Be Careful What You Wish For
Did you send your Christmas “wish list” to Santa Claus? Or perhaps you sent it to Omar Minaya?
Already Mets fans have received two early presents — Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz. But the offseason is far from over and most of us are clamoring for more than answers to the eighth and ninth inning — though it’s a fine start.
One thing to keep in mind, however: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus recently wrote an interesting column for SI.com, pointing out “Five Free Agents To Be Wary Of“. Among them are Orlando Hudson, Randy Wolf, Milton Bradley, Jon Garland, and Jason Varitek. Huh … if it weren’t for Bradley being on that list, you’d think the article was written specifically for Mets fans, since the other four players have been rumored to be on the Mets’ shopping list.
Though I’m generally not a stat-head, Sheehan shows stats that support the headline — and I personally am wary of these five guys without delving into the numbers.
For example, as much as I love the O-dog’s personality, and think that alone would upgrade the Mets as a team, I do worry about the Mets giving him a long-term, expensive deal because he does, to me, compare to Luis Castillo at the same age. Not surprisingly, Sheehan offers the same comparison, so I’m not the only one. Think about it — when Castillo celebrated his 32nd birthday (Hudson turned 32 last week), he was about to finish a season with a .301 batting average and .368 OBP. Though he played most of that season and the one before on bad knees, he still managed to steal 34 bases and score 175 runs between 2006-2007, and his glove (not range) was still considered one of the best in the game. Yes, those bad knees greatly diminished his range, but few were in his class when it came to glovework (he made less than a dozen errors in two seasons combined) and turning the double play. In his free-agent offseason, he was finally going to get much-needed, but supposedly minor, knee surgery. Most expected that he’d return to at least 80-85% of what he was as a Gold Glove winner and top of the lineup table-setter.
And here we have Hudson, who himself is a Gold Glover and coming off a career-high .305 / .367 year (wow, those numbers are close!). Also like Castillo, he’s had several nagging injuries in his most recent two seasons. Granted, his injuries have been to his wrist, various fingers, and hamstrings — none of which would be nearly as damaging to his range as Castillo’s two bad knees. But he’s been less durable since he’s entered his 30s — is that a pattern developing? Yes, his ability to swing the stick with occasional pop still makes him a better alternative to the slap-hitting Castillo — but does it make him worth $30M over 3 years? Moreover, will the Mets be sorry they gave an injury-prone second baseman a long-term deal a year from now? It’s easy to say “no” now, and many of us thought the 4-year deal given to Castillo was crazy even at the time. But how many expected Castillo’s value to drop so drastically, so quickly? We figured it would be a bad contract when it was in the third or fourth year, not the first.
Similarly, Sheehan points out concerns that I share for Wolf, Garland, and Varitek. I’ve been shaking my head all along wondering why Wolf is in the conversation at all, and this adds fuel to the fire:
Since coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2006, Wolf has a massive Petco Park/Earth split: a 3.58 ERA and a 68/26 K/BB in the Happiest Place on Earth (For Pitchers), 4.90 with a 232/117 K/BB everywhere else. He’s a flyball pitcher without the velocity to work up in the zone any longer, and will have a huge home-run rate in a normal park.
Garland has put up better looking numbers on the surface for the last few years, but Sheehan informs us that his low strikeout and high contact rates suggest he’ll be progressively worse as time goes on. Even still, a move to the NL should stave off that downslide for at least a year or two, and he has the potential to be an innings-eater. But he certainly isn’t worth more than a two-year deal.
Varitek came up in recent rumors surrounding the Mets, though how much truth to them is up for debate. Still, the Mets have supposedly been shopping Brian Schneider in the hopes of upgrading the catching position. Would Varitek qualify as an upgrade? Hard to say. Defensively, he’s about equal to Schneider, with a weaker arm. Offensively, it’s hard to be worse than Schneider was last year, but ‘tek was close; where Schneider had no power and a so-so average, Varitek had so-so power and a terrible average — you make the call. From a leadership standpoint, there’s no question — Varitek is exactly the type of leadership personality the Mets need, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Problem is, can he play in enough games to be effective? He turns 37 next April, and is probably best served in a platoon role — ideally and ironically, with someone like Schneider. But is it worth a compensation pick and $9M/year for someone who might play in only 100 games? (Well, that’s about what the Mets paid Moises Alou to appear in 15, so ….)
Of course, there are no guarantees with any free agents, and if the Mets added one or two of these players mentioned it wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact, I’d welcome the additions of Varitek, Hudson, and Garland. The key is not overpaying for what could turn out to be yet another bad contract.
I agree with your stance on Garland and Wolf, whom I don’t want to see with the Mets unless all other options have vanished. But Varitek? Why would anyone want him on the Mets? Is it really a miracle Varitek has made pitchers like Beckett, Daisuke, Okajima, Papelbon, Pedro, or Schilling look amazing? Is it really Varitek’s doing that the Red Sox have been so good for the last 10 years? Yes, he’s had some very good seasons in the past, but recently, as he is approaching his 37th birthday, what makes him so attractive to a Met fan? His .220 batting average? His 122 strikeouts? His .313 OBP? His declining defensive skills? I concur his leadership value would help, but I guess my major gripe, aside from Varitek’s quickly eroding abilities, would be why everyone is so down on Brian Schneider. It’s not like we thought we were acquiring another Mike Piazza in the deal with Washington last winter. And actually, Schneider pretty much did exactly what everyone thought and expected him to do in 2008: be so-so offensively but very good defensively and develop good rapports with the pitchers. Schneider’s never going to be an all-star catcher, so get over it. But we dump on Schenider’s power like he’s worse than Ozzie Smith, but the fact is he had 9 HR in 335 AB last year, which was a better ratio than Pudge Rodriguez (7-398), and some of us think Pudge would be a major upgrade in all categories over Schnieder. Not to mention Varitek’s ratio of 12-423 isn’t much better than Schneider’s either, and is likely to get worse as he continues to age and move from hitter-friendly AL to pitcher-friendly NL. I say for whatever minute upgrades Varitek would give you over Schneider, he’s not worth the cash, draft picks, or hassle of starting the catcher/pitcher relationships all over once again. The Schneider/Castro platoon works just fine as the #8 tandem at the bottom of the order, they know the town, league, and pitching staff, and are cheap options in an increasingly expensive sport, so let’s just chill out and stop trying to improve what doesn’t need improving.
In other words, a three-year, $30M deal for a 32-year-old second baseman is risky. I’d almost feel better if he was 34 and still putting up good numbers — it seems like that 31-33 age is the hump that ballplayers either get over, or end their careers. If Hudson comes in, I’d predict a Paul LoDuca-like career as a Met — huge first year, which helps propel the team into the postseason, then a drastic dropoff in the years following. However, considering Hudson’s skillset and personality, I’ll still take it.
As for Varitek, as I mentioned in the post, he’s basically a RH-hitting Schneider but with more power and stronger “intangibles”. As far as power, there’s more to the story than Schneider’s 9 HRs — 7 of which came in the last two months of the season and 4 against the Nationals. His total amount of extra base hits was 19. Again: 19 extra-base hits in 384 plate appearances is pretty damn weak — that’s once every 20 times he steps in the batter’s box. And if the lowly Nats aren’t in the league, he had 12 extra-base hits in 329 PAs — that’s once every 27 times up! What happens if the Nationals have something resembling a AA pitching staff in ’09, rather than the American Legion level schmucks that took the mound in ’08?
Of course, it can be argued that Varitek’s stronger power numbers were due to playing in Fenway Park — his OPS is 50 points higher when hitting at home. Further, it can be argued that he’ll crap the bed for at least the first few months as he adjusts to NL pitching. For those reasons I’d be after Ivan Rodriguez before ‘Tek. But I think adding either Varitek or Pudge would be an upgrade over the current situation.
And understand, this criticism is coming from a person who is a major fan of Brian Schneider. As a catcher myself, I greatly value what he brings to a team from behind the dish, and can see all the “small things” he does that go unnoticed by the casual fan. But looking at his performance objectively … well, his current game is 30 years too late. In the 21st century, you have a hard time getting to the postseason with Jerry Grote, Fred Kendall, or Rick Dempsey behind the dish. Sad, but true — the game has changed, and an NL team can’t afford to get so little offensive punch from a spot in the lineup, particularly when another spot (2B) is also punchless.
That said I mildly disagree — the catching position needs improvement. Maybe Schneider can build on his last two months and be productive in ’09. Maybe bringing in a Varitek or Pudge to platoon with him is a good idea. Maybe getting Castro to remain healthy for more than two weeks straight is a possibility. For the Mets to contend, they have to somehow get more offensive production from either the catching or second base position. You simply cannot win with six Major League hitters and two spots that are only slightly better than the pitcher hitting. Maybe if the Mets had signed CC Sabathia and traded for Jake Peavy it would be a different story.
I agree that improving 2B is key to a successful turnaround offensively in 2009, and Hudson is the best available solution. And I understand why you’re hesitant to give him $10-mil or more per year while he’s entering his “years of decline.” But the way I see it, the Mets are already paying big money to Castillo to slap hit and hobble his way through the next 3 years. If (and that’s a big if, mind you) the Mets can shed Castillo’s contract, why not take on another big contract in Hudson? You’re already paying too much for Castillo, at least with Hudson success is a better bet, as he has no chronic injuries and is not a one-dimensional ballplayer. But again, removing Castillo from the situation appears unlikely at this juncture, which means all this talk of Hudson is unfortunately moot.
The bottom line is I’d rather tinker around at 2B than C. To keep Castillo and replace Schneider with Pudge or Varitek does very little to boost the offense, in my opinion. But replacing Castillo with Hudson and keeping a Schneider/Castro backstop looks far more impressive, in my eyes. The biggest problem is that it’s probably much easier to shed Schneider than Castillo, and it would be more expensive to bring in Hudson than Pudge or Varitek. In the end, however, I’d put a 90% chance of both Castillo and Schneider being in the opening day lineup for the Mets in 2009.
“… does his addition really give you that much of an upgrade over Castro, considering price, rapport, personality, and age? Remember, we’re talking about the 8th spot in the order here. I’m not looking for 20 homers or a .300 average. I’m looking for someone who will be a plus defensively, who can move runners over, who won’t strike out a ton, and who will be a good clubhouse guy.”
Yes, I think either Pudge or Varitek would be that much of an upgrade over Castro, for all the reasons you point out. For one, Castro has yet to show me he can get through a full month without hurting himself in one way or another. Second, he’s a minus defensively and regressing with each year. He doesn’t move runners over, and while he doesn’t strike out “a ton”, he doesn’t take walks, either. Is he a good clubhouse guy? From all indications Castro is one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse, the “class clown” so to speak. Unfortunately, that fun personality hasn’t helped the Mets win.
Pudge and Varitek may not compare when it comes to sense of humor, but both are leaders who have earned World Series rings and been to the Fall Classic multiple times. They know what it takes to win, and I’d take either in a heartbeat over Castro for all the other reasons (offense, defense).
You’re right, both of those catchers are getting older and on the downside of their careers. Duh — that’s why they’re available. I find it strange that you point out 95 at-bats with the Yankees and completely ignore the 300 ABs prior to arriving in the Bronx, when he hit .295. Pressure of NY? I don’t think so — there wasn’t much attention on him while surrounded by the Jeters, A-Rods, etc. I think his performance was a combination of the surprise of being traded and being in a slump.
Unfortunately, trading Castillo is looking like an impossibility. I don’t think the Mets have to move Schneider to improve, but do believe adding Varitek or Pudge could upgrade the position. If this were 2005 and Castro was only 29, I might feel differently. As much as I like Ramon, he’s an old 32 and will be an older 33 come spring training, and I don’t believe he’ll ever have another year like 2007. In ten MLB seasons, Castro has had one good year. Compare that to the histories of Pudge and Varitek, who have suffered a combined two bad years in 30+ (Pudge has yet to have a truly “bad” year).
I agree with you that both Schneider and Castillo will be Mets come Opening Day 2009. It looks like the “tinkering” with second base is going to be something along the lines of signing Alex Cora. Ho-hum. I would rather have seen Damion Easley brought back, or even looked into Jeff Kent. Oh, but Kent is a “cancer” and would “disrupt” the clubhouse. That wonderful clubhouse of nice guys who finish second and get lumps in their throats when things get tight. We wouldn’t want to mess that up!
My concern with improving behind the dish is that most everybody, including you Joe in the article above, singles out Schneider as the guy who needs to be shipped out so an offensive catcher can be brought in. Yet, until you just mentioned it in your last comments, no one is talking about removing Castro and keeping a lefty (Schneider) and a righty (Pudge or Varitek – although he’s a switch hitter) to create a catching platoon. And now you make the case to get rid of Castro instead of Schneider because of his fragility, age, and his vunerability to the strikeout. That I might see being onboard with. I just hate to see Schneider getting such a bad rap because he’s not a hulking, .300 hitting, middle of the order hitter. He is what he is – a solid defensive catcher who walks about as much as he strikes out, with limited pop but good ability to hit for contact. He’s also cheap and relatively young (compared to the desired available alternatives). And what I’m fearful of is that we’ll ship Schneider off after one year, sign Varitek for a couple seasons, watch him continue to decline into the new Charlie O’Brien, then dump him for some other retread who’s going more off reputation than actual talent and keep the revolving door in motion. And I think that’s what you’re getting with Varitek and Pudge. Two catchers past their prime who will continue to have their skills fade while still commanding big money because of their resumes. More than any other position I think there needs to be consistancy with the catcher. Allow pitchers to get comfortable with him, and allow him to learn the nuances of his staff. Being a catcher yourself you have to know what I’m saying here and realize there’s value in that. And as long as Schneider isn’t whiffing 150 times a season and batting under .200 while throwing every ball into centerfield on stolen base attempts, we should just leave the position alone until a bonafide upgrade is made reasonably available. To me, Pudge and Varitek do not fit that bill.
I admit to relaying the fact that the Mets are supposedly shopping Schneider. I never said I agreed with the plan.
The only situation where I considered replacing Schneider was if the Mets were able to get a young star such as Russell Martin, or if they were able to pick up a strong two-way vet like Ramon Hernandez (even in the case of Hernandez, I’d prefer to keep Schneider around in a platoon if it were possible).