Could blockbuster trades make the Mets champions in 2018?
Forget for a moment that the Mets organization plans to field a .500 club while trying to inspire fans with upside and potential, much as they’ve done for most of the last seven years. Pretend instead that the Mets have a choice between the two options faced by teams who are actually trying to win:
- Look up at the Nationals, look down at the Mets roster, judge the gap too large to breach, and plan for the future.
- Maximize the Mets’ current assets and go all-in for 2018.
Maybe Option A is the smarter long-term move. Dangle Jacob deGrom for a boatload of prospects, tank for a few years to collect top draft picks, and aim for a championship when Amed Rosario is in his prime in 2023.
So, hey, Mets fans, how many of you are on board with that plan? After a decade of choke jobs, injuries, mediocrity, penury and embarrassment, punctuated by a few months of catching lightning in a bottle, are you on board to wait another several years for a contender with a decent shot to win it all?
So let’s talk about Option B. Before Sandy Alderson has polished his February speeches about how the market didn’t provide the proper opportunities and blah blah blah, let’s see if we can imagine a way to get from where the Mets are now to the promised land this October.
Spend, but spend wisely
It’s easy for fans to ask their team to spend more money for more wins. I’d rather not go so far in that direction, though, that we’re paying $100 million in 2020 to some combination of players who can’t take the field (Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez) or are below-average (Jay Bruce, Mike Moustakas).
I want the Wilpons to spend, but I also want them to get bang for every buck, so we fans can dream of contending every year without needing to spend like the Yankees and Dodgers (which simply isn’t going to happen). For that reason, I’m going to rule out many players who could really help the Mets in 2018, because I don’t think they’ll be remotely worth what they’d cost. To me, that’s the above players, plus Eric Hosmer, along with anyone who generates an actual bidding war among Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Wade Davis, Addison Reed, and Lorenzo Cain.
Step 1: Pay for Christian Yelich
The Marlins are looking for immediate payroll relief, and that means finding a taker for Martin Prado. They’re also looking to avoid the appearance of a complete sell-off, which means they need both hot prospects and MLB-ready talent. Whoever can fill all these needs will become the leading candidate for the Marlins’ most coveted remaining talents, Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto.
This is something the Mets can achieve for little more than short-term money. Here’s how:
Dunn is a first-round draft pick with elite velocity. Smith is another first-round pick who’s received plenty of media hype, flashed great potential, and has the likable underdog backstory that fits perfectly on a rebuilding team. Cabrera can play wherever the Marlins need him in the infield, with the Mets sending cash to offset his salary. D’Arnaud will replace Realmuto behind he plate, bringing an enticing history of top-prospect status and power potential. It’s not a steal for Miami, but it’s credible, and gets them the payroll relief they want.
Where would this leave the Mets?
Realmuto’s poor blocking and framing skills make him far from perfect, but gaining 50+ points of OBP from the catcher spot is hard to overrate.
Yelich is either a mediocre center fielder or a gold glove corner guy. He’s durable and a good baserunner. He hasn’t yet put it all together at the plate with any consistency, but he’s flashed batting champion potential and it’s not impossible to dream of upside at age 26.
Prado suffered from hamstring problems early in 2017 and then had knee surgery in late July. Having just turned 34, he has to be considered a health risk. Before that, however, he was a player who would have fit perfectly on the Mets: a reliable, clutch, shift-beating contact hitter who rated as a stellar defender at third base.
Realmuto and Yelich will be paid much less than they’re worth through 2022, while Prado will be paid a bit more than he’s worth through 2019. The Mets’ payroll will jump in the short term, but they’ll actually be in an improved wins-per-dollar position going forward.
As for losing Smith and Dunn, I don’t expect to miss a first base-only prospect and a pitcher who’s never shown much command or control.
Step 2: Pay for Joey Votto
With Smith gone, the Mets could probably find a cheap and productive first base bat out there in free agency. A reunion with Lucas Duda shouldn’t break any banks. At the same time, thanks to the Marlins haul, this team might be one big piece away from a 90-win squad on paper, poised to lead the wild card race and pounce on any opportunity for the N.L. East crown. So now would be the perfect time to shell out for that MVP-caliber bat.
We all know that the Wilpons care about the financial bottom line. One look at Votto’s price tag will have them shaking their heads, “No way.” But then they’ll have this to consider:
Joey Votto has won an MVP award, and he almost won another one last year. His name’s been on the leaderboards every day for the last decade. Barring a big bounceback by Miguel Cabrera, Joey probably holds the title of “best hitter in the game”. With Albert Pujols, Cabrera, and many other recent stars falling apart in their early 30s, Votto is arguably getting better (career-low K rate in 2017). Basically, he’s the kind of player fans pay to see.
Beyond that, if Votto could put the Mets into the playoffs, and help them make a deep run, that would equate to an absolute financial bonanza. Elevating the Mets from a 79-win team to an 84-win team may not mean much in the revenue department, but jumping from an 86-win fringe contender to a 91-win elite team could make a world of difference.
A few years back, the Reds were trying to win with Votto, and Votto was expressing his faith and patience. But now the Reds have traded Todd Frazier, said goodbye to Zack Cozart, are shopping Billy Hamilton, and appear to be nearly an entire pitching staff away from contention. Votto is 34 years old and I imagine it’d be hard for him to turn down a chance to play with a contender. This is a perfect time for him to jump ship, and for the Reds to rid themselves of that enormous contract.
I don’t know if any other teams in baseball are looking to pay a guy $25M per year through age 39, so I doubt the Mets will have to beat any prospect packages. Just pay the whole contract and the Reds should be happy with some toolsy A-ball guys in exchange.
Unlike the Marlins deal, this one is a long-term financial gamble. I have exactly two ways to justify it:
- I don’t think Joey Votto will ever stop hitting. He will probably get injured more often as he ages, but his incredible eye is a tool that has kept many hitters productive very late into their careers. The man’s career OBP is .428. That’s not “good”, that’s once-in-a-generation special.
- $25M in 2023 isn’t what $25M was in 2015. In 2023, that might be #3 starter money.
How much would all this help?
FanGraphs currently forecasts the 2018 Mets to win 83 games. Smith, Cabrera, d’Arnaud, Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo account for 5.6 WAR in that appraisal. Their replacements — Votto, Prado, Realmuto and Yelich — project for 12.5. That would presumably make the Mets a 90-win team.
Subjectively, I think FanGraphs underestimates that 7-win difference. The FanGraphs projections are bullish on d’Arnaud’s health, Cabrera’s performance, and Nimmo’s ability to play center field. At the same time, they don’t expect Prado or Yelich to approach their 2015-2016 levels, and they expect Votto to begin to decline. Maybe that 7-win difference is a good guess, but a difference of 10 wins or more wouldn’t surprise me at all.
However you assess the players involved, these moves would dramatically increase the odds of the Mets playing in the N.L. Division Series. They would also dramatically increase my enthusiasm for the team, and I can’t imagine I’d be alone.
Now, if only I knew how much revenue an NLDS appearance was worth…