Some teams build around pitching, some around contact hitting and others around youth and player control. Allow me to introduce another philosophy into the construction of a baseball team and this is the philosophy of flexibility, one that Sandy Alderson appears to partially be utilizing.
The philosophy of flexibility stems from what I believe is the most predictable aspect of a baseball season and that is that some players will get injured, some players will perform below expectations and others will perform above expectations.
Injuries and poor performance lead to holes in the field as well as in the lineup. An injury may force you to play a replacement level player for an extended period of time and poor performance may lead a manager to keep sending out a former star in the hopes that he regains his previous productivity.
Here are the four components that make up the flexibility of a team.
The most obvious piece of flexibility is finding players who can play multiple positions in case a starter goes down. This not only includes bench players stepping up and filling various roles but also starters shifting around as needed by the team. Currently, this is the most valued and acknowledged component of flexibility in the majors as we are seeing utility players such as Ben Zobrist, Brock Holt and Marwin Gonzalez play some significant roles for their teams. This factor is a major reason in favor of signing a Zobrist or as well as possibly targeting Holt or Gonzalez or even Jed Lowrie as trade candidates.
The best way to evaluate lineup flexibility is to look at who your insurance plans are for the top 5-6 guys in your expected opening day lineup. The Kansas City Royals are a great example of a team with lineup flexibility not only because they all share an offensive philosophy focused on contact, getting on base and speed, but because their lineup can sustain losses over the course of a season. Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain can both lead off while Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Kendrys Morales can bat anywhere in the middle of that lineup.
Here is the Mets projected lineup as the current roster stands:
3. David Wright
4. Lucas Duda
8. Juan Lagares
This is not a strong lineup to start with, but there is decent flexibility in the order. If Herrera or Wright goes down, you can shift d’Arnaud and Flores up. If Duda misses time, you can shift Conforto up. But there is a glaring lack of insurance if Granderson goes down. Who do you use to leadoff? Lagares? Herrera? Darrell Ceciliani?
Thankfully, there are a few names being tossed around such as Dexter Fowler and Denard Span that would serve as leadoff options. I would also like to submit the Rangers Leonys Martin as a trade target to monitor. Like Lagares, he is an excellent defender but hits poorly against same-sided pitching. A left-handed hitter, his career line against RHP is .263/.317/.386. Look for him to rebound with another team after an injury plagued season and losing his job to Delino DeShields Jr.
Pitching Flexibility (Depth)
This portion of the team differs a little from the lineup as an injury to a starter who plays the field can be supplemented by two or three players. For example, if Conforto gets hurt, we are likely to see Nieuwenhuis, Cuddyer and perhaps Ceciliani fill in here and there – as our current roster stands.
Pitching flexibility matters when you need a pitcher to transition between starting and relieving and having players that you can option back and forth between the big leagues and minors without losing them to waivers. Otherwise, the existing term to describe a team’s ability to replace pitchers would simply be “depth”.
Our rotation is as good as it gets and we will only get stronger as Zack Wheeler returns. Our bullpen is also filled with great insurance options as well.
Addison Reed (If Mets offer arbitration)
Verrett provides great flexibility as a spot starter and long reliever and we can add Colon or Niese to the same role once Wheeler returns in the summer. Furthermore, Rafael Montero, Akeel Morris, Josh Smoker, Josh Edgin (summer return) and Dario Alvarez can all potentially contribute at a significant level at some point in the season.
However, I do have concerns with the back of the bullpen. We were blessed to have a horse in Jeurys Familia closing games for us the whole season but baseball is a cruel sport and injuries do happen. In that case, who replaces him? I like Darren O’Day as an addition to our bullpen, I believe it is crucial for us to obtain a potential closer as our 8th inning man.
My personal preference would be to non-tender Reed, sign O’Day and if possible, trade for Tampa’s Jake McGee who is a hard throwing lefty reliever that can be just as good as Familia. The only reason he is possibly available is because Tampa may not want to pay his expected arbitration salary of $5 million to setup for Brad Boxberger.
Finally, perhaps the most important factor the equation of flexibility is the ability to maintain financial options. This means, avoiding large average annual value contracts to your primary players and long term commitments to your secondary players.
The St. Louis Cardinals are an excellent example of a team that has tactfully balanced spending when appropriate with financial flexibility. In the past 10 seasons, they have consistently ranked between 9th and 13th in total payroll.
They handed out extensions to Chris Carpenter, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina yet did not handicap themselves by splurging on top tier free agents. Most importantly, they made the difficult decision to walk away from Albert Pujols when he demanded over $200 million. The result is 7 division titles, 3 second place finishes, 4 World Series appearances and 2 championships in 12 years.
In stark contrast, we have the Phillies who had a nice run at the top but is now suffering the consequences of trading away their farm and handing out too many large contracts. The Blue Jays are a team that also went all in and seems to be a few years away from where the Phillies are now and the Padres are already stuck in between competing and rebuilding after a single season of “going for it”.
Fans care about next year, they care about now. But it is the GM’s job to look beyond the present. The Mets are a big market team but that doesn’t mean we should max out on our capabilities each year. There is no rule that says you must spend your whole paycheck when you get it and it makes more sense for us to invest what we need and keep an eye out for a future rainy day.
The Cardinals lost top prospect Oscar Taveras to a tragic car accident last year and Jason Heyward was acquired to make up for that loss. Now Lance Lynn goes down with Tommy John surgery. This may be the Cardinals rainy day that they actually make an exception and sign Heyward to a long term deal but that wouldn’t be possible if they had tried to fill every hole with a premium free agent signing in the past.
Spend what you need to but do not spend just because you are “supposed to” as a big market ballclub.