I joined the guys at Seven Train to Shea last night to discuss the Mets’ approach to the trade deadline, among other things. They asked if I would trade Angel Pagan for Cliff Lee and I reiterated my opinion that Pagan is too good to be given up for a rental player, since the outfielder will be under team control through 2012.
Then they asked if I would trade Jenrry Mejia for Cliff Lee and I provided a rambling and incoherent response. Here’s what I wanted to get out:
Yes, if the Mets stay in this thing — and it appears that the Mets are staying in this thing — I would trade Jenrry Mejia for Lee. Pitching prospects are nearly impossible to rely on, even if they’re as talented as Mejia. No matter how good he looks now, Mejia is still only 20 years old and probably several years away from reaching his potential as a Major League starter. Many, many things can happen between now and then, things that could damn his prized, electric arm.
But I would trade Mejia with great reluctance, and not just the reluctance I express when the Mets trade any promising young player. Mejia appears to be the pitcher in the Mets’ system most likely to emerge as a frontline starter. An ace. And aces do not grow on trees.
Nor can aces reliably be found on the open market in free agency. By the time pitchers reach free agency they are generally in their early 30s, ready to begin declining. Yet due to the production they provided their prior club, they are given massive, lengthy contracts — often backloaded.
Thanks to a negotiating window, the Mets signed Johan Santana to a six-year extension at the market rate before he was even eligible for free agency, while he was still only 28. Now they’re on the hook for $77.5 million over the next three seasons, and Santana is beginning to show his age.
So when I hear reports that the Mets will only trade Mejia for Cliff Lee if Lee provides a negotiating window, I cringe. Lee will certainly not sign for less than what his agents believe to be fair market value. So instead of giving up their top pitching prospect to rent a great starter for a half season, the Mets would be giving up their top pitching prospect for the right to sign a guy to the same contract they could have given him as a free agent come the offseason, and a contract that will likely be an albatross in a few years.
Don’t get me wrong: Cliff Lee is amazing. But he will also be 32 by season’s end, and there’s no way he’ll be this good five years from now. And some team will be paying him as if he were.
That team should not be the Mets. Trade Mejia to rent the guy, sure, because world championships are invaluable and Lee significantly increases the chances of winning one. But don’t strive for the negotiating window. Let him walk and use the draft picks aggressively to try to find a guy who will develop into an ace in the future.