Thursday, March 23, 2023

Thoughts on the Mets Opening Day Roster - Position Players

With the MLB regular season merely days away, we look at the position players who will break camp on the Mets' 26-man roster.

In our last post, we attempted to forecast which pitchers might travel south with the Mets when they open the season in Miami on March 30. This time, we'll look at which position players will join them in the "Magic City" when things get underway next week. While there are far fewer decisions to be made with the 13 position players the Mets will likely carry, there certainly are a couple of tough choices for Buck Showalter, Billy Eppler, and the rest of the club's brain trust.

As expected, Francisco Álvarez will open the season with the Syracuse Mets. It was pretty clear heading into camp that only a spectacular spring by the young catcher would possibly change that outcome, and that didn't happen. While Ronny Mauricio has yet to be assigned, it's quite likely that he will join Francisco in Triple-A. That leaves two prospects with a chance of breaking camp with the New Yorkers, Mark Vientos and Brett Baty.

Mark Vientos certainly has a chance to earn a Major League roster slot, but I think it's unlikely for reasons I laid out in my piece on Baty from earlier in the month. I don't believe the Mets can find enough ABs for Vientos as the short side of a DH platoon. It's tough to ask a kid to break into MLB playing a couple of times a week. You'll see bad teams do that sort of thing to save a few dollars. However, a contending team like the Mets will generally opt for a veteran ballplayer for that role, especially one with a track record of handling the job.

On the other hand, Brett Baty looks to me like his bat is MLB-ready, and his glove is improving significantly. Even if the Mets decided to platoon Baty with Eduardo Escobar, that would still allow Baty to play the majority of games at third. It's the way I would like to see them go, as laid out in that earlier post.

Without further ado, here is my prediction for the 9 starters on Opening Day in Miami. Since RHP Sandy Alcantara is almost sure to be the Marlins' starter, the left-handed bats will get the nod:

(3B) Brett Baty

I'm making a couple of big assumptions here. One, I believe Baty is ready for the Majors. While I have nothing against Eduardo Escobar, he doesn't hit RHP well and would provide usefulness in a utility role. Escobar can get the start at 3B against southpaws, fill in at 2B at times, and get some starts at DH, too. Look, it wouldn't surprise me if Eppler and company sent Brett Baty to Syracuse for at least a stretch of time at the start of the season. I understand the case for making that decision. But it wouldn't be the best choice for the 2023 Mets. With the loss of Edwin Díaz, the Mets' bullpen takes a substantial hit. It would be in the team's best interest to score more runs. In my opinion, Brett Baty — once he settles into the big leagues — gives them a chance to improve offensively.

My second big assumption is that Brandon Nimmo is healthy enough to go on Opening Day. While the signs look promising, I understand this is not a given. But I'm trying to embrace more optimism these days after several decades of wallowing in pessimism. I believe Brandon is in CF next week for the opener.

Narváez will likely get this start as he is the left-handed side of that catching platoon. There would seem to be little controversy over putting Alonso, McNeil, and Lindor into the Opening Day lineup. As long as Brandon makes it back, the outfield of Mark Canha, Nimmo, and Starling Marte is also an easy choice.

That leaves us with the DH. I understand that a certain percentage of Mets fans do not like Daniel Vogelbach. You've likely heard or seen all of the complaints if you spend time listening to local sports talk radio or scrolling through Mets' Twitter. Vogelbach is too fat, too slow, and too passive at the plate. But he was pretty good after joining the Mets last year, although that injury slowed him down in September. I was impressed that he worked hard to lose some weight this winter, which at least shows a commitment on his part to be as good as he can be. If the Mets can work with Vogelbach to be a little more aggressive at the plate, he'll be fine. As for his body — some folks just are naturally larger than others. If Vogelback can give the Mets something like the 139 OPS+ he provided them last season, I'm not going to give a crap if he's unlikely to be featured in any underwear ad billboards.

There are likely 4 roster slots remaining for position players. One will undoubtedly be Tomás Nido. You just need more than one catcher. By the way, if the Mets decide to bring up Francisco Álvarez at some point this summer, they can't send Nido to the minors. He is out of options.

Luis Guillorme should also be an easy decision to carry for his skill and versatility in the infield. Luis transformed himself from an automatic out in his first two MLB seasons into a decent hitter. His OPS+ last season was 101, just a tick above average. He can spell Lindor at SS, McNeil at 2B, and also fill in at 3B.

Since I want to see Baty make the Mets out of camp, I'm slotting Eduardo Escobar in as my third bench player. Since Escobar is much more effective as a right-handed hitter, he can platoon with Baty at third, get some ABs as a DH against southpaws, and also possibly play some 2B.

For the final bench position, Tommy Pham gets the nod. He could also potentially get some starts as the DH. I'm certain Jeff McNeil will also see some time in the outfield, opening up starts at 2B for Escobar and Guillorme.

This would leave Darin Ruf as the odd man out unless the Mets decide to carry only 12 pitchers, which I believe is unlikely. I'm not going to give you a Twitter-like rant about Ruf here. But, unless the Mets trade Escobar or Guillorme, I don't believe that Ruf gives the Mets enough versatility to justify a bench role. Darin is also in the very difficult position of heading into the year as persona non grata to the angriest segment of the Mets' fanbase. That's a very difficult place to be in when a player is trying to bounce back from a disappointing season.

If the Mets send Baty down to begin the year — which certainly could be the choice of Eppler and the front office — then it's more likely that Ruf could get a chance to prove that his bat still has some pop left in it.

On the other hand, even if Baty is sent down, the Mets could elect to bring Tim Locastro with them to Miami rather than Darin Ruf. Although reports I have read don't value Locastro much as a CF, the Mets are currently quite thin there. They don't want to move Starling Marte back and forth between RF and CF. That leaves Canha and Pham as the other possible CFs. The Mets played Tommy Pham in CF quite a bit this spring, obviously preparing for the possibility. At least in the games I saw, Pham did not look great there.

So maybe Locastro gets the nod because he at least provides another CF option for the Mets. He's also a stolen base threat for a team that doesn't have many of those. While Tim has enjoyed a nice camp for the Mets this spring, his MLB track record on offensive production isn't great. In 6 seasons, he has slashed .227/.325/.331 for an aggregate OPS+ of 77 — well below average production. In comparison, Travis Jankowski, who eventually flopped as an extra outfielder for the Mets last season, has a lifetime OPS+ of 75. Even more concerning, over the last two seasons, Locastro's offense has declined, with a .181/.257/.275 slash line and an OPS+ of 47. I'm sure the Mets wouldn't live with that sort of production from one of their bench bats.

That will do it with my fearless predictions for the season. As I sit here finishing this post, there are only 7 days before the start of the 2023 season. It should be a fun year, particularly if the Mets can avoid injuries. That's always a big if, of course, especially for older teams like the Mets. As Edwin Díaz's incredibly flukey injury has confirmed for us, good luck is a necessary component of any successful baseball season. Fingers, toes, and everything else I can cross are crossed. Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

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