The Rays wanted Noah Syndergaard, the Mets top prospect and one of two more "top" prospects. Desmond is signed for 2015 and then can become a free agent. Before the 2014 season, he turned down a seven-year, $107 million contract offer from the Nationals that would have covered his final two years of arbitration and his first five years of free agency. Instead, he and the Nationals came to terms on a two-year $17.5 million deal for 2014 and 2015. So, entering the 2014 season, Desmond valued his free agent years at over five years and $90 million or $18 million annually. After a 4.1 fWAR 2014, his age 28 season, which was second-best among MLB shortstops, and his third-straight year above 4 fWAR, he has helped his value.
It stands to reason that the Mets were not willing to trade Syndergaard and a second top prospect (perhaps Steven Matz or Brandon Nimmo) for one year of Desmond. However, teams, the Mets included, can trade for a player with the intention of signing him to a longterm extension. The Mets did this in the winter of 2008, of course, with Johan Santana. Even further back, the Mets acquired Mike Piazza, only to later work out an extension with the slugging catcher. Analyzing the wisdom of such a trade and sign is difficult without knowing the precise prospects or money involved. However, it is likely such a move would pay dividends in terms of an improved team on the field in 2015.
With the Mets out of the action on Desmond, the Rays shipped their two middle infielders, Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist to the Oakland A's. Zobrist, who is in the final year of a two-year, $18 million contract is the prize here. At age 33, he'll likely never reach his 2009 peak of a 8.5 fWAR season again, but he has been north of 5.4 fWAR for each of the last three years playing most second base with some shortstop and corner outfield mixed in. In the last five seasons, he's played only 805 inning at shortstop, just over 89 games, and on average, under 20 a year. DRS rates him roughly average defensively there, while UZR rates him as 4.7 runs above average. He was likely protected by the Rays aggressive shifting. He is one of the more under-appreciated stars in baseball as he combines defensive versatility and competence with offensive production.
The 32-year-old Escobar had a down 2014 for Tampa (0.2 fWAR) compared to his 2013 (3.9 fWAR). His hitting declined slightly, but his defensive numbers took a big hit as his UZR fell from +17.5 to -11 in a year. DRS also measured Escobar's defense as registering a dramatic decline from 2013 (+4) to 2014 (-24). As much as single-season defensive metrics are open to high degrees of variance, a matching decline of over two and half wins in suggests that there is something beyond measurement error going on here.
Would adding these players have made the Mets better in 2015? Swapping out Daniel Murphy for Zobrist is a clear improvement. Escobar versus the incumbent shortstop options is a more complicated projection game. Last year, Escobar was barely above replacement level. There's a chance the Mets incumbents play to that level in 2015. There's a chance Escobar does as well, or bounces back to his nearly four-win form. Escobar is signed for the next two years at $5 million and $7 million with a $7 million club option for 2017. His total salary in the next two years is $9 million less than Michael Cuddyer is scheduled to earn from the Mets.
Fangraphs' recent ZiPS projections for Wilmer Flores' 2015 suggest a .266 batting average, a .300 on-base percentage and a .428 slugging percentage with a 4.4 percent walk rate on his way to a roughly 2.0 fWAR. Steamer, another projection system is slightly less optimistic at .248 average, .288 OBP and .396 SLG and a 1.7 fWAR. In 78 games in the big leagues last year at age 22/23, Flores hit .251/.286/.378 with a 4.4 percent walk rate. Where both ZiPs and Steamer see him taking a step forward is his power production: his projected isolated slugging of .160 (ZiPS) and .148 (Steamer) is an improvement on his actual 2014 rate of .127.
What did it cost the A's to acquire Zobrist and Escobar?
Oakland sent catcher John Jaso, shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson and outfielder Boog Powell to the Rays. Jaso will likely be a free agent after 2015. In part-time duty with Oakland the last two years, he's been an above average hitter, but a below average defender. A left-handed hitter, he owns major platoon splits. He's a career .272 hitter, with a .368 OBP and .424 SLG, hitter against right-handed pitching and just a .169 hitter, with a .289 OBP and .221 SLG, hitter versus lefties. His strikeout rate is 7 percent higher against lefties and his isolated slugging is 100 points lower. He has a pair of seasons above 2 fWAR with the Rays and has been between 1 and 2 fWAR with the A's each of the last two seasons. With his platoon issues, he's not an everyday catcher. However, he's a very useful half of a platoon.
The Mets do not have a Jaso. Travis d'Arnaud's total fWAR in 2014 was close to Jaso's. However, d'Araud is six years younger, under team control for four more years than Jaso, and, if the second half of his 2014 is for real, ready to be an above average everyday Major league catcher. That's just not a good comparison for Jaso. If the Rays were intent on getting catching help back, Kevin Plawecki might be the closest thing the Mets have to Jaso. Again, it's not a perfect comparison. The team controls Plawecki for six years of big league service. He's also never played in the big leagues. He projects as a every-day catcher who derives his offensive value from his contact ability and strike zone knowledge. Defensively, he should be adequate in terms of blocking and receiving and cgame calling, while settling in as below average against the running game. Is that worth Jaso? It's probably worth a little more. If one is expanding the search beyond catchers among current Mets, Daniel Murphy is a decent comparison. Murphy has been worth more on the field, but like Jaso, is entering his final year of arbitration. Murphy plays more at an easier position, but like Jaso gives some of the value of his bat back defensively. Like Plawecki, Murphy is probably a little more valuable than Jaso, but it's a matter of degree not of kind.
Robertson, the shortstop is the most important piece heading back to Tampa. According to ESPN's Keith Law, there is a "very good chance that Robertson becomes an above-average regular or better thanks to his skill set at the plate." However, he is not a shortstop, "He's a 40 runner, and his footwork isn't good enough for shortstop, but he has the arm for third base and the hands to play third or second." Playing in the hitter's paradise of the advanced-A California League at age 20, Robertson hit .310, with a .402 OBP and .471 SLG for Stockton in 2014. The Met farmhand most similar in profile and value: Dilson Herrera. As a 20-year old, Herrera hit .307, with a .355 OBP and .410 SLG for advanced Single-A St. Lucie, and exploded with a .340 AVG, 406OBP, .560 SLG performance in 61 games in Double-A Binghamton to end the year. Herrera and Robertson are the same age. While Robertson is a shortstop for now, Law makes it sound like his position of the future is at second, like Herrera, or third. In 18 games at the end of the season with the Mets, Herrera hit .220, with a .303 OBP and .407 SLG which was good enough for a 103 OPS+ (where 100 is league average) thanks to three home runs. The fact that Herrera has already hit in double-A and to a lesser extent the big leagues is balanced by the fact that Robertson is still playing shortstop.
The outfielder, Boog Powell put up big numbers (.335 AVG, .452 OBP, .429 SLG) in 69 games in the Midwest League in 2014 as a 20th-round draft pick from 2012, and then was suspended for amphetamines. He will turn 22 on Wednesday with 14 games at advanced Single-A to his credit. Note that in the MWL, he did not show much power (.094 ISO) and was 16 for 29 stealing bases (a lousy 55 percent success rate). This is not a likely MLB profile, but he should have organizational value, with a chance to reach a big league bench. The closest Mets' player: how about Dustin Lawley? Lawley, who is now 25, hit .235/.292/.438 with 29 doubles and 20 home runs for Binghamton in 2014 playing a mix of third base and the outfield. That's certainly organizational value. If the Rays were interested more in an outfield wild card, they could do worse than the Mets' speedy Champ Stuart who hit .256/.341/.340 in 81 games in Savannah and was 29-for-33 stealing bases.
So, what's the package look like? Something like Kevin Plawecki, Dilson Herrera and Dustin Lawley for Zobrist and Escobar? Or perhaps Murphy, Herrera and Stuart? Would Mets fans have endorsed either deal? I think so.