MLB free-agency grades: New York Mets add talent, depth with Starling Marte and more.
Black Friday, a great American tradition, is supposed to be about a frenzied, wild-eyed scramble for bargains. And on this particular Black Friday, the Mets were certainly frenzied — we can only imagine what the eyes of Steve Cohen looked like as his club signed three free-agent hitters over the span of a few hours. Whether any of the deals for this trio qualifies as a bargain, though, we’ll have to wait and see.
It’s been an eventful offseason so far for the Mets, whose initial task after they wrapped up a 77-85 season was to find an executive to oversee all of this. It took them awhile, as they were linked in the rumor mill to everybody from Theo Epstein to Branch Rickey, but they landed on former Angels general manager Billy Eppler.
Meanwhile, as the early free-agent market heated up for starting pitchers, New York saw former rotation members Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz sign elsewhere and watched from afar as Justin Verlander, Eduardo Rodriguez, Anthony DeSclafani and others came off the market. Then Cohen sounded off about Matz’s agent on his always-entertaining Twitter feed.
It has all been, well, kind of frenzied and a little wild-eyed. In other words, the Mets have been in Black Friday mode all along — it just wasn’t until the day after Thanksgiving that they finally got some players to show for it.
Let’s take a quick wide-lens snapshot. After the Mets agreed to reported deals with Starling Marte (four years, $78 million), Mark Canha (two years, $26.5 million) and Eduardo Escobar (two years, $20 million), Roster Resource has the team projected for $229 million in luxury tax payroll for 2022, while Cots Contracts is at $223 million. That’s the highest figure in the majors, most notably higher than the Yankees or Dodgers (for the time being — that is certainly subject to change with it still so early in the hot stove season).
For all that payroll commitment, the Mets haven’t made a single move to bolster a starting rotation light on depth and deep in injury question marks. Yes, it’s still early, and the likes of Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray and others remain on the market. But it’s hard to determine how these deals actually make a difference to New York’s 2022 results without the answer to a looming question: Just how high is Cohen willing to go in the payroll climb?
For now, we will that set aside and look at the Mets’ three acquisitions just in the context of the position player group. None of the deals was a huge overpay on its face, with each of them landing in the vicinity of Kiley McDaniel’s market rankings and projections in both length and value. So if we deem each of the contracts more or less fair market value, then we can focus on the baseball impact.
Here, the best way to put it is to say New York’s new trio raises the floor of the roster more than it raises the ceiling. That might not sound sexy, but after last season’s second-half collapse, it ought to sound pretty good if you root for the Mets.
Marte was the top free-agent center fielder on the market, and there were plenty of contending teams with whom he could have fit, whether we’re talking baseball or contract. That it was the Mets who landed him — and that they did so without overshooting the market — is a nice development for a team that needed one.
All three of the new Mets are coming off their age-32 seasons, so each of them could be seen as either post-prime players or perhaps at the outer edge of their primes. As the most athletic of the three, Marte has the traits of a player who ought to age the best of the group. He’s kind of a throwback in that his game revolves around average and speed, but he has some power to fall back on if his wheels start to show wear and tear.
Marte has hit at least .277 in each season since 2013 and is coming off a .310 campaign during which matched his career high with 47 steals. Defensively, he won a couple of Gold Gloves when he was a left fielder for the Pirates, but in center, he’s around average by the metrics, perhaps a tick above. With a four-year deal, you should feel OK about the chances for his offensive profile to hold up as his contract takes him into his mid-30s. But you have to worry about his ability to stick in center — where the Mets really, really need him to stick. For 2022, though, they should be fine.
Canha ostensibly takes the roster spot vacated by free agent Michael Conforto, who now is highly unlikely to end up back in New York. Canha has a lower ceiling than Conforto and perhaps a higher likelihood for collapse. But overall, his recent production, in context, has been similar. He’s older than Conforto, hits right-handed and isn’t as good defensively. His contract is also likely to be considerably less in total value than the one Conforto ultimately lands.
As for Escobar, he enters into a mix of complementary veterans who do different things well and play multiple positions. He’ll join Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis in that class. For now, you can pencil in Pete Alonso at first base, Francisco Lindor at shortstop, Robinson Cano at second base and Marte in center. After that, consider the options the Mets’ manager will have at each position (assuming they get around to hiring a manager):
- Designated hitter: Dominic Smith (L), Canha (R), Davis (R), McNeil (L), etc.
- Third base: Escobar (S), McNeil (L), Davis (R)
- Left field: Canha (R), Smith (L), McNeil (L), Davis (R), Escobar (S)
- Right field: Brandon Nimmo (L), Canha (R), Davis (R), Escobar (S)
In addition, Nimmo will go from New York’s projected center fielder to Marte’s backup at that position, while both McNeil and Escobar can spell Cano at the keystone. Infielder Luis Guillorme will fit into this juggling act as well, and prospect Ronny Mauricio also might.
The portrait that emerges here is one of a position player group that is nicely balanced and versatile, and one that can get more production out of more roster spots if Eppler, the new manager and the analytics staff all push the right buttons game in, game out.
It’s also an expensive group, and a problem might arise if Eppler starts to view the holdovers (McNeil, Davis, Smith) as trade candidates in an effort to save some money on the margins and perhaps help bring back some starting pitching. The Mets need the pitching, but the new-look roster works better when viewed as a whole than it would if we were to think of Escobar and Canha as plug-and-play, every-day regulars.
For now, New York has deepened its roster and added positional and lineup flexibility, all while landing the premier center fielder on the free-agent market. And all it cost was a whole lot of Steve Cohen’s money. After years and years of their team not spending like the big-market franchise it actually is, that much at least had to brighten Black Friday for Mets fans all over the Big Apple.
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