8:55 am Dec. 3, 2010
While the Yankees shop for Nieman Marcus free agents this winter—players like Derek Jeter, Cliff Lee and Mariano Rivera, who reportedly agreed to a two-year, $30 million deal late Thursday—the Mets have made it clear that their list includes only items from the Dollar Store. With a reported $5 million to spend, total, due to crippling existing contracts, the Mets will need to fill their ample holes on the cheap.
That made midnight Thursday, the deadline for teams to elect to tender or non-tender a contract to arbitration-eligible players, perhaps the most vital point in the team's offseason. And today, by extension, is the Mets' Black Friday.
The cut-rate wares on offer around the league are a particularly vital opportunity for the Mets: The team's recent failings had as much to do with a lack of supporting players as any problems from the team's stars, and this will be a unique chance to firm up the roster quickly and inexpensively before next season.
Here's how it works. If a player eligible for arbitration (at least three years' of service but less than six) is offered a contract, the two sides will either agree to a deal or head to arbitration. In arbitration, the player cannot receive more than a 20 percent pay cut from his salary from the year before. So if Player X made $5 million dollars, a team could non-tender him because he isn't worth $4 million to that team. Once non-tendered, Player X can be signed by any team for any amount of money. And that's where the bargain shopping comes in.
The Mets actually faced that situation with pitcher John Maine, who made $3.3 million during his injury-plagued 2010. The team could have brought him back at far less guaranteed money, but don't want to assume an obligation of at least $2.64 million in 2011 for him. They non-tendered him, as well as Sean Green and Chris Carter.
At the same time, they were readying themselves to look at picking up some of the non-tendered players from around the league who could provide significant value to the Mets at low, low prices.
Alfredo Aceves, the swingman most recently of the Yankees, offers potential help for the Mets as a starter or reliever. While 2010 was largely a lost season due to back trouble, and a recent bicycle accident forced him to have clavicle surgery, he is expected to be healthy by the end of February. He's pitched to a 3.21 ERA in 129 major league innings and will be just 28 in 2011. Perhaps the wide-open nature of the back end of the Mets' rotation can lure him across town with little guaranteed money.
Two intriguing bullpen options also received their walking papers. Bobby Jenks, formerly of the White Sox, was cut loose after his ERA ballooned from 2.63 in 2008 to 3.71 in 2009 and 4.44 in 2010. But those numbers are much less interesting than his strikeout rate, which jumped from 5.5 in 2008 to 8.3 in 2009 and 10.4 in 2010. Jenks, who will be 30 in 2011, was victimized by a high batting average on balls in play, and would make a valuable addition to the New York bullpen.
Jose Veras is another relief option. While he continued his career trend of walking too many batters and striking out a ton, he also continued a consistent ability to retire both lefty and right hitters. Lefties hit just .155 against the righty Veras last season, with righties checking in at .221. And for his career, righties have a .689 OPS, lefties just .714. The 30-year-old Veras could be the crossover reliever the Mets badly need.
Among hitters, Scott Hairston offers a combination of value and need within the organization. Hairston, cut loose by the San Diego Padres, won't turn 31 until the end of May 2011. His steady production from 2007-2009—a .772 OPS, including a .462 slugging percentage—dropped precipitously to just a .640 OPS, including a paltry .346 slugging percentage in 2010. But notice that his batting average on balls in play fell from .278 career and .290 in 2009 to just .236 in 2010. With a static line-drive percentage, though, it suggests that last year might have been a fluke, rather than the beginning of the end.
Hairston can also hold his own in center field, a vital skill largely missing in the organization. After Angel Pagan and Carlos Beltran, the latter having played in 81 and 64 games the past two seasons, the Mets' best Plan C at the position may be Kirk Nieuwenhuis, a minor leaguer yet to master Triple-A. Having Hairston on board for bench power and potential innings at all three outfield positions would be a huge help. (For the same basic idea, but left-handed, the Mets could sign Fred Lewis.)
Rounding out the hitters, Edwin Encarnacion was non-tendered by the Oakland A's, just days after they acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays. Encarnacion, who will be 28 in 2011, won't win any fielding awards at third base, but his 111 OPS+ in 2010 checks in higher than any Mets other than Ike Davis and David Wright. Coincidentally, Encarnacion can serve as a backup for each—even starting against some lefties at first base—while providing a more potent bench bat than the Mets have employed in years. Considering that last year's Plan B at third base was Mike Hessman, this would be a welcome upgrade.
None of these players will get the headlines of the Yankees' deal with Rivera, or even of past Mets acquisitions like Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner or Jason Bay. But the team's failure to capitalize on secondary markets in the past are what doomed them in years when their front-line talent was good. The Mets' brand-new management will not make the same mistake, surely.