The Mets could use Carlos Beltran. The player. The one they signed in 2005.
Because Beltran, the manager, encounters a roster with many issues. The Mets will need a starter if Zack Wheeler leaves and starting depth no matter what. The bullpen requires augmentation. The Mets might have three third basemen — J.D. Davis, Jed Lowrie and Jeff McNeil — or none. But as big as any issue — perhaps bigger — is center field; the position Beltran played with such two-way brilliance.
In 2019, when they went offense with Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo, it cost defensively — the Mets ranked 26th in the majors in center field defense by Fangraphs’ measurements. When defense was prioritized with Juan Lagares, he turned in the worst OPS-plus by any Met allowed to bat 275 times since Joe McEwing in 2003 — and his defense was not as strong as in the past.
Lagares’ 2020 option was not picked up. The Mets should also eliminate their penchant to force feed a hitter into center while tolerating sub-par defense. Nimmo and Conforto should be limited in center, used perhaps when groundball artist Marcus Stroman is starting. That could toughen decisions for Beltran for corner at-bats, should Yoenis Cespedes get healthy to join Conforto, Nimmo and perhaps Davis and McNeil.
The Mets already know they are going to be iffy defensively at first with Pete Alonso, at second with a more limited Robinson Cano, at third pretty much with whomever they play and at catcher when Wilson Ramos is behind the plate. They have to begin to shore up that side of the ball. This is a golden age of center field defense. Someone such as Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte might rate below average, but that is only because average now is so superb. The problem is the Mets have been well below average.
Some thoughts on what the Mets should do in center:
1. Mookie Betts, Red Sox — Let’s start with the pipe dream. And let’s start with a blockbuster totally made up by me: Betts for Syndergaard — Mookie for Thor.
J.D. Martinez did not opt out of three years at $62.5 million left on his contract. Thus, the Red Sox are faced with a tougher puzzle to meet their mandate to drop below the $208 million luxury tax threshold. Betts is due about $30 million next year, which also is his walk season, a combination that assures Boston will not get equal value for one of the best players in the world, should they opt to trade him.
Syndergaard would cost one-third of Betts for 2020, has control through 2021 and addresses an area (rotation) Boston needs to address — and the Red Sox could spin Syndergaard for further savings and more youngsters should they choose. This fits Brodie Van Wagenen’s bold showmanship. But would the Wilpons approve a trade that would move them near the threshold (or over)? Would Boston do more than think about trading Betts? Betts plays right field, but he would be terrific in center.
2. Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox — OK, back to reality. Bradley is due about $11 million for his walk year and is a pretty obvious chop for Boston, who could then move Betts to center. The publicly available defensive metrics don’t love him, but to the eye Bradley is a human defensive highlight reel. Bradley is frustrating because his offense teases in spots, but he has never been able to translate that into consistent success. One question when considering offense and cost: Would the Mets be better off with Nimmo in center over Bradley and bringing in a righty-hitting high-end defender complement such as Houston’s Jake Marisnick or San Francisco’s Kevin Pillar?
3. Marte, Pirates — Fangraphs metrics are down on him defensively. But I asked multiple teams for what their proprietorial numbers show and he is more average (especially because of a strong arm) and scouts grade Marte higher than that. He also has a PED-related suspension on his ledger. But that didn’t stop the Mets from acquiring Cano; plus Marte’s stats have stayed consistent since his ban.
He offers speed, power and plays hard. Marte is due $11.5 million this year with a $12.5 million 2021 option ($1 million buyout). The Pirates don’t have a GM yet, and the next one, like predecessor Neal Huntington, will always have to worry about payroll. Could the Mets build a deal around Nimmo, with Pittsburgh getting an extra year of control with the lefty swinger at a total cost probably under the $24 million due Marte the next two years?
4. Enrique Hernandez, Dodgers — He’s a jack-of-all-trades, but that includes being a pretty good center fielder. Hernandez is a free agent after 2020. The Dodgers were interested in Edwin Diaz in July and are looking for closer insurance (or more) for Kenley Jansen. Los Angeles runs the kind of organization that feels it can get the talent out of someone such as Diaz. The Mets would not do this straight up because they also feel like they can fix Diaz. But what if, say, a cost controlled starter such as Ross Stripling were added to Hernandez plus the Dodgers agreed to take on Lowrie’s $9 million for 2020 as the price of doing business?
5. Kevin Kiermaier, Rays — In three-way trade talks with the Marlins last year that would have redirected J.T. Realmuto to the Mets, the Rays were focused on McNeil, the kind of low-cost Swiss Army Knife who can hit that Tampa Bay craves. Kiermaier is a terrific defender and all-out player with a bit of pop. He turns 30 in April, has been injury prone and is still due three years at $36 million. So to get McNeil, the Rays have to give up more. They are swimming in just the kind of young arms the Mets could use. How about Yonny Chirinos?
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