The U Files # 56: The Corner Conundrum

The Mets have engineered a not insignificant increase in expected production at two spots in the lineup. Three other spots can see improvement with more healthy playing time from incumbents. This left the Mets with one final hole to fill in the lineup: the right fielder. The team had entered the bidding for slugger Vladimir Guerrero with an unusual offer, only to receive word late Saturday that Guerrero had chosen to sign with another team.

The right field spot was not a huge hole for the Mets in overall 2003 numbers, but those numbers were inflated to that point by the excellent hitting in a partial season by Jeromy Burnitz. With Burnitz gone, the magnitude of the hole is significantly more than the drain of about five runs the position was for the 2003 Mets.

King Vlad the terrible was clearly the biggest ticket, but also the riskiest proposition on the 2003-04 free agent market. He went past New Years day unsigned largely due to concerns about the health of his back. Guerrero missed 39 games in the 2003 season due to a herniated disc in his lumbar spine. The Mets were given access to medical information concerning Guerrero, and team doctors advised the team that giving him a contract any longer than three guaranteed years would not be wise.

As it became clear that the bidding for the Big Bad Vladdy Daddy would not be what his agents would have hoped for, the Mets decided that they could take advantage of the tepid market. Last week general manager Jim Duquette made an official offer to Guerrero that was not in the norm for a high profile player. The contract featured only three guaranteed years for a minimum guaranteed worth of $30 million. If Guerrero stayed healthy enough over the course of the contract to meet certain at bat totals, incentives and option years would kick in bringing the contract up to a potential of five years worth $71 million.

The Mets offer entailed a creative compromise between taking too much of a risk on a player who is far from certain to be able to give production worthy of a large guaranteed contract, and adequately compensating the player. However, late in the bidding for Guerrero a mystery team appeared that it turned out was willing to offer a deal similar to the highest potential of the Mets offer, but all of it guaranteed. Late Saturday it was reported that the mystery team was the Anaheim Angels, and that Guerrero had accepted their offer.

Predictably, there has been a large, highly emotional, not entirely rational knee jerk reaction by the masses of Mets fans to the announcement of the non-signing. It seems that much of the anger is misdirected, or, not appropriate at all. The Mets made what Guerrero's own agent Arm Tellem has called a "good faith offer." For all that Guerrero could potentially do, there is an immense potential downside (now heaved upon the shoulders of the Angels) associated with Guerrero signed to the type of contract he ultimately signed. Not only could the anonymous star disappoint with his own production in a big way, but his contract would severely limit the team's flexibility. Through his experiences with insurers, Duquette has learned firsthand that Guerrero's back is uninsurable.

For all the talk about how good Guerrero looked upon his return from the disabled list and even talk that the back was no more than an excuse not to pony up for the star, to be otherwise dismissed, there is an equal amount of hot air drifting into space. Many people are apparently so awed by the potential of a Guerrero that they are dumbstruck. What years of experience associated with the back by the medical community and the misfortuned sufferers themselves tells is that such an injury as Guerrero's never ceases to be a concern. With constant exercise and proper posture one can minimize the pain associated with the ailment, but for one whose occupation puts his body through such stress in the act of taking a swing, one cannot eliminate the possibility of missed time or disappointing performance.

There are enough good, less risky alternatives to Guerrero available that it is defensible strategy to pin all of our hopes on a star who could hurt the team as much as he could help it. The Angels have made themselves the team with possibly the greatest margin for error in baseball with the signing of Guerrero and the earlier signing of Bartolo Colon – an overweight, aging pitcher.

Now we will focus on where the Mets can go from here. With the free agent market now devoid of impact talent in corner outfielders, the best options available may be via trade. There has been talk all off-season concerning the possible availability of Houston's Richard Hidalgo. There are two impact outfielders right now that are slated to become free agents after 2004, whose teams might be persuaded to give up if they feel they have no better way of getting value for them, the team being challenged to come up with the money to retain the players. These names are Magglio Ordonez of the Chicago White Sox, and Carlos Beltran of the Kansas City Royals. The Mets best trade chips (as I discussed in last week's article) are Steve Trachsel and David Weathers.

Hidalgo is capable of generating offense equal to what Ordonez or Beltran can produce, but has not been as consistent as Ordonez, partly due to injury and conditioning issues. He has been a better defender than either Ordonez or Beltran over their respective careers (in any OF spot). There has been talk of the Astros dealing Hidalgo and his contact to free up payroll flexibility. More recent reports out of Houston indicate that the Astros have seen a significant rise in ticket sales with the signing of Andy Pettitte (who appears to be overrated by the Houston fan base) and are not as desperate to deal Hidalgo as they may have been.

Ordonez has been the most consistent, best slugger of the three. In a typical year for him adjusted to Shea Stadium he might produce about 100 runs with the bat, which is as much as one might hope for out of Mike Piazza or Cliff Floyd at this point. He is about an average fielder.

Beltran has not been the slugger Ordonez has been, but with more stolen bases, and particularly, fewer double plays hit into, Beltran would generate about as many runs. He has an excellent defensive reputation, though advanced defensive statistics support the conclusion that Beltran is a good fielder, not a great one. Beltran has played mostly center field in his career to date, but with the Mets having signed a superior defensive center fielder, Beltran may be forced to move to right field were he to become a Met. Beltran is represented by Scott Boras, the notorious agent who would advise his client to try his fortunes on the free agent market; Beltran may not be a good bet to sign a contract with a team that trades for him, and avoid free agency.

There has been some talk that the Cincinnati Reds may be persuaded to give up one of their talented young hitters, Adam Dunn or Austin Kearns, more likely Dunn. Dunn has the potential to become another Jim Thome. Though he is strikeout prone, the strikeouts themselves do not manifest in a great drain on runs, as Dunn does not ground into a great number of double plays. He is a high walk hitter with tremendous power who is likely to be able to bounce back from a frightfully low batting average in 2003.

Very recently a report circulated in the Bergen record that the Mets are giving some consideration to free agent RHP Greg Maddux. Though Maddux may not decline as quickly as his former teammate Tom Glavine has, being more of a strikeout pitcher, he is unquestionably most likely to get worse as the years pass from now on, as he will be 38 years old in 2004. His 2003 season, though his component statistics are better than his actual runs allowed, is still a notable decline for Maddux. His component ERA relative to league ERA was the lowest he has posted since 1991. The report has not been confirmed by other sources to date, and the best contract we could sign Maddux to would be a one-year contract for less money than he will likely be seeking. Maddux would block the path of young arms in the Mets system, and also close a slot to the free agent class of 2004, which features some outstanding arms if the Mets choose to go that route.

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