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Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen has made it clear he hopes to add a true center fielder this offseason via trade or free agency -- talking up the need to improve the defense -- and has spoken about using Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo primarily in the corner outfield spots.
As the Mets search for that true center fielder, they can scour the free agent market. While not completely barren, the list of free agent center fielders leaves a lot to be desired, with Brett Gardner (who could be heading back to the Yankees) and Cameron Maybin (whose 2019 might have been fool's gold) highlighting the better options.
This is where Starling Marte comes in.
The Pirates have an $11.5 million option on the 31-year-old Marte for the 2020 season and a $2 million buyout that would make him a free agent.
Pittsburgh went 69-93 in 2019 and does not look like a contender for 2020, which would make one year of Marte pointless to have on their books. That means the most sensible play for the Pirates should be picking up Marte's option with the intent of trading him.
During an offseason where the free agent market for center fielders is so thin, Marte should have plenty of value on the trade market, and Pittsburgh should be looking to cash in.
Marte hit .295/.342/.503 with 23 homers, 31 doubles, six triples, and 25 steals this past season. Defensively, he was worth -9 DRS in 1,141.1 innings in center field. But that drop in defense might have been an aberration.
Prior to this season, Marte had graded out as just about average in center field every year of his career. He was worth 1 DRS there in 2018 during what was his first season playing center full-time.
If Marte is regressing defensively -- a possibility since he just turned 31 years old -- he would still be a major upgrade over Conforto in center field.
Conforto was worth -4 DRS in 268.0 innings in center field in 2019. Extrapolate that over the amount of innings Marte played in center in 2019, and Conforto would have been worth roughly -16 DRS.
When it comes to Marte vs. Nimmo defensively, Marte has a clear advantage if his 2019 struggles in center were a blip. If they're the new normal, he and Nimmo (who was worth -2 DRS in center field in 284.2 innings in 2019) are about even.
Still, a regular defensive alignment in 2020 that shifts Nimmo to left field (in place of J.D. Davis), has Marte in center, and Conforto in right would likely be a huge upgrade over the outfield defense the Mets trotted out regularly in 2019.
Nimmo has been worth 1 DRS in 752.1 career innings in left field.
Conforto has been worth 4 DRS in 1,220.2 career innings in right field, including being worth 1 DRS in 1,012.1 innings there in 2019.
Davis was worth -11 DRS in 585.1 innings in left field in 2019, which extrapolates to roughly -22 DRS over a full season.
When it comes to the future of Davis, if the Mets feel he can make a big improvement in left field or at third base, keeping him makes all the sense in the world. They could also potentially keep him and use him off the bench.
Van Wagenen said on Tuesday during an appearance on WFAN with Mike Francesa that he views Davis as an everyday player, but it's hard to see where he fits as the Mets are currently constructed -- Conforto and Nimmo in the corners, seeking a new center fielder, and Jeff McNeil at third base.
Regardless of what happens with Davis, though, the Mets will have to go outside the organization if they want to improve their center field defense.
If they want to improve the defense there while also adding an above average bat, Marte could be the way to go. If they want a plus defender and to sacrifice offense, they can pursue Padres CF Manuel Margot via trade. There's also Japanese free agent Shogo Akiyama, who could profile as a regular (though not an impact bat) but whose defense could be slipping.
It remains to be seen which players the Mets could entice the Pirates with in a potential trade for Marte should they engage. But with 1B Josh Bell on Pittsburgh's roster, it's hard to see a fit there for Dominic Smith, who could be movable this offseason due to the roster crunch in Queens.
With the Mets seemingly set on the infield and with Wilson Ramos still having a year remaining on his contract, their best bet when it comes to improving the defense could be adding a true center fielder, which could lead to improvements in all three outfield spots. Van Wagenen has to know this, and he should be aggressive when it comes to addressing it.