In March 2006, the second base position for the New York Mets was more or less an open tryout, with Kaz Matsui, Bret Boone, Jeff Keppinger, and Anderson Hernandez the main competitors. After Boone’s retirement, injuries to Matsui and Hernandez, and an undisclosed remark or action by Keppinger that put him in Willie Randolph’s doghouse, one unlikely candidate emerged from the dust — Jose Valentin.
We loathed the Stache throughout April and through the first part of May, wondering if Randolph were either blind or insane for continuing to put Valentin in games. Eventually, however, Jose Valentin began to produce, and by the end of July had won over our hearts and established himself as one of the hardest-hitting second basemen in the National League — even if Randolph was unwilling to “officially” name him the Mets’ starting second sacker.
However, is Valentin the answer at second base for 2007? That’s a tough question, for several reasons.
First of all, Valentin is no spring chicken — he just turned 37. Second, his production after July left a bit to be desired — perhaps an indication of his advanced age catching up with him. Valentin’s gradual downfall from August first on culminated in an excellent rendition of the invisible man come playoff time, when his most valuable contribution was forcing middle infielders to strain their necks as they chased his mile-high pop ups. Even if you ignore his performance down the stretch, you can’t dismiss his anemic production as a righthanded hitter — a .219 average with two home runs in 96 at-bats.
Overall, his end-of-season numbers look pretty impressive on paper — the only NL second basemen with similar or better production were youngsters Chase Utley, Dan Uggla, and Brandon Phillips. So, he’s in line for a raise — and / or a multiyear contract. But is he worth it?
Personally, I think Valentin has at least one more year left as a platoon player, and maybe another year as a solid guy off the bench — sort of what John Valentin did for the Mets in his final year. But I don’t see Valentin as an everyday starter in 2007, and therefore he might not be worth the kind of dollars he’s seeking.
Assuming Valentin does not test the free-agent waters, he’s a shoo-in to be the starting second baseman against righthanders come Opening Day 2007. But who will play against the lefties?
Forget Anderson Hernandez — he’s never going to hit enough to validate a place in the Mets lineup. Yes, his defense is remarkable — Gold Glove quality — but the Mets are built to score lots of runs and rely on the bullpen. After benefitting from the 18-HR, 62-RBI production of Jose Valentin at second base in the near-AL lineup, it’s hard to imagine the Mets doing with less in 2007. As much as Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya talk about the importance of defense, the bottom line is bats — if there’s a way to get some offense out of second base, the Mets will do it. That said, the other in-house candidates would be Chris Woodward, Ruben Gotay, and Chase Lambin. Woodward had a terrible season, finalized by post-season surgery. He’s also eligible for free-agency, so who even knows if he’ll return. Gotay is an enigma the Mets received from the Royals in return for Keppinger, who has shown some punch but not enough to be considered a serious contender. Lambin is a guy who once showed promise, but at 27 is a fringe prospect whose ceiling looks to be Woodward’s replacement as a utilityman. Therefore, it looks like any platoon partner for Jose Valentin will most likely come from outside the organization.
There are a number of intriguing possibilities from the potential pool of free agents, with three in particular sticking out — Alfonso Soriano, Adam Kennedy and Julio Lugo. All were the subject of myriad rumors involving the Mets over the last 12 months, so you’d have to think there’s some interest. Chances are, though, that if any of these players are signed, Valentin will be allowed to walk — unless he’s OK with returning as the top guy off the bench (which was supposed to be his role in 2006).
If Omar Minaya chooses to follow in the pattern of his first two offseasons and make a big splash free-agent signing, then you can count on Soriano in Flushing — unless Barry Zito is the target. Assuming Minaya passes on Soriano, Lugo and Kennedy both would seem to be appropriate pickups. Either would fit in just fine as a #2 or #8 hitter in the Mets’ lineup, and provide above-average defense. However, Omar seems to like the sleepers, and therefore he may consider one of several veterans — Mark Loretta, Mark DeRosa, and Tony Graffanino leading the way. Further, don’t discount what the Mets learned from Valentin’s performance, and don’t be surprised if Omar takes a flyer on someone you don’t think of as a second sacker, such as Tony Batista, Rich Aurilia, Jeff Cirillo, Aaron Boone, or Pedro Feliz.
Batista has ties to Minaya going back to a 2004 gamble that Omar took on him in Montreal, when Batista rewarded him with a 32-HR, 110-RBI season. Though a natural third baseman, he has played over 300 Major League games in the middle infield — so the position is not completely foreign to him. Boone and Aurilia have similar experience, and though it would be surprising to see another Boone take a shot at 2B, it isn’t completely out of the question to see him or St. John’s alum Aurilia competing for the keystone in March. The longshot is Feliz, who is more of a corner infielder and never played a game at second base, but has some experience at shortstop. Consider it wishful thinking for the Mets to overpay for Feliz to play out of position — there’s a better chance of seeing Soriano in the Mets blue and orange. But hey, it’s the offseason, and we can dream, can’t we?
Speaking of dreaming, isn’t there a chance the Mets will trade a few arms — say, Aaron Heilman and Mike Pelfrey — to Texas for Michael Young? Or perhaps a package including an arm and Lastings Milledge to the Orioles for Miguel Tejada? OK, maybe not.
Getting back to reality … who will be the Mets’ second baseman in 2007? I’ll go on a limb and bet that Minaya makes the splash with Soriano. If he doesn’t, my second bet is on one of the Marks — DeRosa or Loretta — or a local guy like Aurilia or Frank Catalanotto in a platoon with Valentin and as sometime leftfielder. Failing all those guesses, I see Minaya pouncing on a veteran who has a strong season of winter ball in Liga de Beisbol del Caribe — with my heartstrings pulling for longshot Edgardo Alfonzo.
It’s a long way to spring training, and this is one aspect of the Mets roster that is sure to be an interesting and evolving story throughout the winter.