Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 30, 2009
BASEBALL: Keeping The Wolf At Bay
So, Omar Minaya finally accomplished something this offseason besides acquiring Henry Blanco, RA Dickey and...I dunno, working on his Soduku game or something.
Regarding the Mets' signing of Jason Bay yesterday, let me start by getting this out of the way: I have a bad feeling that this is not going to work out well at all. I have no rational basis for that whatsoever - maybe it's just a hangover from George Foster and Bobby Bonilla (granted, both of whom had some good years with the Mets). But with that out of the way, let's look at this rationally.
Bay will be 31 next season, 34 when he finishes the fourth guaranteed season of the 4-year-$66 million deal (an average of $16.5 million per year), and 35 when the Mets will pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 million for a fifth year he can qualify for by meeting certain benchmarks (details are unclear, but it sounds like Bay will get the fifth year if he stays healthy). That's a lot of money, but for a team with the Mets' market, it shouldn't be a budget-buster.
What were the options? The Mets had no credible left fielder last year except when Gary Sheffield was hitting well, and you couldn't bring back Sheffield as a long-term solution. The Mets could have focused on a first baseman, but - more on this below - they presumably prefer to keep open the option of bringing back Carlos Delgado rather than a similarly risky left fielder. And rebuilding remains a non-option: Santana, Beltran and K-Rod are all going to be in their primes for only a few more years, so the team still needs to look to compete seriously no later than 2011.
With Hideki Matsui signed, Matt Holliday, Vlad Guerrero and Johnny Damon are the other choices on the free agent market (the Mets' minor league cupboard being thin, they would prefer a free agent to trading for, say, Adam Dunn). Guerrero remains a very dangerous hitter (.309/.373/.515, OPS+ of 130 the last three seasons), but he'll be 35 next season, has a history of back trouble, missed a third of the season in 2009 and his ability to play the field is questionable. Damon's 36, has no arm, is a less dangerous power threat (.285/.364/.449, 114 OPS+), and hit 17 of his 24 homers last year at home. Holliday is a better player than Bay: he's a year younger, more athletic, a significantly better glove, and as a hitter he comes out ahead over the last three seasons, .325/.403/.555 143 OPS+ to .267/.362/.493 121 OPS+, thanks in large part to Bay's crummy 2007 season (and in the raw numbers, to Coors Field). They're similarly durable - Bay's missed 35 games the last 3 years, Holliday 33. Holliday runs a bit more, but neither is a big base thief and Bay's a career 82.5% base thief to 76.9% for Holliday. Over their careers, Holliday's OPS+ is 133, Bay's is 131. Significantly, Bay's a career .278/.366/.532 hitter on the road, Holliday .284/.353/.454.
So, while Holliday is probably a better bet, his salary demands are outrageous - I'm seeing numbers thrown around like 8 years and $18 million a year. He's not that much better.
One difference between Bay and some of the Mets' less successful imports is that he won't be expected to be the star of the show - Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Santana and K-Rod all remain bigger names. And assuming Reyes is healthy, adding Bay's power-and-patience bat to Wright, Reyes, and Beltran immediately makes it more sensible to bring back Delgado to join with (ugh) Jeff Francouer to give you a series of power hitters in the middle of the order (I expect Francouer to revert to a middle-ground .280/.310/.470 type season this year, the value of which depends heavily on how many other guys in the lineup are on base).
As for Delgado, it appears he's had some offseason setbacks, so bringing him back may be a less certain proposition. But strategically, the Bay deal at least makes it a more sensible option to consider.
UPDATE: Rob Neyer looks at how the Bay signing is emblematic of the Mets' lack of a farm system and consequent reliance on veteran free agents (a problem they might have had less of if they hadn't dealt Bay for Steve Reed in 2002). All of that is true and very much Omar Minaya's fault - they allocation of too few resources to signing young talent is especially galling - but it doesn't really detract from the fact that if that's the fix you're in, signing Bay makes sense and rebuilding in the middle of the Beltran, Santana, K-Rod, Wright and Reyes contracts (not to mention the Castillo and Ollie Perez albatrosses) doesn't.