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Mets Must Make a Decision at Catcher

While the Mets have issues regarding their ability to extend their starting pitching, they have other areas to address as well. As it stands, the Mets may have around $97 million off the books by 2019. The Mets will need that money not just to re-sign pitching, but also to build their roster. 

One key decision the Mets will have to make is at catcher. By 2019, Travis d’Arnaud will be a year away from free agency. Kevin Plawecki will be in either his first or second arbitration year around the same time. 

As it stands going into the 2016 season, the team is best suited to have d’Arnaud starting with Plawecki as his backup. However, I do question if that arrangement is the best situation for the long term. It can be argued with the Mets going into this season with that arrangement, they risk the diminution of the trade value of either or both of these players. It’s a tough decision to make. 

Travis d’Arnaud

d’Arnaud is a 27 year old catcher, who is presumably entering the prime of his career. He will be 31 when he becomes a free agent, assuming the Mets don’t work out an extension with him before that. 

After working out his game in AAA in 2014, he seems to have fulfilled his offensive potential. When he returned, he hit .272/.319/.486 with 10 homers and 32 RBI in 69 games. He had a low BABIP of .287, which showed these numbers could get even better. They did in 2015. He hit .268/.340/.485 with 12 homeruns and 41 RBI in 67 games last year. He again had a low BABIP of .289. So there may still be room for improvement (assuming of course that the .287 – .289 BABIP is his natural level). 

On top of these good and improving numbers, d’Arnaud has shown himself to be a good catcher. He was a highly rated pitch framer in 2014, and he was again in 2015. It’s important to get those extra strike calls to help reduce the pitches thrown by your pitching staff. In fact, d’Arnaud was the best at it last year. Despite his troubles in the World Series, d’Arnaud had an acceptable 32.6% rate of throwing out would be basestealers. 

I understand there is more to catching than this, however the other things involved like blocking pitches in the dirt aren’t as quantifiable. Regardless, the most important thing for a catcher is to be a good receiver, and d’Arnaud has seemingly and statistically fine very well in that area. 

Between d’Arnaud’s offensive and defensive abilities, you’d be hard pressed to find a reason not to extend d’Arnaud. 

Unfortunately, there is a reason. Whether it’s fair or not, d’Arnaud is getting a reputation as injury prone. Last year, d’Arnaud had two freak contact injuries. In April, he broke his pinkie when he was hit by a pitch. When he returned from the DL, he suffered a hyper-extended elbow on a tag play. If that was it, I presume most teams would chalk it up to the freak nature of those injuries. However, he also had a number of injuries in the minors

This year will be a big year for d’Arnaud. If he stays healthy, he’s primed for a big year; the type of year that will get him paid well in arbitration and free agency. If he gets injured again, he gives validity to the injury prone label thereby diminishing his arbitration and trade value. 

Kevin Plawecki

Coming into the 2015 season, Plawecki was a well regarded prospect.  Reflecting upon Plawecki’s 2015 season, it’s strange to think he was a highly regarded prospect more because of his bat than his glove. 

Like d’Arnaud, Plawecki was exceptional in pitch framing last year. In fact, among big league catchers last year, he was second best. He was not as adept as d’Arnaud in throwing out baserunners.  He only threw out 25.6% of basestealers. Given his needing to work on his footwork behind the plate, this should not come as a surprise. Unfortunately, the Mets losing Bob Geren is a hindrance because Geren was well regarded in his ability to work with catchers. That’s not to say Plawecki can’t improve. 

Offensively, Plawecki is a different hitter than d’Arnaud. Whereas d’Arnaud has been seen as a power threat, Plawecki is seen as a gap to gap hitter. His offensive game was thought to be so advanced it was thought he could challenge d’Arnaud for playing time last year. That never happened. In part, that is because Plawecki had a tough rookie year. 

In an admittedly weak Mets lineup, Plawecki hit a woeful .219/.280/.296 in 73 games. One could be further pessimistic about Plawecki’s offensive potential by looking to his AAA numbers. In AAA, in a hitter’s league, Plawecki only hit .262/.318/.392 over parts of two seasons. However, that’s not the full picture of Plawecki offensively. 

Keep in mind, Plawecki only played 65 games in AAA, which is not a full season. Over the course of his minor league career, Plawecki was a much more palatable .290/.364/.432 hitter. Furthermore, while Plawecki’s major league numbers were lackluster, he had a low .277 BABIP. This suggests he’s due for an improvement at the plate next year. Overall, given how well regarded a prospect he is, it would be fair to presume Plawecki could be much better offensively next year.

We also don’t know what, if any effect, Plawecki’s sinus problems had last year. Plawecki admitted he felt dizzy during parts of last season. With his offseason surgery, and a year in the majors under his belt, Plawecki could be due for a much improved 2016. 

The main thing holding him back will be d’Arnaud. As d’Arnaud’s backup, Plawecki will get limited reps at the plate hindering his ability to improve. Furthermore, with reduced playing time, Plawecki’s numbers can swing drastically. He’s as likely to have good numbers as he is to have poor numbers. Whichever way it goes, it’s likely to be a small sample size. With that said, if he has another poor offensive season, whether it’s driven by a low BABIP or not, it will be hard to unring that bell. 

Another issue is Plawecki’s status as the backup catcher. While it’s understandable the Mets want Plawecki around to play a little more to help keep d’Arnaud healthy, it should be noted that this still makes Plawecki a backup catcher. While his status as a backup catcher will drive down his arbitration numbers, it will also drive down the return you may get for him in a trade. 

Why Are They Both on the Roster

Simply put, d’Arnaud and Plawecki are both on the roster because it gives the Mets the best chance to win in 2016. The hope is that Plawecki can catch more frequently than your average backup to keep d’Arnaud fresh and healthy.

In addition, the Mets are contemplating letting both learn other positions to keep them both fresh and get them both enough at bats. It’s more important for Plawecki because he’s still a young prospect who needs at bats. d’Arnaud could also benefit because getting him out from behind the plate should keep him fresh over the course of the year. 

As such, the Mets will need both in the majors. If they play it right, they could get good years from both while maintaining or improving their trade value. This could be Terry Collins biggest challenge in 2016. 

d’Arnaud’s Potential Contract
Given the expense that will be incurred in locking up the Mets starting pitching, who the Mets keep may be driven by how expensive they will be. 

Naturally, d’Arnaud’s value will vary depending upon his health. If d’Arnaud is healthy, the comp I would use for his contract is Russell Martin. When Martin signed his most recent free agent deal with the Blue Jays, he was coming off a career year where he hit .290/.402/.430. With that’s said, Martin was a career .259/.364/.399 hitter, and he was coming off his age 31 season.  That is how old d’Arnaud will be when he becomes a free agent. 

Now, d’Arnaud has hit for more power than Martin. However, Martin is more durable, and he has been seen as a leader. Martin has averaged 129 games behind the plate. d’Arnaud has not caught more than 108 in a season. However, assuming d’Anaud is healthy, you would envision him being a catcher who is comparable to Russell Martin, if not better.  Accepting that premise, here is the breakdown of Martin’s contract:

  • 2015: $7 million
  • 2016: $15 million
  • 2017: $20 million
  • 2018: $20 million
  • 2019: $20 million 

Now, I’m not suggesting the Mets would or should give d’Arnaud a five year $82 million contract. Martin was a free agent, who could’ve signed with anyone. d’Arnaud loses some bargaining power by being arbitration eligible. If the Mets sought to enter into a deal with him, buying out some free agent years, his contract could reasonably look like this:

  • 2018: $8 million – $10 million
  • 2019: $10 million – $15 million
  • 2020: $15 million – $20 million
  • 2021: $15 million – $20 million

Assuming this is a fair and reasonable range, the Mets available money, assuming no increase in the payroll, would be between $82 million to $87 million to complete the roster. 

Plawecki’s Cost

While d’Arnaud may cost the Mets between $10 – $20 million, Plawecki should cost less. If Plawecki remains with the club for all of 2016, he will likely become a Super Two player (assuming no changes to the CBA). As such, Plawecki would become arbitration eligible in 2019. 

Now, if the Mets were smart about tinkering Plawecki’s service time, they could delay his arbitration eligibility until 2020. That would mean in 2019, the Mets would only need to pay him approximately $500-$600 thousand leaving the bulk of the $97 million to pay their starters and fill out the roster. 

With that said, if you’re going to keep Plawecki, and make him the starter, you’re going to have to pay him eventually. Judging by typical arbitration figures, Plawecki could earn anywhere from $1 million to $5 million depending on playing time and production. If Plawecki becomes the starting catcher, and he’s productive, he would be at the higher end of the spectrum. 

Depending on the decision the Mets make on Plawecki, that $97 million figure could be reduced to the range of $92 – $96 million. 

The Decision

Selecting between d’Arnaud and Plawecki is no easy task. While d’Arnaud is more polished offensively and defensively, he is also three years older, and he has a long injury history. He is going to be a lot more expensive than Plawecki at the time the Mets starting pitchers will become free agents. 

On the other hand, Plawecki is a well regarded prospect that has yet to produce in AAA or the majors. There is still time for him to fulfill his potential. However, that will be difficult with the Mets keeping him on as a backup limiting his at bats. The best course would be for the Mets to put him in AAA, manipulate his service time, and let him improve. It appears the Mets won’t do that. 

No matter what the Mets do, the time to make the decision between d’Arnaud and Plawecki is fast approaching.  Sooner or later, the Mets will have to choose between the two. In terms of preserving trade value that decision could be in 2016 or 2017, at the latest. In terms of cost, it appears 2019 is the last date. It would behoove the Mets to make the decision sooner rather than later to maximize the return they would get for either player. 

Overall, while he may be much more expensive, and therefore a possible hindrance to re-signing a starter, I would keep d’Arnaud. He’s already shown himself to be an offensive force while being a good receiver. He’s a better bet to produce going forward than Plawecki. 

Hopefully, he’s healthy enough to justify an extension, and Plawecki improves enough to become a big trade chip.  Ultimately, that is the best case scenario for the Mets going forward. 

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