Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New York Mets 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 97-65, Won NL East, Lost NLCS

Pythagorean record: 91-71

Key free agents: Cliff Floyd, Jose Valentin, Orlando Hernandez, Chad Bradford, Guillermo Mota, Roberto Hernandez, Steve Trachsel, Darren Oliver

Plan for 2007: Plan around a decline from the team’s aging core and the overachievers from 2006

The Mets finished 2006 as the consensus best team in the National League, finishing with the best record in the league by nine games and sporting an everyday lineup with four stars and no huge weaknesses. Their starting pitching was suspect for much of the year, but an excellent bullpen carried them to 97 wins and to the NLCS, where they fell in seven games to the eventual World Champion Cardinals.

How much of that success will carry over to 2007? The good news for the Mets is that they have a great core to build around. Their lineup contains two superstars, Carlos Beltran and David Wright, and two great supporting players in Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado. The pitching staff returns two future Hall of Fame starters in Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez, and a potential Hall of Fame closer in Billy Wagner. Though all three, along with Delgado, are well past their prime, they still contribute at a high level when healthy—which, for Glavine, is always.

Even the stars, however, are not without question marks. Are the real Beltran and Reyes the 2006 versions, or 2005? Will Pedro recover from his surgery to become Pedro! in time for the 2007 playoffs? Will Delgado suffer from the sharp mid-30s decline that has killed off many of the best first basemen of the 1990-2005 era? Will Glavine’s stuff hold up in his age 41 season?

The stars will also need some help. Last year’s team had a Pythagorean record of just 91-71, and just 88.7 “third-order wins” (Baseball Prospectus’ stat of choice to determine how well a team has really played after accounting for the game’s natural variance). 91 wins is good, but it’s not a position of extreme strength, especially when the Mets are likely to receive less production in 2007 from several positions, especially the bullpen.

Let’s break down the decline:

Catcher: Paul LoDuca will be 35 in 2007, and catchers typically go through a period of extreme decline in their mid-30s. Projection: -1 win from 2006 value.
First Base: Carlos Delgado’s numbers, age and health point to a consistent decline, and he will be 35 in 2007 as well. Projection: -1 win.
Second Base: Jose Valentin is coming off a career year at age 36. Whether they re-sign him or not, they will experience a decline in production, as no available second baseman can be expected to match his 2006 numbers. Projection if Valentin re-signs: -2 wins.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes will only be 24 next year, but he also jumped substantially in value from 2005 to 2006, so it’s hard to project additional growth. Projection: no change.
Third Base: David Wright has maintained star-level numbers for two years and will be only 24 next year. Aggressive projection: +1 win.
Left Field: Though Cliff Floyd was injured and ineffective, Endy Chavez filled in well in his absence. Lastings Milledge is an exciting prospect, but he lacks on-base skills at this stage in his career. It’s hard to see him matching Chavez’s .306/.348/.431 line from 2006. Projection assuming Milledge is handed the job: -1 win.
Center Field: Carlos Beltran is a stud, but he has never had a season nearly as valuable as his 2006, and he’s one year removed from being labeled a bust. Projection: -2 wins.
Right Field: A full season of Shawn Green might be cause for optimism, but Green has declined significantly, and he isn’t really a better player than Xavier Nady at this stage. Projection: no change.
Bench: If Endy Chavez or Lastings Milledge is available on the bench next year, it should be a significant boost to the Mets’ flexibility. Projection: +1 win.

Add it up, and that’s a net loss of five wins from a team that only had 91-win talent to begin with, and we still haven’t gotten to a pitching staff featuring two 41-year olds, a 35-year old staff ace who will miss half of 2007 recovering from surgery, a non-prospect rookie who posted the best ERA of the rotation, and a bullpen full of guys who had career years in 2006. You may have noticed the high amount of age-related decline, a phenomenon common to teams that build mainly through long-term free-agent contracts.

Put simply, to remain at the 91-win level, the Mets have a lot of work to do. The most important step for the Mets is to realize that this work is necessary. They can’t look at their nine-win advantage over the rest of the NL and assume they can coast to a playoff spot next year. The current Mets incarnation, with all the injuries and decline, probably projects to finish no better than .500 in 2007. To build a real contender, the Mets need to add 10 or more wins. Where can they get them?

Though the bullpen is likely to decline, it makes no sense for the Mets to spend on a free agent when they have live arms available. The rotation will be in need of some help. Glavine, Martinez and John Maine are under contract for next year, but each will likely see his performance decline in 2007, due to age, injury, and regression, respectively. The Mets have the money to break the bank on a free agent ace like Daisuke Matsuzaka or Jason Schmidt, and it would be an ideal fit, one that alone could get them halfway to their 10-win goal. If Trachsel and Hernandez leave, the Mets also need one or two mid-rotation starters. Mike Pelfrey or Aaron Heilman may be the answers, and Oliver Perez could be useful, although the Mets shouldn’t count on him for anything. They may be better served shopping in the bargain bin for Mark Mulder, Ted Lilly, or even Kerry Wood. Each of those players has the potential to be a shutdown pitcher in the playoffs, and each will likely come with a deflated price tag.

Among the position players, the Mets must acquire a good second baseman from the many free-agent options, perhaps Ray Durham or Adam Kennedy, or even re-upping Valentin. They also should shop for a corner outfield bat, despite the public’s false impression of Green and Milledge as above-average players. Carlos Lee or Alfonso Soriano would be good options, as the Mets lineup already leans heavily left-handed. Jose Guillen may be a good fit if the Mets spend their big money on starting pitching. Unfortunately, the market on corner outfielders is thin this winter, so the Mets are in trouble if they can’t land a big fish.

The Mets could also consider trading one of Delgado and LoDuca, two aging players whose perceived values far outweigh their actual contributions, in a deal that either returns a more affordable replacement at the same position or clears a spot for a free agent to offer similar or better output. If a team is desperate for bullpen help, might they be willing to give up a useful bat for Pedro Feliciano or Heilman?

Whatever direction the Mets choose, they must take an aggressive stance and be aware of the likely decline from next year’s team, or their reign atop the NL East will be a short one.

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