Why letting Michael Conforto walk in free agency should be first step to fix Mets' offense this offseason

·6 min read
Michael Conforto METS TREATED ART 3 panels 2021
Michael Conforto METS TREATED ART 3 panels 2021

The need to make significant changes to the Mets’ offense is obvious. What’s not so obvious is the best way to do it, as this team is essentially locked in at some key positions while also strapped with some players coming off lousy seasons whose trade value will be diminished this winter.

Whoever is hired as the head of baseball operations to make such decisions will need to be bold and/or creative, but if it were my call I’d start by letting Michael Conforto go as a free agent.

In one sense I’d hate to do it because Conforto is a class act whose presence is good for a clubhouse that displayed immaturity at times this year, most notably with the thumbs-down nonsense that was a childish reaction to fans booing players.

In addition, it’s possible that as bad as he’s looked this season, Conforto could again find the form that led to a .927 OPS in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020. Yet at this point in his career I think it’s safe to say he’s always going to be prone to ups and downs and never the superstar so many people, myself included, have long thought he’d become.

In any case, if the Mets are going to fix this offense that has been a problem for two seasons, especially in clutch/situational hitting moments, they can’t simply hope that somehow the results will be different with mostly the same lineup.

Also, Conforto is going to be expensive, even if he were to take a qualifying offer, which last year was $18.9 million and could be slightly higher for 2022.

So I’d take the chance on letting Conforto walk, with the idea of signing someone like Kris Bryant or Nick Castellanos instead, or Starling Marte.

San Francisco Giants third baseman Kris Bryant (23) reacts after scoring against the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Wrigley Field.
San Francisco Giants third baseman Kris Bryant (23) reacts after scoring against the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Wrigley Field.

Bryant would give the Mets defensive versatility at third base and in the outfield as well as a strong right-handed bat, while Castellanos, who has an opt-out with the Reds after this season, is a more consistent high batting average hitter who has produced with runners in scoring position this season and throughout his career.

(And, yes, I know Castellanos’ home/road splits are notable, likely due to Cincinnati’s bandbox, but he also had significantly better numbers hitting at home vs. road during his last two seasons in cavernous Comerica Park for the Detroit Tigers, so I don’t see it as a huge issue).

As for Marte, he’d be an intriguing option coming off a tremendous season that includes 45 stolen bases in 50 attempts, so he’d add an element of speed. He’ll be 33 in October so he’s a couple of years older than the others, but Marte is still a better center fielder than Brandon Nimmo (though Nimmo improved there this season), who could move to a corner spot.

Part of the thinking here is that if I’m going to take a chance on rebound years, I’d rather do it with relatively inexpensive players such as Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith, who are in their early arbitration years and not close to free agency.

Both give the Mets’ some left-handed presence they would need if Conforto were replaced by Bryant, Castellanos, or Marte. And scouts I’ve talked to believe both have a good chance of returning to better form based on their solid fundamentals.

McNeil, in particular, has gotten hot enough the last couple of weeks to make the case that he’s a pure hitter who got out of whack with his approach/mechanics and lost his confidence this season, as well as someone who looms as a valuable commodity partly because he can be at least OK defensively at second base, third base, or either corner outfield spot.

Jul 28, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil (6) follows through on an RBI single against the Atlanta Braves during the third inning at Citi Field.
Jul 28, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil (6) follows through on an RBI single against the Atlanta Braves during the third inning at Citi Field.

Smith, meanwhile, figures to benefit again, as he did in 2020, from what is expected to be the permanent adoption of the DH in the National League, beginning next season.

Of course, it’s also possible that Robinson Cano winds up getting a sizeable share of at-bats in the presumed DH spot, as he’ll be back from his one-year suspension and still owed some $40 million for 2022-23.

At the time of Cano’s suspension I thought we’d seen the last of him as a Met, but as it turned out his bat may well have helped this team, and now I can’t see Steve Cohen deciding to eat the rest of the contract on principle.

Whether Cano plays much second base could depend largely on Baez, whose pending free agency is the other huge decision the Mets need to make.

It’s tricky because at his worst, which was on display immediately after coming over from the Cubs at the trade deadline, Baez’s undisciplined approach and high strikeout total only exacerbated the Mets’ season-long problems offensively. Yet at his best in the last several weeks he has been a much-needed dynamic presence in part because he has been more selective at the plate.

Sep 14, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Javier Baez (23) follows through on a game tying solo home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the ninth inning at Citi Field.
Sep 14, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Javier Baez (23) follows through on a game tying solo home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the ninth inning at Citi Field.

Whether Baez can stay committed to a more disciplined approach is part of the gamble any team would be taking in locking him up long-term, but he’s certainly made the case that his athleticism, defense, and seeming flair for the big moment make him a very good fit for this team.

Clearly all of this could get expensive, especially since the Mets are going to need to pay for pitching this winter -- whether it’s Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard or some other free agents.

As such, much depends on whether Cohen is willing to take the payroll over the luxury tax threshold, and those pertinent numbers/penalties for next year will be determined by negotiations this winter toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

In any case, whoever takes over the decision-making on baseball matters is surely going to recognize the need to make changes to an offense that ranked all season at or near the bottom of all MLB teams in runs scored per game.

And counting on Francisco Lindor being more comfortable in his second year in New York isn’t reason enough to think everything will be OK in 2022.

So let’s say the Mets sign Castellanos and re-sign Baez, allowing them to field a lineup that looks something like this:

Nimmo, CF

Castellanos, RF

Lindor, SS

Alonso, 1B

Baez, 2B

McNeil LF

Smith/Cano DH

Villar/Davis 3B

McCann C

There’s a lot to like in that lineup. Of course, it seemed there was also a lot to like in the 2021 lineup as the season began. And Conforto is far from the only reason it failed. But for all the reasons I’ve detailed, his departure would be the way I’d try to start fixing it.

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