I think an underreported story of the New York Mets is just how much we already know about the likely makeup of the 2010 team -- and just how positive those answers are.
We know David Wright will be at third base, Jose Reyes at shortstop, Jason Bay in left field, Carlos Beltran in center field. We know Jeff Francoeur will be the right fielder, and if he fails to hit like he did last season -- a likely prospect -- Angel Pagan looms as a decent alternative option. (In an ideal world, the two would platoon).
What remains to be settled are catcher, first base and second base. But the Mets have a good chance to field above-average regulars at those five positions, assuming even reasonable luck.
So with that in mind, the imperative for 2010 changes a bit. The Mets still shouldn't be looking for long-term contracts that could hamper the team's ability to contend in 2011 and beyond, but making sure that three of the eight position player positions aren't black holes would be worth a significant investment.
Oddly enough, the market seems to be dictating that it will cost the least to upgrade at second base, the most at catcher, with first base falling somewhere in the middle. And given that the biggest need for the Mets is second base, this should be good news.
As of deadline time for this piece, a pair of intriguing second basemen -- Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez -- remained unsigned. Oddly enough, the lack of interest in either one -- and the presence of both on the market, no doubt -- makes it likely that the Mets can add either one for a one-year deal at around $3 million.
Let's be clear about this: either Hudson or Lopez would be an enormous upgrade over Luis Castillo at second base.
Offensively, Lopez is coming off of a 111 OPS+ season, and has a career mark of 93. Hudson posted a 109 last season, and has a career mark of 100. Castillo had a 98 last year, and a career mark of 93.
Consider that Lopez will be playing his age-30 season in 2010, Hudson his age-32 season, and Castillo his age-34 season, and the chances of a decline from 2009's numbers get incrementally bigger from Lopez to Hudson to Castillo.
And that's just on offense. On defense, this comparison becomes a chasm.
As per UZR/150, measuring runs gained or lost relative to league average, Lopez was at 7.6 in 2009, 2.6 for his career at second base. Hudson was at -3.7 last year, 2.6 for his career as well. Castillo was at -12.0 last season. He has a 1.1 mark for his career, but his recent performance is so clearly different from his peak level of production defensively, the career mark means next to nothing. He was at -9.3 in 2008. And his 2009 mark was the worst of any everyday second baseman in baseball.
And just like his offense, the question must be asked: If that is the defense Castillo put up after the hardest-working offseason of his career at age 33, is there any reason to believe his defense will improve in 2010? Or should we expect the far likelier alternative that Castillo will actually get worse in 2010? I think we know the answer.
This only gets more important, incidentally, if the Mets sign Carlos Delgado to play first base. A terrific bat, sure, but Delgado wasn't an effective defensive first baseman before the hip injury that limited him so severely in 2009. In 2010, one can imagine a Castillo-Delgado right side of the infield as a virtual monogrammed invitation to ground balls.
Now, the hope here is that the Mets can recognize a sunk cost. So far, that doesn't appear to be the case. While the Red Sox signed Adrian Beltre to play third base, clearly deciding that Mike Lowell is not a good bet to stay healthy and play third base, the Mets continue to send signals that they won't pursue Hudson until Castillo is dealt.
Of course, dealing Castillo will be difficult for the same reasons why the Mets should not employ him at second base in 2010.
That is not to say the Mets need to cut Castillo. A bench player who can get on base at a .360 clip is valuable. He's not $6 million a year valuable, of course, but you're stuck with Castillo's contract either way -- at least this way, he's in a role where he can succeed.
This also affects both Mike Pelfrey and top target Joel Pineiro, each of them ground-ball pitchers. To maximize the investment in both of them, having a good defensive second baseman is vital.
And frankly, even Johan Santana, Oliver Perez and John Maine induce some ground balls. Having an adequate Major Leaguer to field them seems like a good idea.
Compare all that to the limited upside one might expect from a Bengie Molina singing -- one that is likely to cost about twice what Hudson or Lopez will cost in 2010. Is there any reason to believe the difference between Molina and say, Henry Blanco/Omir Santos will even approach the difference between Hudson/Lopez and Castillo, let alone be twice as valuable an upgrade?
The answer is a clear no.