Looking Out For Number 2

An article by posted on September 26, 2009

Number TwoAfter the 2007 season, the Mets faithful were thrilled by the acquisition of ace Johan Santana.  Despite only poor team performances since his acquisition, Johan’s contributions to the team have been unending and undeniably huge, highlighted by his memorable effort on the 2nd-to-last-day of the 2008 season and the last game at Shea Stadium that I choose to remember.  Last season, the Mets reeled in K-Rod who, while he’s had his moments of faltering, has solidified the closer position for the Mets.  This offseason, the Mets will be looking to rebound from one of the most disappointing seasons (not ends to a season) in years, and likely on a limited budget, but let’s stop focusing on #1 this year.  Instead, let’s start in the 2-spot.

The 2-spot as in the #2 pitcher, the Set Up man, and the 2-spot in the batting order.  Before you rip my head off about worrying about the second spot in the order, trust me when I say I’ll explain later, and let’s start with the pitching.

We know the Mets won’t have Top Dollar to spend this offseason, so let’s be hopefully-realistic.  Brandon Webb announced on Wednesday (Rotowire.com) that he would not accept an incentive-laden deal from Arizona, and would test free agency if his option is not picked up.  Now, I said hopefully-realistic, so Brandon Webb would appear out, right?  Not necessarily.  His option that he wants the D-Backs to pick up is worth $8.5 million.  That doesn’t mean we’d get him at $8.5 million, but it does make the day brighter.  Would I want Brandon Webb pitching behind Johan in the Mets rotation next season and beyond, even WITH the injury this year?  Absolutely.  Do I think the Mets could sign him considering their likely budget?  That remains to be seen (and I wouldn’t think the Wilpons would be willing to sign his paycheck, too, next year), but it brings up two interesting scenarios involving two free agent starting pitchers who missed the 2009 season.  Yes, I’m talking about Ben Sheets.

I know, I know, he’s a risk, but it is high-risk, high-reward.  Playing it safe doesn’t get you anywhere but the golf course in October.  I’m not suggesting throwing cash after either of them, I’m suggesting (if I can play GM for a moment) making them bid against each other.  Now, obviously, Webb is worth more than Sheets, but they are both in similar situations.  In 2008, Sheets had the better ERA (3.03 to 3.30), and Webb edged Sheets in K/9 (7.3-7.2) and WHIP (1.20-1.24).  As injury-prone as he is, Sheets has only pitched under 140 innings in a season once before 2009 and had NEVER pitched fewer than 100 in his career…not Webb’s 220 IP/year average (before 2009), but not as bad as you’d think.  I say put them in a bidding war of sorts, but sign Sheets to the contract and save the money for other spots.

Now let’s get to the Pen.  We moved Billy Wagner to Boston, so any hopes and dreams of him taking the role of setup man in 2010 are out the window.  JJ Putz was damaged goods when we got him, but I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid that he’s a total bust…if we can keep him.  After missing significant time, and with JJ no longer being a premier closer or even setup option, a one-year deal to keep him on again so he can try out for a closer’s job in 2011 may not be too far-fetched.  Plus, with guys like Bobby Jenks and Jose Valverde likely on the market, he wouldn’t even have the benefit of being the best option of a weak field.  I’m not suggesting the Mets pick up the option, but try to negotiate a different deal that has some incentives.  Offer him $3 million and $3 million more in incentives ($1 million for ERA, $1 million for WHIP, and $1 million for the Playoffs, all with a minimum amount of IP).  He won’t make $5 million in this free agent market (we’d pay him the other $1 million in a buyout), and if he has another bad/injury-plagued season, we pay him only $2 million extra for it.

Now for the 2-spot in the order.  This is where we make the money back.  By keeping Angel Pagan in the 2-spot (behind a hopefully-healthy Jose) and in LF and deciding on it sooner rather than later, it allows us to do a few more things.  First, we can build his confidence and work with him on the things that he needs to work on (not going down that road right now).  Also, Dan Murphy gets another season (or 2) of experience in the Minors, and, most importantly, we save the money by not needing a new left fielder to sign Nick Johnson, Hank Blalock, Adam LaRoche, or another 1st Baseman.  On the flipside, keeping Murphy at first base and replacing Pagan with a slugger in LF bat takes that extra speed option out of the picture.  As much as I like Murphy, the team is better off signing a first baseman and keeping Pagan in the lineup rather than vice versa.

I do agree with Joe that Pagan needs work on the fundamentals and everything else, but let’s get hopefully-realistic…  We will not be able to afford to sign both a LF and 1B replacement this offseason, so it’s one or the other.  Murphy’s looked somewhat sharp at 1B at times, but let’s not say that he’s suddenly a Gold Glover.  And, no, Angel Pagan has not been perfect either, but as Joe pointed out, blunders aside, he’s been VERY good at the dish, and he, too, has had his moments of defensive glory.  One of these guys (at least) will be in the Mets 2010 Opening Day lineup plans, and I feel more comfortable with Pagan than with Murphy at this point.

Now for everyone’s favorite part: the math.  The Mets, in just Billy Wagner, Brian Schneider, and Carlos Delgado’s salaries, cut $27.4 million dollars from the books.  Let’s say the Wilpons decide to cut $7.4 million from the budget (for ease of numbers’ sake…it’s about 5% of the total 2009 salary).  That leaves us $20 million.  Sheets and Putz total to around $10 million ($7 million for Sheets seems reasonable to me considering his injury history and lack of Scott Boras as an agent), and our first base solution could come for about $6-8 million, leaving some more money for a rainy day, like November 14, 2139 (when Uncle Bernie is released from prison).  Jokes aside, adding these 2 players (and keeping JJ) for 2010 would greatly improve our team.  Just as a projection (assuming no other signings):

Lineup:
SS-Reyes
LF-Pagan
3B-Wright
CF-Beltran
1B-Johnson/Blalock
RF-Francoeur
C-Santos/Thole
2B-Castillo (only because I prefer placing speed and contact ability in the 8-hole instead of in the 7-hole)

Rotation:
Santana
Sheets
Pelfrey
Maine
Perez/Niese

Bullpen (Big 3):
F. Rodriguez
Putz
Feliciano

I’m not saying this offseason is as easy as 1-2-3 (SP-1B-RP) to go from 2009′s team to a pennant-contender, but it’s certainly a jump-start in the right direction and an instant and vast improvement.  There are other holes to fill (like the one between the ears of certain people within the Mets organization), but you’ve got to start somewhere, so I say start by looking out for #2.

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