While the Mets’ projected starting outfield currently consists of Michael Conforto, Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo, that doesn’t mean that will be their outfield come Opening Day.
Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen is still pursuing another outfielder, SNY’s Andy Martino said Wednesday afternoon, and repeatedly said in late 2018 he hoped to add an everyday center fielder as opposed to another corner outfielder.
With Yoenis Cespedes‘ return date unclear — top advisor Omar Minaya said, “If [Cespedes] gives us anything this year, that is gravy.” — that further indicates the team’s need for another outfielder.
Here are three different paths Van Wagenen can take to meet his goal, followed by my take and the chance of each coming to fruition.
Sign a strong corner outfielder
The only prominent, power-hitting corner outfielder remaining is Bryce Harper.
The Mets have very little shot at signing him if the Phillies and Nationals are still in the mix. However, if the Phillies sign Manny Machado — and if the Nationals are out of spending money — Van Wagenen will have a path to Harper, but only if the Mets have interest in him.
Excluding the Phillies and Nationals, the Dodgers, Cubs and White Sox all become likely destinations for Harper, who began this winter wanting at least a $350 million deal. However, neither of the above three teams reportedly have interest in giving him more than a seven-year deal.
To sign Harper, local reports indicate the Cubs still need to shed payroll and also create space in their outfield, both of which they have struggled to do this winter. Similarly, while the Dodgers freed up money in trades this past December, signing Harper would run them the risk of again exceeding the luxury tax. And to join the White Sox, Harper would need to fully believe in their ability to win sooner than later.
This is probably why league sources are saying Harper is willing to sacrifice years on the deal in return for the game’s largest annual average salary (AAV) and multiple opt-out clauses.
In other words, if the Mets are willing to either give Harper a 10-year deal or at least match his readjusted expectations, Van Wagenen can be on equal (if not better) footing than any remaining team.
Although there have been no published reports linking the Mets to Harper, following November’s GM Meetings, MLB insiders all said Van Wagenen wanted to land a big ticket player during his first offseason running the Mets. It’s also worth noting that while countless reports detail Harper’s meetings with the Phillies, White Sox, Cubs and Dodgers, multiple reports also said he and agent Scott Boras met during the Winter Meetings with an identified team owner.
Mets COO Jeff Wilpon was at the Winter Meetings, according to local reports.
I’m not saying Wilpon met with Harper. I’m not saying the Mets want to or will sign him. But, I am saying it’s possible, though not probable, as an interested executive told me earlier this week.
By adding Harper, who would play right field, the Mets would add another five to six wins to their FanGraphs.com projected total, putting them one away from the Nationals. Yes, he’s brash and colorful with his comments; he can be embarrassingly egotistical; he was literally choked by a teammate during a pennant race; and there are clearly risks associated with bringing him to New York for such a large sum of money.
However, signing him makes the Mets a better team with an MVP-caliber threat. And it would show Van Wagenen’s commitment to winning.
Sign or trade for a proven everyday center fielder
In the event Van Wagenen wants to acquire a true-blue, everyday center fielder, his best bet remains signing 31-year-old free agent A.J. Pollock. He may also want to call the Cubs about Jason Heyward…
When speaking to reporters during the Winter Meetings, Van Wagenen specifically mentioned Pollock by name, noting that he had been in contact with the player’s agent.
“A.J. fits us really well,” Van Wagenen said.
The two sides almost certainly have remained in contact. The Mets, like most teams, were told in November that Pollock wanted a six- or seven-year, nine-figure contract, which would explain why he’s still available. The thing is, I know no one in baseball that believes he will get what he wants because demand for center fielders is down and it’s widely believed Pollock doesn’t want to return to the D-Backs unless he has no other choice.
“His price has to be dropping,” a source from a once-interested team told me in late December. “The Mets and any other teams with interest would be smart to wait him out, let that market come back to them.”
Meanwhile, multiple reports out of Chicago indicate the Cubs are trying to the once prominent Heyward, who has five years and $118 million left on his current deal. By trading away Heyward, it would mean Chicago being able to afford and have room for Harper.
Heyward, 29, struggled during his first season with the Cubs and played through multiple injuries in 2017. Last season, he bounced back a bit to produce 2.0 WAR, which was worth $16.5 million, according to FanGraphs.
To move him, the Cubs are reportedly willing to pay as much as $40 million of Heyward’s remaining salary, which would get his AAV down to roughly $16 million (or what he was worth last season).
His remaining contract — and Chicago’s need to move him — would likely mean not having to give up much in trade to get him. It’s a big commitment for a guy that is a shadow of what he was before signing this current deal. That said, he’s reputable, still in his prime, has improved year over year and is still a very good fielder more than capable of an anchoring Nimmo and Conforto.
In the end, if Van Wagenen is to go the above path, I think he is more likely to snag Pollock (which may only end up costing a super short-term deal). I wouldn’t rule out Heyward, though, especially if the Cubs become hellbent on signing Harper.
Sign a backup center fielder to platoon with Lagares
Lagares, 29, has been in the Mets organization since 2006. He started hot and healthy during his first two seasons. He won a Gold Glove in 2014. But he has struggled to perform and stay healthy ever since signing a four-year contract that covered his first year of free agency.
The now-veteran center fielder has not played 100 games in a season since 2015. His 2018 season ended in May when he needed surgery to repair a complete tear of the plantar plate in his big toe. He had surgery on his thumb the season prior. He went under the knife after spending time on the DL with a strained right hamstring and a right intercostal strain during his Gold Glove campaign in 2014, after which he had surgery to correct a hyperextended right elbow.
At this point, given his inability to play a full season, Lagares can only be counted on to be a fourth outfielder available for spot starts and late-game defense. Paired with another center fielder, though, such as free agent Adam Jones, with whom the Mets have spoken, Lagares may still be valuable to Van Wagenen.
In November, multiple MLB insiders predicted to me that Jones would eventually sign for less than Andrew McCutchen, who would ink a three-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies. McCutchen’s deal puts Jones at a two- or three-year contract paying him between $10-13 million each season.
Granted, Jones is probably best suited as a corner outfielder these days. However between him, Lagares, Nimmo and Conforto, the Mets would have four guys able to play all three outfield positions and all with experience in center field. It’s not the ideal situation, but hopefully Callaway and Van Wagenen’s new and improved analytics team could figure out a day-by-day configuration that works for everyone involved.
More importantly, Jones is the exact type of veteran, professional hitter and leader who would benefit this specific Mets roster. Plus, despite being 33 years old, he has played at least 139 games each of the past nine seasons, which is a lot more than most players currently on Callaway’s roster.
The middle of the free agent market also includes Carlos Gomez, Austin Jackson, Jon Jay, Cameron Maybin, Gerardo Parra and Denard Span, all of whom would need to split time around the outfield to justify being on the roster, just like Jones.
The trade market is less exciting, reportedly offering up just Kevin Pillar (Blue Jays), Keon Broxton, Michael Taylor (Nationals), Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees) and Dexter Fowler (Cardinals).
The only player from the above group that would probably intrigue Van Wagenen would be Pillar, who will likely earn a combined $14 million over the next two years. But the Mets should only have interest if they want to abandon offensive production for the best possible defender.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans’ Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!