Minaya needs to stop signing FAs or How to Fix the Mets

Can’t say much for the Mets of recent years, who have continuously fallen victim to injuries and yet still sign whatever free agent they feel fits a need. Fortunately for Mets fans, the pockets are deep.  Ask the Reds how signing a reliever to an eight-figure salary over multiple years is working for them.

I digress. Omar Minaya made yet another big splash in the off-season, this time signing Jason Bay to a 4 year, $66 million deal with a vesting option in 2014. In 2008-09, Minaya signed Franky Rodriguez and J.J. Putz to big deals.  In 2007-08, Minaya traded very little to the Twins for Johan Santana, and then extended him to a huge contract.  In 2006-07, he signed Carlos Beltran to one of the biggest free agent signings in history.

Meanwhile, the Mets have had gaping holes in left field and first base for the last few years, two of the easiest positions in baseball to fill, and a bad starting rotation since 2006 that has only gotten worse.  This is with players available who can be signed cheaply and perform at an above average rate every year. And, you know, the funny thing about all this is that they’ve had two important positions filled with great players who are signed cheaply by way of rookie contracts.  Imagine how much they would overpay for  Wright ($10m) and Reyes ($9) if they were free agents on the open market.

Matt Pouliot of NBC Sports said it best, the Mets put their eggs in one basket AGAIN.  Yes, they could use a power hitter of Bay’s skill, but they really, really need pitching.  Maybe Minaya doesn’t know this, but Bay isn’t a pitcher.  They could make another big splash with Joel Piniero, but he replaces only one pitcher.  That would still mean holes at C, 1B, LF and three of the five starting pitching spots.

You think what maybe they could have done with that 15 mil per (or 66 mil over four years) and the current free agent pool. Your starting pitchers from last year are:

Johan Santana (131 ERA+ very good)
Mike Pelfrey (93 ERA+ below average)
John Maine (82 ERA+ well below average)
Tim Redding (81 ERA+ well below average)
Livan Hernandez (75 ERA+ kinda really bad)
Oliver Perez (65 ERA+ oy)*

*For ERA+, 100 is league average.  The Mets started five pitchers who were below average.  On top of that, not a single starter made it over 200 IP.  Pelfrey made it to 185, Santana to 166 and the rest were 135 and below.

Redding is gone via FA.

So shop around and see what two starting pitchers can be had cheaply that would probably perform at average rates.

For one, you got Jon Garland.  Not an impressive pitcher, but he pitches at an average or slightly above-average rate.  A lot of the Mets’ starting pitcher woes started with their walks per nine innings; only Santana and Pelfrey had BB/9 under 3.4, which is pretty bad (don’t look at Oliver Perez’s, for the love of God).  Garland doesn’t have a great BB/9, but it’s sub-3 and even if he declines early (he’s only 30 years old), it shouldn’t be aggressive.  All peripherals say he’s pitching steadily and he averages 200 innings per year, so offer him a low-ball at one or two years at 3-4.5 per and see what happens.  He wasn’t offered arbitration, so there’s no draft pick at risk.

Joel Piniero is out there too and his groundball rate from last year (60%) makes me salivate. If you want to drop some bills on a starter, he’s basically the last one left, but he’ll be expensive. Might want to wait and see what unfolds in the next month; watch if some other team overpays for him, and if not, then offer him something sensible–two years, 15 mil.*

*Obviously some of these prices are very low, but the point here is to get value with money.  The Mets started five pitchers who pitched below average last year.  We don’t want to get one pitcher for a lot of money, we want to get a few pitchers that will be average or above.

After that is a bunch of bad pitchers and injury reclamation projects, but some are probably worth a one-year deal.

Ben Sheets is probably at the top of that list, but he’ll probably go for a $3 mil base with a ton of incentives that could net him about $9 mil somewhere else.  It’s a good deal for a team that can gamble on a starters spot with him, but the Mets can’t gamble that much, they need average production and at a reasonable rate.

Brett Myers can be had for cheap and he’d probably want to tear the Phillies apart.  His home runs allowed per nine innings rate was scary high last year, but that might have been a fluke and switching to Citifield might help.  Offer one year, $1 million with incentives, see if he bites.  If someone comes in higher, don’t go over $3 mil with possibly $6 in incentives, or $6 mil over two years.  The Kelvim Escobar signing was great and I’d like to see Escobar in as a spot starter with Myers, but at the right price.

The FA pitching market is shallow after that, but other cheap options: Erik Bedard, Jason Jennings, Vicente Padilla and Noah Lowry, basically in order of attractiveness.  And by attractiveness, I mean from “hmm, that’s not bad” to “well, at least he’s not Oliver Perez.

As for left field, well you can plug virtually any player in and they’d do about as good as JayBay defensively, so we’re just looking offensively.  I would probably give a good look at Adam Laroche, whose a great line drive hitter with some decent power.  A good two-year deal for $12 mil sounds like a good deal and maybe three years, $18 mil if he doesn’t bite on that.  He’s asking for a lot, though, so maybe Jack Cust as a back pocket option–Cust’s home run to flyball ratio took a huge dive last year, but all other stats were perfectly aligned with previous performance.  I’m not sure how to read that, but it looks flukey and there’s no sense in not offering a one-year deal.

So let’s see what we got so far if our wish list comes true.

Joel Piniero: 2 years, 15 million (~7.5 mil per year)
Jon Garland: 1 year, 3 million
Adam Laroche: 3 years, 18 mil (6 mil per)

So that’s basically all of Bay’s contract per annum, plus Garland is off the books after the 2010 season, Piniero is off after 2011 and Laroche is off after 2012.  (The Mets will be paying Bay more than $15 million in 2013.)

If Piniero goes to $20 mil or gets more years, then that’s fine, let someone else sign him.  Piniero’s key to success last year was a very high groundball rate and a very low BB/9.  Before that, Piniero was, at best, an average starter for most of his career and although it’s cool to see he put it all together in 2009, he’s been the definition of erratic throughout his career. Godforbid you have another Oliver Perez stuck in the rotation through 2013.

Here’s what happens if our wish list doesn’t come true:

Jon Garland: 2 years, $7 mil (3.5 mil per)
Ben Sheets/Brett Myers/Erik Bedard: 1 year, 3 mil
Jack Cust: one year, 3 mil

So if Piniero is unavailable and Laroche signs elsewhere for more money, our back-up options aren’t terrible.  Garland wrapped up for two years isn’t too bad and maybe you sign two or three of the injury projects to replace Piniero’s dollar worth and alternate them between minors and majors to see which pan out and which don’t–Ned Colletti does this almost every year and it’s pretty effective.  Then you put Pelfrey and the corpse of John Maine or Oliver Perez in the fourth or fifth spot and suddenly you’ve got some average production over a sustained number of innings in three–and maybe four or five if Pelfrey and another reclamation project can turn it around–spots in the rotation.

In scenario B, I would take a shot at Russell Branyan at one or two years.  If not, re-sign Fernando Tatis to a one-year, since he performed above average last year and have him platoon with Murphy.

Of course there’s still issues at catcher and first base.  Miguel Olivo would probably be a better use of the money, but Minaya is almost definitely going to sign Bengie Molina regardless of what I think.  You’d like to see Molina signed at one year (and not so much) so maybe the Mets can take a shot at Mauer or Victor Martinez in 2011, but that’s not happening.  And holy crap, Molina is pretty much worse than Omir Santos already.

And voila.  The Mets are dramatically improved with payroll flexibility for the next few years.  For those saying the Bay signing was a great signing, remember that free agent hitters pop up on the market every year.  The great players always sign for big money, but the difference between a below average player and an average one can often be as big as or greater than the difference between an average player and an above-average one.

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