The 2011 New York Mets finished the season 77-85, in 4th place, 25 games behind the first-place Phillies. The problem for the Mets right now is that they are so far behind the Phillies … in many ways. What the 2012 Mets need to focus on is getting into the playoffs via the Wild Card. The Phillies have a strangle-hold on that division, and are only getting stronger (they recently signed Jonathan Papelbon to be their closer). So, barring some disastrous injuries, the Mets’ hopes of making the playoffs require them to catch up with teams like Atlanta, St. Louis, etc. And, in spite of playing second fiddle to the Yankees, they still are in a large enough market that they clearly have the funds to pay players well – as evidenced by the fact they had the 7th highest payroll in baseball in 2011, at just under $119 million, which was well below their 4-year average of over $135 million. And, while they’ve slipped a little the last couple years, they continue to be one of the higher attended teams in the league, with an average well above 30K at every game over the last decade. So, the Mets have had no problem spending money over the years – their problem continues to be spending money wisely.
Just think of some of the guys they’ve spent big money on over the last few years – Pedro Martinez (4 years/$54 mil), Francisco Rodriguez (3 years/$37 mil), Carlos Beltran (7 years/$119 mil), Johan Santana (6 years/$137.5 mil), Jason Bay (4 years/$66 mil) – none of whom lived up to their sizeable contracts – and one contract that is going to have strangely long-term effects . . . Bobby Bonilla, who agreed to a deal for $1.2 million every year for 25 (that’s right, twenty-five!!) years, as a way of compensating him when they released him in 1999 (when the team only owed him something like $6 million). That 25-year deal begins taking effect in 2012. Other than Bonilla, all of these deals were done by Omar Minaya, who was their GM from ’05-’10. What amazes me the most about that is that the Angels recently expressed interest in Minaya as a candidate for their GM position – why?? Because you want someone to overpay aging players who are on the downhill slope of their career??? Thankfully, the Angels went a different direction.
Unfortunately for the Mets, if they want to put together a playoff-contender, they’re going to have to spend some fairly high dollar amounts, because they have just 5 players locked in for 2012, and their combined salaries amount to just over $60 million – Santana, Bay, David Wright, R.A. Dickey, and D.J. Carrasco. However, this is also the reason that many believe Wright will be traded this offseason, since he accounts for $15 million – but, if you’re looking to trade someone, I would have to go with Jason Bay. Your best 3B prospect to replace Wright is a guy that can’t seem to stay healthy for a full season (Zach Lutz), and you’ve got more money tied up in Bay, while you have several young OF prospects coming up in your system within another year or two. But, for the purposes of today’s blog, let’s say they don’t trade anyone, and have to deal with what they have. Let’s also see if we can put together a competitive team with another $60-70 million to cover the remaining 20 payroll spots.
Pitching was a clear weakness for the Mets in 2011. Some of that can be chalked up to injury ($22.5 mil for an injured Santana isn’t fun), but they certainly need to spend some money here. Let’s hope, for their sake, that Santana will be back in 2012 to take over the #1 spot in the rotation again. Dickey is under contract, and is fine as a #3 option. You’ve got 3 guys that could compete for the last two spots in the rotation – Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese, and Jeurys Familia. Familia is the prospect most ready to make the jump to the big leagues in the Mets’ farm system. You’ll notice that names like Pelfrey and Capuano did not appear on this list. Here’s why – they simply cost too much for what you’ll get out of them. It’s time to move on, and you’ve got two excellent prospects that could take over the top of the rotation in the next 2-3 years (Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey), and you don’t want overpaid veterans standing in their way. So, if you let go of Pelfrey and Capuano, and let Gee, Niese and Familia duke it out for the last two spots in the rotation, that frees up a significant amount of money to sign a quality #2 starter. Considering the fact that you have upcoming youngsters in your system, you want a guy that you’ll only need for a 2-3 year contract. There just so happens to be exactly that guy available this year – Hiroki Kuroda. Sign him to a 2-3 year deal worth $15-20 million, and you have the perfect stop-gap between now and when your talented young pitchers are ready for the majors. A rotation of Santana, Kuroda, Dickey, and Gee/Niese/Familia would do well.
While the Mets starting pitching was middle-of-the-pack in ERA, their relief pitching was horrendous. A team ERA of 4.33 out of the bullpen was only better than Houston (4.49) and Minnesota (4.51). So, it’s no surprise that the Mets seem to be focusing on finding some serious relief help this offseason. Two names should come to their attention as relievers they should go after as hard as they can – Heath Bell and Javier Lopez. Lopez would be an excellent left-handed set-up man for Bell. And, the total price for the two would be in the $13 million range, most likely. If Bell doesn’t work out, Ryan Madson is available for probably around $3 million less per year, though he is less proven as a closer. For middle-relief, the Mets have enough arms in their system that performed reasonably well to consider keeping them around. Carrasco is under contract, so there’s no reason to lose him. Taylor Buchholz, Bobby Parnell, and Manny Acosta are reasonably cheap arms that had good enough years in 2011 to let them stick around. If you wanted to save a little money, you could consider not offering Acosta arbitration (probably $3-3.5 million), and letting the loser of the starting rotation duel move to the bullpen for long relief (none of them will make more than $500k in 2012). All in all, the pitching staff should cost around $55-58 million.
In the field you’ve lost Reyes and Beltran to free agency. It doesn’t look as though either one is coming back, so you might as well move on. Bay in LF, and Wright at 3B are the only guarantees at this point. And, outside of these two and Reyes and Beltran, you didn’t have a lot of offensive production in 2011. The good news is that the Mets do have some young talent that looks ready to take on starting roles in 2012. In CF, you’ve got Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who offers a number of above-average talents. He’s not going to wow you with any one thing, but is skilled as a fielder, bats for average, has some power, and very good plate discipline (.409 OBP in the minors in 2011, and a .908 OPS). He’s a lefty, who could hit near the top of the lineup, or might be some good protection for your power hitters. At SS (and part of the reason the Mets won’t cry too much about letting Reyes go) you have a couple options. Jordany Valdespin spent 2011 in the minors, and is a speedy top-of-the-lineup type of player. He stole 37 bases and had a .333 OBP this past year. He needs to cut down his strikeouts to be the ideal guy in the #1 spot, but that should come with time, as he’s only 23. If Valdespin doesn’t work out, Ruben Tejada played well between SS and 2B in a utility role for the Mets in 2011. I say you let them battle for the starting SS position, and the loser makes for a great middle-infield bench player.
Lucas Duda played well enough in 2011 to be considered for the starting RF position in 2012 – .292 avg. with an .852 OPS, 10 hr, and 50 rbi in just 300 ab’s. He’s another lefty that could fit nicely anywhere from the #2-#6 spot in the order. And, he’s pre-arb eligible, which means he’ll be cheap. The Mets didn’t get a lot of offensive production at the catcher position in 2011, but there are NO free agent catchers that are going to offer them any more than what they have available in their system. So, for now, it looks as though Josh Thole may be the best choice to start, and you could have Mike Nickeas available on the bench, or to battle Thole for the starting position. Thole and Nickeas are both young (24 & 28 respectively), and bat from opposite sides of the plate (Thole – left; Nickeas – right), which gives you a lot to work with, for very little cost (a total of no more than $1 million for both in 2012).
So, we’re left with holes at 2B and 1B. And, right now, the Mets’ lineup doesn’t look to be full of a lot of power. Wright has shown some in the past, as has Bay. But, they’re a little streaky in their performance, so it would be nice to add some pop. At 2B, the best option is Kelly Johnson. He struggled in 2011, but that looks to have been an aberration, rather than the norm. In his years previous to 2011, he showed 20+ hr power, and an .800+ OPS. And, for around $5 million, the Mets would likely be able to nab him from the free agent market. And, that leaves us with first base. And, for the first time since I began going through these teams, I’m going to recommend . . . Albert Pujols. Here’s my reason for recommending Pujols over Fielder for the Mets – 1. He’s a bigger name, and that appeals to a place like NYC; 2. Imagine the frenzy in New York as Pujols approaches milestone numbers; 3. Pujols has the kind of personality that will work better in a media market like NYC than Fielder would (more Jeter than A-Rod); 4. He’s also the all-around player that the Mets need on their team, especially when you have some question marks offensively and defensively at other places. Pujols would be the stabilizing force that the Mets need at 1B; 5. The Mets have plenty of left-handed bats in their lineup already, and could use a right-handed bat with consistent power; 6. Of all the teams out there that could afford $30 million/year – the Mets might need Pujols the most.
So, my projected lineup for the Mets would be: 1. Valdespin, 2. Johnson, 3. Duda, 4. Pujols, 5. Wright, 6. Bay, 7. Nieuwenhuis, 8. Thole. You might could switch around Duda and Nieuwenhuis a bit to make the lineup a little more righty-lefty-righty-lefty, but I’m only in favor of doing that if they can flourish in different places in the lineup. Either way, I don’t see any major weaknesses from #2-#7 in this lineup. And, I think guys like Wright and Bay would greatly benefit from having Pujols in there with them. As for the bench spots for the Mets, they have enough younger guys that they can fill those spots with guys that are all pre-arbitration eligible, which means spending no more than about $2.5 million total on your bench. And, they can fill it with guys like Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy, and Jason Pridie who are capable of playing multiple infield and outfield positions.
In the end, this lineup and pitching staff would cost between $125-130 million – maybe less if they sign Madson instead of Bell, or let go of Acosta in favor of a younger reliever from their system. This is a very reasonable price for a team like the Mets, and it would even allow them to consider signing one of the top-tier starting pitchers in free agency at the end of next season, if they wanted. I like the looks of this team – what about you?