January 1, 2014

The Case Against Free Agents as the Way to Make the Mets a Winner

Baseball has always been about three things: scouting, coaching and management. A franchise that does these things well wins.  The amount of money a franchise spends means only so much. The Yankees have outspent every team in baseball for the last dozen years and have only one championship to show for it.  Granted, they have been contenders nearly every year, but the Cardinals and Red Sox have had far greater success and spent a King's ransom less in the same time span. Many have argued that the Mets should follow the Yankees' example and buy every available player as a means to achieving post season success. Anticipating upgrades from the free agent marketplace, however, ignores the limitations of the Mets' owners willingness to spend.  More importantly, it overvalues the pool of available talent that might be purchased to help the franchise succeed.

A recent example shows why acquiring free agents is not all it is cracked up to be.  Michael Bourne was a free agent target of the Mets last winter.  Fans and media alike dubbed him "the Answer" in Centerfield. He was a proven glove and his offensive production was unquestionably far better than any option the Mets had in house.  He wanted a five year, $60M contract.  Sandy Alderson, perhaps knowing that four years wouldn't seal the deal, would not budge.  The Mets lost out on Bourn, who signed with the Indians.

Here were the results: Bourn played 130 games for Cleveland. He had 525 at-bats, scored 75 runs, had a batting average of .263 with an on base percentage of .316. He stole 12 bases and struck out 132 times. Juan Lagares, who was on exactly nobody's radar last winter, played centerfield for the Mets in 2013.  He had 392 at-bats, scored 35 runs, had a batting average of .242 with an on base percentage of .281. He stole 6 bases and struck out 96 times.  Bourn admittedly had marginally better offensive statistics than Lagares in 2013 - some of which can be attributed to batting order placement and more consistent playing time. No one who watched Lagares play day in and day out can say that Bourn was a better defensive outfielder. Lagares has a much higher ceiling and Bourn gets closer to being Cleveland's Jason Bay as each day passes.  Alderson saved the Mets $11.6M in 2013 and for the next four years, close to $40M.  In addition, the Mets selected Dominick Smith with the draft pick they saved by not signing Bourn. Smith played in the Gulf Coast League (and a cup of coffee in Kingston) where he hit a combined .301 with an on base percentage of .398.  He is very young (he turns 19 this coming June), but if he progresses as he started, he is sharing an infield with David Wright in 2016.  Had Alderson signed Bourn, no one ever sees Lagares in a Mets uniform and Dominick Smith plays for a different franchise.  Put differently, assume the roles were reversed and Michael Bourn were on the 2013 Mets with a four year $48M contract ahead of him.  The Indians come knocking on the Mets' door looking for a trade of Lagares and Smith for Bourn. Would the Mets take the deal?  Well, of course they would.

The Class of 2014 Free Agents have been a group led by Robinson Cano ($240M), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153M) and Shin-Soo Choo ($130M).  A talented trio - but unless their individual performances improve substantially, only Cano has Hall of Fame potential.  None of the other free agents this year can turn a club around on his own.  Even the pitching is weak - so much so that a man who has thrown not one pitch to a Major League hitter is the most sought after player.  A look at next year's projected free agents shows a group not as talented and likely to be even more expensive.  Also, because of the rules for becoming a free agent, most players available are over 30 - with many in their mid to late 30's. Hardly the stuff of Cornerstone franchise players. The free agent market can be a valuable source of complementary players, but teams seeking to buy their way to a pennant will find themselves poorer and with a farm system that is devoid of talent as the result of the compensation picks they have to surrender.

The Mets have drafted wisely over the past several years (Matt Harvey, for example), traded players at their peak value for young talent (Beltran and Dickey for Wheeler and d'Arnaud and Syndergaard are two prime examples) and have avoided signing players to contracts that they will regret in years to come (like Jose Reyes). Gone are the days of Bay, Santana, Castillo and Oliver Perez.  They have amassed an abundance of young pitching that they can keep or use as trade bait when the time is right.  In the category of young pitching the Mets could deal are Raphael Montero, Jacob deGrom, Jeurys Familia, Jenrry Mejia, Bobby Parnell, Vic Black, Darin Gorski, Steven Matz, Jeff Walters and Cori Mazzoni.  The road map to consistently good performance starts on the mound. The Mets have accumulated a wealth of high ceiling pitching talent that they could never have acquired via free agency.

The post-Minaya era Mets have demonstrated that they are good talent evaluators.  By not mistaking wishes for facts, the front office has resisted the temptation to sacrifice what they are building long term for short term satisfaction. They have shown remarkable fiscal and emotional discipline (trading R.A. Dickey was a gut-wrenching decision, but clearly the smart move.)  The Mets are obviously a few players away from contending in the tough National League East.  Still, they are far better poised today, without breaking the bank on overpriced free agents, than they were in 2010 when they signed Jason Bay, who was supposed to deliver a World Series to Flushing.

This is a guest post by Denis Engel.

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