In a recent interview with Matthew Cerrone of MetsBlog, ESPN’s Buster Olney talked about the free agent market, specifically how the Mets will have to approach the offseason in order to land some of the best players on the market:
For example, take Shin-Soo Choo, who is a free agent this fall. I think the Mets will have to do what the Mariners had had to do, in recent years with position players, and overpay Choo. He’s a terrific player, but they’ll be competing against other teams that are in a better position to win than the Mets. And the way you overcome that, if you’re the Mets, is to spend a lot of money. Is that the right thing to do? I don’t think you want to just spend a lot of money on a lot of different players and not know if it fits, just look at the Dodgers. But, at some point, you do have to have that foundation in place so that you can lure other players, veterans, to want to play for your team. And that’s going to be an important step for the Mets.
Olney is right to some extent. It makes sense that a team with the third-worst record in baseball would have trouble attracting free agents, but it will be important to see how the rest of the season plays out in order to judge to what extreme that will be the case. I’m not talking about whether the Mets make the playoffs, but more whether a free agent can look at the organization and see a team with a solid foundation. The Mets could finish a 70-win season led offensively by the likes of John Buck and Marlon Byrd, or they could finish with 70 wins with production coming from Juan Lagares, Jordany Valdespin, and others. A free agent could look at the team and see Shaun Marcum as the team’s second-best pitcher, or they could see Zack Wheeler, in which case, I think they would be much more willing to sign. This applies more to free agents on the younger side rather than someone like Carlos Beltran, however, because it would mean the team is still a year or even two, away from being a contender. The Mets probably would not be going after anyone over 35 or 36 anyway, so that wouldn’t be a problem.
Of course, if it were a choice between the Giants and Mets, a free agent would likely choose San Francisco, but if the Mets were to offer a little bit more, they could land that free agent. However, they would probably have to overpay possible 10 or even 20 million more if their record this year was “empty,” or mostly fueled by the production of veterans, with disappointing performances from Zack Wheeler, Travis d’Arnaud, and the other young players on the roster.
As for the free agent market itself, it is weak in comparison to past years, but there is still an opportunity for the Mets to make big upgrades. The market doesn’t have the same kind of depth that it has had in years past, likely fueled by more teams signing pre-arbitration players and young arbitration players to team-friendly extensions. A few of the younger prospective free agents signed long-term deals with their teams the past two years, including Carlos Gomez and Adam Wainwright, but again, there are still viable options available. Here is an early look at some of the players who could hit the market this winter:
- Corey Hart 1B/OF: Hart could be a solution at first base if Ike Davis’ struggles continue for the rest of the season, or in the outfield if Davis has a solid ending to the season. Hart, 31, is still out after having knee surgery in late-January, and has suffered a few setbacks. However, it is expected that he will return some time next month. This could make him at least a little bit cheaper if teams are afraid of this injury recurring. Hart has emerged as a pretty good power hitter, knocking 30 home runs last season, slugging .507, and posting a .358 wOBA.
- Shin-Soo Choo OF: Choo may be one of the best fits for the Mets, but he will come at a huge cost. He is a Scott Boras client and is having an incredible season, which will drive up his asking price tremendously. He has nine home runs through 45 games, on pace for a career-best. He has a .293/.441/.523 (his OBP is fluffed up by 12 HBPs) batting line this season along with five stolen bases. Choo will command a high price,, which makes him signing with the Mets less likely than Corey Hart.
- Jacoby Ellsbury OF: Another Scott Boras client, however unlike Choo, Ellsbury is really struggling this season, and had a terrible year last season as well. Since putting up a .928 OPS with 32 home runs and 39 stolen bases in 2011, Ellsbury has just a .670 OPS with five home runs in 122 games. Looking at his career numbers, 2011 seems to be the outlier, and the only season Ellsbury showed any kind of power. Before 2011, he was only known as a speed guy. It’s really tough to say how much Ellsbury will cost because there are just so many things in play right now.
- Hunter Pence OF: Pence is one of the less flashy options that will be on the market come November, but he can provide much-needed power for the Mets. Pence is a very low On-Base Percentage guy who doesn’t walk much, but can hit 20 to 25 home runs. He had a down year by his standards last season, batting only .253 and was only slightly above league average with a 102 OPS+, however, he has bounced back this season with a 126 OPS+, seven home runs, and a .274 batting average through 48 games with the Giants.
- Matt Garza RHP: The Mets will have their hands full shoring up first base and the outfield, but may need to add a starting pitcher as well if Dillon Gee doesn’t improve. Garza, who just came off the DL, had a solid season last year, his second with Chicago, posting a 3.91 ERA in 103.1 innings. He missed the last two plus months with elbow problems. His value will be largely dictated on how he performs this season.
- Grant Balfour, RHP: Despite Alderson’s efforts, this year’s bullpen is only slightly better than last. Although there are some pieces that can be salvaged, they could need another back-end reliever. Balfour, 35, is on the older side but has been consistent, which you do’t often find with non-closer relief options (although Balfour has closed for parts of the past two seasons). Over the last four year, Balfour has an excellent 2.34 ERA in 211.1 innings.
Other Options: Ryan Madson and Joel Hanrahan are two low-risk, high reward relief options with proven track records who could fill out the bullpen. Other options at first base that may be a bit cheaper include Mike Napoli, Kendrys Morales, and Mike Morse. In the outfield, there is David Murphy, Delmon Young, Jeff Francoeur (laughs!), and Nelson Cruz.
Prospects like Zack Wheeler, Rafael Montero, Travis d’Arnaud, and others may end up being the keys to the Mets’ offseason plans. If they can succeed, the Mets could save quite a few million on a possible offseason spending spree. Those players will not only have an impact by playing well themselves, but could also help attract free agents.The Mets will have a ton of money to spend (that is, if the Wilpons are willing to fork over the money, which is another story entirely). Hopefully they’ll spend it right.