The Mets in 2009 and beyond

I love getting e-mail from THT readers—it shows that I’m not writing my column in vain.

Sometimes readers point out factual errors, other times grammatical missteps. Often, though, they throw a nugget of insight my way that I can roll into a future column. Those are the best types of e-mail, because they become a great source of new material.

My column last week on Johan Santana was a case in point. Eric Delp, a pessimistic Mets fan, sent me an e-mail questioning what the Mets’ strategy was for winning in 2009 and beyond. Here is an excerpt of what he said:

After reading your article today at Hardball Times, I decided to write you with a question that’s been nagging me about the Mets’ acquisition of Johan Santana.

I’m not as optimistic about it as my fellow Mets’ fans seem to be, but no one (that I’ve read) seems to be talking about the things that trouble me about it. Namely, the Mets have put themselves in a position where they’ve committed about $90 million in player payroll for 2009 but are losing five key players to free agency next offseason (Pedro, Perez, El Duque, Delgado, Alou).

I know they’ll be entering a new stadium and theoretically swimming in revenue, but it still doesn’t seem likely that they can replace all those players and remain a dominant team (if that’s what they are now). Basically, they have to recoup 15-25 wins at (at least) three positions, and since they’ve traded every minor leaguer who could conceivably offer cheap help in ’09, they’re committed to doing it through free agency (unless they plan on trading even more minor leaguers).

It looks like it’s going to be a pretty good free agent class, but it still seems a tad unrealistic to assume they can replace the departing players’ production. Twenty wins at $4 million per through free agency puts their payroll around $170m. That seems pretty steep, even with a new ballpark. (Something I don’t have any idea about is how the need to replace three positions will affect the market, i.e. it seems prima facie a lot less likely that you can get as many as 20 wins at three different spots for the established market rate, but I could be wrong about that.)

I guess a lot depends on how good they’re going to be this year. If they’re a 95-win team they could afford to lose several wins to free agency and still be competitive, but if they’re a 92-93-win team (which seems more realistic), they’re right back to being underdogs to the Braves in ’09.

So my question is manifold: What am I missing? Are the Mets simply counting on a postseason berth and planning on steamrolling playoff-and-new-stadium revenue into a truly mammoth payroll in ’09? Or is everyone just so optimistic about ’08 that they could care less about the future?

So let’s take a quick look at how the Mets will evolve in the Santana era.

The 2008 team

Here is the situation surrounding the five players that will be lost to free agency. Eric is correct in saying that Pedro Martinez, Orlando Hernandez, Oliver Perez and Moises Alou will be free agents in 2009. However, Carlos Delgado could still be a Met. Omar Minaya has a club option on his services for 2009—although it is for a quite hefty $16 million, and based on 2007 performance it probably won’t be exercised.

To properly evaluate talent we must look at projections rather than historic numbers. This gives us the true expectation of future talent. First, let’s take the hitters, Delgado and Alou: (Note—I’ve used the THT 2008 projections that will be available in our Season Preview. I have used some very simple formulas to convert OPS and ERA into Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for hitters and pitchers respectively—see reference for more details.)

Name      PA      HR      SO      BA      OBP     SLG     OPS     Fielding WAR
Alou      401     15      42      0.304   0.369   0.495   0.864   1        2.37
Delgado   569     25      108     0.269   0.362   0.488   0.850   -8       2.14

In total Alou and Delgado are projected to contribute 4.5 wins above replacement in 2008 for the princely sum of $25 million. Based on a marker of $5 million a free agent win that is a little expensive. If Delgado replicates his 2007 line of .258/.333/.448, then his win contribution will be significantly less—about 0.6 wins above replacement, including fielding.

Okay, what about pitching?

Name        IP      ERA      WAR
Perez       163     4.81     0.38
Hernandez   146     4.28     0.75
Martinez    107     3.76     1.46

Adding up the pitcher win haul gets us to 2.5 WAR. However, Pedro’s inning pitched total is a meager 107 innings. Even if we take an optimistic playing time forecast of 180 innings then we get to about 2.2 WAR for Pedro.

So a worst case scenario if all these five players disappear in 2009 is that the Mets will be losing eight wins above replacement. And the players in question are all getting older and are liable to suffer a performance drop. To put it into context the acquisition of Johan Santana will add about 5 WAR to the team.

It appears as though Eric was a tad optimistic in his evaluation of how many wins the Mets would lose in 2009. Either way, losing 8 WAR isn’t trivial, and if the Mets are to contend they will need to replace at least some of them. Let’s take a look at the team’s options.

What the Mets should do

Replacing eight wins on the free agent market will add about $40 million to payroll. That would commit the team to about $130 million payroll, which is slightly ahead of where they have been in the recent past:

Year   Payroll
2003   $117m
2004   $97m
2005   $101m
2006   $101m
2007   $107m

With Santana added to the stable, the 2008 number projects to come in around the $135 million mark. With the move to Citifield there should certainly be scope to extend payroll to $150 million—and the Mets will still avoid the punitive luxury tax

Here is a quick glance at how much the players in question will earn in 2008:

Player         $$$
Martinez       $11m
Hernandez      $6.5m
Perez          $4.8m
Delgado        $16m
Alou           $7.5m

In total that is about $46 million of salary that comes off the payroll. We noted earlier that in order to replace the wins of this lot the Mets would have to fork out somewhere close to $40 million. Based on market prices they could actually reduce payroll by $6 million!

There are several options. Option 1 is to re-up the players in question to new contracts. Carlos Delgado has a $16 million option, and while his performance would augur for not exercising the option it is still a possibility, especially give the high buyout price. Alou could be snared for $10-12 million if he is still batting in the .300s and notching 450 plate appearances per season. Pedro, too, would likely combine a salary in that range—possibly a bit more if he has an effective and healthy 2008.

Hernandez and Perez would probably command a little more than they are each getting now (the market for starting pitchers remains thin). They’d probably share something in the region of $12-15 million between them. The Mets would need to add a maximum of $10 million payroll to keep this quintet at the club for 2009.

If the Mets were to do that they would be overpaying for wins. Also as these players get older the injury risk becomes more substantial. In all probability re-upping these players will not be something that the Mets will do. There is better value out there.

Option 2 is anything but Option 1. And based on the numbers, it makes more sense. Some of the players will stay. Delgado, despite his pricey contract, has a $5.5 million opt out, which is probably high enough to ensure the Mets opt in next year. Also if Alou and/or Martinez are effective in 2008 expect them to be given one- to two-year deals.

Out of the five, Hernandez and Perez are most likely to leave. Hernandez is a mercenary nomad who will no doubt find suitors elsewhere, while I’d expect Perez to test the free-agency waters. Given that the Mets have just signed Santana and have Mike Pelfrey coming through the ranks, resigning Perez won’t likely be a priority.

Anything else?

No, not really. This isn’t as big an issue for the Mets as I first thought. With a young cadre of hitting talent (Beltran, Reyes, Wright) the Mets will always have some oomph in the line-up. Delgado’s buy-out price ($5.5 million) may see him stick around, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if they extend Alou.

That aside expect the Mets to dabble in the free agent market for another pitcher, though not necessarily a front line starter. The good news for Mets fans is that the move to Citifield will move the payroll ceiling will up, perhaps dramatically.

As much as it pains me to say it, expect the Mets to be contending for the foreseeable future.

References & Resources
Thanks to Cot’s baseball contracts for detailed contractual information. Also those who are wondering how to calculate WAR I use two formulas. One, for hitters, is: 0.025 x PA x (SLG + 1.7OBP – 1). Two, for starting pitchers, is: (lgERA + 1 – ERA) x 90 / IP. The assumption here is that replacement level ERA is a run over league ERA. Those who are interested, Tango has a great post on how to adjust for WAR for position, as well as more detail on methodology. Note that I adjusted for fielding based off the THT 2008 projections.

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