Yet another article from a prospective author: Candidate 7 applying for minor league guru.
New York Mets 2011 Outlook: Evaluating Second Base Production
In projecting next year’s Mets roster, and in doing so formulating a potential offseason strategy, the new GM will certain find that positions to be improved are few and far between. David Wright and Jose Reyes are, to be sure, above average options on the left side of the infield (although a cheap understudy for the fragile Reyes would be welcomed), Ike Davis is the first-baseman of the future, Josh Thole is seemingly the same at catcher, left and center fields are occupied by two behemoth contracts in Beltran and Bay, and Angel Pagan has made an incredibly compelling case to be a starting outfielder. The only position that is really up for grabs, then is the second base spot. Should the Mets spend big, given that it’s their only real question mark? Or are there viable in-house options? Let’s look at the choices for 2011 one-by-one.
Choice One: Ruben Tejada
The unsexy choice and probably the one that the new GM/Manager combination will make. Common sense would say that considering Tejada’s remarkable achievements relative to his age (having made the roster on Opening Day he was the youngest player in the MLB at the time) he should project as a markedly better player a few years down the road with even more seasoning; however, the same skill-set that made Tejada ready for MLB-duty at 20 also make his room for improvement less dramatic. Tejada has never hit above a .290 batting average in 4 years of professional baseball, and projects about as much pop as Luis Castillo (28 career homers, attention must be paid!).
In the field, Tejada has demonstrated strong potential, but perhaps not enough to compensate for his meager production. Tejada had spent much of his minor league career at shortstop, and 2010 was very much a trial by fire: his UZR rating at second was a well-below average -3.5, while his UZR at shortstop was a remarkably average .2 (in a very small sample). Should Mets fans consider Tejada as comparable to cult-hero Rey Ordonez, they would do well to take pause; even if Tejada were close to equalling Ordonez’s talent (a 13.1 UZR in 2002), those Met teams were receiving above-average production from second base and catcher, a luxury the 2011 Mets will certainly not have. While Tejada’s bat is probably not going to benefit from any more minor league seasoning, he could use more reps at second-base; if the Mets are truly looking to compete in 2011, Ruben Tejada probably isn’t starting more than 50 games.
Choice Two: Daniel Murphy
Daniel Murphy has been the forgotten man in the Mets system this year, both because of his injury and the ascendance of wunderkind Ike Davis. His production in the Dominican Winter League will give the Mets a good idea of what his value will be (after going hitless his first two games he was 3-4 with 3 doubles Sunday). Murphy is unlikely to be even average defensively; the organization’s reluctance to admit defeat on the Luis Castillo contract, as well as a rash of injuries, have meant that Murphy has yet to receive any meaningful seasoning at second base. His above average UZR-rating at first-base (a fairly solid 5.8) suggests he has the quick instincts to play second, although his range probably cannot compare to Tejada.
Unlike Tejada, however, Murphy’s bat can compensate. If Murphy can return to his 2009 form (or even better, the .313/.397/.473 numbers of late 2008) then the Mets can put up with his defensive adventures. Unlike Tejada, Murphy’s bat gives the Mets a variety of line-up options. His strong situation hitting would function well in the 2-hole, while his power would play lower in the line-up as well. Tejada is clearly destined to bat eighth in the order. But after a season away from the game, and with a new position to learn in addition to rehabilitating his bat, it may very well be too much to ask for Daniel Murphy to return to form, or even improve, in time for Opening Day.
Option Three: Platoon the Two
Probably the most likely option. In 54 at-bats last year against left-handed pitching Ruben Tejada hit a solid .296, while Murphy hit a meager .223 in 2009. Against right-handers, Murphy was .294 while Tejada an unreal .185. Despite Tejada’s seeming strength against left-handers, look for Murphy to get a good portion of starts against left-handers too, particularly as the season goes on and his familiarity with the position improves. Tejada, as we mentioned earlier, would certainly serve as a strong late-inning defensive replacement and an excellent, not to mention cheap, Reyes insurance policy. Both Tejada and Murphy give the team plenty of options, so even if the Mets look elsewhere for second base help I’d be willing to bet both will still make the club come April.
Option Four: Sign a Free Agent
This is the only position the Mets could plausibly splurge on a free agent if they so choose, so what free agent options are out there? For what seems like the millionth year in a row, Orlando Hudson is once again the cream of the second base crop. A type-B free agent, O-Dawg has expressed a desire to play in New York in the past, although years of being spurned in favor of Luis Castillo may finally have caught up to him. Hudson is likely to sign a deal similar to his 1-year, $5 million contract with Twins; a team that offers him multiple years will probably win him. Is he enough improvement over the cheaper Murphy/Tejada tandem?
In terms of dollar value, Hudson is still likely to be a bargain; fangraphs.com has this year’s production valued at $12.5 million, making his current contract a serious steal. He similarly outproduced his 2009 deal with the Dodgers, so Hudson seems a safe bet to exceed his contractual value. He brings a little pop to the position (6 homers in 126 games this year, 9 in 149 last year) and a career .424 slugging percentage (not a great figure but positively Ruthian in comparison to Castillo’s .268, for example) and should provide around a .275 average. Ultimately, Murphy against righties is probably a better bat, whereas defensively Hudson more than makes up for the difference (last year’s 9.8 UZR rating was sensational, although admittedly a career year not likely to be duplicated exactly). Murphy’s struggles against lefties and Tejada’s struggles against everybody would say that if the Mets are serious about a playoff run in 2011, they should sign Hudson. Since that is not likely to be the case, and Hudson might very well finally be wanting a multi-year deal that could potentially block the oft-injured prospect Reese Havens, it’s unlikely we’re going to see such a deal go down.
Other free agent options include former Mets Anderson Hernandez, Melvin Mora, Kaz Matsui and Alex Cora, as well as David Eckstein and Felipe Lopez; none represent much of an improvement and certainly not a significant enough improvement to merit consideration over the tandem.
This team probably isn’t making the playoffs next year, barring a major injection of money that probably would handcuff them down the road. With a spending spree, they can really benefit by adding Hudson and shifting Murphy in Tejada into bench roles they are much better suited for. However since that is unlikely to be the case, the Mets should make do with what they have. Spring training performance should determine how time is split, but a platoon of Murphy and Tejada, with Murphy in the lead, gives this team its best option to win next year (again, barring a shopping spree) and, considering Murphy’s upside, it gives the team its best option developmentally.