The Metropolitan: What's next after missing on Springer?

Will the DH return to the National League?

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Today we will talk about where the Mets go next after George Springer, but we start with the news.

Catch me up in 60(ish) seconds…

🇨🇦 SPRINGER FALLOUT: Top free agent George Springer is a Toronto Blue Jay because the Mets let the Connecticut native know over the last weekend that they wouldn’t offer more than 6-years, $120 million, per Joel Sherman.

  • 🤷‍♂️ WHY: Clearly the Mets are concerned about their payroll in 2022 when both Michael Conforto and Francisco Lindor are due extensions, while Robinson Cano’s salary is added back to the books, and other key pieces such as Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard become free agents.

  • 💰 AAV: At 6-years, $120MM, the Mets could turn Springer’s salary into $20MM AAV to help them fit everyone within a reasonable luxury tax number.

  • 😡 STILL MAD: For Mets fans who expected Steve Cohen to have an open checkbook, this comes at a disappointment. We don’t know what the luxury tax will look like in a new CBA next season, so it’s hard to argue definitively how adding Springer would impact their long-term tax burden.

🍎 NEW MET: Jose Martinez said he didn’t receive any calls from other teams this offseason so when the Mets called, he told his agent, “You better sign that contract right now.”

🗣 TRADE RUMOR: Mets have spoken with the Reds about right-hander Sonny Gray and third baseman Eugenio Suarez, per Tim Ryder of MetsMerized Online.

🗣 FA RUMOR: Mets remain high on free agent Kiké Hernandez, per Jon Heyman.

👋 HAND: The Angels have emerged as a possibility for Mets target Brad Hand, per Robert Murray of FanSided.

🔝 FIRST BASE: Pete Alonso was ranked by MLB Network as the 7th best first baseman right now.

🔝 CATCHING PROSPECT: MLB Pipeline lists Francisco Alvaraz as the 4th best catching prospect in baseball.

🍎 KEEPING BUSY: Robinson Cano will join Águilas for their upcoming Caribbean series berth, per Anthony DiComo.

📻 AIRWAVES BATTLE: After breaking the story about Jared Porter, MLB insider Jeff Passan voiced his frustration on The Michael Kay Show about WFAN host Craig Carton’s criticism over the timing of releasing the story. Of course, Carton shot back.


What about Jackie Bradley Jr.?

🧓 by Jeffrey Bellone

As Mets fans try to convince themselves they are ok with George Springer signing in Toronto, a name that has come up a lot in conversation is free agent centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

The logic is pretty simple:

  • The Mets desperately need to improve their outfield defense and get a “real” centerfielder;

  • Jackie Bradley Jr. is an elite defensive outfielder;

  • Assuming the DH returns, adding JBJ would move Nimmo to LF and Dom to the DH/1B spot, effectively improving three positions at once.

And while that all makes sense, it’s predicated on the idea that the DH does in fact return. Otherwise, the Mets must decide if Jackie Bradley Jr.’s elite defense outweighs the offense they would be giving up between Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith in their current outfield set-up.

2020 was a year when strange sh*t happened, and this is true even if we just stick to baseball. If we relied on last season’s stats alone, Bradley Jr. would be considered a better offensive player than recently-acquired superstar Francisco Lindor.

But we know that’s not true. In fact, over the majority of his career and in the three seasons leading up to his most recent campaign, JBJ has been a sub-par hitter, his offensive production approximately 10% below league average. And he hits even worse against lefties (as a left-handed hitter). He is best known for his defensive prowess in chasing down fly balls that most centerfielders fail to reach. There’s a stat for that (as there is for everything) called Outs Above Average. And since 2017, Bradley Jr. has saved 46 outs, which is the 6th most in baseball during that time.

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Meanwhile, Brandon Nimmo had negative 4 outs saved in 2020, and that’s an additive stat over a shortened 60-game schedule. It’s obvious that Bradley Jr. would be a drastic improvement over running Nimmo back out to play center everyday next season. And the roster decision would be easy if baseball players were only paid to catch the ball.

However, we need to consider the trade-offs between offense and defense. While some roll their eyes over the prevalent use of the WAR statistic, this is basically what it is designed to tell us.

How much value do the Mets gain by adding Jackie Bradley Jr. as their centerfielder relative to keeping Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith in the outfield?

2021 projections from FanGraphs give us a hint. After hitting an unsustainable .343 on balls in play last season, JBJ is projected to regress to the mean at the plate and produce 1.6 wins above replacement this upcoming year; whereas, Nimmo, even with his poor defense, is expected to be worth 2.8 wins as a centerfielder.

In short, even with the drastic difference in their defensive abilities and accounting for both playing center field next season, Nimmo is projected to produce an entire win more than Bradley Jr.

As I highlighted earlier, adding JBJ would be a trickle-down improvement by moving Nimmo to left and letting Dom Smith DH, assuming the role returns to the National League next season. This would optimize the Mets’ defense.

As anyone who has played little league knows, you stick the kid with glasses and sunscreen on his nose out in left and let your best athlete chase down everything in center. WAR accounts for this idea by including a positional adjustment based on a player’s defensive position, so centerfielders receive a greater adjustment (+7.5) than left fielders (-2.5) (which I talk about in more detail here).

What does this mean? The reason Nimmo is a better defender in left relative to center is largely because it is an easier position to field, and thus, his WAR value, which considers that, doesn’t necessarily improve due to the potential position switch.

“This is why these statistics can be stupid: we know the Mets are a better defensive team with Bradley Jr. in center and Nimmo in LF than Nimmo/Dom out there.”

You are right to be thinking this right now. But the point is the amount the Mets improve their defense with Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Nimmo in left might not outweigh the amount they are giving up in exchanging out Dom Smith’s offense.

The real value add from a Bradley Jr. signing comes if there is a designated hitter next season and Smith can play that role instead of someone like Jose Martinez. Ah (!) but now we get to where I have been trying to lead us.

What if instead of signing Bradley Jr., the Mets added a versatile player like Kiké Hernandez to help out at multiple defensive positions, along with a player to improve third base, an obvious area of weakness? Since it appears Alderson is operating under a budget (or George Springer would be a New York Met right now), the most efficient way to improve the roster in the short-term might not be focusing on an all-defensive solution in center.

Not to mention, if the DH returns, you can still optimize the Mets’ defense while searching for a better solution than Bradley Jr., as Blake will discuss next.


If there *is* a DH this season…

🧓 by Blake Zeff

JB just laid out the case for why adding a “real” centerfielder with a mediocre bat won’t help the team if there’s no DH (because it would mean the new guy pushing Dom or Nimmo out of the everyday lineup).

But what if there is a DH this season, and the Mets then have an extra slot to fill in the outfield?

Getting a “real” centerfielder obviously makes sense in this scenario. But just because Mr. Bradley, Jr. is now the top free agent CF on the market, that doesn’t mean getting into a bidding war for him is your only option. JB just detailed Bradley’s limitations. What if you can get an equally good option, at a shorter commitment, who comes attached with another player of value?

This off-season has seen an extremely active trade market. The Padres, alone, acquired three above-average starting pitchers through trades, and a certain team with the best broadcast booth in baseball nabbed a franchise player for shortstop and their #2 starting pitcher the same way. The trick? Finding a team desperate to shed salary during these uncertain economic times — oh, and one with a centerfielder whose salary makes the team queasy.

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Here’s one example that might be worth exploring: Milwaukee. Let’s face it, Lorenzo Cain’s contract doesn’t look amazing right now. Two years left at $35 million ($17 mil in 2021, $18 mil in 2022), for an aging centerfielder who barely played last year due to COVID. (Mets fans - hear me out, before you throw your phone out the window in disgust!)

We know Milwaukee would love to move that contract. Here’s Brewers’ president of baseball ops, David Stearns, on their off-season thinking:

“We’re…very mindful of all of the uncertainty surrounding our industry, and what that means for our organization in particular, regarding fans in the strands and revenue streams. And we have to be mindful of that. And we have to understand that there are real impacts there.”

That’s front-office-speak for “please take my expensive contracts off my hands.”

But why would the Mets want to help them out? Let’s play this out a bit:

First, while Cain may not be the quasi-star that burned the Amazin’s in the 2015 World Series, he’s still got some serious leather. He only played 5 games last year (after opting out due to COVID-19), so let’s look at 2019, when the CF won a Gold Glove (and his fourth nomination). If you like old-timey defensive stats, Cain was first in all of baseball among CF’s in fielding percentage (.994), second in putouts (306) and 5th in assists (5). If you like advanced stats, he had those, too: 20 DRS (defensive runs saved), a 2.38 range factor and 2.2 defensive bWAR. The aforementioned “Outs Above Average” stat began in 2017, and Cain finished in the 99th, 100th, and 99th percentiles each year since. So the glove will play.

But what about the offense? Let’s take his last two full seasons. 2018 was a big year for Cain: he came in 7th in MVP voting and made the All-Star team, hitting .308/.395/.417 (avg/OBP/slugging), with 90 runs, 30 steals, 10 HR and 25 doubles.

So far, so good. But 2019 saw a big dip, dropping to .260/.325/.372, with 75 runs, 18 steals, 11 HR and 30 doubles. Did Cain get much worse, or was some bad luck involved? His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) fell from .357 to .301 (for context, his career BABIP is .339). And his expected batting average was .292, actually higher than the year before.

Also, despite his troubles in 2019, Cain still compiled 3 WAR when factoring in the glove. And, for what it’s worth, he’s right-handed, while the Mets’ offense is largely left-handed and could use some balance.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Cain’s contract makes him not only expendable but something Milwaukee actively wants to shed. What might they give the Mets to take it off their hands? They happen to have a top relief pitcher in Josh Hader making just shy of $7 million and eligible for a few years of arbitration coming up. That’s well within current market rates (and, honestly, much lower, when you see the $54 million deal Liam Hendriks just got from the White Sox). Milwaukee has also been willing to talk about Hader as his salary climbed over the last season or two. Could the Steve Cohen, GM-free front office put together a package for Cain and Hader?

The Mets would be getting an elite reliever, and just about take care of their pitching needs for the offseason. And they’d be landing a centerfielder with strong defense, a bat that could reasonably slot into the bottom of their lineup for two seasons, a clubhouse leader (for anyone mourning Todd Frazier’s departure), a veteran with post-season experience and a bit more speed. Compared to a free agent that might require more years, a stop-gap two-year commitment for Cain, with Hader under team control for three seasons, gets a little more intriguing.

The incoming financial burden would be just south of $24 million for 2021, to take care of two big needs. And you’d likely be able to offset that number with players going back to Milwaukee, and/or cash coming back. Which means you might still have some room under the luxury tax threshold to do some final additional tweaks to the club.

What would this cost the Mets in talent? Well, Milwaukee has said it needs to upgrade at 1B and 3B. Dom and Alonso are off the table. But does JD Davis make sense as part of a deal? Sandy doesn’t seem overly committed to him as the starting third baseman, and we all know his defense is below average. But trading him opens a hole at a new position the Mets would then have to fill (maybe JB’s Kiké Hernández idea fits in here).

The Mets should think long and hard before further draining the franchise’s already-shallow prospect pool. Instead, could a package including Steven Matz interest Milwaukee? They do have an opening for another starter. Would they take Jeurys Familia or Dellin Betances to fill the Hader void and soften some of the blow from Cain’s salary? Perhaps not, but these are all questions that seem worth pursuing.

Ultimately, this comes down to a larger point: In a year where the trade market is hot (and has already given the Mets a shortstop and a cookie), it seems prudent to keep working the phones (with all teams looking to cut costs, not just Milwaukee), rather than enter a bidding war for a free agent you’re not crazy about.

In the meantime, it sure would be nice if the Mets and the 14 other National League clubs had some sort of clue as to what the DH rule will be.

After all, Spring Training is a month away.
(We think.)

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⚾️ Blue Jays might start the 2021 season at their spring home in Dunedin, Florida if travel restrictions from COVID remain in place.

⚾️ Left-hander J.A. Happ signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Twins, per Jeff Passan.

⚾️ The Astros have re-signed Michael Brantley on a two-year deal worth $32 million, per Mark Berman of Fox 26.

⚾️ Kansas City announced they have signed right-hander Wade Davis.

⚾️ The Dodgers view re-signing Justin Turner as their “top choice,” per Jon Heyman.

⚾️ Los Angeles is also “monitoring the market” for free agent Trevor Bauer, per Jeff Passan.


🔗 Mets’ next GM will need to have extensive MLB contacts, by Joel Sherman, NY Post: “I believe Sandy Alderson should run baseball operations through this season and not make a short-term search or extend an interim title to replace Porter. Still, the Mets need more resources with tentacles throughout the game. Alderson’s inner circle is limited in experience and wide contacts. Plus, Alderson is not known as one who overindulges in calls and texts.”

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