Pagan Sacrifice?

Craig Glaser at Sabometrics argues that the Mets should convert Jason Bay into a first baseman to get Angel Pagan’s bat in the lineup long term while eliminating the Hobson’s Choice between Daniel Murphy and the Jacobs/Tatis platoon. More broadly, Glaser argues that “[w]hen you have five above average major league hitters available to you (Wright, Reyes, Bay, Francoeur, Pagan) it’s a really glaring mistake to keep one of them on the bench” in favor of Gary Matthews.
Leave aside the wishful-thinking assumption that Jeff Francouer will continue to be an above-average major league hitter, as he has been with the Mets (.323/.353/.532, 132 OPS+ in 81 games in blue and orange, averaging 200 hits, 46 doubles, 24 homers and 94 RBI per 162 games) but was not with the Braves (.266/.308/.424, 89 OPS+ in 632 games as a Brave), I question whether Pagan is really good enough to be more than adequate as a major league regular. His career line is .281/.332/.441 (99 OPS+), which you can live with from a good defensive center fielder, but is nothing to write home about offensively, and totally inadequate for a corner outfielder or – more significantly, if you’re moving your left fielder to first base to make room for Pagan – a first baseman. While Pagan may be a slightly better hitter than the Jacobs/Tatis platoon or than Murphy, the difference isn’t enough to justify forcing a $66 million acquisition to learn a new position.
I’m not opposed on principle to moving Bay to first at some point during his contract; he’s not that much of a glove man in left. But the Mets clearly have a plan at first, which is to hold out until Ike Davis is major-league ready. Davis, who’s 23, struggled in his first year of short-season exposure to A ball in Brooklyn in 2008, but took huge strides forward last season, batting .288/.376/.486 in 59 games in high-A St. Lucie and .309/.386/.565 in 55 games in AA Binghamton, and through the season’s first week he’s batting a scorching .375/.545/.938 at AAA Buffalo. Admittedly, if Davis and Fernando Martinez (who’s off to a poor start at Buffalo, as are pretty much all the hitters there except Davis) both develop rapidly into quality players, that will create some issues of where to put Bay, Pagan and/or Francouer (assuming Beltran’s back in center), but that’s a good problem to have and most likely best solved by dealing Frenchy when you get to that point. And right now, Davis looks like a much better bet to contribute to the Mets in 2010 or 2011 than Martinez.
As for Pagan against Matthews, that’s a much easier question, and I agree entirely that Pagan should be a no-brainer to play every day while Beltran is out; the 35-year-old Matthews’ .214 slugging percentage thus far says about all you need to know about his ability to convince people that his .245/.326/.358 line in 837 plate appearances the past two seasons was some sort of fluke, and it’s not like Matthews is such a great defender anymore.
What is even clearer is that as long as Beltran is out, and maybe even when he returns, Pagan should never be out of the lineup at Citi Field. For a guy who has never played in one of the really tremendous hitters’ parks like Colorado or Texas or Cincinnati (Wrigley’s not what it once was), Pagan’s career home-road splits are jaw-dropping: .314/.366/.522 at home, .246/.295/.354 on the road. His career line in 49 games at Citi Field? .332/.372/.547, with a per-162-games average of 46 doubles, 20 triples and 17 homers. Even given the small sample size, you have to like how well he’s acclimated to the park’s spacious power alleys and good hitting backdrop, in contrast to guys like David Wright (.298/.378/.434 at home, .314/.401/.458 on the road last year) and Beltran (.292/.376/.403 at home in 2009, .354/.448/.585 on the road).
Indeed, Pagan’s success at home may point the way towards a different kind of offensive team than what worked at low-average, high-strikeout Shea, where the best offensive game was the Darryl Strawberry/Howard Johnson model of homers, walks and steals to make up for the difficulty of winning by trying to put the ball in play (I will pass without comment the irony that HoJo became the Mets hitting coach only as the team left Shea behind). Jose Reyes, a similar style of hitter to Pagan, has thus far played just 22 games at Citi Field but has hit .323/.400/.473 there, averaging 52 doubles, 15 triples, and 7 homers per 162 games at Citi. Luis Castillo last season batted .350/.429/.402, at home, .250/.341/.284 on the road. Murphy, who is less of a speed player but also a line-drive type more than a power hitter with a lot of loft in his swing, batted .294/.323/.500 at home in 2009 (averaging 50 doubles, 9 triples and 16 homers per 600 plate appearances), .238/.304/.358 on the road. Francouer’s career line in 45 games at Citi is .310/.348/.530 with per-162 game averages of 54 doubles, 7 triples and 22 homers. (Granted, this is similar to his line overall as a Met.)
Of course, you have to win on the road, too, so it’s not necessarily a bad idea to have guys like Wright, Beltran and Bay who play a more traditional offensive game. But in the long run, in allocating resources at the margins, guys who can rack up the doubles and triples in the gaps may well be the ideal Citi Field hitters, much as was true of the Royals and Cardinals of the 70s and 80s; the Mets may need to start thinking of themselves as a turf team.

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