Replacing a franchise player is one of the most difficult things a team will have to do in sports. Whether it’s Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots, or Derek Jeter retiring after a prolific 20-year career for the New York Yankees.
When the foundation is always built around a single constant, like Jeter at short, it’s hard to plan for a life without that player around. Across town in Queens, the New York Mets have spent the better part of the last decade dealing with this exact problem but at third base.
Some may forget, but there was once a moment in time where the Mets had a star player in New York that was as highly regarded as any in the sport. From 2005 through 2013, David Wright was a perennial All-Star and one of the best all-around players in the game.
Wright took home both the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove in back-to-back years in 2007 and 2008, widely regarded as the best third baseman in the National League.
The seven-time All-Star was the face of the Mets throughout his entire career, with a jersey that is still among the most common you will see at any game played at Citi Field to this day.
A remarkably durable player throughout most of his 20’s, injuries started to take a toll on Wright when he entered his 30s and would ultimately derail his career. From 2015 through 2018, when he officially retired, Wright played just 77 regular season games across four seasons for the Mets.
Luckily the Mets were able to get Wright one last playoff run, where he played 24 games in their path to winning the 2015 NL pennant. In Game 3 of the World Series, the first to ever be played at Citi Field, Wright homered, marking the clear final peak of his career.
Despite being six seasons removed from that home run, the Mets have come no closer to finding a new third baseman to fill the void that Wright left. The lack of a cornerstone at the hot corner continues to shape their chances to contend to this day.
When you have a 22-year-old superstar thriving at the big-league level, finding his successor is naturally not going to be atop your priority list. After Wright’s rookie season in 2004, the Mets did not spend another first round pick on a third baseman for 15 years.
In fact, they only drafted nine third basemen in the top-10 rounds across that span, with 2008 eighth round pick Eric Campbell and 2012 third round pick Matt Reynolds being the only players from the group to even graduate to the majors.
Mets Third Baseman Drafted in the Top-10 Rounds Since 2002:
- Richard Lucas, 4th round in 2007.
- Zach Lutz, 5th round in 2007.
- Eric Campbell, 8th round in 2008.
- Matt Reynolds, 3rd round in 2012.
- Eudor Garcia, 4th round in 2014.
- David Thompson, 4th round in 2015
- Blake Tiberi, 3rd round in 2016.
- Mark Vientos, 2nd round in 2017.
- Brett Baty, 1st round in 2019.
Without top-flight draft picks being groomed in the farm system, the Mets were unprepared for Wright’s spinal stenosis diagnosis in 2015 and have since had a revolving door of players man the position.
Wilmer Flores, Jose Reyes and Todd Frazier are just some of players who have been the starting third baseman for the Mets since his injury problems became persistent. Now in 2021, the Mets still struggle with who to pencil into the 5-slot of their infield.
Coming into this season, there were a lot of mouths to feed at-bats to over at third base, as J.D. Davis, Luis Guillorme and Jonathan Villar were all expected to get playing time.
Villar has received the most starts at third this year, but that is more due to his availability while Davis and Guillorme have endured the most injury-plagued seasons of their respective career. Villar is only signed to a one-year deal, so no one is expecting him to be a fixture at the position.
Guillorme is a defensive whiz, who has quietly turned into an elite on-base threat. Since September of 2019, the 26-year-old has gotten on base at a .413 clip. The problem for Guillorme is that he doesn’t have the typical power you would associate with the third base position.
Davis, however, packs plenty of power in his right-handed bat, with a .481 slugging percentage since coming to the Mets in 2019. The issue with Davis is his lack of ability to play third base, or really any position on the field other than DH.
Because of this lack of a franchise building block at third base, there was plenty of buzz at the trade deadline surrounding the Mets and impending free agent Kris Bryant. The 2016 NL MVP could have been the answer for the Mets, as they have the financial flexibility to offer him a lucrative long-term deal.
Instead of trading for Bryant though, the Mets opted to acquire his teammate, shortstop Javier Baez. Incumbent shortstop Francisco Lindor was a big advocate to acquire the fellow Puerto Rican, as the two former All-Star are best friends.
Now when Lindor gets healthy, we are likely to see the two former Gold Glove shortstops playing together up the middle, with the ever-versatile Jeff McNeil moving over to third base. If Baez is signed to a long-term contract in the offseason, this could be the alignment the Mets use for the foreseeable future.
McNeil could be the answer this franchise has been searching for, as the 2019 All-Star certainly has the highest ceiling of anyone who has manned the position since No. 5. At the same time, one of his best assets is his ability to be moved around the diamond, so McNeil may not ever be able to comfortably settle into just one position.
While no obvious solution for their third base dilemma is present on the major league roster, a look into the farm system offers far more promise for this team.
Right now, the Mets have two third base prospects with serious potential at the hot corner. They also just happen to be the only two third baseman since David Wright that have been drafted in the first two rounds by the franchise.
Mark Vientos was the Mets second-round pick in 2017 and is currently enjoying a career-year. The 21-year-old has spent the entire season in Double-A, where he has hit .279/.350/.601, with 20 home runs, 15 doubles, 52 RBI and a 148 wRC+.
Vientos has been knocking on the door of a promotion to Triple-A for some time now and could find himself at the big-league level mid-season next year if he continues to showcase that power. If Vientos doesn’t pan out though, the Mets have another exciting third base prospect in Brett Baty.
Baty began this season in High-A with the Brooklyn Cyclones. Across 51 games played there, Baty hit .309/.397/.514, with a 146 wRC+. He was then promoted to Double-A, where the 21-year-old has seen his numbers tail off as he adjusts to the higher level.
In the short-term, the Mets will try to make do cycling between Davis, Guillorme, Villar, McNeil or maybe even Baez at third base. But with Baty and Vientos, the Mets finally have two top-seven prospects who have the potential to fill the void left by losing Wright.