The Winter Meetings are here, and with them all the requisite nonsense and Twitter fuss and speculation ranging from reasonable to ridiculous.
Mets fans, understandably, seem pretty geared up for a trade, since the team needs to improve to compete any time in the short- or long-term future and because it does not appear as if the front office has a lot of flexibility to throw around money at free agents. The players the Mets are targeting, at least according to the early rumors, are outfielders and catchers. They need both, no doubt, but the needs are not equal.
Outside of his ability to catch R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, Josh Thole stunk after his concussion in early May of 2012. Upon returning from the disabled list on June 1, Thole hit a measly .217/.273/.263, and his .257 wOBA for the year ranked him dead last among Major League catchers with at least 300 plate appearances. For the season, he walked slightly less and struck out slightly more than he did in 2010 and 2011, and he somehow hit for even less power. It was an awful year for Thole at the plate.
But Thole’s 26, he’s under team control for the next four seasons, he hits left-handed and his history shows he’s not nearly as bad an offensive player as he was in 2012. It’s impossible to say the extent to which his concussion impacted his abilities at the plate, but far better hitters than Thole have struggled offensively after head injuries. And given the stark difference between the modest standard Thole set in his first two seasons versus the miserable numbers he posted this year, it seems reasonable to guess that his woes were at least partly due to the aftereffects of that injury. Thole actually seems like a guy we might be targeting as a buy-low option if he spent his terrible 2012 with any other team.
There’s no guarantee Thole bounces back to his 2010-2011 form, and even if he does he’s hardly Mike Piazza at the plate. But given his age, his contract status and the injury, he seems potentially too useful to give up on in favor of a player who would only make for a mild upgrade.
J.P. Arencibia, frequently linked to the Mets in early trade rumors, is merely a mild upgrade. He hits for way more power, but his production is mitigated by his inability to get on base with any frequency. His 88 career OPS+ is only a tick higher than Thole’s 85, and his .275 career on-base percentage is about exactly the same as Thole’s post-injury mark in 2012. And he’s not much of a defender.
Arencibia will be 27 in January, so he could still improve a bit — though so could Thole. Plus he hits right-handed and he won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2016. If he were practically free, or a part of a larger trade package, he’d make a decent right-handed complement to Thole in a platoon. But since he hasn’t hit lefties as well as free-agents Kelly Shoppach, Chris Snyder, Ronny Paulino or even Bobby Wilson, none of whom seems likely to command a whole ton of money, Arencibia hardly seems worth targeting in a trade unless he lands in the Mets’ laps.
Arencibia’s Minor League history should also sound a small warning about the Blue Jays’ more coveted young catcher, Travis d’Arnaud. d’Arnaud moved through the Minors at a younger age than Arencibia and typically posted more promising walk rates. But though d’Arnaud’s .333/.380/.595 line as a 23-year-old at Triple-A Las Vegas looks enticing to a Mets fan dreaming of an All-Star catcher, it’s not far off from the .301/.359/626 marks Arencibia posted in Vegas as a 24-year-old in 2010. d’Arnaud carries a better reputation in prospect circles than Arencibia ever did, and, again, he’s younger and far more likely to emerge as a Major League star, so worth way more in a trade than Arencibia. But he’s far from a guarantee to immediately succeed in the Majors. Sometimes what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Moreover, the Mets need outfielders more than they need a catcher. Right now, their best two-way outfielder is either Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Mike Baxter. That duo has about a full season’s worth of Major League plate appearances between them. Lucas Duda has more, but his ability to stay in the outfield should be considered questionable at best. All three of them hit left-handed, as does Jordany Valdespin. Their best righty-hitting in-house outfielder, again, is either Juan Lagares or Cory Vaughn, neither of whom appears ready to play in the Majors by Opening Day 2013.
It could be that outfielders will be easier to come by on the scrap heap, so much so to justify trading for a catcher. But the outfield needs to be the team’s priority this offseason, and it’s not all that close. As hard as this may be to believe, the Mets are better off hoping Thole bounces back and starting the season with him and Anthony Recker than starting all three of Baxter, Nieuwenhuis and Duda in the outfield with no righty-hitting hedge.