Why the Mets Should Pass on Zobrist

Everyone else has weighed in on this issue already, but I wanted to just briefly get my thoughts on the record. I have a blog, and that’s what blogs are for. So here’s my quick take.

First, some recommended reading for you. Ben Zobrist, Far From a Star, Is Now Coveted– Ben Berkon, New York Times:

“In a free-agent class brimming with nine-figure aspirants, Zobrist is of particular intrigue. He is entering the final chapter of an unlikely but successful career, in which he has combined position flexibility, stellar defense and base-running skills to fashion an Excel column of his own. This off-season, Zobrist is arguably the only player every team could find a fit for.”

Why Ben Zobrist is the perfect risk for Mets to take– Ken Davidoff, New York Post:

“So why roll the dice with Zobrist? Because he looks to be a near-perfect fit for the Mets. He can play the middle-infield and corner-outfield positions and even has sampled the corner-infield positions. He draws walks and hits plenty of doubles; the latter attribute should work particularly well in cavernous Citi Field. He’s known as a strong clubhouse guy. And because, as Ricco noted, the time to step on the gas pedal is now.”

Ben Zobrist isn’t a good fit with Mets– Dan Szymborski, ESPN:

“It’s not because Zobrist wouldn’t make the Mets a better team. He absolutely would, even as he progresses into years of performance decline. The problem is that despite the large market, the Mets are not a team with unlimited resources, so they need to pick and choose their investments wisely.”

Each of these articles make good points. Looking at the by-lines, you would expect that to be the case. However, I do not believe that the Mets should be in on Zobrist, at least not at the price that he is asking. Not because Zobrist won’t improve the Mets — of course he would — but because Zobrist doesn’t improve the Mets enough relative to what he will cost.  Here’s why.

The current best guesses for Zobrist’s contract are somewhere in the neighborhood of four years and $70 million. According to the $/WAR analysis that you might see on Fangraphs or elsewhere, there is a decent chance that Zobrist will justify that kind of deal. However, whether or not Zobrist justifies his contract by $/WAR is not the proper inquiry.

The proper inquiry is: how much are the Mets willing to spend? And within those parameters, how should they spend it? In light of those questions, here are the pertinent facts.

The Mets have a decent internal option at 2B in Dilson Herrera

Yes, I am aware that the Mets stood pat at shortstop last offseason and that gifted us with an entire season of Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada at shortstop (and an entire season of heartburn). Yes, I am aware that putting Herrera at second base is doubling down on a risky strategy, and that to man the middle infield with two players age 24 or younger with less than 1,000 combined at-bats in the majors is also risky.

However, there are few safer bets in the minor leagues right now than Dilson Herrera, who batted .327/.382/.511 in Triple-A and who received good reports on his defense. Herrera, who will be 22 in the Spring, probably has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. In fact, according to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system, the Mets don’t give up too much with Herrera at 2B over Zobrist:

zodilson.JPG

Again, this is not to say Dilson is better than Zobrist, because he does not project to be for 2016.

This is also not to say that I will always advocate the internal option over the free agent (as I did with Flores over Desmond or Ramirez last offseason). But Dilson is a Top 50 Prospect at Fangraphs, MLB.com, and Baseball America, who owns a collective .304 average in the minor leagues and who has held his own in the majors at ages 20 and 21.

Zobrist’s Versatility Doesn’t Help the Mets

Many people have pointed to Zobrist’s versatility as a reason the Mets should sign him, but I am not convinced. Obviously, having players who can be versatile is a nice perk. But the type of money Zobrist will be given should be reserved for a starting-caliber player who can do something well and who won’t be blocking anyone.

If the Mets are so worried about Wright’s health at third, wouldn’t they be better served getting a real shortstop, moving Flores to second base, and then shifting Flores to third and promoting Dilson if Wright were to get injured? That way, the Mets can upgrade their defense at two positions by only adding one player.

The Money Would Be Better Spent Elsewhere

Ultimately, the Mets would be better with Zobrist than without him, but if the Mets have $70 million to spend (or almost $20 million per year) there are upgrades that they could pursue around the diamond which would bring a greater net return. Bullpen upgrades abound, and many free agent outfielders remain unsigned (from Yoenis Cespedes to Denard Span, depending on your appetite). You could spend a fraction of the Zobrist money on a shortstop (perhaps the price drops drastically on Ian Desmond) and move Flores to second base, as discussed above.

As a fan, I’m glad to see the Mets appear prepared to spend some money. Now, we just have to hope that they spend it wisely.