The Mets have two arbitration-eligible outfielders in Jeff Francoeur and Angel Pagan.  Are they pursuing the right one with a long-term contract offer?

The Mets have two outfielders under their control for the 2010 season in Jeff Francoeur and Angel Pagan, with both players arbitration-eligible next season. Francoeur made $3.375 million in 2009 while Pagan pulled down $575,000. Rumors have the Mets ready to offer Francoeur a three-year, $15 million deal while there have been no reports of either a long-term deal or single-year contract for Pagan.

But are the Mets looking to commit to the wrong outfielder? Let’s look at the pros for each player:

Francoeur
Younger, more durable, more power, longer major league track record

Pagan
Faster, better defensive player, better idea of the strike zone

Francouer’s advantages seem to show him as the better player. But two of these are actually negatives. His major league track record shows a player with a history of being below-average when you look at his combined output on offense and defense. And if you are a below-average player, is it really an advantage that you can stay in the lineup for 150 games?

After bursting onto the scene with a 126 OPS+ in 2005 as a 21-year old, Francoeur has been average or worse with the bat every year since. Here are his yearly OPS+ totals since then, starting with 2006: 87, 103, 72 and 88. Now, OPS+ is the average of all players, including catchers and middle infielders. A right fielder should be comfortably above 100 and a number below that is unacceptable at the position.

There have been 28 players to log at least 75 games in right field this season. Among them, Francoeur ranks 23rd in OPS+, ranking ahead of only Gabe Gross, Nate Schierholtz, Jay Bruce, Alex Rios and Randy Winn. Rios was so bad the Blue Jays were happy to let him go for nothing. And walking away is really what the Mets should do with Francouer, instead of bestowing a mulit-year deal on him.

Francoeur proponents point out that he was under a lot of pressure in Atlanta and has done better since his move to New York. Now, this may be the first time in MLB history that a player felt less pressure performing in the Big Apple. Regardless, it is true that Francoeur has played better for the Mets than he did the Braves. Let’s compare the numbers:

ATL – .250/.294/.359 in 324 PA
NYM – .309/.336/.480 in 274 PA

His career numbers are: .270/.350/.412 in 2,907 PA

There are two reasons we can point to in Francoeur’s statistical record for the turnaround. First, after posting a .281 BABIP this year for Atlanta, he has a .348 mark in the category for New York. Lifetime his BABIP stands at .307 or 41 points lower than what he has produced so far for the Mets.

Second, Francoeur had a 4.7 HR/FB rate for the Braves, compared to a 7.9 rate with the Mets. Overall, Francoeur’s HR/FB rate is 10.2 for his career. But here are his yearly rates, starting in 2005 and ending with the combined rates for this season: 17.1, 15.3, 9.8, 6.5 and 6.1 percent. This is a remarkably consistent downward trend and one which both Mets management and fans should be cognizant.

Meanwhile, Pagan has performed just as well offensively this year as Francoeur has, in more plate appearances, while also being a much more valuable defensive player. In 332 PA, Pagan has a .299/.341/.480 mark for the Mets, giving him a five-point edge in OPS. But while there offensive output has been a wash, Pagan is hands down the better defensive player.

Pagan has a 3.7 UZR/150 this season. For his career, Pagan has been slightly below average in center per 150 games (-1.8) while being well above average in both left (6.1) and right (18.6). Meanwhile, Francoeur has a -4.4 UZR/150 this year, following up a 2008 season in which he posted a -4.9 mark. Francoeur has a reputation as a good defensive outfielder, but he has terrible range (-13.6) and his arm is his only good defensive tool.

And it is not just UZR. The Fielding Bible plus/minus stats have Francouer at a -5 enhanced (-12 last year), with -3 runs saved (-7 last year). Pagan meanwhile checks in at +10 enhanced and +6 runs saved combined among the three outfield slots this season.

Even with his improved play since joining the Mets, Francoeur has been a replacement-level player in New York. FanGraphs shows his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with the Mets as 0.00 while it is -0.5 overall. Converting his WAR to a dollar value of what the player would make in free agency, Francoeur has been worth negative $2.2 million this year! Meanwhile, Pagan has a WAR of 1.8 which translates to a dollar value of $8.3 million.

With the Mets pinching pennies and scrounging for offense this off-season, it would be a double-whammy to sign Francoeur to any contract. The Mets would be paying for a declining player based on less than half a season’s at-bats. In four full seasons in the majors, Francoeur has been below-average offensively in three of them and average in one (2007). Factor in defense and the numbers become even worse.

By contrast, Pagan will not cost as much as Francoeur. Because of his scant major league experience, this could be Pagan’s career year (he does have a .343 BABIP) but it could also be his expected level of performance for the next few seasons. But we do know that Pagan is better defensively, with more versatility with the ability to play center, and that he will swing at fewer pitches outside the strike zone.

It comes down to this – would you rather have Jeff Francoeur at $5 million per year and hope that his last 274 PA with a .348 BABIP are more indicative of his true ability than the previous 977 PA or would you rather put that money towards acquiring a free agent (Matt Holliday?) or trade target (Carl Crawford?) instead?

Pagan should be a starting outfielder for the Mets next season. And they should non-tender Jeff Francoeur and use that money for an upgrade in one of the outfield corners. With Pagan’s versatility, they can target either a right or left fielder. And with adding a player like Holliday or Crawford, you get not only their offense, but the upgrade from a sub-replacement player like Francoeur.

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