The Mets have Yoenis Cespedes back! That’s great news, in that he’s a good player, they’re a win-now team, and good players help win-now teams win more. But it’s also a problem, because the Mets already had too many corner outfielders even before Cespedes re-signed with the team. With Cespedes back, they now have four guys for two spots, with three of the four being too similar to work as complementary parts. This is no longer depth; this is officially a logjam.
Complicating the problem is that the team also still kind of needs another outfielder; Juan Lagares is the only real true center fielder on the roster, but how much they can count on him is something of a question, given the thumb injury that sidelined him in 2016 and the elbow problems that limited him in 2015. If the team sees Lagares as more of a defensive replacement than a regular, then the team with the most crowded corner outfield in the game is still short a starting center fielder.
So, let’s try and help Sandy Alderson out here, and see if we can find some ways to turn four corners and no CF into a three man group the team can be happy with on most days.
Let’s say that the Mets intend to play Cespedes in left field, his preferred position, so bringing him back to town leaves mostly just right field for the combination of Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce, and Michael Conforto. Yeah, Granderson played 250 innings in center last year and wasn’t a complete disaster, but he’s also going to be 36 next year, and he isn’t the athlete he was earlier in his career; making him a regular CF at this point seems unwise.
Granderson, Bruce, and Conforto are all left-handed, so there’s no platoon to be run there, and with a lefty swinging Lucas Duda penciled in at first base, they can’t even really move too many PAs there either; at least one of the three has to go. And given that the Cespedes contract pushes the team pretty close to the roughly $150 million in payroll they spent on the 2016 edition of their roster, it’s not too hard to make a case that Granderson or Bruce should be the odd man out, so that the team can free up $10-$15 million in salary to spend on upgrades elsewhere. Keeping either of those guys around as a part-time player would be a weird way to use 9-10% of the team’s payroll, and given that both only have one year left on their deals, they should both be tradable.
Given how poorly he played after coming over to New York at the deadline, Bruce seems like the more natural target to dump. He’s also younger and a little cheaper, so there might be more suitors for Bruce as well, who could look at him as this year’s Mark Trumbo; a cheap source of power on a one year commitment, hoping to get a big walk year and maybe land a draft pick if he leaves as a free agent next winter. And, the team that pulled this trick with Trumbo last year could now use a right fielder, so you’d think there’s at least a natural phone call there between Alderson and Dan Duquette. The Blue Jays have also been tied to Bruce, having almost acquired him last spring, and the Red Sox could use a left-handed OF/DH, so there are plenty of potential landing spots for Bruce in the AL East.
But while dumping most of Bruce’s salary and getting whatever non-prospect back in return a +1 WAR slugger making $13 million can command would be the easy first step, it doesn’t really solve the Mets problems. They’d still have the left-handed Conforto around to back up the left-handed Granderson, and they still wouldn’t have a center fielder, or at least, not one they can definitely count on. So dumping Bruce is just step one in the plan to fix the Mets outfield.
Step two is a bit more interesting, and probably involves shopping Conforto around the league. This would have sounded unthinkable a year ago, when Conforto looked like the future of the Mets offense as a rookie, but after a down year in 2016 that included a stint back in Triple-A, Conforto’s future in New York is a bit more questionable. Especially with Cespedes now re-signed for the next four years, Conforto is looking at another year as a part-time player in 2017, and has to hope to do enough in that role to get the team to trust him with a starting job in 2018, after Granderson likely leaves as a free agent.
The Mets could certainly hold onto Conforto as depth for this year, giving him playing time at the corners when either Cespedes or Granderson need a day off, or giving him some time at first base if Duda’s back issues flare up again, and have him around for 2018 and beyond as a regular. But there might be value in seeing if they can turn him into an everyday center fielder instead, turning some long-term value into an upgrade for 2017 that might fit better with their current roster.
For instance, let’s just say the Mets called the Pirates and asked Neil Huntington to think about whether he’d be interested in acquiring Conforto in a deal that brought Andrew McCutchen to New York. I don’t know that the Mets make that move one for one — the upgrade might not be worth giving up five years of Conforto and taking on ~$28 million in salary for the next two years — but it’s not too hard to think about a deal that is centered around those two switching cities, with McCutchen joining Cespedes to provide some right-handed offense in a line-up that leans left-handed at the moment.
Of course, McCutchen’s defensive abilities in CF are a bit up in the air right now, given his career-worst season with the glove last year, so maybe the Mets would rather acquire a guy who can cover a bit more ground if they’re giving up on Conforto’s offensive potential. There may be a few options in that realm too.
If you want pure defense, I could see the Reds being interested in shipping Billy Hamilton to New York if it got them Conforto, since Hamilton only has three years of team control remaining; Conforto might fit their long-term plan a bit better. Hamilton might be too similar to Lagares in terms of creating value from his defense, but if you think his second half improvement in plate discipline and adjustments in batted ball profile might be legitimate, Hamilton could probably make himself a regular +3 WAR player by hitting just enough to let his legs create a lot of value. Again, I don’t know if there’s a one-for-one trade to be made there, but it’s not too hard to see a win-win deal centered around Conforto and Hamilton.
Or, if the Mets wanted a younger Cespedes-style player who can handle center, maybe the Cardinals would be interested in swapping Randal Grichuk for Conforto, giving them more of their kind of hitter to replace Matt Holliday in left field. Grichuk is young enough and valuable enough that picking him up in a deal wouldn’t really be moving future for present, as much as it would be moving lefty corner guy for righty center guy, which could help the Mets rearrange their talent level in a way that better fits what else they have.
I think I’d like the 2017 Mets better with any of McCutchen, Hamilton, or Grichuk in center field instead of having Granderson and Lagares share time there, and I don’t think it’s all that crazy to think that making Conforto available gets you any of those three, and maybe plus something else in those deals as well. There aren’t a lot of good young hitters out there, and the Mets will have a surplus of lefty corner outfielders even if they ship Bruce to Baltimore for some packing tape and a couple things of Old Bay, so putting Conforto out there in a seller’s market might not be a bad idea.
If Conforto can get you a legitimate upgrade in center field, or at least a guy like Grichuk who might fit the Mets roster a bit better, that’s probably a move the Mets should consider making. Keeping Conforto sort of works if Bruce is sent away, but moving both could give the Mets their best chance of winning in 2017. And given the money they just committed to Cespedes, taking advantage of his prime is probably an idea worth pursuing.