Maybe the Mets aren’t crazy for signing Cuddyer

On Monday, the Mets made the first significant free-agent signing of the offseason, bringing Michael Cuddyer to Queens on a two-year, $21 million contract. Because the Rockies anticipated Cuddyer’s market and made him a qualifying offer, the deal also cost the Mets the 15th pick in next summer’s draft. So this move exchanges potential future value for a short-term upgrade. In other words, this is a win-now move and signifies that the Mets are probably set on improving their 2015 roster, even if it comes at the cost of sacrificing assets that may prove valuable in the long run.

This seems like a bit of a weird decision, given that the Mets finished 79-83 this past season, and perhaps more importantly, finished 17 games out of first place in the National League East. Seventeen games is not a trivial gap to overcome, so the Mets don’t necessarily seem to be in a traditional position that incentivizes future-for-present talent swaps. However, I think it’s worth considering that perhaps the Mets’€™ position is more advantageous than it looks at first glance.

The primary variable in a team’s status as a potential contender is, of course, that team’€™s own talent level. On this test, the Mets seem to fall a bit short at the moment; the Steamer projections hosted at FanGraphs currently have the team pegged for approximately +27 WAR, roughly the same as the Cubs and Diamondbacks, and well behind the +41 WAR that the Nationals are currently projected to produce. A 14-win gap might be slightly less intimidating than a 17-win gap, but either way, it seems nearly impossible that the Mets could improve enough this winter to match up with the best team in their division.

But being a contender is no longer just about being the best team in your division. We just had a World Series where neither team accomplished that; in fact, neither reigning league champion even won 90 games. MLB’s current playoff system offers some potentially lucrative rewards for being a respectable runner-up, and thanks to the non-Nationals teams in the NL East, it is not entirely crazy to think that the Mets might be able to aspire to that more realistic goal.

The Phillies are terrible, probably baseball’s worst team even before they unload quality veterans like Cole Hamels. If they trade enough of their veterans this winter, they could easily be a 100-loss disaster next year, boosting the win totals for each of the other four teams lucky enough to play them 19 times. The NL Central and NL West teams will not have a similar doormat to pound, giving each of the other four NL East teams a small advantage in the wild-card races.

It’s not just the Phillies that provide an opening, either. The Braves and Marlins project as only marginally better teams than the Mets at the moment, and the Braves could easily be worse by Opening Day, especially if they decide to move either Justin Upton or Jason Heyward rather than go into 2015 with both of their corner outfielders just a season removed from free agency. In other words, behind the Nationals, there’s no strong second-place team that the Mets also have to leap over, and the number of teams you have to beat out for a spot is often just as important as your own relative strength.

As teams like the Red Sox, Rangers and Rays all showed this year, it is shockingly easy for a good team to have a bad year in the current architecture of Major League Baseball. The Nationals are probably the best team in baseball right now, but all it takes is a couple of injuries and a few underperformances sprinkled around the roster, and all of the sudden, the only strong team in the NL East is in some real trouble. With plenty of walk-year contract guys of their own — Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Tyler Clippard, to name five key contributors — it’s even possible that the Nationals will voluntarily weaken themselves before Opening Day rolls around in order to make sure that next year isn’t their last season as the favorites in the division.

No division race is impenetrable when there’s just a sole claimant at the top of the pile. Too many things can go wrong too easily in baseball for one team to have anything close to a stranglehold on a division title before the season even begins. The Rangers won 19 fewer games than projected last year; the Red Sox fell 17 wins shy of the forecast. It just doesn’t take that much to turn a good team into an also-ran, and if the Nationals end up as 2015’s Rangers or Red Sox, the team that decided to make a play for second place would find itself in a pretty great situation.

But it’s not like the Mets need to count on the Nationals imploding to think that improving their team could have a realistic payoff. Tom Tango developed a nifty toy to estimate a team’s playoff odds knowing only their own winning percentage that would suggest the Mets would have something like a 20% chance of reaching the playoffs next year if they could just pull themselves up to the level of a .500 team heading into the season. Our playoffs odds model on FanGraphs suggests that might even be slightly pessimistic, as every team projected for at least 79 wins entered the 2014 season with at least a 20% chance of reaching the postseason.

Maybe a 20% chance of a postseason berth doesn’t sound like great odds, but we have to keep in mind the relative merits of the options. As the Royals showed this year, a surprising run of contention can reinvigorate a deflated fan base in a hurry, and as Jeff Sullivan noted recently, the financial windfall for a deep playoff run can be substantial and impactful. Having a one-in-five shot at winning a poke in the eye isn’t much to write home about; a one-in-five shot of a massive spike in attendance and television ratings for a team in New York is nothing to be sneezed at, however.

This doesn’t mean the Mets (or the Braves and Marlins, for that matter) should recklessly pursue short-term upgrades at all costs, but there are incentives in place to strive for mediocrity, positioning themselves to take advantage of an opportunity if one presents itself. And if the Mets are looking to give themselves a chance to be next year’s Royals, then perhaps Cuddyer won’t be the only top-shelf free agent they go after this winter. After all, if the Mets were already thinking that they’d likely punt their first-round pick to go after Hanley Ramirez, Max Scherzer or James Shields, then the marginal cost of signing Cuddyer is quite a bit lower, as it would only cost them their second-round selection to add him to the team as well.

Maybe the Mets won’t make a big move, and they’ll remain far enough away from contention that the Cuddyer signing looks a bit puzzling on its own. But we should at least consider the possibility that the relative weakness of the NL East gives the Mets a real reason to shoot for being not awful, and MLB’s penalty system for signing free agents incentivizes teams to sign a bunch all in one winter rather than going for one big acquisition each year.

The Royals just not-awful’ed themselves into Game 7 of the World Series, where they lost to a team that finished with the fifth-best record in the National League. The days of offseason upgrades being the sole domain of 95-win behemoths is behind us. Mediocrity is the new black. Or, maybe in the Mets’€™ case, the new orange-and-blue, and perhaps their desire to improve from bad to okay isn’t as silly as it might seem.