Mets' Boosting Infield Depth with Walker, Cabrera Makes Up for Zobrist Whiff

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 10, 2015

Pittsburgh Pirates' Neil Walker watches the flight of the ball after hitting a 2-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Friday, July 10, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

After listening to the buzz over the last few weeks, many of us expected Ben Zobrist to be a New York Met right now. Instead, he's a Chicago Cub. C'est la hot stove.

But while the Mets would certainly love to have Zobrist on their side, settling for the next-best thing is never a bad idea.

In this case, that's depth on the infield. And not just any depth. We're talking about the kind of good, solid depth that the Mets arranged with a pair of transactions Wednesday, the third day of Major League Baseball's winter meetings.

The first was a trade for veteran second baseman Neil Walker, whom the Mets acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for left-handed starter Jon Niese:

"[Walker is] one of those guys that gets big hits," manager Terry Collins said of the deal, via Anthony DiComo of MLB.com. "He's a good defender. I think he's an outstanding player. The Pittsburgh Pirates, he helped them win a lot of games. So I think this is a good trade for us."

Not content to stop there, the Mets made another move Wednesday when they signed free-agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to a two-year contract. As reported by Jim Duquette of MLB.com, he'll earn $18.5 million.

Now, let's be upfront about this: Neither of these guys is Zobrist.

Walker is a solid second baseman, and Cabrera is a solid shortstop. The ever-versatile Zobrist can be either of those things in a pinch. Also, he may or may not be one of the elite position players of the last seven seasons. Thus speaks wins above replacement, which is obviously a perfect stat.

But while neither Walker nor Cabrera is Zobrist, the Mets are definitely better than they were before they added the two of them. And looking ahead, it's possible one Walker plus one Cabrera will serve the Mets better than one Zobrist could have.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Here's a fact: Walker is a solid second baseman mainly because he's a pretty good hitter.

The 30-year-old switch-hitter is coming off a year in which he hit .269 with a .756 OPS, which is in line with his career norms of .272 and .769. His power is his best asset. So much so that, as DiComo noted, Walker is basically the same thing as Robinson Cano:

Tidbits aside, the point is that Walker is clearly an above-average hitter. All those numbers say so. So does his 113 career OPS+, which puts a finer point on the notion.

That's good! But we can make it look even better with context.

Walker's career OPS+ is a couple of ticks higher than the 110 career OPS+ belonging to Daniel Murphy, whom Walker is replacing at second base. It's also only a few ticks short of Zobrist's career 117 OPS+. That's not so bad, and it helps to note that Walker's projected 2016 salary (per MLB Trade Rumors) of $10.7 million is quite a bit less than the $56 million the Cubs signed Zobrist for.

Or, in so many words: Walker is something of a middle ground between Murphy and Zobrist on offense, and a reasonably priced one at that.

Cabrera, who is also a 30-year-old switch-hitter, is not as good of a hitter as Walker. But he's generally pretty good. His .265 average and .744 OPS from 2015 are almost exactly in line with his career rates, and overall his 104 career OPS+ qualifies him as a slightly above-average hitter.

What makes that appealing is that above-average offense is hard to come by at shortstop these days.

The Mets know all about it, as their shortstop production has been middle-of-the-road ever since Jose Reyes left town four years ago. Cabrera obviously isn't Carlos Correa or anything, but he should provide more offense than the Mets likely would have gotten from Ruben Tejada and/or Wilmer Flores.

Of course, there is a downside to the additions of Walker and Cabrera. Sadly, they're not as good at catching the ball as they are at hitting it.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

This is especially true of Cabrera. As August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs noted, "Over the last three seasons, Cabrera has been baseball's worst defensive shortstop by DRS (minus-30), baseball's worst defensive shortstop by UZR (minus-25) and second-worst defensive shortstop by FRAA (minus-18)."

Walker is better on defense, but it's not by much. Collins may see him as a quality defender, but the metrics have made it clear they do not.

However, at least the Mets know they can survive with poor defense at shortstop and second base. One metric says they got by with the league's worst defense at shortstop in 2015, and nobody ever accused Murphy of being a wizard with the glove at second base. The Mets may not be upgrading their defense, but they're not downgrading it either.

Besides which, let's remember the Mets can afford to downplay defense.

Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and the rest of their overpowering pitchers made them one of the league's top 10 strikeout teams in 2015. A full season of Steven Matz and the return of Zack Wheeler ought to make them even more overpowering in 2016. That will mean fewer balls for New York's defense to field.

In all, the Mets figure to improve from where they were in 2015 with the Walker and Cabrera additions. Things should be better on the offensive side and par for the course on the defensive side.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Could they have improved even more by adding Zobrist? Maybe. It depends on what he has left in the tank, defensively, which seems to be a good question. He's still versatile, but he didn't rate so well in 2015. A midseason knee surgery didn't help him there, but his age likely didn't either. With his 35th birthday approaching, Zobrist is approaching baseball geezer territory. His best defense may be behind him.

If not, there's at least one thing we know the Mets gained more of by adding Walker and Cabrera instead of Zobrist: infield depth. The Mets have gone from having only some of it to now having plenty of it.

Walker is likely entrenched at second base, and Cabrera will play mostly short. But Cabrera will also play second and, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, third base as well. Tejada and/or Flores are also freed up to move around the infield now. And given that the Mets don't know how durable the aging David Wright can be, they're likely going to be glad for the extra depth.

If the Mets had their druthers, they would have signed Zobrist. Based on the reports, they did everything short of serenading him with a whimsical composition to convince him to come to Queens.

But give the Mets credit. They responded quickly to missing out on Zobrist, and they responded well. They're now going to enjoy better offense at two positions rather than at just one position, and they also have more depth that they're probably going to need.

Two moves isn't always better than one move. But as this case goes to show, two moves can at least be just as good as one move.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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