The Curious Case of Michael Conforto

Michael Conforto

Kudos to Sandy Alderson and the Wilpons on retaining the services of one Yoenis Cespedes. At “only” $110 million for four years, the deal has a chance to not be too terrible, or at least only terrible for a season or so. While Cespedes isn’t the ideal major league player, he fits with the Mets well.

Like perhaps many of you, I felt a shudder run through me when I read about the potential for Cespedes to pull in a 6 or 7 year deal, with an upwards of $150 million price tag. So, good job by the Mets to get this done at a rate that won’t leave Cespedes a baseball pauper (and may allow him to get one more lucrative contract before he retires), but doesn’t hamstring the team’s finances in the process. The fact that the deal was done before the calendar flips to December also gives the Mets the bulk of the remaining off-season to fill the other issues with their roster.

That however is where it gets tricky. The Mets still have a few holes to fill and they most likely will need to fill them in exchange for assets they already possess. In the past, Alderson has steadfastly refused to part with any of his young pitching (at least during the winter), so it is unlikely that he does so again this year. Injuries to several of those pitchers has more than likely lowered their value, making it even less probable that Alderson deals one of them.

Jay Bruce is probably a lock to be moved and soon, but I would be utterly shocked if The Mets received anything in return that resembled a missing piece to their 2017 puzzle, especially if they want their trading partner to pick up all of Bruce’s remaining salary. Curtis Granderson may garner some interest, but can you really see them trading away baseball’s 2016 Man of The Year? Me neither.

Which brings us to Mr. Conforto. Taken with the 10th pick of the June 2014 draft, he zoomed through the Mets system and was playing left field in the majors barely 13 months later. In fact, when the Mets dealt for Cespedes less than a week after Conforto’s arrival, they kept Conforto in left and moved Cespedes to center. Michael enjoyed a solid rookie season, slashing 270/335/506. He tailed off a bit in the NLDS and NLCS, but carried himself well in the World Series, hitting pair of homers. He began 2016 as the starting leftfielder (Cespedes stayed in center), but after a hot April, he just seemed to lose it. He hit .173 from May 1 on with a .255 OBP and was twice sent to AAA Las Vegas. The Mets left him off the roster for the Wild Card Game.

Hard to pinpoint exactly what happened, but the optics indicate a vulnerability to inside sliders, which was all he got a steady diet of from late April on. Those pitches don’t break in the hot, dry desert air the way they do at the major league level, he so while he put up video-game like numbers back in Vegas, he just struggled again upon his return to New York. It wasn’t exactly doing him any good to send him down, but they really had no other choice.

Conforto is a left fielder, pure and simple. He doesn’t run all that well and his throwing arm isn’t anything extraordinary. If he doesn’t hit, he isn’t even a replacement-level player. Last year, he didn’t hit. And with Cespedes locked up in left field until 2020, Conforto doesn’t really have a place to play. The Mets could stand an upgrade in center field, probably behind the plate and most definitely in late inning relief. Their lineup lacks speed. Could a trade of Conforto help fill at least two of those holes? If I’m Alderson, I’d be exploring that possibility.

On the plus side, Conforto is still young and has a great pedigree, both as a top draft pick as well as being the son of two elite athletes. He honed his craft at Oregon State, in a program that has produced over two dozen major league players. He has had some success at the major league level, and represents (on paper at least) a left-handed source of power, an desirable commodity that is in short supply right now. He also has five more seasons of team control. There is still a lot to like about him. Both the Mets and any potential trading partners will need to gamble on the veracity of his pedigree and 2015 performance vs. the reality that was his 2016 campaign. It could be a very interesting situation. A package of Conforto, one of the Mets surplus middle infielders and a lower-level arm might net a big fish in return.

Also, it wouldn’t be a Capwell Mets Today post without a little Mets history: back in the early 1970’s the Mets had a young outfielder whom they had drafted in 1967 and who was also (relative for that time) rushed to the big leagues. After a promising rookie campaign, he took a step backwards in his sophomore season, although his fall was not as dramatic as Conforto’s. That offseason, the Mets packaged him with other prospects in a big trade with the Montreal Expos for an established slugger. That young outfielder was named Ken Singleton and over the next 13 years he would average 282/388/436, and be named to three All Star teams. While his old team was floundering, he flourished away from Shea, finishing third in AL MVP voting in 1977 and then second in 1979 (The Expos traded him to Baltimore a year after getting him). The 1973 Mets were a win-now team and Rusty Staub, the player they got for Singleton and Co., did help them get to the World Series. So much time has passed since that it is difficult to gauge which was the better deal, the 1973 pennant or Singleton’s career, although in fairness, Singleton out-hit Staub in 1973. That deal, along with the rise of both Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan, also former Met farmhands, made the then nascent Mets fan me a “systems guy,” a strong proponent of building a team from within. 40-plus years later, I am more of a “win now” guy, probably due to the passage of time. On the flip side of the argument is Hubie Brooks, whom the Mets also traded after his sophomore season in a package for another Expos slugger. Even though Hubie would outhit the player the Mets acquired him for from the point of the trade until both had retired, this move proved to be the final piece in the Mets quest for a World Championship. The player the Mets got in return was Gary Carter.

So for me, it boils down to this: I favor a trade of Conforto if the return makes the team demonstrably better in 2017. If not, I guess I can live with Conforto in right and a Granderson/Juan Lagares platoon in center. I really hate the idea of playing Conforto in center. I am not too crazy about him in right either, but if he can rediscover his stroke, any defensive gaffs could probably be overlooked.

So what about you? Trade Conforto or keep him? Prefer him in center or in right? Remember Ken Singleton? Sound off below.

A Mets fan since 1971, Dan spent many summer nights of his childhood watching the Mets on WOR Channel Nine, which his Allentown, PA cable company carried. Dan was present at Game 7 of the 1986 World Series and the Todd Pratt Walkoff Game in 1999. He is also the proud owner of two Shea Stadium seats. Professionally, Dan is a Marketing Manager in the Bulk Materials Handling industry. He lives in Bethlehem PA with his wife and son, neither of whom fully get his obsession with the Mets.
  1. BadRaZoR December 2, 2016 at 9:00 am
    I would definitely trade Conforto for Carter 🙂
    • Victor December 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm
      Not now you wouldn’t … Gary C (may he RIP) would be of no help next season … 🙂
    • argonbunnies December 4, 2016 at 12:48 pm
      Would you trade Conforto, Wheeler, Flores and cash for Chris Archer? I could see the Rays making that sort of high-risk, high-reward move…
  2. Reese December 2, 2016 at 10:47 am
    You have to remember they just reacquired $31 million in salary between Walker and Cespedes before even looking at arbitration increases. They will want to keep Conforto and his minimum wage salary while pushing for the best packages possible for both Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson to save $28 million in payroll. I can’t see Conforto going anywhere unless he’s the centerpiece of a deal for someone like Andrew McCutchen.
    • Reese December 2, 2016 at 10:47 am
      Sorry, caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet — $41 million
      • Victor December 2, 2016 at 5:52 pm
        Wouldn’t that be $39.7 MM? But, ah what $1.4 MM between friends? Oh, about another year of Rene Rivera who signed for $1.75MM!
  3. mw December 2, 2016 at 1:29 pm
    one thing nobody mentions is the kevin long influence – move closer to the plate and pull. why do you take a guy who is successful with a nice stroke and try to change him – especially in his first full year. (not a kevin long fan) this was mentioned by keith hernandez and the crew at mlb network as the problem. let him hit his way and you have a corner outfielder whose defense is actually above average and will team with smith and rosario for a solid trio for the foreseeable future. long-term success (which we’ve never had) will come from keeping the young players and plugging in veterans (cespedes and walker) as needed. just my take…..
    • Victor December 2, 2016 at 5:53 pm
      Not a KLong fan either … if anything, he helps Curtis re-find his stroke when he loses it.
    • Gregg from Hoboken December 3, 2016 at 9:30 am
      This article on Fangraphs re: Conforto offers an interesting perception. It’s also notable that he ended up pulling at roughly league average last year….perceptions aside.

    • argonbunnies December 3, 2016 at 2:33 pm
      Interesting. Long had been the Mets’ hitting coach for many months before trying to tweak Murphy, so I assume he hasn’t been pushing “crowd and pull” on everyone. If he has, though, then shouldn’t we be giving him credit for the major power upticks from Walker, Cabrera, Kelly Johnson, Wilmer Flores and/or Cespedes?

      I think it’s clear that, like every hitting coach I can remember, Long is no miracle worker. He can’t bust guys out of slumps, he can’t help them execute with runners in scoring position, he can’t fix Juan Lagares’s pitch recognition, etc. That said, he still might be a better hitting coach than most.

    • argonbunnies December 3, 2016 at 2:43 pm
      MW, agreed that building around homegrown players would be great. But you can’t do that with just ANY homegrown players, as Butch Huskey, Alex Escobar, Lastings Milledge, Fernando Martinez, and countless others prove. Even two tremendous hits like David Wright and Jose Reyes don’t guarantee anything without more young talent around the roster.

      So, are Conforto, Smith and Rosario the right guys to build around or not? I don’t know. I am skeptical on Smith. Rosario’s upside is exciting. Conforto… well, he’s not fast, doesn’t have a strong arm, can’t hit lefties yet, can’t play a skill position in the field… he might still be good, but it’s hard for me to imagine a cornerstone.

  4. argonbunnies December 3, 2016 at 2:51 pm
    Dan, if the Mets trade Conforto at some point as part of a trade for an elite player, I’d probably be happy. I doubt now is the time, though. Trading Michael after slumps and demotions would be selling low.
  5. argonbunnies December 3, 2016 at 2:52 pm
    As far as position:

    I think Conforto does a fine job in the OF for someone with scant experience and minimal speed. Still… he has minimal speed. I’d really rather have a plus defender in CF, or at least an average one like Granderson showed us in September.

    Clearly Cespedes and his cannon arm should be in RF, meaning that LF would be an option for Conforto. I have no idea why Cespedes refuses to try RF, and why his employers and teammates are okay with that. He just got $110M, he’s set for life, he should be focusing on winning, and that means taking flyballs in RF starting TODAY.

    Anyway, assuming Cespedes and the Mets don’t do the right thing here, I’m okay with Conforto in RF. His arm will be a minor liability, but less so than Granderson’s.

  6. argonbunnies December 3, 2016 at 5:11 pm
    Here are FanGraphs’ observations on Conforto:

    • He has pulled the ball about as much as the average hitter, in both 2015 and 2016. Has pulled most of his ground balls, which is also typical. (IMO there are only a few LH hitters who should NOT be shifted against.)

    • He was less productive than most hitters on his well-hit balls in 2016, tallying 3 or so hits and 6 or so total bases below average. Could be bad luck, or it could be that his tendency to hit the ball well the other way is less likely to do damage than pulling his well-hit balls would.

    • There is no reason to expect him to pull more as he gains experience. Despite that being traditional baseball wisdom, it is actually statistically uncommon, and there’s nothing in Conforto’s profile to suggest it.

    • When he was red hot in April 2016, he was hitting more opposite-field LINE DRIVES than at any other time. He was not hitting the ball to the opposite field significantly more overall.

    • His fly balls went out of the park at a very high rate in 2015, which looks flukey, as he’s never done anything similar at any time at any level.

    • He hit a lot more fly balls in 2016 than ever before. If he continues that, it might increase his power projections while lowering his batting average projections.

    • He saw a lot fewer fastballs in 2016 than in 2015, and a lot more curveballs, especially first-pitch curveballs.

    • The biggest negative statistical development for Conforto in 2016 was a huge jump in strikeout rate. His swing-and-miss rate was only a little worse than previously, though.

    Pulled from various articles.

  7. Dan42 December 4, 2016 at 7:08 am
    One thing not mentioned, and probably a big part of his 2016 troubles is the wrist injury, and cortisone shots to keep him on the field instead of letting it heal properly.
    • argonbunnies December 4, 2016 at 12:30 pm
      Not much will mess your swing up worse than a wrist injury!

      The timeline seems to reject that explanation, though. Conforto was awful for an entire month before the wrist was ever mentioned, and he raked in Vegas after the issue was known and had some time to possibly heal.

      I’m not saying it wasn’t a factor… but pitch selection, confidence, and playing time may have been bigger ones. Conforto always seemed confident in interviews, but after getting manhandled by Bumgarner, his approach immediately fell apart.

      I suppose it’s possible that he hurt the wrist flailing against Bumgarner and the team just kept it out of the papers for the next month…

      • Dan42 December 4, 2016 at 1:24 pm
        When it was first reported it was said that it had been a problem for a while, but no mention of how long that was. Their initial treatment plan was the usual cortisone injection, guaranteed to keep him on the field, aggravate the injury, and prevent healing. And they continue to wonder why.
        • argonbunnies December 4, 2016 at 2:50 pm
          “A while” — oh, Mets, Mets, Mets. *sigh* Well, they aren’t alone…

          If I’m ever a GM, my radical new innovation is going to be playing guys who are healthy.

  8. DaveSchneck December 4, 2016 at 6:46 pm
    Like most Met fans (I suppose), my preference is to deal Bruce for a sold bullpen arm. However, I believe most of MLB has determined the Bruce is one-dimensional and belongs on an AL team in a hitter’s ballpark.

    I am still bullish on Conforto. I like his swing, and I think his arm is adequate for RF (remember we did have Curtis out there). That said, I am of the mindset that anyone is tradable based on the value in return.

    I sense that Alderson will go with the minimalist approach that he usually does but I feel he needs to be more aggressive in continuing to improve the team. If Sale and/or Andrew Mac find their way into the NL East, the imperfect Met offense, even with Yo, may not be enough. They clearly need more OBP at the top of the lineup, preferably with speed but even without. Both Fowler and Andrew Mac can provide that dimension from th CF spot. It would behoove them to consider a way to make that happen, especially if it blocks the Nats from getting McCutchen. I am one that thinks he has a lot of high quality baseball left in his career.

  9. Vilos December 5, 2016 at 8:52 am
    Dan, I liked your article. Specially the singleton and brooks trade references. Thanks
    I dont think the Mets need a Staub type trade (a hitter) but could always use a Cárter. But is there a Cárter out there? Posey, Perez, maybe Lucroy (maybe try again) or maybe even McCruch, but he wants Yo money, and you cant have two of those and keep the pitching
    So, yes Im open to a trade if its out there but I think i prefer keeping him and playing out the hand as to where he plays (rf, as a 4th of or platoon in cf)