In Billy Eppler’s last general manager job, with the Los Angeles Angels, his roster had a few big stars with exorbitant contracts, but not much else. The Angels collapsed under that lopsided structure, and a lack of depth has also stymied his new team, the Mets.
“Personally, that’s one of my bigger takeaways over the last 10 years in baseball, is that importance of depth,” Eppler said recently, when the Mets introduced him as their new general manager. “I also suffered similarly, at times, when that was tested and you didn’t have places to turn to. And it’s just, frankly, not easy to go execute a trade.”
The Mets avoided the trade market on Friday in adding the kind of depth Eppler wants. The team agreed to contract terms with three free agents: center fielder Starling Marte, outfielder/first baseman Mark Canha and infielder Eduardo Escobar. The deals were confirmed by a baseball official who was granted anonymity because the players must pass physicals to make the agreements official.
Marte, 33, reached a four-year, $78 million contract agreement after a season with Miami and Oakland that was probably the best of his career. He led the majors in stolen bases, with 47, while batting .310 with 12 home runs and a career-best .383 on-base percentage. Marte was an All-Star for Pittsburgh in 2016 but served an 80-game suspension the next year after testing positive for the steroid nandrolone.
Canha, 32, has been a versatile role player for Oakland since 2015. He has a .377 on-base percentage across the last three seasons and led the majors last year in hit-by-pitches, with 27, while hitting 17 home runs. Canha made at least 20 starts at all three outfield spots last season and has also made 81 career starts at first base.
Escobar, also 32, made his first All-Star team last season before Arizona traded him to Milwaukee. He had his best season in 2019 (a .269 average, 35 homers and 118 runs batted in) but has a relatively low career on-base percentage, at .309. A switch-hitter, Escobar has started at every infield position in an 11-year career spent mostly with Minnesota; he profiles as a Jonathan Villar type, with more power and less speed.
The investment in Marte, of course, is the most significant in years and dollars. It protects the Mets against the possible departure of right fielder Michael Conforto, who is a free agent, and theoretically gives them a better defender in center than Brandon Nimmo, who could shift to a corner spot.
The Mets, however, were better than the average team last season in defensive runs saved by center fielders, according to Sports Info Solutions, and few players as old as Marte tend to last long in center field. Among major leaguers who were 33 or older last season, only the Yankees’ Brett Gardner started more than 70 games in center field.
The Mets will likely turn their attention back to pitching now, after missing out on the free agent Steven Matz (who has a four-year, $44 million agreement with St. Louis) and losing Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Loup to the Angels in free agency. Among the top free agent starters are Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman, who led the Mets in starts and innings last season.