No Bauer or Springer? No problem: How the Mets actually addressed their biggest roster need

Sports

New York Mets fans, riding the wave of new owner Steve Cohen’s money and enthusiasm, began the offseason hoping to end up with at least two players — and dreaming on three — from the group of Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer and DJ LeMahieu. The Mets landed only Lindor, via a blockbuster trade with Cleveland, while the four free agents signed elsewhere, leaving some Mets fans disappointed that the winter overhaul wasn’t a little more dramatic.

Still, the Mets acquired one of the best all-around players in the game in Lindor and a very good starting pitcher in Carlos Carrasco, and thanks to the signings of 10 major league free agents, they enter the 2021 season with a much better, deeper roster than they’ve had in recent years. At the outset of the offseason, new team president Sandy Alderson said a key goal was to improve the team’s depth — not just the major league roster but Triple-A as well.

That’s what the Mets have accomplished. After they finished under .500 and missed the expanded playoffs in 2020, my colleague Bradford Doolittle sees them as a 90-win team in his projection system. FanGraphs predicts a 93-69 record — fourth best in the majors behind the Dodgers, Padres and Yankees. The PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus also forecasts 93 wins. On paper, the Mets look vastly improved.

Projection systems are certainly not infallible, but a key consideration they factor in is roster depth. No team makes it through a season without injuries, and organizational depth is so vital with the way front offices use the roster during a season, particularly the constant churn of pitchers. You can see the growth over the past two decades in the average number of players needed to get a through a season:

2019: 50 total players, 31 pitchers
2009: 46 total players, 23 pitchers
1999: 43 total players, 21 pitchers

Among those 10 free agents, the Mets signed starting pitchers Marcus Stroman (who accepted the team’s qualifying offer) and Taijuan Walker, and relievers Trevor May, Aaron Loup and Sam McWilliams. They acquired Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto in trades as deep rotation options. Those signed to minor league deals include Tommy Hunter, Mike Montgomery and Jerad Eickhoff, pitchers who have all had past major league success. The position players signed include James McCann, Kevin Pillar, Jonathan Villar, Albert Almora Jr. and Jose Martinez, plus Jose Peraza, Brandon Drury and Mallex Smith to minor league deals.

Maybe it’s not the most glamorous list of players, but let’s backtrack for a moment. Over the past three seasons, the Braves won 222 games and three division titles. The Mets won 189 games and failed to make the playoffs all three seasons. The talent disparity did not come at the top of the roster but in the middle and at the bottom. Check out the combined WAR for the best 10 players for each club:

2020
Mets: 15.8
Braves: 19.6

2019
Mets: 36.5
Braves: 36.7

2018
Mets: 35.7
Braves: 35.4

The Braves were a little better at the top in 2020 thanks to phenomenal seasons from Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, but the Mets were even with them in 2018 and 2019. The stars-and-scrubs approach can work — see the Nationals in 2019 — but it hasn’t worked for the Mets because the bottom of the roster has been so terrible. Check out the negative WAR on the team (not including pitchers’ hitting):

Here’s how bad the bottom of the Mets’ roster has been in recent years, looking at those players who produced below the level of the theoretical replacement player (not including pitchers’ hitting) and thus combined for negative WAR:

2018: 14 position players and 16 pitchers combined for minus-12.3 WAR.
Biggest culprits: Jay Bruce (hit .223/.310/.370 with bad defense in 94 games) and Paul Sewald (0-7, 6.07 ERA in 56 IP).

2019: 12 position players and nine pitchers combined for minus-8.0 WAR.
Biggest culprits: Tomas Nido (hit .191 in 144 PAs) and Tyler Bashlor (0-3, 6.95 ERA in 22 IP).

2020: Six position players and 10 pitchers combined for minus-4.2 WAR.
Biggest culprits: Brian Dozier (hit .133 with no RBIs in seven games) and Steven Matz (0-5, 9.68 ERA in 30 IP).

The Mets don’t need all these new secondary players to be great; they just need them to be not bad. In a sense, while the Mets didn’t end up spending Cohen’s money on the big free agents, they did take advantage of the soft market to reel in all those free agents. The fact that so many teams elected to sit out free agency worked to the Mets’ benefit.

This talent influx is why the Mets have a chance to unseat the Braves in the NL East. Still, as anybody who has watched the Mets in recent seasons will understand, they have to improve on the field, not just with the talent at hand. At the outset of spring training, manager Luis Rojas emphasized on a Zoom call with reporters three key areas of improvement.

1. “Our defense has to get better,” Rojas said. “That’s one of our main things to work on during the spring.”

Indeed, over the past three seasons, the Mets rank 29th in the majors in defensive runs saved (26th in 2020) and 27th in UZR. Lindor is a big upgrade over Amed Rosario, the team’s primary shortstop the past three seasons, but it remains to be seen how much the Mets have improved elsewhere.

The Mets signed Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. to provide depth and defense in center field, but Pillar’s defensive metrics have declined since his 2015-17 peak with the Blue Jays, and he ranked in just the 11th percentile in outs above average in 2020. Almora has struggled at the plate the past couple of years. For now, Pillar looks like a right-handed bat to complement left-handers Brandon Nimmo and Dominic Smith, but you can certainly make an argument that Jackie Bradley Jr. would have been the best fit here once Springer signed with Toronto.

In the infield, it was notable Rojas did not commit to J.D. Davis as the every-day third baseman. Davis is a liability at the hot corner (decent enough hands and arm but lacking range), so the Mets brought in Villar. Rojas emphasized positional versatility, so the Mets could play Jeff McNeil at third and Villar or even Peraza at second, improving defensively at two positions, especially when a ground ball pitcher like Stroman is starting.

2. “Controlling the running game. That’s something we haven’t done very well the past three years,” Rojas said. “We’re facing a tough division, a very fast division, so we want to minimize that.”

The Mets signed Wilson Ramos a couple of years ago for his bat, but he threw out just 16% of runners attempting to steal over two seasons. The Mets allowed the most stolen bases in the majors in 2019-2020 — 31 more than any other team (with the worst caught-stealing rate). Much of that is on the pitchers, of course, as base stealers were 42-of-45 against Noah Syndergaard in 2019 and 37-for-43 against Jacob deGrom the past two years. McCann has a career caught-stealing rate of 36%, well above the major league average, so he should be an improvement in this area.

3. “I thought we were poor running the bases last year,” Rojas said. “We got on base, we hit, but we didn’t maximize our scoring chances.”

The Mets did underperform their expected runs total by a significant margin. They scored 286 runs, but they “should” have scored 329. Some of that is just sequencing, but some of it is attributable to baserunning — a general lack of team speed. The Mets took the extra base, such as going first to third or second to home on a single, just 33% of the time, the lowest rate in the majors (the MLB average was 42%). FanGraphs credited the Mets with minus-11.1 runs on the bases, with only the Brewers faring worse.

Lindor will again be a positive in this area (although he replaces their two fastest runners in Rosario and Andres Gimenez). Of the projected regulars in 2021, the only others close to average or better speed are Nimmo (took the extra base 52% of the time) and Michael Conforto (41%). McCann will actually help here. Ramos didn’t take a single extra base as a runner, while McCann runs very well for a catcher and took the extra base 50% of the time in 2020. Villar is second in the majors in stolen bases since 2019, while Pillar and Peraza are plus runners. Pete Alonso is the biggest slug (21% advancement rate), but you will live with that if he’s bashing 45 home runs. A batting order of Nimmo, Lindor and Conforto at least gives the Mets three solid runners at the top of the lineup.

Was it a perfect roster makeover? No. Certainly Springer felt like a perfect fit — a great center fielder with power. Any team could use Bauer in its rotation. On the other hand, perhaps the money not spent on Springer or Bauer will be used to sign Lindor to a long-term extension. Most significantly, the Mets are much better from 1 to 40 on the roster — and that should allow them to challenge for their first NL East title since 2015.

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