THE TOWER OF ASDRUBAL
Your team, the New York Mets, has lost seven straight games, is 8.5 games out of the division lead, 6.5 games away from a wild card, and is on a pace to go 66-96. Almost the entire roster is injured or underperforming. You have a veteran shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera, who typically hits well for a middle infielder, but not so well that you would plan your life around him. He’s a free agent after the season (barring an option being exercised), so you wouldn’t plan your life around him in any case. Further, although certain broadcasters will praise him for being “steady” all day long, his range is mediocre.
Simultaneously, you have a tyro shortstop named Amed Rosario, by consensus one of the top prospects in all of baseball, playing in the desert paradise known as Las Vegas. Here’s MLB Pipeline on his glove: “There is no question he’ll be a shortstop long-term, with the potential to be an elite-level defender thanks to his range, hands, footwork and plus arm.”
It’s dry, but to the point. Rosario is also hitting, .289/.336/.404 to this point in his minor-league career (which ain’t anything) and .366/.407/.547 in 40 games this year (which is something). Vegas inflates offense, but to the extent that the Pacific Coast League has neutral offensive environments you can relax about that; he’s hitting .400 on the road. It’s in all of 70 plate appearances, so don’t start buying your 2043 Hall of Fame induction tickets just yet, but this is like making good money in a bad job: It’s better to have it than not.
And then Cabrera gets hurt. You no longer have the fig leaf of slavish devotion to a veteran and his steadiness, whatever that means, and his contract. And you do nothing.
Cabrera says he has a ligament tear in his thumb. The Mets say it’s a sprain. He tried to play with it for almost two weeks, but the Mets have a strange aversion to being honest with themselves about injuries. Cabrera finally went on the disabled list earlier this week. When the Mets say something is just a sprain, all too often that turns out to be code for, “He needs open-heart surgery and will not be rejoining us for the rest of his life.”
Whatever the outcome, the Mets are now on Day 15 of a period when Rosario could have been getting a trial in the major leagues. They’ve preferred to run the superannuated Jose Reyes out there instead, saying Rosario isn’t ready.
Normally I do not, as a matter of professional practice, like to call out major league front offices for lack of smarts, because generally they are smart, and more importantly there is an asymmetry of information here. They are watching Rosario more or less 24 hours a day. If they think he isn’t ready, we should normally take their word for it. They could be referring to anything from offensive or defensive mechanics to an unfortunate obsession with farm animals.
That said, we just watched the Mets spend more than a year trying to destroy Michael Conforto’s career. If they hadn’t suffered every injury known to man and some that aren’t, he’d still be sitting on the bench, with his .400 on-base percentage potential doing nothing but cultivating hemorrhoids. They have proven themselves to lack judgment when it comes to their own kids.
More importantly, barring something extreme, like a case of the defensive yips, the explanation makes no sense, zero, because the bar is so damned low. Even if Rosario has not been cooked to golden perfection, all he has to do is be better than Jose Reyes. That is, he has to hit better than .194/.271/.324 and field better than a 34-year-old who hasn’t played a good shortstop in years. He would have to be spectacularly “not ready,” perhaps touching the frontier of “never ready” to fail to do that.
It’s possible the Mets are waiting out Rosario’s Super-2 arbitration eligibility, which would speed his rise up the salary chain by a year. Winning can do a lot to offset a player’s rising earning power. Empty seats at Citi Field in August will have an adverse effect on the Mets’ budget just as much, if not more so, than an early raise for Rosario.
This is a huge, season-altering decision. The Mets have a staff ERA of 5.13, last in the National League. Their defensive efficiency, the rate at which they turn balls in play into outs, is also last at .663. This would matter less if they had Noah Syndergaard and cats like him regularly striking out the side and thereby keeping the ball away from the fielders. But that’s not happening right now and might not be the case for the foreseeable future. Every extra out they can grab in the field matters.
The average National League team allows a batting average of .239 on ground balls. The Mets allow an average of .275, yet another defensive category in which they are last in the league (tied with the Philadelphia Phillies). Just a small improvement here would mean winning some one-run games they might have lost, or just keeping games in one-run territory to begin with.
It’s only May, and as snakebitten as the Mets have been, there would still be time to save the season if they weren’t operating by imperatives that don’t correspond to winning. As with Conforto last year, those imperatives don’t seem to include the team’s best alignment if it involves younger players. At season’s end, they will have eight free agents, many of them important. The contracts of Cabrera, Reyes, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker and Lucas Duda’s are up. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Travis d’Arnaud, Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores will also be up for raises through the arbitration/negotiation process, and not all of them are worth the expense that will come with retaining them. This version of the Mets has four months to live. The team’s first loyalty now should be to the future.
Playing a kid such as Rosario is wholly consonant with that. Even if they choose to pick up Cabrera’s option (at a marginal cost of $6.5 million given a $2 million buyout), it will be to play second base and caddy for Rosario … unless they “Conforto” Rosario next spring. In truth, he’s getting the Conforto treatment now. You just can’t see it because he’s at Las Vegas instead of in Queens. And that makes you wonder if what the Mets are truly afraid of is that he is ready, that he will outperform Cabrera and Reyes, and then they’ll have to sit someone who isn’t 21.
Loyalty is a trait to admire, except when it’s to someone or something that’s actively hurting you. Then it’s no longer loyalty, but masochism, and that is not admirable.
LONGTIME SUBSCRIBER, FIRST TIME CALLER
I am ashamed of Baseball America for putting Tim Tebow on its cover. Pander, pander, pander. I realize you have to move copies off the newsstand, but you also have to respect your own publication. If they really wanted to move copies they could put Kate Upton on the cover and have a swimsuit issue, but that would be a non-sequitur. (It’s a non-sequitur for Sports Illustrated as well, but they’ve been doing it for so long people just accept it.) They wouldn’t do that because it would damage their reputation for being a reliable journal for prospects coverage. Tebow does that, too.
EVERYBODY’S GREINKE AT ME, BUT I CAN’T HEAR A WORD THEY’RE SAYING
One more encore for this week’s podcast, me in conversation with SiriusXM host, Diamondbacks broadcaster, and all-around mensch Mike Ferrin. The Infinite Inning will return on Wednesday with Cliff Corcoran.