In this hyperaware era of baseball, where transactions are adjudicated to a decimal point before the ink rendering them official dares to dry, the verdict almost always boils down to value. This is rational, and what’s rational is understandable, so please do not mistake this as some sort of polemic against judiciousness.
It’s just that as the sabermetric revolution’s tentacles have enveloped the game, they’ve squeezed out of it the acceptance of a particular kind of risk – the sort of which the New York Mets are prepared to embrace Friday as they expect to put the finishing touches on a trade that will land them closer extraordinaire Edwin Díaz and eight-time All-Star Robinson Canó and send top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, outfielder Jay Bruce, reliever Anthony Swarzak and perhaps one more minor leaguer to the Seattle Mariners.
This is what passes for a controversial trade in 2018. It’s a fourth-place team in a strong division giving up good prospects and taking back a 36-year-old with five years and $120 million remaining on his deal (along with an unknown amount of cash). It’s valuing a one-inning relief pitcher – albeit maybe the best in the game today – as the centerpiece of a blockbuster deal. It is seeing a deal inside a vacuum instead of trying to contextualize it. All it takes to do that is seven words.
The Mets are trying to win now.
Value seekers may quibble with the path general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is carving with the first deal of his new career after jumping into the front office from his job representing players and negotiating contracts – like Canó’s $240 million deal. Yet the mere effort of trying to win now is a concept that has been lost on far too many in Major League Baseball, at least for those who believe it necessitates going out and collecting talent.
Which is exactly what Van Wagenen would do with this deal. Díaz is a star: 24 years old, 100-mph fastball, quiver-inducing slider, under team control for four more years, including one this season near the league-minimum salary. He is exceedingly valuable. The only reason the Mets are primed to get him is because they agreed to take on Canó. He is 36 years old and spent half of last season serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. He is also still plenty productive – he hit .317/.363/.497 after the suspension – and fits well in the middle of even a good lineup.
Make no mistake: Even if Canó is the big name coming back, this is a trade for Díaz, and trading for Díaz, whether Canó came along or not, was going to cost prospects. Kelenic is a very good one: 19 years old, the sixth overall pick last season, a tooled-up, left-handed-hitting center fielder who could be a star. Dunn is pedigreed, too, a first-rounder in 2016 who strikes out a lot of guys and also walks too many.
Any anger over the trade goes back to Kelenic and Dunn, and it would be disingenuous to say it isn’t risky. It is. Know what, though? Everything in baseball is risky. The best-looking on-paper deals can fall prey to the whims of the game. The physical, the mental and every vagary that exists between the two. Baseball is difficult. Predicting the future is impossible.
And yet, because this trade does not hew to the modern paradigm of running a baseball team – wait for a window of opportunity, try to win then, do not deviate, and if so find scorn – the anger is palpable. It’s also terribly misplaced, because to view the Mets inside of that vacuum would ignore just how counter this runs to the standard witlessness of the Wilpon family’s ownership of the franchise.
When Van Wagenen arrived, a question – maybe the biggest, aside from his transition into an entirely new world – was just how much sway he would have over owner Fred Wilpon and his excessively hands-on son, Jeff. If the Díaz-Canó trade is any indication, the answer is: plenty. Van Wagenen’s first transaction was to acquire perhaps the greatest albatross in baseball.
Bad as that sounds, it’s also something that a team like the Mets absolutely should do. These are the New York Mets. Emphasis on “New York”. They may be little brother to the Yankees, but they had the seventh-highest revenue in the sport last season, according to Forbes. Whatever financial troubles the Mets may have had went away in recent years, as the values of franchises skyrocketed. Consider this: In 2014, Forbes estimated the Mets were worth $800 million. Today that number is $2 billion.
There are zero good excuses for the Mets not to spend money every season and try to contend. None. While it’s true spending does not always equal success, a larger payroll hides mistakes – or, in the Mets’ case, allows them to trade for someone else’s and benefit on account of it.
And it’s true: The Mets could have held onto Kelenic and Dunn, swallowed the $26 million left on Bruce’s deal and the $8 million on Swarzak’s, and paid for a closer. There are plenty of big names available in free agency: Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, David Robertson. None is as good as Díaz. And the pain of Canó is much more long-term: His arrival at second base allows Jeff McNeil – whom the Mariners wanted and Mets did not include – to bring his dangerous bat to third.
Which is the better option? Trying to bring objectivity to a debate like this is what brought about sabermetrics in the first place, and it would be insincere to lay out an argument about why the deal is right for New York. And, for that matter, for the Mariners, even if using Díaz to pay down Canó may be a misuse of his value, without consulting the numbers.
Thankfully, a smart friend had done that even before the idea for this column started to percolate.
He estimated that Canó would be worth 10 wins above replacement in his five years and Díaz at 10 in his four years. One can quibble with this. Baseball Prospectus projects Canó to be worth 8.5 WAR and Díaz 6.3. The friend pegged one WAR worth $8 million. That’s lower than most places value a win, though that higher valuation tends to even out the numbers for both. Each is worth about $80 million. Canó will cost $120 million and Díaz, if he continues to dominate, about $40 million through arbitration. Essentially, it’s a wash for the Mets.
The friend pegged Kelenic a 20-win player over his first seven seasons and Dunn worth 10 WAR, though because of their high risk – Kelenic’s age and low-level experience, Dunn being a pitcher – he cut that total in half. After estimating the cost of such performers at $55 million with 15 WAR worth $120 million, he saw $65 million in surplus value. If Bruce is worth a win the next two seasons, that makes the total value of the package somewhere in the $35 million range.
Which doesn’t even count the cash Seattle will include in the deal. However much it is, that $35 million projection is far from ripoff territory when considering the fickle nature of prospects and the opportunity for the Mets to reap the benefits of a playoff run. That might be optimistic, with Atlanta and Philadelphia and Washington in the National League East, but the idea of optimism as a guiding light isn’t something worth rejecting outright.
After all, this is the offseason in which Philadelphia’s owner copped to preparing himself to do something “stupid” in the free-agent market. Know what? Stupid is OK. Modern baseball has conditioned front offices, and by extension fans, to a homogeneity of thought that leads to someone saying that spending a lot of money is stupid when the reality is that the industry’s hand-over-fist cash-grabbing ought to trickle down into the pockets of the people who actually do the winning and losing.
The Mets are trying to win now. That’s weird to type. It’s odd to read. For so many years, they’ve conducted themselves as a third-rate organization in a first-class city, leaving die-hards hardened to Daniel Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong with the Mets will. They’ve blundered and stumbled and been great for laughs. It’s why, when someone asks how to trust the Mets when they have so habitually screwed things up, the answer is: You can’t.
Allowing that distrust to shape a worldview and thieve the excitement that should come from this trade, though, is a misuse of energy. Getting Edwin Díaz and Robinson Canó is a risk, sure, and a fairly big one. Championship franchises also have been built on the principle of gathering elite players, and Díaz more than qualifies.
If there is one flaw in this argument, it’s offering praise without understanding the even larger context of this Mets offseason. They are seeking a trade match for Noah Syndergaard, their wildly talented starting pitcher whose injury history mitigates his splendor. They are poking around for another starter on the trade market, according to sources. Even more, they have been aggressive with free-agent pitchers, leaving open a scenario in which they deal Syndergaard to replenish their farm system and sign a starter (Nathan Eovaldi?) whose upside is similarly large and wouldn’t cost prospect capital. Appraising the Mets now, in the aftermath of any Díaz-Canó deal, would be foolish. There is so much left to do.
The mere existence of aggression from the Mets – yes, the New York Mets – doesn’t exactly render those other points moot. It does, however, very likely represent a shift in approach, one that other teams across the sport could stand to follow. Aggressiveness is OK. So is risk. Value needn’t always be king. There’s a reasonable balance to strike, a place where prospects are wonderful but not kept in a vault, where players still have value even when their age starts with a 3, where winning – the whole point of this exercise, really – matters most.
Does this all make the Mets likelier to win? Right now, yes. It does. And while planning for the future is vital for any team, it and winning are not mutually exclusive. The New York Mets are acting like they believe this. If they really do, and this trade is any indication of what’s to come and given the resources to make it happen, the shift in culture with the Mets will be one decidedly in the right direction.
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