What’s On Second? Hopefully It’s T.J. Rivera

neil walker

As the New York Mets’ season came to an abrupt end Wednesday night, being shutout by another brilliant postseason pitching performance by San Francisco Giants’ ace Madison Bumgarner, the team now has all offseason to contemplate the various moves and roster changes that need to be made for 2017 and beyond.

One such quandary is what to do with impending free agent second baseman Neil Walker, who had a career season with the Mets in 2016, tying a career high in home runs with 23, and setting new career highs in slugging (.476), OPS (.823), walk percentage (9.2%), and fWAR (3.8). Walker also recorded his second highest wRC+ (122), third best wOBA (.351), and was also more selective at the plate, recording his second lowest season of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone (30%).

Unfortunately, Walker wasn’t able to finish the year due to lingering back problems he had been dealing with over the last four seasons, and elected to have a microdisectomy operation to repair the herniation in his back in September. The prognosis of the surgery calls for three months of recovery, which would put Walker in line to be fully healthy for the start of spring training in 2017.

But the question remains as to whether it’s in the Mets best interest to allocate precious resources to keep Walker in the fold. Adam Rubin of ESPN reported on Thursday that the team is expected to extend a qualifying offer to Walker, and may also engage him in a multi-year deal.

The team could extend a qualifying offer to the 31-year-old switch hitter, which would amount to roughly $16.7 million, a $900K bump in pay from last season’s qualifying offer. Walker might accept it, especially coming off back surgery and unsure of whether there would be many multi-year offers on the table for him this offseason. He might find it in his best interest to take the one-year deal, prove he’s healthy and over the lingering herniated disk issue, and hit free agency in 2017-18.

At the same time, Walker is entering free agency in a weak class, where he is the best free agent second baseman on the open market, and one of the better infielders available along with Edwin Encarnacion and Justin Turner. He might find ample suitors due to the lack of talent available in free agency, making all of this talk a moot point.

If the Mets do extend a qualifying offer to Walker, and he rejects it, then the team would land a compensation draft pick in between the first and seconds rounds of next year’s MLB draft. However, I think it would be in the Mets best interest to gauge where Walker is in free agency, because I believe he is more of a luxury for this team than an undeniable need.

t-j-rivera

With the emergence of rookie T.J. Rivera in the second half of the season, the Mets may have their second baseman for 2017 at a discounted rate. Rivera, 27, is four years younger than Walker, hits for a high average, makes good contact (his 78% contact rate in 33 games would rate higher than that of Jackie Bradley Jr., Adam Jones, Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Correa, and Kris Bryant if he qualified), and uses all parts of the field when at the plate.

Playing Rivera everyday at second would also save the Mets money in not having to offer Walker the qualifying offer or extending a multi-year contract to him. Instead, the Mets could use the money saved utilizing Rivera at second, and put the savings towards re-signing Yoenis Cespedes. Similar to how the Mets are saving a ton right now by using a starting rotation that’s comprised of Syndergaard, deGrom, Matz, Gsellman, and Lugo, who are all under team control, and Harvey and Wheeler still under arbitration. It would behoove the Mets to use cheaper alternatives that can produce while allocating the necessary monies to shore up other parts of the roster.

He’s also handled second base quite well in the majors, logging 170.2 innings without making an error. Rivera posted strong advanced metrics at second, posting a UZR of 0.6 in the limited action at second, with a 4.0 UZR/150 when scaled to a full season. And in his minor league career, Rivera has posted 2226 innings at second, posting a .976 fielding percentage and a 4.12 range factor, his second highest range factor behind only first base (8.41).

Rivera was a big part of the Mets success in claiming the first wild card spot, slashing .365/.386/.571 in 63 September  at-bats. Terry Collins rewarded Rivera with the start at second base in the Wild Card game, in part due to his success against Bumgarner in the August 18 game at AT&T Park, where Rivera went 2-for-3 against Bumgarner including a single to left and single to centerfield. His success throughout the years in the minors, playing as an undrafted free agent out of Troy University in 2011, and then following that success up in the majors was a big reason why Terry Collins felt comfortable going with Rivera at second in the do-or-die Wild Card game.

“This guy, he stuck it out, never made an excuse and went out when he had the chance and played great. He finally got his shot and then made the most of it and now he’s going to play in the stinkin’ wild-card game and, possibly, the World Series, all in one year.”

Of course, we all know the World Series proclamation didn’t come to fruition, but it is telling that Rivera has received such high praise in such a small amount of time with the Mets. And yes, Rivera was a product of misfortune for the Mets, losing the aforementioned Walker to the DL, and then jack-of-all-trades Wilmer Flores in September following a collision at home plate against the Atlanta Braves, injuring his wrist and leading to surgery to repair a hamate bone in his wrist. But Rivera ran with the chance he was given, and hasn’t looked back since.

Rivera had the only extra-base hit against Bumgarner Wednesday night, stroking a leadoff double to left on a 0-1 curveball. Rivera doesn’t seem fazed by the big moment, taking it all in stride and playing the only way he knows how, with passion and a dream in mind of reaching the major leagues, one he never stopped reaching for.

“People like the story because it gives people hope, maybe, that sense of hope like ‘I can do something I’ve always dreamed of as well, you know what I mean?’” Rivera said. “I guess maybe being undrafted and not being a top prospect and things of that nature, people see where I’m at. I can do what I really dreamed of doing. That was my goal. I hope I can inspire people to go after their dreams and their goals, that would be awesome.” (Newsday)

Hopefully Rivera’s inspired those in the Mets front office to give him the chance to man second base for 2017, which would just go to show that one can never give up on their dreams. Rivera overcame a lot of obstacles and was passed over time and time again from promotion, but kept working at his craft and doing what he does best, hitting. This is truly a story of local boy makes good.

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About Mathew Brownstein 214 Articles
An avid Mets fan who has fond memories of running around Shea Stadium with my dad collecting autographs and enjoying many summer night games. My best friend introduced me to the Mets at a young age, and since then I've enjoyed rooting for the orange and blue through good times and bad. Attended Iona College for mass communications, and my goal is to be a baseball columnist/beat writer. It's an honor and pleasure to be a Senior Writer for MMO.