The U Files # 60: Plays of the Pawn

In Chess, it is the assortment of "big" pieces that get most of the attention, but the maneuvers of the eight small pieces that make up the front line can have deceptively great impact. So it is that some of the smaller moves made by a general manager are a surprising indicator of how clever he really is. In the last week, the Mets made three relatively unnoticed moves. (Free Preview of Premium Content)

As was the subject of some scuttlebutt for a time, the Mets finalized a deal with yet another ex-Yankee outfielder, this time Shane Spencer. The Mets signed infielder Todd Zeile for his second tour of duty as a Met, this time as an expected purveyor of power off the pine. In the least noticed of the moves, the Mets sent promising pitcher Jaime Cerda to the Kansas City Royals for minor league fodder Shawn Sedlacek.

Spencer played as a role player for several New York Yankees teams of recent memory, in which his prime asset was home run power. Playing for the Yankees from 1998 through 2002 and the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers in 2003, Spencer has hit 55 home runs in 1486 career AB, a rate that prorates to 20 in a season of 550 AB. Spencer is a career .260/.325/.430 hitter, hitting for a park adjusted OPS+ 4 points below the league average.

The characteristic that will be of the most use to the Mets is Spencer's ability to rake against southpaws. For his career batting against a left-handed pitcher, Spencer is a .303/.351/.520 hitter in 508 AB. Used correctly, the abilities of Timo Perez, who hits righthanders decently enough but has had his statistics devastated by his clueless hacking against lefties, Karim Garcia, a home run-centric hitter whose career statistics show no strong platoon split, and Spencer, could form a serviceable multi-headed right fielder. Spencer is an excellent defensive outfielder.

Todd Zeile is a veteran of 15 Major League seasons, going into his sixteenth. In his career he has hit 244 home runs in 7225 AB, a rate equivalent to 19 every 550 AB. His home run power has remained intact up to last season (home runs age quite well, in contrast to statistics like batting average.) outside of a dip in 2001. Zeile played the 2000 and 2001 seasons as the Mets regular first baseman, having been hurriedly signed to replace John Olerud.

With the Mets planning to ease Mike Piazza into a role with a share of time spent holding down first base, and much of the rest of the time played at catcher and first base slotted for Jason Phillips, Zeile does not have a starting role for the Mets at the beginning of the season. He will back up Ty Wigginton at third base and the two headed first baseman. Projections based on his recent park-adjusted statistics and including age factors would pencil Zeile in as an offensive liability overall.

The extent to which this is accurate may depend on the true nature of the effect of Coors Field. Park factors based on runs (or run elements) at home (per inning) divided by the same on the road may exaggerate the actual boost provided by the stadium, since playing as a Rockie seems to deflate road statistics as well as inflate home statistics. The degree to which Zeile's 2002 numbers should actually be adjusted to reflect playing at a "neutral" park would affect his projections. Regardless, age factors make it likely Zeile will not be at the peak of his effectiveness at the age of 38.

The signing of Zeile to fill a bench role does not take an extraordinarily feat of imagination, he was one of the more obvious candidates, though one with age issues. The drawback to Zeile from a Mets standpoint is that he bats right-handed. The Mets are lacking in left-handed bats off the bench aside from Timo Perez and Karim Garcia when he's not starting.

The trade (actually, giving away) of Jaime Cerda was a roster move necessitated by the signing of John Franco. A move was needed to add Spencer and Zeile to the 40-man roster without going over the limit. Cerda was the odd man out; this is a terrible way to give up on a pitcher whose career minor league ERA is under 2.

John Franco pitched deceptively poorly last year. His RA was 2.88, but his component stats 13 walks, a meager 16 strikeouts, and 5 home runs surrendered in 34.1 IP scream there's something not kosher. Actually crunching the numbers reveals he gave up just over half as many runs as he "should" have – an unheard-of degree of "luck" that is not likely to repeat himself. At the age of 43, Franco is not likely to be an asset to the Mets, to understate things.

To afford the privilege of keeping a coach on the active duty roster, the Mets were left with no room for a young pitcher with promise who can only get better with more major league time. Cerda has maintained strikeout rates of about one per inning throughout his minor league career and has given up just 11 home runs in his professional career spanning over 200 innings.

Regardless of how much the decision to retain Franco rested with Duquette and how much was a desire of owner Fred Wilpon, who has personal ties to Franco, the trade of Franco for Cerda is not a good one. Even with Franco reinstated, the Mets could have explored ways of clearing a roster spot that don't involve flushing as much upside down the toilet. Raul Gonzalez, for example, has the profile of a career minor leaguer and would have a hard time finding a spot in an outfield already crammed with Cliff Floyd, Mike Cameron, Perez, Garcia, and Spencer.

In exchange for Cerda, the Royals coughed up Sedlacek, who won't take a spot on the Mets 40 man roster, and who wouldn't likely be a contributor if he were.

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