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.