out to be that Fred and Jeff Wilpon mandate that Alderson take on no money so they can pocket Wright’s insurance claim. They could also mandate no substantial future obligations. There are ways the front office could mitigate such orders – the inclusion of bad contracts (read: Michael Cuddyer) to even out money, or even paying extra in talent to get players subsidized by their former teams. I did try to look at things realistically; the Mets are surely not going to be in a position to take an extra bad contract like San Diego did in the Craig Kimbrel trade, nor to straight buy a prospect like Atlanta did with Touki Toussaint. But I do hope they can make “normal” trades as opposed to acting like the Expos when that franchise was under the ownership of Major League Baseball.
We are going to start with the pitching. The Mets have no pitching staff needs. Sure, they could use an extra good reliever, but literally everyone could use an extra good reliever. The starting rotation is rather famously either the best in baseball, or close enough to it for horseshoes and nuclear war. And it’s still six or seven deep in major league quality pitching despite an unfortunate run of injuries and implosions. Dan Warthen for President!
That doesn’t mean the Mets shouldn’t at least consider trading for Cole Hamels. I suspect that sentence will be met with snickers and derision, but value is value and wins are wins. Turning a strength into an even bigger strength is not a bad thing. Upgrading Jon Niese or, heaven forbid, Bartolo Colon to Cole Hamels can be just as much of an upgrade as finding a replacement for Cuddyer.
Hamels is that damn good. Hamels is not just one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball, but with a sterling health and durability history, he’s as good of a bet to take the ball for 200 innings as anyone in baseball. With the Alderson regime seemingly obsessed with the idea of innings limits on not just pitchers around the drinking age, but everyone under 30, the Mets might be able to use a top veteran starter more than you’d think.
Hamels is signed to a remarkably affordable contract for a pitcher of his quality: $23.5 million per year in a deal that only runs through his age 34 season in 2018, with a team option for 2019 that could turn into a vesting option if he’s still healthy and good. Hamels, who has a partial no-trade clause, has threatened to veto trades to certain teams, and might be seeking to gain an extension or reworking of the option year of his contract. But Hamels has a contractual whitelist of 9 teams the Phillies can trade him to without his consent, and FOX Sports has reported that the Mets are one of those 9 teams.
So what would Cole Hamels cost? Assuming the Mets will not move Syndergaard, I think two starting points for a package are viable: Michael Conforto and Zack Wheeler. The Phillies have, for about a year and a half, been holding steady to the idea of getting at least one top global prospect or young major leaguer back for Hamels. I have argued, repeatedly, that a number of teams should give into this request. The Mets are one of them; they might need an elite player on a bargain price more than anyone else in baseball. Conforto, whom we’ll talk about a little later in the context of a call-up, ranks in the top 15 prospects in baseball according to recent updates by Baseball America, Keith Law of ESPN.com, and longtime prospect expert John Sickels. Wheeler was that sort of prospect two years ago, ranking in several global top 10 lists, and was developing into a very good major league pitcher when he was unfortunately felled by Tommy John surgery this spring. He’ll be back sometime during the 2016 and should be at full strength by 2017 – right around when the Phillies will be attempting to start their next contention cycle.
After a Conforto or Wheeler sort of headliner, you’re probably letting the Phillies take two or three of their favorites from the rest of your system, the Nimmos and Rosarios and the Smiths. You’ll still have enough left to go get a few hitters, and you take the rotation from “this could be the best in baseball for the next four years” to “this could be one of the best ever for the next four years.” But at the end of the day, they’re probably too cheap to take on even a great contract of Hamels’s magnitude.
THE CORNER OUTFIELDER
The Mets desperately need a starting corner outfielder. Michael Cuddyer is hitting .244/.294/.367 and might look even worse than that. At best, he’s overexposed and needs to be reduced to a part-time role. I think that role might exist, because as pitiful as that line is, it’s still an upgrade on the entire bench, and you can plausibly wishcast that Cuddyer might be better off with limited exposure. But you can’t assume that knee is holding up at this point, and he’s been reduced into an apparent semi-platoon with .135 hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis. So let’s bump him down from a regular to the four corners backup spot held by Eric Campbell.
The Mets have four distinct routes to go to replace Cuddyer. In no real order:
– Promote Michael Conforto from Binghamton.
Assuming he isn’t traded, the Mets have to make a decision about the timeline of their last remaining extremely highly regarded prospect, Michael Conforto. Is he ready to help now? Do you keep a spot open expecting him as an impact bat in May 2016? Is he a 2017 player? It’s not an easy call, but it needs to be made now, because it vastly changes who the Mets need to acquire at this trade deadline.
Conforto is only a year into his pro career, but he has been regarded as highly polished at every level, and has posted remarkably consistent, solid minor league performance. Both his statistical profile and his scouting profile portend a potential All-Star type player with a high floor, but lacking the MVP ceiling of some other hitting prospects commonly rated in the baseball’s top 20. Despite this profile, the Mets inexplicably gave Conforto a soft assignment to their local short-season team in Brooklyn for the entirety of his draft year, and followed that up by giving him over 200 plate appearances this spring in the High-A Florida State League. Both decisions received criticism in the public scouting sphere.
Because of their passivity in his promotions, Conforto currently has only about 170 plate appearances above A-ball. This is about a month’s less playing time than Dilson Herrera had at the time of his promotion last year, and Herrera has been the most aggressively promoted position player of the Alderson regime. Despite that, Conforto is pretty clearly one of the three best outfielders currently employed by the Mets, and his skill set – well-rounded hit and power, extremely good plate approach, good secondary skills – would seem to portend a smoother transition than other “rushed” players. Is that enough to make it his time?
– Promote Brandon Nimmo from Binghamton.
Rapidly becoming The Other Outfield Prospect, Brandon Nimmo is currently Conforto’s teammate. Unlike Conforto, Nimmo has a full enough foundation at AA – about a full season split over 2014 and 2015 – that his promotion would probably be less controversial than Conforto’s. But Nimmo just doesn’t have as much near-term upside as Conforto – he’s not hitting nearly as well as Conforto and has never developed the power that was projected to come around the time of his draft. It’s far from clear that Nimmo won’t develop into the player once projected at some point, but the clock ticks.
Nimmo could be a more plausible option if the Mets need a *centerfielder*. We’ll talk about other options for center later on.
– Promote Travis Taijeron from Las Vegas.
In the Mets twittersphere, the most popular internal options tend to run towards promoting an organizational player over fear of “rushing” prospects. Until Thursday, Alex Castellanos was the preferred internal outfield reinforcement choice of Mets Twitter; one of the few external minor league free agent signings by the Mets before this season, Castellanos was sent to Japan after being among the PCL league leaders in many offensive categories. With Castellanos gone, I suspect the next apple of Mets Twitter’s eye will be Travis Taijeron. Taijeron has percolated up through the Mets system since being drafted out of Cal Poly-Pomona in 2011. Both Taijeron and Castellanos have hit exceptionally well at a facial level in AAA, but that’s the problem: Las Vegas is one of the five or so best places to hit in organized baseball, in a division of the PCL filled with parks that would rank similarly or not far behind. And while Taijeron was sort of on the organizational radar coming in, he was not protected from the Rule 5 draft last winter, and has never really been talked about as someone who could contribute at the major league level.
Remember this when you want an “organizational player” promoted from Las Vegas: Eric Campbell, over 653 PAs as a Las Vegas 51, has hit .336/.450/.521. It’s certainly not impossible for previously non-descript players to develop late, but hitting performance at Vegas is not in and of itself much to hang that hat on. As a quick aside, the inverse of that is also true: extremely dominant pitching performances at Vegas, like Matz in the first half of 2015 or deGrom in the first two months of 2014, are far more notable than they initially look because of how unfriendly that environment is.
– Trade for a big bat.
There are so many good outfield trade options of all types – expensive ones, cheap ones, rentals, young guys, old guys – that it will feel like a disaster if the Mets stand pat here, no matter what else they do or do not do. Here are some of the ones that interest me the most:
– The sexiest option is mercurial Dodgers rightfielder Yasiel Puig. Puig, just 24 and under team control through 2019, is a career .299/.380/.491 hitter over about two full seasons in the majors. This is a dude who does nearly everything well on a baseball field, maybe a budding superstar. Despite that, continual reports about misbehavior and lapses in effort and judgment have plagued Puig since the minor leagues. With a change in Dodgers management and an overflowing outfield situation, it is not terribly hard to imagine scenarios where the Dodgers at least test the waters with Puig. Puig almost certainly costs the Mets one of their beloved young pitchers – and maybe a lot more than that. An informal poll I conducted on Twitter seemed to lean against the Mets making, for example, a Syndergaard for Puig trade, although personally I would do that in a heartbeat.
– The sexiest realistic option is a former Met, Carlos Gomez of the Brewers. You might remember Gomez as a struggling prospect dealt to Minnesota in the Johan Santana trade. He continued to struggle for a few years after that, but a breakout in 2012-13 established Gomez as a serious threat. Because of his prior lackluster play, Gomez is on an insanely cheap contract, only making $8 million in 2015 and $9 million in 2016. In addition to providing a replacement for the struggling Cuddyer, Gomez could be the backup centerfielder that the Mets could use to spell Juan Lagares. Because of his play as one of the game’s better players and his light contract, Gomez will likely be one of the more expensive guys to acquire at this deadline.
– Justin Upton is the best of the outfield rentals. Perhaps never quite the superstar originally projected as a prospect, Upton is a solid, consistent, All-Star quality corner outfielder. The Mets have long been connected to Upton, only 27, and were reportedly somewhat close to landing him before the 2013 season in a trade that would’ve been headlined by Daniel Murphy and/or Ruben Tejada. Given that Upton will hit free agency at 28, even if the Mets do not trade for him, expect him to be the apple of the Mets fans’ eyes in the offseason. It is also worth noting that Upton has reportedly been willing to extend before hitting free agency at various times, so acquiring him now may prove to be more than the rental it outwardly appears like, a la Mike Piazza in 1998.
– The name of 28 year old Reds outfielder Jay Bruce seems to be popping up most alongside Gomez and Upton these days. If you draw a line through Bruce’s 2014 season, he’s a pretty consistent okay average, very good power player, and given his age one could hope for some projection forward. But 2014 did happen, and he was awful, albeit while playing through a knee injury. Bruce has about as friendly a contract as the Mets are likely to encounter; he makes $12.5 million in 2016 and has a team option for $13 million in 2017.
– Carlos Gonzalez is a player that used to pop up around Mets trade talks a lot, but seems to have quieted. He’s still on a bad team and he’s finally healthy, but he’s not hitting like he used to anymore. Of course, an average hitting outfielder with good defense qualifies as a monumental upgrade for the Mets. Gonzalez has two years and $37 million remaining after 2015, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rockies ate some of that to make a deal.
– Marlon Byrd is an old friend of the Mets. Traded at the waiver trade deadline in August 2013, Byrd returned Dilson Herrera and John Buck for the Mets. He’s continued doing the Marlon Byrd Thing for the most part since, which is sort of similar to the Jay Bruce Thing. The downside is that he turns 38 in August, and has the Generous Ruben Amaro Vesting Option that will vest at 550 PAs, a number he would hit playing regularly.
Other less likely or lesser names to ponder include Seth Smith, Yoenis Cespedes, and a trio of dudes we’ll talk about later as CF options: Gerardo Parra, Ben Revere, and Will Venable.
Give me Tulo or give me death.
THE SHORTSTOP, IN REALITY
That pretty much is the reality, so let’s talk about why. Ruben Tejada is the definition of a guy who needs to be replaced and Wilmer Flores just can’t play the position. The only good shortstop option with a real possibility to be moved at the deadline is Tulowitzki. And Tulo is more than just good. For all of the whining in certain sectors of the internet about the “surplus value” or lack thereof of his contract, Tulowitzki is only 30, and after a slow start is putting up something resembling the Troy Tulowitzki Season, minus a touch of power. Is he as good as his 2014 half-season? Of course not, but a good defender hitting like Tulo did in 2014 – even in Coors – rivals Mike Trout as the best player in baseball. He’s still the best shortstop in baseball by leaps and bounds, and when healthy is among the small handful of the best players. After 2015, Tulowitzki will have 5 years at $98 million remaining on his contract, and I reckon he would come close to doubling that on the free agent market. That’s a deal to dump out the farm for.
The rest of the true shortstop options range from shots in the dark to disastrous:
– Javier Baez has been an intriguing Mets option for a bit given Sandy Alderson’s known love for power and willingness to accept less on defense. Baez is only about a year removed from being considered a top 10 global prospect, but a brutal performance in the majors last season and unlucky timing of injuries and a personal tragedy shuffled Baez behind the wave of Cubs prospects that he started 2014 ahead of. With second, third, and short all occupied by players the Cubs are likely strongly committed to in their current roles for various reasons, Baez now has no clear future with the Cubs, and has been increasingly mentioned as a trade likelihood, albeit one whose value is remarkably difficult to measure.
– Jean Segura is probably the best shortstop that will get moved at the deadline this year. That’s not saying much. The Brewers have not one but two prospect options behind Segura in Oswaldo Arcia and Luis Sardinas, and are one of the few motivated sellers in this trade market, so I would be surprised if the Brewers held onto him. Here’s the catch: Segura looks for all the world like a dude stagnating not entirely dissimilarly to Ruben Tejada. Two years ago, Segura was coming off his first All-Star Game experience, and looked to be emerging as the National League’s second best shortstop after Tulowitzki. But since the break in 2013, Segura has hit just .252/.289/.329, while only occasionally showing signs of life. Segura is a quality defender, and he’s an upgrade over Tejada in potential and defense if in nothing else. But he might not be a better hitter. Segura starts his three years of arbitration after this season, but given his meager offensive contributions will not likely be all that expensive at least in 2016.
– Two other shortstop targets from the offseason, Jimmy Rollins and Alexei Ramirez, could be moved at the deadline. Both are free agents at the end of this season, and both would likely require a very small cost in prospects. The catch is that both have been among the worst hitters in baseball in 2015, and are at an age where that could be a decline as opposed to a blip.
– Speaking of the worst hitters in baseball, Starlin Castro (one of the players who provides a seemingly immovable block to Javier Baez) to the Mets rumors are seemingly eternal. Castro’s offensive profile, which was always living on the edge, has completely collapsed Melvin Upton style in two of the last three years; his .247/.283/.321 line in 2015 is a near-perfect match for his 2013. Like Jean Segura, Castro has the potential to be just as bad offensively as Ruben Tejada. Unlike Segura, Castro does not offer a defensive upgrade over Tejada, and any team acquiring Castro will owe him over $40 million for his 2016-2019 services. Throw in a litany of drama on and off the field, and I am not sure Castro has any positive trade value at all past name value and accomplishments back from the day when he could hit .300. Despite this, Cubs fans, and perhaps the Cubs themselves, continue to market Castro as a multiple time All-Star on the verge of a breakout, and there the cost to acquire Castro could be quite significant. No thanks.
We’ll follow that up with a few slightly further out there options:
– Ian Desmond is a name that keeps floating around in shortstop trade speculations. The Nationals had interest in moving him over the winter – the Mets leaked a Syndergaard ask, presumably to quell fans desperate for a real shortstop. Desmond is playing himself out of a job in Washington, and the Nationals might prefer to get a return without having to risk Desmond accepting the qualifying offer as a free agent after this season. Desmond’s medium-term replacement, Trea Turner, is already in the system. In the shorter term, with Anthony Rendon now theoretically healthy, they would have Yunel Escobar, Danny Espinosa, and fellow prospect Wilmer Difo as alternative options to Turner. I think a Desmond trade makes sense in a vacuum, but I don’t expect that the Nationals are likely to bolster a positional black hole for the Mets in a tough pennant race.
– Andrelton Simmons’s name has also popped up in speculation. The Braves have sold off much of their current major league talent, and they have a potentially shortstop capable prospect in Jose Peraza floating around. I don’t think this has much of a chance of happening either, in part because Simmons starts to get expensive after this season (5 years, $53 million remaining), and in part because I would expect the Braves to have a very high ask on Simmons given that his prime is under contract and the Braves should be good again in that period.
– A fantasy trade target that comes up in Met shortstop discussions is Xander Bogaerts. The Red Sox are once again falling out of it, and with a continuing wreck of a pitching staff, Boston desperately needs high upside pitching like Noah Syndergaard or Steven Matz. But outside of very rare occasions like the Pineda/Montero trade, these sorts of challenge trades amongst young players and top prospects just don’t happen. These are the types of trades that cost general managers their jobs.
And finally, a few jacks of all trades that could perhaps fake shortstop for a little bit, while also helping at other infield and outfield spots:
– Ben Zobrist is a very good player, but he’s never been much more than a fill-in at short. He’s cheap and not a long-term commitment, but he’s also 34 and Oakland is likely to want a fortune for him. Zobrist could end up costing nearly as much to trade for as Tulowitzki.
– An amusing number of Mariners prospects in the past few years have been compared to Ben Zobrist, but Brad Miller is probably the closest to the profile. But despite WAR proclamations using sketchy defensive stats that pump Miller’s value very high, Miller is still not very close to being Zobrist’s caliber as a hitter, and he’s a less versatile defender. In many ways, this is something akin a left-handed Wilmer Flores profile: bad defense at short (though Miller’s greatest deficiency is arm instead of range), good defense at second, some pop, and less of a hit tool than was hoped for a few years ago. As with every other prospect and young player in the Mariners system that fits best at second, Miller is perpetually blocked by Robinson Cano, which has led to continual trade rumors connecting him to the Mets. The Mets actually could use this Zobrist/Miller kind of player, just not as the starting shortstop.
– Martin Prado seems to be the preferred switchblade player of WFAN callers. Prado offers some offensive upside, has shown in prior years extreme versatility of good defense, and is cheap, with the Marlins on the hook for just $8 million per season through next year. But he’s been strictly a third baseman for the Marlins this year, is coming off a shoulder injury which cost him the last month before the break, and hasn’t played shortstop much since 2012. A Prado acquisition might signal greater concerns about David Wright than anything about the shortstop position.
THE OTHER OUTFIELDER
The Mets don’t just need one outfielder – they need two. Let’s assume the Mets acquire or promote a starting LF; that drops Cuddyer into either Eric Campbell’s four corners backup role or John Mayberry’s bench role. None of the three outfield capable players currently on the major league bench has cleared a .188 average, and while all are probably a bit better than that, none is much more than filler.
Another problem in addition to bad bench options lurks: Juan Lagares hasn’t hit or thrown at a major league level this season, and the Mets have no clear secondary centerfield option. If Lagares’s performance becomes unpalatable, or his elbow requires surgery, the Mets are left considering Kirk Nieuwenhuis, a tweener who just pinged around the DFA and waiver landscape a number of times, Darrell Ceciliani, who looked hopeless in the spell while Nieuwenhuis bounced between the Angels and the Mets, and Brandon Nimmo.
So between needing a better bench and needing a fallback to Lagares, there’s definitely a need for an outfielder who, at the very least, could play CF on some tough righties and play off the bench – and this need is completely separate from the need to replace Cuddyer. A trio of obvious trade targets who would fit this profile are Gerardo Parra of the Brewers, Ben Revere of the Phillies, and Will Venable of the Padres, all lefty hitters capable of handling all three outfield positions.
Parra might be the most commonly mentioned outfielder in connection with the Mets. He’s only signed through this year, at a palatable $6.2 million, but he’s had a hell of a first half, hitting over .300 with his usual substantial doubles power. Because of this, Parra will likely cost more to acquire than Revere, and might even be considered a solution for the readily available starting position.
Revere, only 27, only making $4.1 million, and under team control through 2017, has somewhat inexplicably fallen out of favor in Philadelphia. His skills are limited, but known; his arm is terrible, and there is no power present. But, in a manner that will sound familiar to Mets fans because of Daniel Murphy, Revere hits in the .300 range year in and year out, and can at least adequately handle center. The Phillies have reportedly been shopping Revere aggressively and for less than you would think – they were recently prepared to move him to the Angels for relief prospect Trevor Gott, per Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe – and he has been connected to teams in a backup or platoon role.
Venable, the old man of the trio, is a free agent at the end of this season. Of these three players, Venable offers the most power, having hit 22 homers playing in Petco in 2013, but he’s also a pure rental and has some downside risk; his 2014 collapse was surely part of what sparked the Padres to make a run on all available outfielders.
Many other backup and platoon outfield options will become available between now and the deadline. This should be the easiest spot for the Mets to fix with a quality player at a low cost in players and money.