On the whole, the New York Mets have experienced an enormous amount of turnover this offseason — turnover that was sorely needed. Come Opening Day 2019, the young core will remain in place, but the rest of this team will look remarkably different; the revamped Mets feature a new GM, second baseman, catcher, hitting coach, and a host of new names in the bullpen. At this point, the Mets’ key moves this offseason are as follows:
|RP Edwin Díaz (Trade, SEA)
||OF Jay Bruce (Trade, SEA)
|2B Robinson Canó (Trade, SEA)
||RP Anthony Swarzak (Trade, SEA)
|RP Jeurys Familia (FA, 3/$30m)
||RP Gerson Bautista (Trade, SEA)
|C Wilson Ramos (FA, 2/$19m)
||OF Jarred Kelenic (Trade, SEA)
|OF Rajai Davis (MiLB deal)
||SP Justin Dunn (Trade, SEA)
|SP Kyle Dowdy (Rule 5, CLE)
||RP Bobby Wahl (Trade, MIL)
|OF Gregor Blanco (MiLB deal)
||2B Luis Santana (Trade, HOU)
|OF Keon Broxton (Trade, MIL)
||3B David Wright (Released)
|SP Walker Lockett (Trade, CLE)
||3B Wilmer Flores (Non-tendered)
|3B J.D. Davis (Trade, HOU)
||SS José Reyes (FA)
|SP Hector Santiago (MiLB deal)
||RP Jerry Blevins (FA)
|RP Luis Avilán (MiLB deal)
||RP AJ Ramos (FA)
|2B Jed Lowrie (2/$20m)
||SP Rafael Montero (FA)
|RP Justin Wilson (2/$10m)
||C José Lobatón (FA)
|2B Dilson Herrera (MiLB deal)
||OF Austin Jackson (FA)
|C Devin Mesoraco (MiLB deal)
||RP Jenrry Mejía (Released)
*Italics indicate the player spent the year in the minor leagues last season or was signed to a minor league deal for the upcoming season
Needless to say, this is a pretty hefty list of acquisitions and departures and, believe it or not, the team made several transactions on top of these. However, I felt these 16 were especially significant for both this season and the team’s direction for seasons to come. Let’s break the first of these down further:
Mets Trade OF Jay Bruce, RP Anthony Swarzak, SP Justin Dunn, RP Gerson Bautista, and OF Jarred Kelenic for 2B Robinson Canó, RP Edwin Díaz, and $20 million
When this trade was finalized on December 3rd, it easily became the biggest move of the offseason — and for good reason. From a broad perspective, it officially made the Mariners, an 89-win team a year ago, a rebuilding squad and sent a message that the Mets, winners of 77 last season, are a team set on contending for the World Series. At the same time, the trade signaled the beginning of a new era for the Mets, spearheaded by new GM Brodie Van Wagenen. Without question, Brodie delivered on his promise of a “fearless” Mets team by trading two of the franchise’s prized prospects after only about a month on the job.
First and foremost, we’re going to focus on what the Mets gave up before analyzing what they received in return. Since shipping off Bruce and Swarzak was essentially a salary dump for the Mets, the “only” real cost of the trade was the trio of Kelenic, Dunn, and Bautista. To the casual fan, the thought of two prospects and a young reliever probably doesn’t sound like too steep of a price for the All-Stars the Mets acquired, but it’s actually a pretty significant one.
Dunn, a starting pitcher out of Boston College (BC), was the Mets’ first-round pick (19th overall) of the 2016 MLB Draft. At BC, he had a bit of an unorthodox career, starting out as a reliever for the team and then developing into a stellar starter for the Eagles. Presumably, when the Mets took him with the 19th pick they had visions of him filling out the middle-to-back-end of the super-rotation they’ve currently built with deGrom, Syndergaard, Wheeler, and Matz — or potentially filling the void left by one of them leaving.
*Stat dashboard courtesy of Fangraphs
As you can see in the chart above, Dunn burst onto the scene in 2016, finishing his first professional season (albeit in a small sample size of 30 innings pitched) with an ERA of 1.50. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) were outstanding as well. For those of you unfamiliar with those stats, FIP is used to estimate what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he experienced league-average defense behind him, while xFIP takes it a step further and assumes the pitcher also experienced a league-average home run to fly ball rate (surprisingly, home run rates for pitchers generally stay around league average). Because of his draft pedigree and initial success, Dunn’s dramatic struggles in 2017 came as a worrisome surprise. At only High A, he posted a 5.00 ERA in his first full season as a pro and even advanced stats suggested his poor play wasn’t a fluke. Fortunately, he rebounded this past season pretty nicely and pitched his way up to AA, where he finished his 2018.
As a prospect, Dunn doesn’t really jump off the page in any category, but he’s shown the most promise with his fastball, which sits in the mid-90s, and slider. Ranked as MLB Pipeline’s #91 overall prospect, he was a pretty excellent get for the Mariners, exhibiting toughness and a good attitude during his time with the Mets — in addition to his natural ability1. Having said that, given the Mets’ relative strength at the position both in the majors and minors (David Peterson and Simeon Woods-Richardson are two examples of promising pitchers in the system), I see Dunn as a safe, valuable trade piece that Brodie used wisely.
Moving on, Gerson Bautista was the one young Met in this deal that fans have seen play. In his short time in the majors last season (4.1 IP), he got lit up, finishing with a 12.46 ERA, albeit in a small sample size. Bautista was originally acquired in 2017 from the Red Sox as part of the package for Addison Reed; the Mets saw a young player with an exceptional fastball (touches 100 MPH) and took the gamble that he could develop some command. So far, he hasn’t, but given the volatility of relievers, it’s entirely possible something clicks for the young righty while with the Mariners. Clearly, the Mets felt it was the right time to move on, making this a low-risk move for both teams with the potential for a high reward for Seattle. Frankly, this seems like the “icing on the cake” piece Brodie threw in as incentive to close the deal and finalize the trade when they did.
Of course, the prize of this trade from the Seattle perspective was outfielder Jarred Kelenic. Regarded by many as the best high school bat — and one of the top overall bats — in this past year’s draft, the Mets took Kelenic with the 6th pick in the first round. Even though he’s only 19, he’s been praised for his outstanding character and work ethic in addition to excellent tools. Granted, it can be difficult to project such a young player, but the consensus seems to be that he has the potential to be a legitimate five-tool center fielder. Whether Kelenic’s able to remain in center field long-term or not, he still has an arm more than capable of manning right field as well.
*Stat dashboard courtesy of Fangraphs
Once he began officially donning the orange and blue in rookie ball, he was exceptional, as seen in the chart above. After getting a promotion to the Kingsport Mets, he came back to earth a bit, but Mariners fans should be very excited for the potential of their new wunderkind. Currently, he’s MLB Pipeline’s #56 overall prospect and although Kelenic’s not expected to even reach the majors until 2022 — which I’m sure factored into Brodie Van Wagenen’s willingness to trade him — his strong offensive skills give him the ability to get there even quicker2.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the Mariners’ future, let’s examine the Mets’ present. One of my personal issues with the public perception of this trade is the idea that Robinson Canó is suddenly a washed up shell of his former self. Yes, he’s 36 years old and, even worse, coming off of a PED suspension. Nonetheless, that’s a surface level assessment of the acquisition. Take a look at his numbers over the last 3 years:
*Stat dashboard courtesy of Fangraphs
During his age 33-35 seasons, Canó hasn’t hit worse than .280, including .303 last season, his suspension-shortened campaign. As a rule of thumb, an OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) north of .800 is an impressive season — Canó’s lowest mark during this stretch was .791. As outstanding as some of those numbers are — especially for a player in his mid-30s — it’s his advanced stats that are most encouraging to me. Generally, advanced metrics and rate statistics are most predictive of what a player will do in the future, rather than counting stats (home runs, runs, RBI) which tend to fluctuate year-to-year. One area that plagued the team last year was strikeout rate; the Mets struck out 22.7% of the time in 2018, good for 11th-worst in the majors. In their new second baseman, the Mets are getting a player that strikes out about 13.5% of the time — an exceptional mark in a league where it’s become cool to sacrifice contact for power. At the same time, Canó — already a dangerous hitter throughout his entire career — has become a smarter hitter as he’s aged. Since 2015, his walk rate’s steadily increased, reaching 9.2% last year.
The last two, lesser-known metrics on Canó’s dashboard are weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR). I understand that not all fans are familiar with some of these newer stats, so as a quick crash course, wRC+ is essentially a rate stat that holistically looks at each hitter’s offensive production. Compared to average, which measures each hit equally, wRC+ credits a hitter for the value of each outcome (single, double, etc.) and attempts to control for things like park effects. Then, it’s scaled so that a league average hitter’s wRC+ would be 100 and every point above or below 100 is equal to one percent above or below league average. WAR, on the other hand, is a metric that aims to measure a player’s total contribution to their team. Basically, the stat tells you that if a team was to replace Player X with a freely available minor leaguer (a replacement player), Player X’s WAR is about equal to the number of extra games that team would lose as a result of losing them. In Canó’s case, his wRC+ was 136 last season, or 36% better than the average major leaguer. His WAR, 2.9, was so impressive that it was good for 9th-best among MLB second basemen — in only half of a season (WAR isn’t a rate stat, so the longer you play, the higher it tends to be).
For a deeper understanding of just how impressive Canó’s been, let’s take a look at two anonymous player comparisons. Here are the averages, home runs, runs, RBI, OPSs, wRC+, and WAR for Canó and Player A over the past three seasons:
In order to make it easier to see the differences between the slash lines, I’ve bolded and highlighted in green categories where each player was better than the other in each season. Overall, I think it’s fair to say that these two players are at least comparable offensively; however, when you consider that Canó bested Player A in both average and wRC+ (rate stats) in his suspension-shortened season, you could make the argument that Canó was better in two out of the past three years. Interestingly, Player A is Bryce Harper. While I’m not going to pretend like I’d rather have Robinson Canó than Harper (they’re not on the same level at this point in their careers), it’s important to keep in perspective just how good of a hitter Canó’s been — especially at second base.
As for the second comparison, we’ll look at the average, OPS, BB%, K%, and wRC+ (all rate stats) for Canó and Player B from last season:
Once again, I bolded and highlighted the categories where each player outperformed the other, but in the end, they had nearly identical seasons. Player B is actually 2017 MVP José Altuve. Admittedly, Altuve dealt with some injury issues last year, but he still played 137 games and had an All-Star season. Robinson Canó nearly replicated an All-Star season from the (at the time) reigning AL MVP. In evaluating this trade, it’s crucial to understand that Canó isn’t some mid-30s has-been that’s hanging around thanks to past accomplishments — he’s an All-Star second baseman right now that’s consistently performing as one of the best all-around players in the game.
By the way, Cano’s done all of this while remaining remarkably durable (cue suspension jokes). Here are the number of games he’s missed per season since 2007: 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 5, 6, 1, 12, 2 (he played 80/82 possible games in 2018 due to his 80-game suspension). In 12 years, Canó’s missed more than 6 games once and never more than 12. For a Mets team that’s been absolutely tormented by injuries over the past half-decade, his durability could prove to be invaluable.
Naturally, I can’t discuss this trade without directly addressing Canó’s PED suspension. As it happens, he didn’t actually test positive for PEDs, he tested positive for a diuretic, or masking agent. Masking agents are essentially drugs used to “mask” the use of steroids and, understandably, are banned under MLB’s PED policy. It’s worth noting, this is what Brodie Van Wagenen, Canó’s former agent, had to say regarding the suspension:
Needless to say, Brodie’s privy to information that nobody else — possibly not even the league — is informed of, which adds a bit of an extra wrinkle to this deal. Notably, Major League Baseball’s unable to suspend players for a diuretic unless it can prove it was to mask PED use. With that in mind, Canó didn’t appeal his suspension, meaning one of two things:
- He took it to mask steroids and was guilty, or
- Because he was injured with a fractured hand at the time, he felt it was better to get the suspension over with, heal, and be back in time to help his team for a potential postseason run.
Essentially, Canó’s either a lying cheater or the ultimate teammate. A few things make the latter unlikely. For starters, there’s the fact that a suspension in baseball automatically disqualifies you from playing in the postseason for that year, which still would’ve hurt his team. On top of that, Canó was probably on his way to Cooperstown before the suspension — his Hall of Fame fate is all but sealed now. Did Robinson Canó take steroids? Probably. The bottom line is, Brodie Van Wagenen didn’t sacrifice his lucrative career as an agent to become the Mets GM and lose. He’s trying to build something. Brodie’s not only building a roster here, he’s building a culture — if he didn’t believe in Robinson Canó the player and Robinson Canó the man, I don’t believe he makes this deal, plain and simple.
Then, there’s the matter of Bruce, Swarzak, and the cash. Canó’s All-Star play notwithstanding, there’s always going to be a ton of red flags when you trade for a player due $120 million over the next 5 years — as is the case here. All things considered, Bruce and Swarzak played the roles of extra cash in this trade, just with the added benefit of freeing up roster spots. By trading Bruce (due $29 million over the next two years) and Swarzak (due $8 million in 2019), and then getting $20 million in cash, the Mets are effectively on the hook for $63 million of Canó’s deal over the next five years3. Putting that in WAR terms, as we discussed before, the Mets are asking Canó for the equivalent of 6-8 total WAR throughout the remainder of his contract — he finished with 2.9 in half of a season last year. In other words, the financials of this deal appear to be a home run for the Mets.
It goes without saying, Edwin Díaz, the grand prize of this trade, was the catalyst for the entire deal. Certainly, there were some sensational relievers on the market this winter, including Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, and Adam Ottavino. Despite that, given the volatility of relievers, most teams will want to stay away from giving any of them lucrative contracts. Ottavino, one of the most sought-after free agents before he signed with the Yankees, is coming off of a fantastic season — but even he is just one year removed from a 5.06 ERA. Rather than squander some of his Wilpon-imposed allowance on one of the top free agent arms, Brodie went out and acquired, arguably, the best closer in the game. Just take a look at Díaz’s career so far:
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*Stat dashboard courtesy of Fangraphs
For reference, Díaz’s career K/9 is 14.18, while Craig Kimbrel’s is 14.67. Mariano Rivera’s career FIP was a sparkling 2.76 — Díaz’s is 2.56. Yeah, he’s good. Of course, I’m not saying Díaz is as good or better than the greatest closer to ever play the game (Rivera) or the best closer of the past 5 years (Kimbrel). All I’m saying is that Díaz is an incredibly special player that appears to be writing the introduction to a special career. To those who argue that most quality starting pitchers make high-quality relievers — you’re right. Díaz himself was once a failed starting pitcher; the Mets even developed two great examples of this themselves in Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that argument against the trade is still easily debunked, because if it were that simple, far fewer teams would be scouring for bullpen help. That, and, nobody is closing as well as Edwin Díaz is right now. As far as the volatility of relievers, Díaz has the track record; he’s always been good out of the pen. Yes, I recognize he’s still a young player and three seasons is a relatively small sample size for a career, but I do believe he’s shown enough to justify this trade. The dashboard above speaks for itself: Since becoming a reliever, Díaz has been great and every metric in the world suggests he turned a corner last year.
Keep in mind, the Mets acquired one of the league’s best arms at age 24, on his rookie deal (he’ll be owed around $570,000 this season) and under team control through 2022. The enormous value of that aspect of the trade can’t be understated. It’ll be interesting to see what Craig Kimbrel gets this offseason, coming off a down year for him. Apparently, he’s looking for a 9-figure deal, and in all probability, he won’t be as effective as Díaz will be for the foreseeable future. Even with monumental losses in Dunn and Kelenic, that’s a value that would have me salivating as a GM.
Ultimately, from a broader perspective, this is one of those rare trades that could end up being highly successful for both teams. Most of the deal’s detractors fear that the Mets could get stuck with an aging steroid-user while giving up potential stars, but I legitimately believe the Mariners took on more of the burden in this trade. Undoubtedly, Seattle could’ve gotten more for Díaz had they not attached Canó and his contract; plus, they took on about $57 million in salary, only alleviating about $63 million of the initial $120 million they still owed. Compound that with the fact that prospects flame out all the time, while the Mets acquired two proven All-Stars and this trade begins to look a bit more worrisome for the Mariners. Personally, I believe in the talent the Mariners acquired, especially given their reported mental makeup — an intangible too often overlooked when evaluating prospects. If truth be told, the strong, objective arguments for both sides are indicators that it was, by and large, an even trade. Without a doubt, it could end up painful for Mets fans if they have to watch Jarred Kelenic blossom into the second coming of Ken Griffey Jr., but nobody will care if the Mets accomplish the goal Brodie had in mind when finalizing the deal: World Series.