Life is full of mysteries, and so is baseball. This week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the most intriguing people and teams entering the season. Some excite us, some confound us, but they all leave us asking the same question: What’s Your Plan?
When Mets fan favorite Yoenis Céspedes announced last November that he’d be returning to the team on a four-year, $110 million free-agent deal, it gave team management a little more than four months to clear up a corner outfield logjam the club had exacerbated the previous summer, when it added Jay Bruce at the trade deadline.
It’s now three weeks out from Opening Day, and the fans are still waiting for a fix. The Mets tried trading Juan Lagares. There were no takers. They fielded offers for Curtis Granderson. No deal. With Bruce, they tried everything short of mailing his Topps card with a “20 percent off” Post-it note attached to every other front office in baseball. He’s still on the team.
With those three veterans, Céspedes, Michael Conforto, and even prospect Brandon Nimmo all vying for playing time, New York simultaneously has too many outfielders to fill the roster, yet too few to fill a realistic lineup card.
Against left-handed pitchers, the likely configuration places Céspedes in left field, Lagares in center, and Granderson in right. Against righties, Granderson will shift to center, with Bruce taking the vacated corner and Lagares’s lineup slot. Nowhere in those plans is an everyday spot for Conforto, the team’s most promising young hitter, for whom the front office has constructed the kind of disruptive player-development plan the MLB has rarely seen since the Yankees ruined Joba Chamberlain’s arm. Maybe it’s a New York thing.
Despite suffering through a months-long slump last season, Conforto finished with a 96 wRC+, meaning that his park-adjusted batting line was 4 percent worse than league average. While that’s not good, five-time All-Star Adam Jones also posted a 96 wRC+ last year, and highly touted rookie Nomar Mazara sat at 94 in Texas. Consider also that Conforto was 33 percent better than league average in 2015 without any indicators of unsustainable batted-ball luck, and it’s clear he deserves a regular lineup spot. Instead, the Mets plan on giving him the short end of a rotation, wherein he will merely spell Granderson in center to give the veteran some rest.
Conforto is a better hitter than Bruce right now, and he compares favorably to Granderson, albeit with a less sturdy floor. In Conforto’s minor league career, moreover, he slashed .330/.402/.522, including an eye-popping .422/.483/.727 mark in Triple-A last year. Sending him back to the minors or yo-yoing him between Triple-A Las Vegas and Queens won’t do anything for his development, and neither will sitting him on the bench five days a week; last September, with the full complement of outfielders healthy, Conforto started only eight games. In 2015, he essentially matched David Wright’s rookie success in 89 fewer plate appearances; a sophomore slump alone won’t derail that potential, but inconsistent playing time and impatient management might.
While finding regular at-bats for Conforto is the more pressing concern, giving MLB looks to fellow outfielder Nimmo matters, too. Scout opinions are divided on the Mets’ 2011 first-round pick, yet he hit .352/.423/.541 in Triple-A last season, which even in the Pacific Coast League’s extreme hitting environment is a top mark. Because Nimmo has played predominantly in center in the minors, he would also fit well with the current Mets roster, which outside of the injury-prone, platoon-restricted Lagares lacks a true center fielder.
Some teams — the 2014–15 Royals, this year’s Mariners and Red Sox — play three center fielders together. It makes considerably less sense to try the reverse, plopping three corner men in the outfield in the hopes that one of them will surprise with his range. It didn’t work out well for the 2015 Padres, for whom center-sorta-fielder Wil Myers posted defensive numbers so bad he moved to first base the following season.
FanGraphs projects Granderson as the second-least-valuable defensive outfielder in baseball this season; he turns 36 next week, and the defensive numbers for recent center fielders at that age don’t look pretty. He had a decent showing in 32 starts in center last season, but he hasn’t played there every day since 2012, and he hasn’t accrued positive value as a full-time center fielder since 2010 — when Conforto was still a high schooler.
All available indicators point to a team-wide defensive regression from last year, when the outfield ranked a surprising fourth in the National League in defensive runs saved. Céspedes should receive a boost in his return to left field after a season spent miscast in center — the Mets have a history with this sort of thing — but neither Granderson nor Bruce will rate well; of the 39 right fielders who have played at least 1,000 innings over the past three seasons, Bruce ranks 38th in UZR and in the bottom 10 in DRS.
The infield isn’t any more inspiring, as Asdrubal Cabrera might be the worst defensive shortstop in the majors (both proven and projected) and José Reyes is a minus defender at third base. Overall, the team profiles as by far the worst defensive team in the NL heading into 2017, almost twice as bad as the second-to-last Braves. New York’s starters amass plenty of strikeouts, but it’s not a staff of Satchel Paiges: They need some fielders in support.
This disharmonious roster balance is partly a product of market trends, partly misguided planning. When the team picked up Bruce’s $13 million option the day after the World Series ended, general manager Sandy Alderson didn’t yet know that Céspedes would re-sign, nor could he have foreseen the impending collapse of the slugger market, where equivalent or better players than Bruce eventually emerged via free agency as much cheaper options.
Mark Trumbo just led the majors in home runs, and he will make less money than Bruce this year, while Brandon Moss will make less over the next two years combined. Given those prices and this resurgent power environment, there was no reason for another team to trade for a slow-footed fielder and streaky home run hitter who managed an 81 wRC+ in two months in New York.
Still, keeping all those pieces in a static state, with Conforto on the bench, Nimmo in the minors, and Granderson out of position, is no solution. Conforto gives the Mets a better chance to contend for a playoff spot this season, to say nothing of what his development means for the team’s future. While the pitching staff is full of 20-somethings, the lineup exists in an inverse state: The Mets had the oldest group of hitters in the NL last year, and Travis d’Arnaud, at 28, is the only projected starter younger than Bruce, who will turn 30 the day of the Mets’ first game. Conforto and Nimmo, meanwhile, were both born in March 1993.
Maybe these problems will clear up as the season progresses; maybe Conforto hits so well in his infrequent plate appearances that he forces his way into the starting lineup, or maybe the Royals implode and send Lorenzo Cain, an actual center fielder, to Queens at the trade deadline. The Mets still play in a weak division and boast a top-five pitching staff, and they have about a coin-flip chance to reach the postseason.
But even if the outlook is promising, the process is not. They’re not giving their best young bat the opportunity he needs to develop, they’re relying on mid-30s knees to hold up playing center every day, and they’re stuck without leverage in any trade negotiation they attempt. It seems #lolMets isn’t reserved for September anymore.