The New York Mets are under new ownership and even amid the pandemic and a depressed market, they have the financial flexibility to make their team a contender. While there are plenty of options available on the free-agent market, a number of tantalizing names will be on the trade block this winter as team’s attempt to pare payroll, move a player approaching free agency, or retool for the future.
Unlike past years, where the New York Mets had to swap contracts to even out costs (see: Robinson Cano for Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak), they may be in a better position than most to absorb payroll in lieu of giving up prospects. Here are 10 names (in order of 2021 salary) the Mets may be linked to as the hot stove season progresses.
New York Mets trade for Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies ($35 million owed in 2021, $199 million through 2026)
The Mets have several candidates to play third base but none of them are strong enough defensively to warrant enthusiasm. Jeff McNeil was the incumbent last year but he committed a string of errors to begin the season and did not play the hot corner after August 2. J.D. Davis was also predictably well below-average.
Arenado, by contrast, was the NL leader in defense WAR in 2020, despite a lackluster season at the plate. He has been an incredible glove man, winning eight straight gold gloves since his debut in 2013. Up until this year, he was also a great hitter, even accounting for the Coors Field mile-high boost. Arenado’s batting lines evoke prime David Wright, and he was a top five MVP candidate from 2016-2018 (in 2019 he placed sixth).
This past year, however, was another story. Arenado dealt with a sore shoulder and inflamed AC joint all year, and finally hit the disabled list the last week of the season, his first injury stint since 2014. Arenado has been frustrated with Colorado’s poor showing since 2018, and is not on speaking terms with ownership. All of this points to Colorado trying to offload Arenado’s contract ASAP, and the Mets are in a great position to add salary in lieu of dealing real talent or prospects.
Since Arenado’s prohibitive contract and poor 2020 torpedoes his trade value, the real question is whether the Mets are best served committing so much money to a player, who, while reminiscent of “The Captain”, may have already started his decline phase, in addition to the built-in Coors comedown if Arenado played at sea level. Away from Coors, he is a career .263/.322/.471 hitter. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not star-level. And it’s on par with cheaper, less heralded options (see below).
Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners ($18.5 Million due in 2021, Team Option for $15 Million in 2021)
See Arenado’s road stats above? Well, Kyle Seager has hit .262/.323/.471 on the road in about 130 more games. Seager’s home field, Safeco, has brought down his batting line almost as much as Coors Field has boosted Arenado’s. Even then, he’s probably not quite as good a player. Seager is a good fielder, but maybe not a great one, having won “only” one Gold Glove back in 2014. Seager’s context-adjust OPS+ is also slightly lower than Arenado’s. He’s also older and has been barely above average the past four years.
Still, Seager is probably an underrated asset and had an unheralded bounceback season last year, with a career-high walk rate (giving him a solid .355 OBP) and a career-low strikeout rate. In 2020, he was sixth in WAR among third basemen, according to Fangraphs (Arenado, with his offensive decline, was 15th). Since 2016, he’s tenth.
That makes Seager a good Plan-B for any team, such as the Mets, that wants to upgrade at the hot corner next year. Seattle has been eager to dump salary in the recent past, foregoing any kind of meaningful return in trading players like Edwin Encarnacion or Jay Bruce. It’s unlikely Seager would cost more than a few non-elite prospects, which the Mets can afford. The real question is whether they will have to settle for Seager or can aim for guys with higher upside, including Arenado.
Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs ($18+ Million projected for 2021, under control through 2022)
The Cubs have a number of expensive arbitration-eligible players, and the expectation is the suddenly budget-conscious Ricketts’ ownership group can’t keep them all. Bryant was particularly disappointing in the pandemic-shortened season, and his incredible first two years (ROY in 2015, MVP in 2016) means he’s also the priciest of their homegrown core. That could even put him on track to be non-tendered, but it’d be near unprecedented to just dump a player with Bryant’s pedigree, and would be especially noxious for Cubs fans who’ve been privileged with a strong team over the past six years.
Even if you include Bryant’s awful .206/.293/.351 line from last year, he’s a career .280//.380/.508 hitter, which equates to being 34 percent above average (Arenado, by contrast, when adjusting for context is 20% above average for his career). His defense has been declining, but he was average in a short sample size last year. The culprit for his dismal year was a litany of injuries, which is in itself concerning even if none of them are expected to hamper him come spring training.
If the Mets believe enough in his defense, he makes sense as a bounce-back candidate. It’s unclear what other teams would be in on Bryant, although the Braves have been linked to him in the past. His cost may be prohibitive, but not nearly so much as Arenado. Bryant is under team control for the next two years and, via arbitration, is set to earn no less than the $18.6 million he made last year, but could also reach an agreement for less if he and his agent Scott Boras are worried about him being non-tendered and thrown into an uncertain free agent market. While the Cubs could prioritize offloading his contract, their competitive window dictates that they get ‘something’ back in a deal besides mere salary relief (or else, again, they will face the wrath of their fan base).
If the Cubs think they can win without Bryant, maybe a reliever and a prospect get it done. If they think they can get a lesser-but-still-valuable major leaguer for him, they could ask the Mets for Amed Rosario or Brandon Nimmo straight up.
New York Mets trade for Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians ($17.5+ million projected for 2021, under contract through 2021)
Lindor is the Mookie Betts of this year’s trade market, with the Indians informing teams he will definitely be traded this winter. While he is only contract for one more year, Lindor is the kind of generational talent that merits a huge extension, and his solid but underwhelming 2020 could lower his price tag into the $200 million range (ie not record breaking) … unless he and his agent see this year as a bounceback opportunity. Even so, whoever acquires him has a leg up on signing him long-term.
How Cleveland plans to handle his market is still up in the air. If they are prioritizing a salary dump, the Mets have a leg up as arguably the only team looking to significantly increase their payroll budget. If Cleveland plans to contend next year, the Mets do have some intriguing major league options such as Brandon Nimmo or Dominic Smith, whose departures would sting but should have appeal to the Indians.
However, if the Indians are going to prioritize cost-controlled talent or prospects, the Mets are a tough fit. Although they have some enticing prospects, their best two trade chips, Ronny Mauricio and Andres Gimenez, are shortstops, and Cleveland is loaded with middle infield prospects; according to MLB.com, five of their top 12 prospects play shortstop. Furthermore, Cleveland’s front office has been very particular about their trade targets, going after players they value more highly than the consensus in the recent Mike Clevinger and Corey Kluber deals. The New York Mets prospect depth is very thin after the first 5-7 names, which also hurts them if Cleveland goes after quantity as they did in the Clevinger deal.
Nonetheless, the Mets figure to be in the mix here, as Lindor is a great fit for a team looking to add the pieces necessary to be a perennial contender; his long-term comps include legends like Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter.
Alex Cobb, RHP, Orioles ($15 Million due in 2021)
Cobb had the most modest of comebacks in 2020, posting a slightly-above average 4.30 ERA over ten starts and demonstrating a clean bill of health after missing nearly all of 2019. His strikeout rate was well-below average and advanced metrics suggest he was lucky to finish with even this unspectacular line.
At age 33, Cobb would purely be a depth move. However, one of the New York Mets big problems last year was the back end of their rotation. Free agent flops Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha combined to go 2-11 with a 6.00 ERA, and the formerly dependable Steven Matz was even worse. Letting Cobb soak up innings every five days while the Mets offense does the heavy lifting isn’t a terrible strategy.
That said, he comes with a hefty price tag, even for one year. The Mets can probably find better options on the free agent market, even if the Orioles offer to eat some of the money. Still, like Seager, Cobb is worth keeping in mind as a secondary option, particularly if the Mets splurge on someone like Trevor Bauer or incumbent Marcus Stroman. There is value in depth and none of the Mets current minor league options, like Corey Oswalt, offer the promise of even league-average pitching.
Lance Lynn, RHP, Rangers ($12 million due in 2021)
Lynn is the best starting pitcher on the trade market, and he’s also Texas’ most valuable trade chip. He was shopped around at the trade deadline but no team met Texas’ demands. That means he will cost real prospects. With just one year left on his deal, teams may be reluctant to cough up their top names, but there will be multiple suitors lining up for Lynn, including Mets rivals like the Braves or Phillies.
The Mets have desirable prospects, but the teams best equipped to strike a deal for Lynn are probably Atlanta and Tampa Bay, who inquired on Lynn during the season. Those teams have a surplus of ready-now position player prospects and Texas suffered through one of their all-time worst seasons offensively last year. The Rangers can still reasonably aim for at least one top-100 prospect in exchange for Lynn, even if that’s all they get back.
A hypothetical New York Mets trade could look something like 2019 first-round pick Bret Baty and/or pitcher Matt Allan, who has only thrown 10 innings in the low minors but who scouts believe has top-tier upside. Again, those names offer fair compensation but are far away. The Mets most tradeable major league asset, J.D. Davis, may be a little too old and a little too similar to Texas’ current corner/DH options to make sense in this kind of deal.
Jon Gray, RHP, Rockies ($5.6+ million salary projected for 2021, free agent after 2021)
Gray had a dismal 2020 but before that had established himself as one of the rare pitchers who has succeeded despite Coors Field. Even with missing the last month of the 2019 season, Gray was tenth in pitcher WAR that year. He has one year left before free agency and the Rockies need to figure out whether he’s more valuable to them as a bounceback trade candidate now, rather than later. If he has another poor or injury plagued season, the Rockies stand to lose him as a free agent for nothing next winter.
Although his bad year dampens his value, in a thin trade market for pitchers Gray could bring back a return of either a few prospects or a similar make-good player or two. If the Mets stick with Andres Gimenez at shortstop, or trade for Lindor, and the Rockies end up trading Trevor Story who is also one year from free agency, they could offer Amed Rosario in a deal, who has not had Gray’s peaks of excellence but is also under control for more years (three) and could thrive in Colorado’s hitting environment.
Overall, the Mets need arms for their rotation and Gray would be a high-risk, high-upside addition if they went this route.
New York Mets trade for Joe Musgrove, RHP, Pirates ($3.75 million projected salary in 2021, free agent after 2022)
Musgrove finished strong on a terrible Pirates team that should be cashing in on any major league assets after the complete collapse of their roster over the past few years. Musgrove was originally one of the returns in the Gerrit Cole trade back in 2018, and may be better suited as a high-leverage multi-inning reliever than a starting pitcher, but he has been at least average in that role since the Pirates acquired him.
His rising strikeout rate last year suggests Musgrove may be capable of something more. The Pirates would wait and see if he shows further improvement and try to trade him mid-season, or they could cash in that chip now. Musgrove won’t cost any top-100 prospects but the Pirates figure to want at least a few second-tier guys, similar to what they got in for Andrew McCutchen (Kyle Crick and Bryan Reynolds, who were at the time consensus top 10-15 guys in their system).
Some players it makes sense for the Mets to offer in this scenario include LHP Thomas Szapucki and 3B Mark Vientos, who MLB currently ranks as their #7 and #8 prospects. Szapucki put up eye-popping strikeout numbers in the low minors but then required Tommy John surgery in 2017. At age 24 and just 40 innings out of the low-minors, Szapucki looks more like a future high-leverage left reliever at this point.
Vientos is a former 2nd round pick who will be just 21 next year. At the time of his signing he was considered a far-away but high-upside pick who projected to have enough power for his bat to play even if he moved off third base. The latter would be a given considering Pittsburgh’s one bright spot last year was the emergence of K’Bryan Hayes. Back in 2019, Vientos held his own at low-A Columbia but his bat looked too raw at times for him to leap into the next echelon of prospects. He spent most of 2020 with the New York Mets Mets’ alternate training site.
Frankie Montas, RHP, Athletics ($1.25 million projected salary in 2021, free agent after 2023)
Montas is in a similar situation as Gray, having followed up a breakout 2019 season with a poor showing in 2020. That followed an 80-game suspension for banned substances, although his secondary statistics suggest bad luck may have elevated his ERA.
Montas is cheaper and under control for several more years, but the relevant scenario here is if Oakland loses Marcus Semien in free agency. Without a viable in-house replacement, that would make them a fit for either Andres Gimenez or Amed Rosario; the latter is in a similar position as Montas, being a rising talent who flopped in 2020.
It’s worth noting that Sandy Alderson has a strong relationship with Oakland’s front office; he’s returning to the Mets after being a senior advisor to Oakland for the last two years. That could make Montas a target regardless of what Oakland does at shortstop. Presumably Oakland would want another major league piece if they were dealing from rotation depth, as their roster figures to be competitive next year. J.D. Davis could be another fit here as well.
Keibert Ruiz, C, Dodgers (major league minimum in 2021)
Ruiz is one of the best catching prospects in the high minors but he becomes a trade asset after the emergence of Will Smith, who not only has hit better than expected but has lived up to his strong defensive reputation as well.
If the Mets miss out on either J.T. Realmuto or James McCann, Ruiz ought to be their next target, as no other available catcher figures to project as even an everyday player, let alone a league-average one. The Mets could easily plug in a defense-first stopgap like Mike Zunino or Jason Castro until Ruiz is deemed to be ready.
The question then becomes what the Dodgers would want for Ruiz, who is by no means a given to be traded this year, having seen only nine games above the AA level. Ruiz may be more valuable than any Met prospect with the possible exception of Ronny Mauricio, who is further away than Ruiz, or Andres Gimenez, who is unlikely to be of interest with Corey Seager still around.
The Dodgers are losing some depth in Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernandez, and if they don’t re-sign either of those players could use Ruiz to re-stock there. They also could use some bullpen depth, having lost a few guys there to free agency and Tommy John surgery (Caleb Ferguson). For the New York Mets, trading away Edwin Diaz or Seth Lugo just opens up a new hole for them, and they have to engineer an overpay.
Some combination of JD Davis (who could replace Pederson’s at-bats from the DH slot) and prospects like Matt Allan or teenage catcher Francisco Alvarez, who could be as touted as Ruiz is now within a few years, could be an enticing package. The price for Ruiz figures to be steep but also would leave the Mets with payroll flexibility to fill holes elsewhere. Prospect for prospect swaps are rare but they do happen (see: Randy Arozarena for Matt Liberatore).