One Slugger Isn’t the Fix

Rob Neyer touched a nerve many Mets fans didn’t appreciate when he suggested that Dan Murphy wasn’t good enough to play first base. Remarkably, Neyer was much more direct, blunt, and critical than me. For instance, I still stand by my thought that Murphy can be a Don Money / Chone Figgins / Mark DeRosa type of “supersub” on a championship-caliber team — someone who plays nearly every day but at different positions. But if he’s the everyday first baseman, the Mets will need more than one slugger in left field to offset the expected lack of production.

And Murphy *can* be a regular first baseman on a contender — if that team has a number of other, very specific dynamics. For example, he could have been a first baseman on the 1985 Cardinals — as long as Jack Clark could play left field with Andy Van Slyke’s glove (Murphy this year and Van Slyke that year have comparable offensive numbers). But the point Neyer is making is that the 2010 Mets almost certainly will not be the type of team that can seriously contend with Dan Murphy at first base. There is this notion among many fans that “all the Mets need to do is find a big-time slugger for left field, to compensate for Murphy’s lack of power”. It’s a pipe dream, folks — take off the rose-colored glasses.

Because here’s the thing: the Mets were at least one big-time power hitter short on Opening Day 2009. Before Carlos Delgado went down. Before Jose Reyes tore his hammy. Before J.J. Putz, Carlos Beltran, John Maine, Oliver Perez, and the rest of the “cavalry” was lost to the DL. People forget that the Mets came into the season underpowered. The idea that the Mets fell out of contention due to injuries is a myth, and a feeble excuse. With a 100% healthy team the Mets may have won more games, but would likely be struggling amongst the other 65-70 win teams fighting for the Wild Card right now. From Opening Day, the were one injury away from falling out of the race.

Yes, the Mets were counting on above-average production in centerfield from Carlos Beltran. But that only made up for the lack of combined punch in the two corner OF positions. Ryan Church would have been a solid defender who provided average production in right. Nothing special, but solid enough. But in left field, the Mets were counting on Murphy and Fernando Tatis. Today that seems laughable, but in the spring, there were plenty of folks sipping the Kool-Aid. Beltran would have had to perform at a level similar to 2006, AND Church would’ve had to hit all year like he did in April 2008, AND Tatis would’ve had to hit all year like he did in August 2008, AND Murphy would’ve had to hit all year like he did in his first 100 MLB at-bats. Only then would the Mets have had acceptable championship-level offense from their outfield. That’s called “pie in the sky” planning.

Then there was the idea that Jose Reyes’ “way above average” offense at shortstop was also enough to counter deficiencies at another position. It was a solid argument in 1999, but not in 2009. Reyes is my favorite player to watch today, but I’m still rational enough to look around and realize he ISN’T EVEN THE BEST SHORTSTOP IN THE NL EAST. In today’s game, the shortstop is providing plenty of offense — see: Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, Yunel Escobar, Troy Tulowitzki, Derek Jeter, Jason Bartlett, Alexei Ramirez, Miguel Tejada. When healthy, Reyes is right up there with the best of them, but it’s not unusual to get offense from the position on a championship team — in fact it is essential. In fact, most playoff teams get significant punch from both middle infield positions; the Reyes-Castillo tandem would have been on par with other great teams, but their combined production would not have been so fabulous that it offset a hole elsewhere.

At the corner infield positions, the Opening Day 2009 roster had Carlos Delgado and David Wright. Even with only 8 HR, Wright still holds his own among the top offensive third basemen in the game. Again, though, it’s not unusual for a team to get a lot of offense from third base. At first base, Delgado was counted on to reproduce his second half of 2008, to provide the kind of production required for a championship team. The day he went on the DL, Delgado was hitting a shade under .300 and hit 4 homers in 94 at-bats. Not exactly the slugger the Mets needed, but there’s every reason to believe he would have eventually finished with, say, 25-30 HR, maybe a few more. Unfortunately, that is “average” production for a first baseman on a championship team, and when combined with Wright’s production this year, again, it’s about average for a great team. The corners — in the infield and outfield — are where the beasts reside. The Matt Hollidays, the Prince Fielders, the Ryan Howards. The Mets didn’t necessarily need a beast to go to the playoffs in 2009, but the fact they didn’t have one meant they needed at least one more bat who compared to Delgado, Wright, and Beltran (i.e., Moises Alou circa 2005-2006).

Behind the plate was the only place where the Mets had some above-average production for a championship club, as the catchers have driven in over 70 runs. However, that same lot has a combined OBP under .300 and a batting average in the .240s — and has scored less than 40 runs. Not quite Mike Piazza – like numbers, and certainly not enough of an advantage to offset the lack of production in other positions.

What it comes down to is this: no matter which way you slice it, no matter how you try to play the shell game, the fact remains that the Mets were one solid bat away from seriously contending. Had their pitching been spectacular, that might not have mattered — but that’s a whole ‘nuther can of worms. An offseason signing of Manny Ramirez would’ve been the beast to put them over the top, but they might’ve been just fine with, say, Casey Blake. Instead, the stood pat, crossed their fingers, and hoped against hope that everyone would again have an injury-free season, and that two or three players would have career years.

Going into 2010, the Mets most likely will be minus a SECOND bat — Delgado. So now they need a player comparable to Delgado — someone who can hit 30-35 HR, drive in 100+, .900+ OPS — AND a Casey Blake (15-25 HR, 85+ RBI, .800+ OPS). So this idea that the Mets can just go out and get Adam Dunn or Matt Holliday, and that person will be enough to offset the weak production at first base, is nonsense. They need Holliday AND Dunn — and they’re obtaining neither this winter.

Instead, the Mets will once again hope that everyone will remain healthy, Murphy will provide 25-40% more production, and some combination of a cheap winter signing and/or Chris Carter will somehow approach Delgado’s missing numbers. But then what about right field, where Jeff Francoeur is a non-tender candidate? Do you bring him back and hope he gets back to the form of 2006-2007? That’s a $3.5-$4M gamble they may not be willing to make. Either way, there’s still a lot of wishing and hoping.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. isuzudude September 11, 2009 at 2:25 pm
    Thinking hypothetically here – but what kind of offense would the Mets have had if their core players had stayed healthy all season, and the Murphy/Tatis LF combo was replaced with the Sheffield/Pagan combo? I think run production would certainly have gone up, but that’s still not taking into consideration the struggles of the pitching staff or the glaring lack of proper fundamentals.

    I said it from the get-go before any of the injuries hit: the Mets were no better than a 3rd place team this year, and would struggle to win 85+ games. And unless Omar gets very creative and starts opening up the Wilpons’ pocketbook this offseason, that prediction is also going to hold true for 2010.

  2. James K. September 11, 2009 at 2:51 pm
    I’m curious how Daniel Murphy’s offensive performance this season (87 OPS+)is remotely close to Andy Van Slyke’s in 1985 (116 OPS+), when factoring context and park factors? (which must be done when comparing players of different eras)

    Also, it’s pretty silly to say Reyes isn’t even the best SS in the NL East due to Hanley Ramirez’s presence. That’s like saying CC Sabathia isn’t even the best pitcher in the AL East, since Roy Halladay is there as well. Doesn’t mean anything. Reyes was 2nd best in all of baseball (in value) to Hanley from 2006-2008.

    I do agree with you about Murphy though, he’s not viable as a starting 1st basemen going forward.

  3. joejanish September 11, 2009 at 3:06 pm
    isuzude – intriguing question. I wonder if Murphy would have been in AAA by June if not for the injuries. A healthy Sheff likely would have amassed 400 ABs; that plus what Pagan has shown lately could have been acceptable in LF — probably comparable to what Church was doing in RF.

    James – I have no idea what your point is re: Reyes and Hanley. My point is that many people think that having Jose Reyes at SS is a tremendous advantage that sets the Mets ahead of everyone. In reality there are many teams getting high production out of the position — and you don’t even have to look outside the division to realize that.

    As for the Murphy / Van Slyke comp, it’s about as close as I can find to having that feeble of production from a corner spot on a championship team. You use OPS+, I use HR/RBI/AVG/OBP. Van Slyke’s numbers might have been higher due to balls jumping on the Astroturf, Murphy’s might’ve been lower due to cavernous Citi Field. You can crank out the exact numbers, I don’t have the interest. In the end your 12 and my dozen lead to the same conclusion: Murphy has to beef up his offense significantly to warrant an everyday job in LF or 1B (and even then it may not be enough, without the right supporting cast).

  4. Mike September 11, 2009 at 4:14 pm
    Here’s something to ponder: if the Mets presented the fanbase with a clear and focused plan for the future, but it meant more garbage baseball next year, would you accept it and support the team (go to games, watch the games, buy merchandise)?

    My opinion has been yes for quite some time. The thing is I am unsure if the fanbase as a whole would allow it. As Mets fans I think a lot of people think they are entitled to a winner every year and frankly I think it is hurting the franchise. I use the Yankees of last year to show that if the team decides there is a plan and present it to the fans, they will be much more accepting to a bad year. Personally I think much of the talent near the top of the minors could use another season of development at least in the minors for their and the team’s benefit. If that is to happen then the Mets will have to fill roles with veterans off the heap while not tying themselves up in big contracts. I won’t argue against getting a Holiday or a Halladay because they are great talents who could help this team for 3-4 years. They also can help a team with a plan and not just be fix it for now solutions. But more than likely it is another year of bad baseball in 2010.

    So I ask again: would you accept another awful year of baseball from the Mets if it meant they were presenting a clear plan for the future?

  5. James K. September 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm
    Re: Murphy/Van Slyke

    My point is when comparing players who played in different eras, you can’t just compare their raw statistics. You have to adjust for the offensive environment during that player’s era. Here are Van Slyke and Murphy’s numbers, matched up against their respective league averages:

    Van Slyke: .259/.335/.439
    1985 NL average: .252/.319/.374

    Murphy: .259/.310/.404
    2009 NL average: .259/.331/.410

    This is why their OPS+’s (which factors in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, by the way) differ so much. Their raw numbers may seem similar, but when compared to league average performance, they are in fact much different. If the Mets got production from Murphy on par with Van Slyke in 1985 in today’s run environment, it would be a line like .259/.370/.445, which would be much more palatable from a 1B.

    I’m probably nitpicking here, but faulty comparison of players across different eras is a pet peeve. As is any comparison of one of my favorite players ever (Van Slyke) to a player of Murphy’s caliber, haha.

  6. joejanish September 11, 2009 at 4:56 pm
    James, you’re preaching to the choir re: comparing players of different eras. For example I know Jim Rice was a beast even though his numbers don’t compare to the sluggers of today. But that’s for another day.

    This isn’t MetsGeek, and it will never try to be — they do an outstanding job over there and no need to compete. Though I know there are a number of more advanced stat people reading here, the bulk of the audience still looks at the old-school numbers (AVG / HR / RBI), and may also consider OBP and SLG. Beyond that we’re going outside the scope of what this site is. But I do appreciate the input.

    That said, the raw numbers you’ve posted of Murphy and Van Slyke vs. their respective league averages makes them look similar — though Van Slyke is clearly better. I admit to being generous to Murphy in the comparison … but if I don’t include something positive about the second-favorite son of the franchise, I get mutilated by some fans who think I “hate him”. Go figure.

  7. James K. September 11, 2009 at 5:05 pm
    I’ll never understand why people attack you as saying you “hate a player” when you say they simply aren’t that good, as if it’s a personal attack against the player. Annoying phenomenon I’ve experienced as well.

    Also FYI, I’m one of the MetsGeek and Amazin’ Avenue guys. Trying to move fans away from the BA/HR/RBI mindset, it’s for the best.

  8. joejanish September 11, 2009 at 5:15 pm
    James, I’m well aware and enjoy your posts on those sites. I’m getting the MT audience used to looking at things like OBP, OPS, and WHIP … this is a big step for some people (including myself!). As they graduate here and get tired of my old school banter, I’m sure they’re moving on to AmAv and MG for more clinical analysis.

    Thanks again!

  9. Andy September 11, 2009 at 5:16 pm
    I see your point but I’m not sure that I care. It is very unlikely that the Mets will compete in 2010 no matter what they do. And there are plenty of other holes to fill: 2 outfield positions, 3 spots in the starting rotation, maybe half the bullpen.

    I’m perfectly happy as a fan if the Mets put 1st base at the very bottom of their to-do list, if it gives Murphy a chance to keep playing. He’s a hustling young player from within the organization, and will make the games more interesting to watch even if the Mets don’t win.

  10. Walnutz15 September 11, 2009 at 5:28 pm
    I still say Murph will be closer to Matt Franco over the course of his career than he will be to The Slickster…….AVS has always been my favorite CF-er, next to Nails of course.

    Murph will be playing as a 1-bagger if he’s lucky.

  11. Mark September 11, 2009 at 6:07 pm
    Is there anyway that they would just stop and rebuild? I mean to get the quality of bats that is necessary while still hoping that Reyes, Beltran, etc. can stay healthy is asking a lot. What sort of money do you think the Wilpons will spend?
  12. joejanish September 11, 2009 at 6:51 pm
    Mark, a rebuild is not what Johan Santana signed up for. I don’t think the Mets would rebuild as long as both Santana and Beltran are in the middle of huge contracts — and K-Rod, too.

    The Santana trade/signing was similar to the win-now corner the Mets forced themselves into when they signed Pedro Martinez and Beltran back in ’05. It will be another offseason of patches and prayers.

  13. sincekindergarten September 11, 2009 at 7:17 pm
    What that means, Joe, is that we’re not going to compete until five to seven years have passed. We may screw up another team’s postseason plans, in addition to whatever postseason dreams the Wilpons may have.
  14. isuzudude September 12, 2009 at 9:46 am
    You know, with the way the Wilpons and David Howard keep denying that the team is in financial trouble and that Madoff took them for every penny they had, wouldn’t it be the perfect way to show the world the Mets are doing just fine with money by pulling a Steinbrenner and signing 3 huge free agents to monster contracts? Matt Holliday can get the Mark Teixeira deal, John Lackey can get the AJ Burnett deal, and (if his option isn’t picked up) Cliff Lee can get the CC Sabathia deal. And then trade some loose change for a Nick Swisher-type player, preferably who can catch or play 1B, like Ryan Doumit or Ryan Garko. You know, someone who’s a hafway decent talent coming off a down year who stands to get significant pay increases over the next few seasons. In essence, prove to the world that you’re not worth a used tissue and that you do have a steady revenue stream and profit margin that would allow you to re-invest into the team rather than going the thrifty route at every turn. And then we can ditch this re-building notion altogether.
  15. gary s. September 12, 2009 at 11:01 pm
    dude, i like your idea but unless they move the fences in, holiday will never put up texiera numbers, lackey has arm problems and cliff lee is not cc sabathia by a long shot..he’s a finesse pitcher..not worth huge numbers..i do the plan though.just not crazy about the players..
  16. isuzudude September 13, 2009 at 9:26 am
    Gary, you gotta ditch the move the fences in routine. It’s just got going to happen. Instead, focus on building the team around pitching, speed, and defense. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s a solid foundation for a winning team. Not every team who wins a world series hits 200 home runs in a season.

    Additionally, Holliday doesn’t have to put up Teixeira numbers, as long as he hits .320+ and drives in 100+ runs, he’d be fine. Plus I mention him because he seems to be the most desirable offensive free agent available this winter, as Teixeira was last year. That’s generally my only comparison. Lackey HAD arm problems, but he looks healthier than ever for the Angels now. And Cliff Lee won 23 games for the lowly Indians, winning the Cy Young last year with a 2.54 ERA in the AL. I don’t care if he’s a finesse pitcher; if he puts up good numbers he’s worth the dough. Put him in a big ballpark like CitiField and watch what he can do.

    Again, I mentioned those 3 because they appear to be the biggest free agents available this winter. If you don’t go after those three, who do you go after?