On-Base Perception

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People v. Scott Hairston

Scott Hairston doubles in the fourth inning of

Scott Hairston doubles in the fourth inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. (Sept. 19, 2012) (Credit: David Pokress)

In baseball free agency, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. Fans who will do anything to keep their favorite players and fans who have no problem kicking any player to the curb.

This is Part 7 of our series looking at upcoming free agents for the Mets and Yankees and arguing for and against keeping them.

(Insert the "Law & Order" clang, clang here, just in case you didn't already catch the reference.)

The case:

Scott Hairston is a 32-year-old outfielder and pinch-hitter who played for the Mets the past two seasons. He made $1.1 million while appearing in 134 games (86 starts) during 2012. A free agent who drew modest interest at the end of last season, Hairston's power surge in 2012 may make him more desirable this offseason. The Mets are expected to try to retain him, and Newsday's David Lennon predicts the Yankees will sign him.

The facts:

Hairston hit a career-high 20 home runs in 377 at-bats in 2012, hitting .263. He's a career .247 hitter with a .302 on-base percentage and 95 home runs in nine seasons playing for the Mets, Padres, A's and Diamondbacks. He's never been named to an All-Star team and never received any postseason awards. Hairston saw limited action for the Mets in 2011 (132 at-bats), being used in more of a pinch-hitter role. But he was given a more prominent job on the 2012 squad due to his success against left-handed pitching. Hairston batted .286 with 11 home runs against lefties. He can play both outfield corners, has seen time in center each of the last six seasons and started 83 games at second base in 2004.

The prosecution:

The Mets have not been adept at recognizing when it's time to walk away the last several seasons. They got the best Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo had to give, but still re-signed them to ill-advised deals. They ignored signs of decline from Francisco Rodriguez and gave him a large free agent deal.

They shouldn't make the same mistake with Hairston.

Hairston played at the peak of his career in 2012. What reason is there to hope he'll do the same in 2013?

Hairston's previous career-high in home runs was 17, which he established in 2008 and 2009. He hit 10 in 2010 and seven in 2011 before busting out with 20 last season. Those 20 bombs are the upside, not the norm. And, aside from power, Hairston doesn't offer many positives anyway.

His .263 average was the second-highest of his career, nearly tying the .265 mark he set in 2009. He's never had an OBP above .313 in a full season.

Hairston grades out as a subpar outfielder, posting a -4.9 UZR/150 in all outfield spots combined in 2012. UZR/150 is an advanced stat that measures a player's ability to get to balls hit in his zone.

The Mets are not a team that can afford to waste at-bats on a past-his-prime semi-slugger who's a liability in the outfield and a liability at the plate when he's not swinging for the fences.

Hairston's 2012 was one of the highlights of the Mets season. Let him go out on a high note. Or let the Yankees deal with his regression to the mean.

The defense:

It's probably not a great idea for a team like the Mets—short on offensive talent, particularly in the outfield—to let one of their most productive players walk.

Hairston's 20 home runs were third on the team, behind only David Wright and Ike Davis. His .263 average was third behind Ruben Tejada and Wright, among players who had at least 300 plate appearances. As a part-time player, his 57 RBIs were tied with Lucas Duda for fourth most—and Duda had 61 more plate appearances than Hairston. Hairston's 2.0 WAR was third on the team behind Wright and Tejada.

Bottom line: Hairston was one of the team's top performers in 2012. And a deeper look reveals even more reasons for him to stick around.

For a team that lacks righty power, aside from Wright, Hairston is the perfect fit. His career average against righties is .229, and he has just a .704 on-base plus slugging percentage when facing right-handed pitchers. Against lefties, his average jumps to .276 and his OPS bulges to .825.

He's adept at coming off the bench and actually performed better in that role during 2012. As a starter he had a .264 average, .291 OBP and .785 OPS. As a sub, he hit .255 with a .345 OBP and .913 OPS.

Plus, he has a reputation as a good, veteran clubhouse presence--an important component on a younger team.

The Mets are not in the position to be casting off productive hitters because of slight flaws. Just because a piece of fruit is bruised doesn't mean it's no longer sweet. And just because Hairston has limitations doesn't mean the Mets should overlook his positive attributes.

Re-signing Hairston should be a top priority for the Mets.

The verdict:

Hairston is the type of player who can fit well on a championship-caliber club. He's a platoon bat against southpaw pitchers, a versatile—if unspectacular—outfielder and a good force in the clubhouse.

He's all of those things to the Mets, too, of course. But his value is mitigated by the team's chances at contention. A lefty platoon partner can push a contender over the edge, whereas it can only make the Mets seem a little less embarrassing.

If the Mets believe they will truly be in the playoff hunt next year—and few see the team as ready to chase a Wild Card slot—then Hairston is a worthwhile gamble. Otherwise, he's a luxury. And the Mets could better utilize the money it would take to sign him by fixing a severely leaky bullpen, or investing in amateur talent.

For the best interests of the Mets and Hairston, it's better to let him walk.

Tags: Scott Hairston , people v.

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