By Mike Steffanos
On his ESPN blog today, Buster Olney discusses how Toronto is shopping young outfielder Alex Rios in an attempt to land a number 4 starter for their rotation. Rios certainly could be a rising star, although this is based on part of one season of performance:
Rios, 25, batted .302 with 17 homers and 82 RBI in 128 games last season, hitting for power for the first time and demonstrating that he could turn out to be a star. Rios hit .362 in April, .360 in May, but had only 14 at-bats in July after coming down with the infection. He returned to the lineup on July 28 and batted .198 in August, before finishing well -- Rios hit .333 in 66 at-bats in September, but with one home run.
What could make him particularly attractive for interested teams is that he is four years away from becoming eligible for free agency, and he's already had success and had a lot of experience.
When Olney says that Rios hit for power for the first time last season he wasn't kidding. In 426 ABs in 2004, Rios had exactly one home run and a .383 slugging percentage. The following year Rios had 10 HR in 481 ABs while slugging .397. Still, he's 26 and the improvement is there, so giving him the benefit of the doubt makes sense.
What doesn't make sense to me is how Olney sees this deal from the Mets point of view:
An intriguing possibility would be a Mets-Jays swap for Rios. The Mets were ready to swoop in and make a pitch for Wells if his negotiations fell apart, and threads of those conversations might be picked up in a Rios deal. As Barry Zito and his agent know, the Mets don't have much in the way of established, front line starting pitching, but they do have depth in young, inexperienced starters, like Aaron Heilman.
Rios makes sense for the Mets because he would help make an older team younger; he'd be another right-handed hitter who could help balance a lineup that leans left; the Mets have one-year obligations on Moises Alou and Shawn Green, and Rios could supplant Green in 2007 and effectively be a middle-of-the-order hitter in the seasons that followed.
If the Jays like Heilman as a starting pitcher, there would be a natural match, but interestingly, Heilman may be effectively devalued by the fact that the Mets have clearly been reluctant to use him as a starting pitcher. "The Mets need starting pitching," said one rival executive, "but they won't put him in the rotation. So what does that tell you? If the Mets don't look at him as a starter, then any team looking to trade for him might feel the same way."
The Mets and Jays kicked around the possibility of a Lastings Milledge-Heilman deal for Wells, according to one scout familiar with the conversations. A deal of Rios-and-something else for Heilman and Milledge might be a framework for a trade. Or maybe the Jays could ask for one of the Mets' young pitchers, either Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber, or perhaps John Maine or Oliver Perez. It all depends on how the Jays would evaluate each of those young pitchers.
I understand there are many Mets fans, including me, who would love to see someone else rather than Shawn Green manning RF in 2007. However, given that the Mets pitching right now is their biggest concern, why would they deal pitching for a corner outfielder? If the Mets are willing to part with Heilman and Milledge, it makes sense if they move these chips for starting pitching, not a corner OF. Same with Pelfrey, Humber, Maine or Perez. Why weaken yourself where you are weakest in an attempt to strengthen the lineup, the part of your team that is the already the strongest?
First of all, understand that Shawn Green will be the number 7 hitter in the lineup next year. Also, while Olney says that Rios would balance the lineup by replacing Green, that wouldn't be the case. With Floyd gone and Green out of the picture, this lineup would actually be skewed right-handed, with only Carlos Delgado and number 8 hitter Jose Valentin as pure lefties. That's hardly balancing the lineup.
Second, when you look at the Mets farm system for position players, you see outfielders. Milledge (if he stays), Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez are the cream of the crop and outfielders all. The point of Green and Alou was to get us over the hump to when these kids are ready. But you switch gears and trade valuable young pitching to bring in another young outfielder. That just doesn't seem smart to me.
I don't love Green, but with both Johnson and Chavez, the Mets have some insurance. To me, if they're going to trade their chips, it has to be to bring in pitching. Trading them, particularly their top pitching prospects, for a kid like Rios is not undefendable, but I don't think trading from weakness to shore up where you're already strong is what winning franchises do. If it was up to me, I'd pass on that kind of deal.