Sunday, November 15, 2009

Outside the Box, Part 2: Bring Back Fonzie

A few days ago, Kevin Kernan of the New York Post caught up with our former second baseman, Edgardo Alfonzo.

This caught my attention, to say the least.

Alfonzo still has his baseball dream. He wants to play for the Mets one more time. When his career ends, he wants it to end as a Met. The fact that Alfonzo still has that kind of loyalty to his former team tells you everything you need to know about the man.
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He feels so confident he is willing to put it all on the line for a shot at the majors. He’s going back to Venezuela for winter ball with the hopes of being signed by a big league club.

The Mets stand above all others: The team he signed with in 1991 and played eight years with and went to the World Series with in 2000, the Subway Series, which he still holds dear to his heart . . . If Alfonzo goes to spring training with the Mets and it doesn’t work out, so be it.

“My dream is to retire with the Mets colors,” Alfonzo said. “That’s my dream. That’s what I’m praying for, maybe it will happen, maybe not, but dreams sometimes come true, you know.”

What? No. I just have something in my eye. In both my eyes.

It's been a while since Fonzie has been a truly productive ballplayer. After a fine 2002 season with the Mets where he hit .308/.391/.459 with 16 home runs and more walks than strikeouts, he has struggled mightily.

From 2003-2006 he posted an OPS of only 701, while batting .266. His plate discipline was still there (138 walks to 199 strikeouts in almost 1500 plate appearances), but he hit for no power at all (slugging .371 with only 26 homers in that time). Since then, he's played in the Independent League, Japan, and the Venezuelan Winter League.

The odds of Alfonzo returning to any kind of form where he could help the Mets on the field is somewhere between zero and impossible. Best case scenario, he might be able to hit .275 with some walks and no power -- but nobody has seen him play at the major league level in years[1].

His last two years in the majors he returned ugly fielding stats (courtesy fangraphs), but we really don't know how much of that is small sample size, injury, or otherwise. As any good Mets fan knows, when he was healthy he was an excellent and versatile defender, capable of playing third or second base (and also, according to Kernan, first base). Most importantly, even when he was putting up bad numbers defensively, they came almost exclusively at third base. As a second baseman, his UZR was basically zero from 2003-2006.

So why is this a good idea for the Mets? Frankly, it's a no-risk proposition and there is a fairly good chance that Alfonzo can help.

Fonzie sounds prepared to face the facts if he is unable to play the game at the major league level anymore. There is no harm in inviting him to spring training and letting him run around Port St. Lucie with the team again. As Kernan points out:

Anyone who has spent time in the Mets clubhouse the past year knows that adding a class player and person like Edgardo Alfonzo only would help. He could toss some helpful advice David Wright’s way.

Alfonzo’s dream is to go to spring training with the Mets and let the chips fall where they may. He said he thinks he could be a valuable utility player and feels he has two or three years of baseball left in his body. He also could offer guidance and wisdom to a team that lacked baseball common sense.

I don't typically buy the notion of "class players" or that Alfonzo will in any way make David Wright better. But he *is* a great person. He loves the Mets, and wants to give back to the organization. When healthy, he was a truly fantastic hitter with phenomenal plate discipline -- even when he was hurt and on the verge of getting knocked out of baseball, he managed to walk 5 times and strike out only once with the Blue Jays. He worked long counts, he understood the game, and he's a rare, decent human being.

So take a look at the potential upside. If he can hit .275, draw some walks, and play fair but not terrible defense -- he will have value. If he's willing to come back and don the Orange and Blue for one more year at a minimum salary or with a contract with incentives, what would we have to lose? Take a look at the sad excuses for players that the Mets trotted out there last season:

Alex Cora: 2009 OPS of 630. Career OPS of 658
Wilson Valdez: 2009 OPS of 664. Career OPS of 565.
Anderson Hernandez: 2009 OPS of 651. Career OPS of 627.
Ramon Martinez: 2009 OPS of 396. Career OPS of 689.

I don't advocate roster construction based on the worst-case scenario, but my suggestion to the Mets would be to bring Alfonzo back to spring training and give him a chance to show he can play.

If he can't, cut him loose. But if he can -- and I think there is a fair chance that he could surprise people -- he might be a low-cost, fan-friendly, positive-influence of a guy. Why not find out?

[1] For what it's worth, Alfonzo posted good numbers in the Independent League in 2008. After an injury plagued 2006 in the majors, he struggled in the Independent League in 2007, posting a 714 OPS. The next year, however, he returned to an 884 OPS and .329 average.

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