In the 47 games Javier Baez played for the Mets in 2021 after being acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline, he showed the kind of skills that have made him one of the most exciting players in baseball since he broke into the league in 2014.
In an alternate universe, the .299/.371/.515 line Baez put up while playing elite defense would’ve helped the Mets hang on in the NL East. And they might still be playing now.
But in this universe, Baez’s performance was mostly just a welcome distraction and a tantalizing hint at what might be to come in 2022 and beyond if the Mets retain him.
Baez will soon hit free agency, and during the final few weeks of the Mets’ season, he said he would “love to stay.”
Said Mets president Sandy Alderson late in the season about the potential return of Baez:
“Is it possible? Yes. Is it realistic? Maybe. It’s hard for me to put odds on it. Does Javy want to be here, did he enjoy his stay, what could be expected from him over the next several years. There’s a lot of things that go into any free agent decision.
“But to say no, there’s absolutely no way that Javy Baez can be a part of the Mets next year, no I wouldn’t be prepared to say that at this point.”
Alderson’s non-answer aside, it was clear during Baez’s time with the Mets that — for many — he went from someone who was a likely two-month rental to someone who could be a great fit in 2022 and beyond.
It should come as no surprise that Francisco Lindor, who gave input about Baez to the Mets before they traded for him, wants Baez back.
And during the final week of the season, Lindor — with a smile on his face — said owner Steve Cohen can afford to keep Baez.
But will the Mets keep Baez? And should they?
WHY IT COULD MAKE SENSE FOR BAEZ TO GO
When Baez arrived in New York, he did so with a well-earned reputation for being a free-swinger who expanded the zone far too often.
During his time with the Mets, Baez’s plate discipline improved (much more on that below), but he still led the league in strikeouts in 2021 with 184.
Beyond the concern over Baez’s often wild approach at the plate is the question of just how many players on megadeals the Mets want to have.
They already have Lindor making $341 million over the next 10 seasons, will need to ante up for Jacob deGrom if he is planning to opt out after 2022, and should be planning to soon talk to Pete Alonso about an extension that buys out some of his arbitration years.
If the Mets sign Baez, whom scouts and executives think could get between $125 million (over five or six years) and $200 million (over seven or eight years), would they also have the stomach to sign another big free agent this offseason?
One other factor the Mets need to consider when discussing the possibility of re-signing Baez or adding another expensive infielder is that they have three infield prospects who are getting close to the majors.
Mark Vientos and Brett Baty (who both profile at third base and have also gotten some time in the corner outfield) and Ronny Mauricio (a shortstop who could profile at third base or second base) could all make their big league debut at some point in 2022.
If the Mets sign Baez, that locks in three infield positions for the foreseeable future, likely leaving only third base as an open spot.
WHY IT COULD MAKE SENSE FOR BAEZ TO STAY
Baez does so many things at an elite level that there’s an argument to be made that he’s worth re-signing even if his late-season plate discipline was an aberration.
In addition to having immense power and being a threat every time he’s in the box, Baez is a terrific defender whose instincts have to be seen to be believed, a tremendous base runner whose magical slides match his nickname, and just an incredibly heady player overall.
Baez also seems to have the clutch gene (yes, clutchness does kind of exist), with his rising up during some of the biggest moments of his short Mets stint in 2021.
During his time with the Mets, Baez also became more selective at the plate, which appeared to be by design and should be something he can build on going forward.
And of all the free agents about to be on the market, it can be argued that Baez is among those who make the most sense for the Mets.
In addition to Baez, the Mets should seriously explore the possibility of signing Kris Bryant –who would be able to play left field, right field, third base, and even first base if the Mets are in a pinch — and Starling Marte, who could be a great fit if he can be had on a shorter-term deal.
The Mets should be avoiding free agents who will be connected to qualifying offers since they would lose the No. 14 pick in the 2022 MLB Draft for signing any of them.
Those free agents will include Carlos Correa and Corey Seager, whose presence on the market could also drive the price of Baez down a bit.
Baez’s age — he’s about to enter his age-29 season while Correa will be 27 and Seager will be 28 — might also make his contract in terms of years just a bit more palatable than the other big middle infielders on the market.
A shortstop/second base combo of Lindor and Baez for the next half decade or so would give the Mets the best up the middle defense in baseball, with the presence of Baez making the lineup more dynamic while injecting more speed.
So if the price in terms of years and dollars doesn’t get out of hand for Baez, and if the Mets signing Baez wouldn’t preclude them from signing another big bat like Bryant, they should pull the trigger.