Now that America’s gladiator sport has crowned a new champion, it’s time for America’s pastime to sweep us off our feet again. Yes, baseball is right around the corner with pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training this weekend. The New York Mets, on the mend after a frustrating World Series defeat, reloaded their roster with offseason transactions signaling a go-for-broke mentality.
General Manager Sandy Alderson won the hearts of Mets fans at last year’s trade deadline with the acquisition of slugger Yoenis Cespedes. The timing could not have been better as Travis d’Arnaud and David Wright were summoned to the lineup after long stints on the disabled list and Michael Conforto was call up from the minor leagues just a week earlier. Cespedes was the adrenaline shot the team needed, giving life to a once-abysmal offense and led the best lineup in the National League post-July according to Fangraphs. That’s what makes resigning him to a 3 year, $75 million contract with an player opt-out clause after the first year a savvy move by Alderson and the Mets.
It keeps their catalyst in the heart of the batting order while protecting themselves from any long-term decline in production. “La Potencia” is entering his age-30 season, when players typically begin to fall out of their prime and injuries to his shoulder and knee sustained in the postseason may start to linger. His defense in center field was suspect at best, most evident in the first inning of the Fall Classic when a lackadaisical effort on a flyball led to an inside-the-park home run. A game-ending base running error and flaming out at the plate left a sour taste in some fans, but a repeat performance of his division-clinching dominance will remedy any concerns.
The Queens faithful knew sooner-or-later folk hero Daniel Murphy would enter the murky free-agency waters; they didn’t expect their loathsome rivals, the Washington Nationals, to snag him. Electing to test the market rewarded him with $37.5 million over three years in the nation’s capital. The second baseman went on a historic hot streak in the playoffs, smacking home runs in six straight games to earn National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player, propelling the Mets in October much like Cespedes did through the summer. Yet the boom-or-bust Murphy reverted to his stumbling ways against the Kansas City Royals, hitting just 3-for-20 and booting a slow roller in the 8th inning of Game 4 to grant K.C. a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. He will visit Citi Field on May 17, evoking a high school reunion and a wake at the same time.
The Amazins, having dangled Jonathon Niese as a trade chip for far too long, sent him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neil Walker to secure a replacement for Murph. They settled on a one-year deal worth $10.55 million as the team is hoping for a cheaper version of their former infielder with similar numbers at the plate. Walker does not have the same discipline at the plate, striking out every 5.5 appearances at the dish, compared to every 14.2 looks for Murphy. But as Maria Guardado of NJ.com reported, the switch-hitting Walker has much better numbers batting left-handed than righty, forming an ideal platoon with Wilmer Flores, who racked up nearly as many long balls versus southpaws as right-handers in 300 fewer plate appearances.
Filling out the retooled infield is shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera who came to terms on a two-year, $18.5 million contract two days after locking up Walker. Acquiring the new double-play combination is a preemptive attempt to fend off any sort of regression in hitting with a minimal improvement in defense. Even with a modest uptick in hits in 2015, Tejada never had the power Cabrera brings to each at-bat, power that is needed in spacious Citi Field. Any deficiencies in the field will be covered by the best rotation in the game.
There is plenty of depth around the bases and bashers in the outfield, but what makes the Mets a contender are the arms on the mound. Matt Harvey agreed to a $4.3 million base salary in 2016, nearly equaling his career earnings from baseball to date, to avoid arbitration. This gives Alderson another year to devise of a feasible plan to keep his four aces as Jacob deGrom — who has expressed interest in signing long-term — Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz could hit arbitration in the next two years. Zack Wheeler, expected to make his return from Tommy John surgery on July 1 as he follows the timetable used to ease Harvey into action, also has the potential to enter contract talks next offseason. Throwing out a bonafide stud everyday with Bartolo Colón holding the fort and Jeurys Familia reprising his closer role means a one-run deficit may be too steep for any opponent.
Short-term deals allow the Mets to maintain roster flexibility as their payroll creeps higher each year. Strikeout machines entering the prime of their careers are a rare commodity — having them for near league-minimum salaries is unheard of. Fans can only hope the frugal Wilpons continue to write checks that their players cash in October for rings.
Published in The Ticker