The New York Mets are always going to be criticized. They tend to always find controversy in just about everything they do. And, with the team having to sit out of the major free agent market, they are faced with the criticism of being in New York but playing the role of a small market team. This winter has given the baseball world a glimpse at the Mets’ reality for the near future. They signed franchise player David Wright to a long term deal with much of the money deferred. They also made headlines for trading the reigning Cy Young Award winner, RA Dickey, to the Toronto Blue Jays for a package that included catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud.
That trade, along with the acquisitions of Collin Cowgill and Andrew Brown, has been clear evidence that the Mets are indeed operating like a small market team. With their payroll restrictions in place, the Mets have been quiet on the free agent market. Until this week, they hadn’t signed any free agent to a Major League contract. But, that changed when the club inked right handed starter Shaun Marcum to a one year, $4 million deal. It is the type of signing that small market clubs would be lauded for as Marcum is coming at a value and that value more than justifies the injury risk he presents. While it is unpopular, this is a move that the New York Mets should receive plenty of praise for.
It doesn’t really matter that the Mets are in New York. While their ownership situation is one of the worst in the sport and they shouldn’t be operating in such a way, the most important thing is for the club to execute the small market plan properly. Sandy Alderson was brought in to clean up the Mets’ organization. He’s had that small market experience in Oakland and has slowly started to rebuild the Mets in the mold of a small market team. Greater attention is paid to the draft. He made an astute trade for Zack Wheeler a couple of years ago when it was apparent his club could not afford to re-sign Carlos Beltran. Wheeler has steadily progressed and will make his Major League debut at some point this season.
One of the signs of a good small market team is when they can sign a player who can provide above average results to a minimal risk contract. Scott Hairston was that type of signing. But, Alderson made a potentially more impactful signing with Shaun Marcum.
Marcum enters his age 31 season after missing a chunk of time last season with what was described as tightness in his elbow. A right hander who doesn’t even touch 87 MPH on the radar gun, Marcum had Tommy John Surgery in 2009 and has returned to be a consistent performer since 2010. His trade to the Milwaukee Brewers both helped and hid his value. The move to the National League, on the surface, doesn’t look like it helped Marcum at all. In two seasons with the Brewers, Marcum has compiled a 3.60 ERA in 54 starts. He has posted rates of 8.1 H/9, 1.1 HR/9, 2.7 BB/9, and 7.4 K/9. Those are quite similar to his five year total in the American League when he posted a 3.80 ERA, 8.3 H/9, 1.3 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9, and 7.3 K/9.
But, his National League statistics are a bit misleading. Pitching in Miller Park just hasn’t agreed with the predominantly flyball pitcher. In 26 starts at Miller Park, Marcum has posted a 4.74 ERA while allowing 157 hits, 23 home runs, and 54 walks in 155.2 innings. In 2011, he made 16 road starts and posted a 2.21 ERA and a 7.6 K/9 rate. Last season, he made 13 road starts that resulted in a 3.26 ERA and 7.8 K/9 rate. Other than when he pitched in Miller Park, Marcum really benefited from the move to the National League, even if his overall statistics don’t show it. The overall statistics are high quality, especially at the $4 million price tag. But, the thought of Marcum not having to deal with Miller Park does give reason for an even better performance. While one simply can’t judge home/road splits, there is no doubt that Miller Park hurt Marcum.
The only question for the Mets is whether or not Marcum can make 30 starts this season. The tightness in the elbow caused him to make just five starts from June through August. He came back in September, likely to try to rebuild some value as he heads into free agency. His velocity was down and he struck out less batters during his final eight starts. But, he is said to be having a normal offseason, making this a smart risk for the Mets. One should consider the contracts handed out to essentially replacement level pitchers this winter. Kevin Correia got $10 million over two seasons. Jeremy Guthrie got over $20 million for three seasons. Bartolo Colon got $3 million after being suspended for performance enhancing drug use. The Mets reeled in a far better pitcher at a fraction of the cost.
Citi Field will certainly help the flyball pitcher. The interesting aspect to Marcum is that he doesn’t throw hard. Yet, he mixes up his pitches enough to elicit swings and misses on pitches thrown in the strike zone almost 13.8 percent of the time, which is exactly league average. His strikeout percentage and walk rate are also right near the league average. The move to Citi Field will help improve his home run rate.
Shaun Marcum is a pitcher who thrives on keeping hitters off balance and eliciting weak contact. His career .270 BABIP illustrates that he is quite skilled at getting batters to chase his pitch and avoid the sweet spot of the bat. He is also a pitcher whose FIP has been consistently worse than his ERA, indicating that he does need a defense behind him. That would be the lone negative of this deal as the Mets’ defense ranked at the bottom of the league by DRS and UZR. That is a potential problem.
Although Marcum missed time last season and pitched poorly down the stretch, his overall season was inline with his career statistics. That makes him a very solid number three starter. His 2012 season was an injury concern, but it is difficult to see why his value was driven down so much. The Mets likely just signed the best bargain of the winter. If Marcum can make 30 starts, he is more than capable of posting a near 200 inning season with a 3.70 ERA and strikeout and walk rates still in line with his career record. That is more than worth the $4 million Marcum will pitch for. It’s more valuable than many pitchers who are making more than double of Marcum.
Sandy Alderson finds a valuable third starter who will be plugged in for the departed RA Dickey. Marcum’s National League track record outside of Miller Park does show that he can be an above average National League starter. If healthy, Marcum should help the Mets win games in Citi Field. And, if healthy, he could be a valuable trade chip at the deadline. He could be turned into another long term asset in the right trade. The Mets haven’t made many moves this winter. Signing Shaun Marcum was a smart, low risk reward. Signing him at $4 million could be a steal.