It’s time for Mets to pivot offseason plan with short-term signings

It’s time for Mets to pivot offseason plan with short-term signings

December 18, 2018

Brodie Van Wagenen has used the early weeks of his administration to make the Mets far more interesting and probably a good deal better (at least for 2019).

What lingers in the baton pass from Sandy Alderson to Van Wagenen is fragility and a lack of depth. Even with apparent upgrades to the lineup and pen, the Mets — then and now — remain at the mercy of a brittle rotation.

And the newcomers are an injury-prone catcher (Wilson Ramos), a 36-year-old second baseman who was suspended last year for testing positive for a banned substance (Robinson Cano) and two relievers (Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia) — the most volatile genus in the sport.

Credit to Van Wagenen for honoring his word to go for it and convincing his bosses to follow (with their wallets and open-mindedness) into this arena. The danger that persists is the Mets still are not deep while the NL East is. The Mets are not getting better in a vacuum. The Braves, Nationals and Phillies finished ahead of the Mets in 2018 and also are pushing to improve for 2019.

So what Van Wagenen should be doing now is thickening the roster rather than indulging more gambles. A.J. Pollock, for example, is talented, but he also is injury-prone (one season of more than 500 plate appearances) and his OPS in Chase Field and Coors Field the past two seasons is .862 OPS compared to .721 elsewhere.

Deepening the roster now with one-year alternatives gives the Mets a better overall team to go for it now while not being tied to more long-term burdens if the breaks familiarly go against them and they have to sell out of this in July and think beyond 2019.

So here is what I would be thinking:

More starting pitching. Beyond the top five is Corey Oswalt and then, right, and then whom? The Mets were one of just nine teams to have five starters each make at least 20 starts last year. They need to have more protection than Oswalt if that does not occur again.

Francisco Liriano, even at 35, has retained good pure stuff plus has a rep as a clubhouse positive. The Mets can try to sign him as the lefty reliever they need, a role he filled with the 2017 champion Astros. As a full-time starter last year, Liriano held lefties to a .171 batting average and .516 OPS. And as a starter for Detroit, he pitched to a 4.58 ERA, not much worse than league average. So, if need be, the Mets could always stretch him out to start again.

But even if successful with Liriano, the Mets must do better with minor league free-agent types than in recent years. Oakland emerged as a wild card last year, in part, because it signed Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson to free-agent deals. The Mets bolstered their analytics department by hiring Adam Guttridge as an assistant GM. Let’s see if they can find their versions of Anderson or Jackson.

2. If not Pollock, then what? I still like Juan Lagares despite a volume of injuries that make Pollock seem like Cal Ripken Jr. Lagares is stellar on defense and can hit lefty pitching. I thought Billy Hamilton would be a strong complement because, in tandem with Lagares, it would have meant terrific defense daily and a switch-hitting speedster deepening the bench. But he signed with Kansas City.

Brandon Nimmo can play center ably enough that the Mets do not have to get locked in on a pure center fielder for their next outfield addition. Nimmo and Michael Conforto hit lefties well, but still a righty bat to fill in at one corner against southpaws makes sense. Do you want to put Melky Cabrera back with pal Cano — ex-Yankees who have both served PED-related suspensions? He is a switch-hitter who can still really hit lefty pitching. However, he is a poor defender.

Are righty hitters who can play all over the outfield with skill such as St. Louis’ Tyler O’Neill or Houston’s Jake Marisnick acquirable?

The best option would be versatile Marwin Gonzalez, but I believe he has enough suitors as to make him beyond the Mets’ reach. They will hope Jeff McNeil serves a somewhat similar role.

3. Who is the backup catcher? Even his greatest admirers would say that Ramos is too brittle to try to push beyond 110 games, if that much. Ramos has a bit of a Gary Sanchez reputation — he can hit and throw, but he can get lackadaisical behind the plate and in overall catching energy, leading to passed balls and some fracture with the pitching staff. It means the backup is important.

So do the Mets go with Kevin Plawecki, who is out of options and so either makes the 25-man roster or is almost certainly lost to waivers, or Travis d’Arnaud, who is coming off Tommy John surgery?

A lot of catching remains in free agency such as Yasmani Grandal, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters and others, so it might be best if the Mets wait until spring. Remember that as an arbitration-eligible player, d’Arnaud is operating on a non-guaranteed contract. So if it turns out d’Arnaud is not all the way back from surgery, the Mets could cut him no later than March 10 and owe him 30 days pay (which would be roughly $650,000) or no later than March 25 and owe 45 days pay (roughly $1 million).

In that scenario, the Mets would still have Plawecki as the backup. If d’Arnaud is sound, the Mets would have two offensive catchers and maybe could turn Plawecki into a useful lefty reliever such as Arizona’s T.J. McFarland or the Dodgers’ Scott Alexander.

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