Tuesday, September 28News That Matters

Could Francisco Lindor be the Best All-Around Mets Player Ever?

In six seasons with Cleveland, Francisco Lindor showcased a multifaceted set of skills that, packaged underneath an irrepressible passion and an enchanting smile, combined to make him one of the most exciting, charismatic and winning players in baseball.

Beginning Thursday, Lindor will put that total package on display for the Mets, with a chance to do something even more profound. Given his age, talent and apparent dedication to the sport, and provided he eventually signs with the club long term, Lindor, 27, has a chance to become the best all-around position player the Mets have ever had.

“He could exceed them all,” said Bobby Valentine, who since 1977 has played, coached, managed and been a television analyst for the Mets. “His toolbox has the best set of tools, I think, of anyone who has ever played for the Mets.”

Mike Piazza hit the ball farther and had a better batting average, but was not a top-notch defender or runner. Carlos Beltran was the best free-agent signing in franchise history, but he broke down some after his first four years with the team. Darryl Strawberry hit the ball to the moon, and had the speed to steal bases, but he was less consistent at the plate and could not match Lindor’s defense.

Jose Reyes had the speed and the smile, David Wright put up some top-tier years and Keith Hernandez had an undeniable all-around impact on the 1986 championship team.

But Lindor, whom the Mets acquired in a blockbuster trade in January, can compete with any of them in terms of substance and style. A switch-hitter, he hits for power from both sides of the plate and racks up runs. He is an excellent defensive shortstop. He uses his speed and know-how on the basepaths, regularly showing he can score from first base on a ball into the gap, grab an extra base or steal one when necessary — and he does it all with a captivating flair under a flash of sometimes multicolored hair.

Ron Darling, the former Mets pitcher turned broadcaster, said Hernandez was the best he ever played with. Hernandez’s rare combination of offensive and defensive skills, plus his unparalleled knowledge of the game, instincts, performance in clutch situations and his standing as an admired teammate, made Hernandez stand apart.

“Lindor has those qualities,” said Darling, who has watched Lindor play since he first came to the big leagues in 2015. “He has to stick around and do it, but there is the opportunity for Lindor to one day go into the Hall of Fame in a Mets hat. That could happen, that’s how good he is.”

The statistics already shimmer on Lindor’s Baseball Reference page, tantalizing Mets fans who see him as the foundation of the future, as long as the Mets can sign him to a contract extension, either now or at the end of the season. Negotiations have been ongoing during spring training, but the player and team are reportedly separated by tens of millions of dollars, and Lindor has said he will end talks once the season starts. That would make him a free agent after the season, at which point he could re-sign with the Mets or join another team.

The market for Lindor would be robust.

He hit at least 32 home runs and 40 doubles in each of the three seasons before the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and he scored at least 99 runs in each of his last four full seasons, leading both leagues with 129 runs scored in 2018. He has a career .285 batting average and an .833 on-base plus slugging percentage. Over the last four seasons, he has the most home runs (111) and extra-base hits (258) among shortstops.

He is also one of baseball’s defensive wizards. Lindor won the Gold Glove Award for American League shortstops in 2016 and 2019. According to FanGraphs, he has placed in the top six among shortstops in ultimate zone rating — a metric that measures a player’s overall defensive contribution — in each of the last five seasons. Last year, he was No. 1. And for traditionalists who appreciate the sure-handedness indicated by fielding percentage, Lindor’s acrobatics haven’t stopped him from putting together a mark of .981, which is fourth among active shortstops and the 11th highest ever.

What current or former Mets player can boast that combination of speed, skill, power and defense? Surely, only a handful. If any.

There is no way to definitively quantify a subjective discussion on the best Mets position player ever. But if wins above replacement — an aggregation of statistical data that attempts to measure all of a player’s skills while adjusting for park and era — is considered a rough benchmark, then Lindor stacks up very well.

He joins the Mets with a cumulative WAR of 28.8, according to Baseball Reference. Averaging 4.8 wins a year is impressive, but Lindor’s numbers would undoubtedly be stronger if not for last year’s shortened schedule, which cost him up to 102 games. In the five previous seasons, he had averaged 5.52 WAR per year, with a high of 7.8 in 2018. While those numbers would eventually decline, as they do for any aging player, the Mets could reasonably expect to see several years of Lindor’s prime should he stay with the team beyond 2021.

If those prime years can match, or exceed, his top years in Cleveland, Lindor could stand out above numerous Mets greats.

Strawberry played eight seasons with the Mets and averaged 4.58 WAR per season. Beltran’s average with the Mets was 4.44 and Piazza’s was 3.08.

Reyes, the player who could serve as a yardstick for Lindor as a speedy, switch-hitting shortstop with a joyful approach to the game, had an average WAR of 3.1 during his original nine-year stint with the team. Wright’s average WAR was 3.51.

Strawberry, Piazza, Beltran, Reyes and Wright were all great Mets position players, and others like Gary Carter, Howard Johnson and Edgardo Alfonzo had sensational stretches. But Howie Rose, who may have seen more Mets games than anyone, agrees with Darling that Hernandez may have the strongest claim as the best all-around Met ever.

Now the team’s radio play-by-play announcer, Rose attended his first Mets game at the Polo Grounds on July 6, 1962 — their inaugural season — and his Mets broadcasting career goes back to 1987. He said Hernandez’s impact with the team cannot be overstated.

Hernandez batted over .300 in his first four seasons with the Mets, had an on-base percentage over .400 three times, was among the top 10 in voting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award three times and won five Gold Gloves at first base.

“His glove said Rawlings on it, but it might just as easily have said Stradivarius,” Rose said, referring to the world-class violins. “He didn’t just play the position, he performed it, and he was also an excellent hitter.”

Hernandez had an average WAR of 3.8 during his seven years with the Mets, but Rose pointed out that metric could never account for Hernandez’s unmistakable leadership qualities.

Rose said Lindor has the talent to match Hernandez (more power, but perhaps less virtuosity in the field) and is eager to see whether Lindor, who has an active role in the players’ union, assumes a leadership role with the Mets, too.

“This group gets along, they have fun together and they have a certain dynamic that any incoming player has to a little be circumspect about as they wade through it,” Rose said. “Lindor doesn’t appear to be particularly circumspect. His smile announces his arrival, and his ability certifies his standing. As far as adopting a leadership role, that’s a delicate thing. But it seems to come to him naturally.”

But not all the comparisons for incoming stars are favorable, and Lindor is not the first player to arrive in Flushing via Cleveland with an overflowing résumé. Roberto Alomar showed up with similar hope in 2002.

At the time the Mets acquired Alomar from Cleveland in 2001, he had an average yearly WAR of 4.81, just a tick better than Lindor’s, but he proceeded to have two terrible seasons in Queens. A notable difference between the two is that Alomar, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011, was 34 during his first season with the Mets, seven years older than Lindor is now.

“They are getting him at a great age,” Rose said of Lindor. “Assuming he re-signs, we’re going to see what should be the best of Francisco Lindor.”

Jim Duquette, an analyst on MLB Network Radio, was an assistant general manager for the Mets at the time of the Alomar trade. He noted something else in Lindor’s favor.

“Some guys you can almost bet they are made for New York, and I think Lindor is one of those types,” Duquette said. “The guys that play with a lot of energy tend to thrive in New York, and I think there is another gear in there for Lindor.”

Piazza, who flourished in New York during his Hall of Fame career, noted during spring training that Lindor has the temperament to not only succeed in the city, but to excel under its gleaming spotlight.

“I think he’s got it,” Piazza said. “He has to go out and prove it, of course. But he seems like a really cool guy. He’s got colored hair, that’s for sure. I like it.”

Lindor also craves time on the field, missing only 30 of a possible 708 games over the last five seasons. Ross Atkins, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, was the director of player development when Cleveland drafted Lindor from Montverde Academy in Florida. Atkins noted a lesser-known reason for Lindor’s success and durability.

“One thing some people don’t realize about Francisco is how strong he is and how physical,” Atkins said. “He’s not the tallest guy, but he is one of the strongest players in the game. And it’s not just that he can move weight around. It’s the way he deploys that strength. He’s one of the better professional athletes in the world.”

With or without a long-term contract extension, the experiment begins on Thursday, when Mets fans will begin to gauge whether Lindor collapses like Alomar, Jason Bay, Mo Vaughn and Kaz Matsui, becomes a one-year wonder and leaves in 2022, or slots in among the greatest Mets position players ever.

“I was always attracted to how much he loves to play,” Darling said of Lindor. “He can’t get enough of it, and boy, you love your superstar to be that kind of player. He still has to go out and do it, but in terms of pure talent, he has a chance to be the best.”