The Mets are facing a number of high-profile free agents as the offseason looms. Among them is center fielder Brandon Nimmo, who’s easily the best non-Aaron Judge free agent option at the position. Nimmo and his representatives at the Boras Corporation will soon hear from a number of interested teams, as they’re allowed to formally speak with clubs other than the Mets five days after the conclusion of the World Series.
New York will surely keep in touch with Nimmo themselves, but they do have a potential in-house replacement if he departs. Starling Marte had played exclusively center field with the D-Backs, Marlins and A’s from 2020-21, but he moved to right field in deference to Nimmo after signing a four-year free agent deal last offseason. Marte didn’t start a single game in center field in 2022, logging all of five innings at the position. He played just under 1000 innings in right field.
After spending a year playing in a corner and having recently turned 34 years old, it’s fair to wonder if Marte’s days as a regular center fielder could be behind him. Speaking with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman of the New York Post on The Show podcast this morning (Twitter link), Mets general manager Billy Eppler said the team would be comfortable deploying Marte as their primary center fielder in 2023 if necessary.
“Can Starling still play center field? Yeah, we believe he can,” Eppler told the Post. “That opens up some optionality for how we ultimately fill out that outfield. … We do have the ability to slide Marte over to center for a number of games, over 50% of the games. He’s got that ability to do that. … We are comfortable with him in center field.”
That’s certainly not a declaration the Mets are closing the book on retaining Nimmo. Eppler called re-signing Nimmo “not a closed case by any stretch of the imagination” and broadly spoke highly of his ability. One can argue for the Mets bringing back Nimmo as the center fielder and a top-of-the-lineup presence while keeping Marte and Mark Canha in the corners. Yet as Eppler noted, the possibly for Marte to slide back up the middle offers some additional flexibility in building out the roster if Nimmo does depart.
Public defensive metrics were mixed on Marte’s performance in right field during his debut season in Queens. Defensive Runs Saved credited him as three runs better than the average right fielder. Ultimate Zone Rating and Statcast’s Runs Above Average metric each pegged him below par, with UZR assigning him a -8 mark and Statcast putting him at -2. Eppler didn’t address Marte’s defensive metrics specifically but noted the outfielder battled some tightness in his left groin midway through the season. That perhaps explains in part a dip in his range that shouldn’t linger into 2023 after an offseason of recovery. Marte had zero MLB experience in right field before 2022, but he’d been consistently excellent in the other corner spot throughout his career.
His recent center field work has been mixed but serviceable. Between 2020-21, Marte logged 1509 1/3 innings in center. Both Statcast and UZR rated him a hair better than average, while DRS had him at a below-average but not intolerable -6 runs over that stretch.
In any event, the Mets will have to add an outfielder this offseason. Retaining Nimmo and keeping Marte and Canha in the corners would be the most straightforward outcome. Still, a nine-figure Nimmo deal could be beyond their liking as they also see players like Jacob deGrom, Edwin Díaz, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker (the latter two of whom are locks to decline options) hit the market. New York has as much spending capacity as any team under owner Steve Cohen, but they’re virtually certain to see at least a couple players of note depart for loftier guarantees elsewhere.
If Nimmo is among that group, the Mets would have more to work with attacking the corner outfield market than adding a center fielder. Aside from Judge and Nimmo, the top free agent center fielder is likely Kevin Kiermaier, who’ll be bought out by the Rays after an injury-plagued year. A Cody Bellinger non-tender would add an excellent glove to the mix and vault him above Kiermaier as the #3 option, but Bellinger is a .193/.256/.355 hitter over his past 900 plate appearances. There also aren’t any clear upgrades who’ll be available in trade, with players like Cedric Mullins and Bryan Reynolds looking unlikely to move.
The corner outfield market is a bit deeper. Judge is obviously the prize, but the middle tier of free agency offers options like Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Haniger, Joc Pederson, Joey Gallo, Michael Brantley and old friend Michael Conforto. There’s also a wider pool of potential trade candidates, with Hunter Renfroe, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Max Kepler and Anthony Santander among those who could be floated in talks over the coming months.