By Ernie Palladino
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As his team goes into its unexpectedly, but happily, shortened offseason, Sandy Alderson can now start facilitating the Mets’ return to the World Series in 2016.
Perhaps. There is always the possibility that this year’s five-game appearance in the Fall Classic was merely a fluke, a creation of one trade acquisition and one popular regular getting hot at exactly the right times.
But it is the free agent fates of Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy, or at least how Alderson replaces one or the other, that will go far in determining whether baseball’s best lineup down the final two months of the regular season can maintain its strength, at least enough to back up a pitching staff that expects to add the Tommy John-rehabbed elbow of Zack Wheeler.
Actually, Murphy is the biggest question mark. His total postseason performance posed Alderson with a perplexing “Should I or Shouldn’t I” proposition.
On the one hand, that seven-homer hot streak between the NLDS and NLCS, which included a major league record six straight games with one, instantly raised Murphy’s value to the Mets along with anyone else looking for a second baseman who hits with power and average. But then came the World Series, and the BA plummeted to .150 (3 for 20) with no extra base hits, no RBIs, and seven strikeouts.
And then there are the year-long fielding flaws that reared up the final two games. Alderson won‘t soon forget that his eighth-inning error in Game 4 triggered a three-run, come-from-behind rally, and the second flung open the flood gates in Game 5’s five-run 12th that clinched the Royals’ first World Series title since 1985.
It is entirely possible some other team will fork over the $12 million or so per year Murphy will ask for. But should Alderson, especially if he has a chance to get, say, a Ben Zobrist? The KC second baseman showcased his hitting and fielding abilities steps away from Alderson’s Citi Field office.
Add a player of Zobrist’s caliber, keep a young slugger like Michael Conforto around, and Alderson might have the makings of a more consistent lineup in 2016.
Alderson will probably give Murphy a one-year qualifying offer of $15.8 million by the end of the week, but that’s just to ensure draft compensation if he signs elsewhere.
The GM will certainly have a good look around at middle infielders before he lets Murphy go, but one should remember that shortstop Wilmer Flores, who cemented his status as a regular with a solid bat, can also play second.
Now, to Cespedes. The Mets might as well say farewell. He’ll be looking for close to $18 million a year, which should just about cover his greens fees. From Alderson’s standpoint, as good a feeling as he had from those 17 regular-season homers over the last two months, that’s how bad he must have felt watching his behemoth play to a .222 BA with two homers, eight RBIs, a misplayed ball that turned into an inside-the-park homer, a sore shoulder and, lastly, a bruised kneecap.
As high as Cespedes increased his worth in the regular season, that’s how much his potential value sank in the postseason. And Alderson must now figure out if those homers were real, or just an extended hot streak from a really nice two-month rental.
There are reasons, after all, that the 29-year-old slugger has played with four teams already — just good enough to draw something as trade bait, but not consistent enough to keep around long-term.
Still, the Mets need a Cespedes-type of bat in the middle of the lineup. Colby Rasmus, with 25 homers for Texas, would fit nicely into a left-handed platoon in center with Juan Lagares. So might Washington’s Denard Span, assuming he can stay away from the several injuries that plagued his 2015 season.
In an offseason filled with questions, Murphy and Cespedes combined stand as Alderson’s major concern.
But coming off a World Series appearance, that’s a nice headache to have.
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