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Latest On Mets, Javier Baez

sportsman

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The Mets stumbled down the stretch, dropping out of the playoff race with a disappointing final couple of months. That wasn’t the fault of their marquee trade deadline acquisition, though, as Javier Báez lived up to expectations. Acquired from the Cubs on deadline day, Báez hit a fantastic .299/.371/.515 with nine homers in 186 plate appearances for the Mets.

Báez seemingly made a strong impression in his couple of months in the organization, and Andy Martino of SNY suggests there’s a legitimate possibility he and the club agree to a long-term deal relatively early into the offseason, although he cautions that the club has not yet put forth a formal extension offer. A return to the Mets would mean Báez moving permanently to second base, as Francisco Lindor already has shortstop accounted for in Flushing for the next decade.

This summer, Báez already showed some willingness to move off shortstop in deference to Lindor. While he started his Mets’ tenure at short while Lindor was recovering from an oblique issue, Báez slid over to the keystone for the season’s final five weeks. Assuming he’s willing to play second base regularly moving forward, he’d likely be a plus defender at the position who’s more than capable of sliding back over to shortstop if injuries and/or rest days necessitate.

An early-offseason strike of this magnitude by the Mets would be quite a surprise, since the club’s new president of baseball operations is yet to be determined. Signing a marquee free agent to a significant contract before or almost immediately after the hiring of the team’s new baseball operations leader would be an odd decision, but Martino writes that Báez has commanded the respect of owner Steve Cohen and team president Sandy Alderson.

Not only were Mets’ higher-ups impressed by Báez’s performance, according to Martino, they were also struck by his accountability for the now-infamous “thumbs down” saga. With the team reeling after the trade deadline, discontentment mounted and the Mets often faced plenty of criticism from their own fans. In response, some Mets players — Báez included — used a “thumbs down” celebration after certain plays to symbolically return the boos to their own fanbase. The behavior led to a stern rebuke from Alderson and a needless controversy, but Martino writes that Báez’s willingness to accept responsibility for the situation allowed the sides to put the matter behind them.

Celebration controversy aside, it’s easy to understand why Báez’s play apparently made such a strong impression on Cohen and Alderson. At his best, he’s a high-end defensive middle infielder and impact power threat, to say nothing of the obvious energy and flair he brings to an organization. In three of the past four seasons, Báez has posted above-average marks on both sides of the ball en route to campaigns valued at around four or five wins above replacement by both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

That impact potential makes Báez one of the key members of this offseason’s famously star-studded shortstop class. Still, he’s not in position to land the top-of-the-market deals of players like Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, as Báez has been prone to bouts of offensive inconsistency. His numbers in last year’s shortened season (.203/.238/.360 over 235 plate appearances) were awful. And while Báez finished this past season on a tear, he wasn’t great over the year’s first few months.

In 361 plate appearances with the Cubs prior to being traded, the 28-year-old (29 in December) hit .248/.292/.484. That’s roughly league average production, by measure of wRC+, with Báez’s impact power largely offset by a poor on-base percentage. In spite of his strong finish, it’s fair to question how reliably teams can count on Báez reaching base moving forward. He struck out in 33.6% of his plate appearances in 2021 while walking just 5.1% of the time, an essentially unparalleled combination for an above-average hitter. And over the past two seasons, no other hitter (minimum 500 plate appearances) has swung and missed at a higher percentage of pitches seen.

Báez’s somewhat enigmatic combination of elite power/glovework and perhaps the game’s most overaggressive approach makes him one of the most difficult players on the market to value. Martino suggests he could land a guarantee in the $150MM — $200MM range, although it’d frankly register as a surprise if any team were willing to commit that heavily to a player with such significant swing-and-miss concerns. Still, there’s little question that Báez will command a large contract of some kind this winter, whether from the Mets or another club.

The crosstown Yankees could certainly be a fit, as they’re generally expected to be involved in the bidding for some of the top free agent shortstops. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman flatly acknowledged this afternoon the club “(has) to address” the position in some manner this winter, with former shortstop Gleyber Torres now viewed as a second baseman. Martino reports the Yankees were “aggressive” in their pursuit of Báez via trade before he landed with the Mets this summer, and there’d certainly be some merit to considering another run at him in free agency over the coming weeks and months.
 
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