I am a diehard Mets fan. If you ask anyone about my baseball allegiance, they will tell you that I am an unconditional supporter of the New York Mets. Just because that is true, though, does not mean that I can’t be critical of the team.
With all of that being said, I can only find one logical reason that the Mets would ink 5-time all-star Adrian Gonzalez: money. This is, unfortunately, not the first time we have seen the Mets’ ownership make decisions solely on a financial basis. Though I hope it is the last time the Wilpons make a decision based only on money, I’m not optimistic that that will be the case.
Just last season, veteran catcher Rene Rivera was placed on revocable waivers and claimed by the Cubs. As opposed to pulling Rivera back and trying to get a low-tier prospect or some cash from the Cubs, the Mets just gave him away. What did they get in return? Salary relief in the form of just over 420,000 dollars. Essentially, the Mets preferred to have less than the minimum salary in cash for the remainder of the 2017 season as opposed to having a veteran catcher who would be not only a welcome defensive option in the Mets’ lineup but also a valuable clubhouse asset. It seems that the Gonzalez decision is a financially-based one as well.
Let me first dismiss the notion that Gonzalez was brought in to mentor youngster and former top-100 prospect Dominic Smith. I’m not going to argue that a mentor for Smith would be a bad thing because that would be foolish, but Gonzalez is certainly not the guy to get the job done. Just because a player is an elder statesman (Gonzalez is 35) does not make them a capable mentor. Gonzalez seems like someone who would be a clubhouse cancer, not a positive presence. This past postseason, when the Dodgers informed Gonzalez that he would not be a part of the postseason roster, he left the team to go help his wife move her things and get settled in Italy as opposed to staying with the team. After he returned for the World Series (he still was not on the roster), his presence on the field prior to games two and three was apparently not welcome by players according to this LA Times article. This is evidence that Gonzalez is more of a clubhouse cancer than a welcome presence.
Gonzalez’s 2017 postseason antics are not the first instance in which he has not carried himself as a team player. On several occasions during and after Gonzalez’s Red Sox tenure, he had been noted as a poor leader and a negative clubhouse presence. According to this Boston Globe article, players were generally never looking to Gonzalez for leadership. Former Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia even went so far as to say that Gonzalez was “not that guy” when asked who the leaders of the clubhouse were. Salty also dismissed the notion that Boston was a toxic environment, as Gonzalez and former teammate Carl Crawford insinuated in their comments.
After the Red Sox’s infamous 2011 collapse in which they entered September with a nine-game division lead and failed to make the playoffs, Gonzalez failed to take responsibility for the team missing the postseason. This Bleacher Report article goes into more depth about Gonzalez’s comments, but here’s one quote that I think really sums up his attitude toward the game and winning in that moment:
“I’m a firm believer that God has a plan and it wasn’t in his plan for us to move forward…We play too many night games on getaway days and get into places at four in the morning. This has been my toughest season physically because of that. We play a lot of night games on Sunday for television and those things take a lot out of you.”
–Adrian Gonzalez, 2011
So much for being a team player, right? Gonzalez goes so far as to blame ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, the MLB schedulers, and even God before he holds himself accountable for his play. For reference, here’s what Mets team captain David Wright said about the team’s 2007 collapse (taken from this New York Times article):
“It’s obviously painful. It hurts. But at the same time, we did it to ourselves. It’s not like it blindsides us. We gradually let this thing slip away. In all honesty, we didn’t deserve to make the playoffs.”
–David Wright, 2007
Wright is widely regarded throughout the game as one of the best leaders and clubhouse presences. Here, he takes the blame for the team’s shortcomings in 2007 and holds himself and the rest of the team accountable for their performance. Basically, Wright’s comment here is the polar opposite of Gonzalez’s after the Red Sox’s 2011 collapse.
Gonzalez has shown a trend over his career of not only being a bad team player but also blaming others for his failures. Not exactly the kind of guy I think anyone would want to mentor Dominic Smith.
This, however, isn’t the only reason the Gonzalez signing was a bad one. If Gonzalez can’t be a mentor (he can’t), then the only reason he’s on the team is to play baseball. Unfortunately, it seems that he can’t do that terribly well either. Last season was the first season since 2010 where Gonzalez registered negative defensive runs saved and a negative ultimate zone rating. It was the second straight season where he posted a negative defensive rWAR. His skills at first base are declining, and it does not make sense to put a below-average 35-year-old at first base when the team could just as easily put a 22-year-old blue-chip prospect at first who has the chance of developing into a valuable team asset.
Gonzalez’s poor performance doesn’t end there, though. Last season he posted his worst walk rate in five seasons and worst swinging strike rate in 10 seasons. He also put up a 69 wRC+, good for the lowest wRC+ he has had in any full season he has spent in the majors (he was on the disabled list for part of the season, but didn’t spend any of it in the minors). He also put up career-worsts in OPS, fWAR, and isolated power. In short, his 2017 was bad. Some of this can be attributed to his injuries, but some of it surely has to be due to old age, especially considering that his fWAR has decreased in each of the past four seasons (went incrementally from a 3.6 fWAR in 2014 to a -1.1 fWAR in 2017).
Given that the Mets were willing to trot guys like Jose Reyes, who triple-slashed .246/.315/.413 (4% below league average), out for 145 games, I can’t imagine why they would not be willing to let Dom Smith endure some growing pains in the majors this upcoming season. I understand that the Mets may try to contend this year, but the negatives of Gonzalez in the form of his clubhouse presence may outweigh the positives of a potential bounce-back (which, though possible, seems improbable).
I understand that it’s a relatively low-risk investment given that the Mets are shelling out only about $500,000 to Gonzalez for the season. The cost of the investment, however, is found more in the playing time that Smith will be losing at the major league level. The Mets were willing to stick with Smith for nearly 200 plate appearances in 2017, why give up now? Smith has nowhere to go but up.
Last season, among players with at least 180 PA, Smith ranked tied for 68th (out of 366 players) in hard-hit percentage. He was above guys like Gary Sanchez, Robinson Cano, George Springer, Joey Votto, and Josh Donaldson, just to name a few notable guys. 68th out of 366 puts Smith squarely in the top 20% of all players in the major leagues in hard-hit percentage in 2017 (81st percentile, to be exact). Hitting the ball hard does not necessarily guarantee success, but the fact that Smith carried a .218 batting average on balls in play (5th-worst of any of the 366 hitters with 180 PA) speaks volumes to how unlucky he was. I fully expect Smith’s paltry .198/.262/.395 triple-slash from 2017 to rise to a respectable level this upcoming season, but he will only get the opportunity to do that if the Mets give him a chance to play. Signing Adrian Gonzalez is not the way to help Smith’s career along. And given Gonzalez’s history of clubhouse antics, I’m not sure he even deserves a locker in the Mets’ 2018 clubhouse.
(Image Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images via NY Daily News)