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Mets' offseason free-agent signings not sexy, but provide solid veteran depth

Mets' Kevin Pillar during a spring training workout

Mets' Kevin Pillar during a spring training workout Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

JUPITER, Fla. — The moves trickled in during the course of the offseason, none of them particularly sexy or headline-grabbing but all of them important.

A first baseman/corner outfielder here, a centerfielder there. A superutility guy. Another centerfielder.

Altogether, the Mets handed out four major-league contracts — about $10 million on the 2021 payroll — to players poised to be on the bench, helping to create their deepest pile of backups in years.

Instead of filling reserve roles with players they already had, or taking minor-league fliers on guys who couldn’t get major-league jobs elsewhere, the Mets made investments in and commitments to Jose Martinez, Albert Almora Jr., Jonathan Villar and Kevin Pillar. They have spent a combined 20 years in the majors.

The Mets’ roster looks so deep, manager Luis Rojas said, that he already has created 15 potential lineups. And he has four weeks to go until the regular season.

"These guys have been regular players their entire careers, so the more chances we have to get them in there, the better," Rojas said Wednesday before the Mets used mostly non-starters in a 14-9 exhibition loss against the Cardinals. "These guys, they’re ready to play every day."

They won’t play every day — as long as the first-stringers are healthy — but they still can carve out notable roles.

Pillar appears to be the fourth outfielder, and Rojas even mentioned him as a leadoff candidate on days the Mets face a lefthanded starter. Villar has a degree of versatility the Mets love — he plays second, shortstop, third and centerfield — and is probably the Mets’ best stolen-base threat off the bench.

Both are locks to make the Opening Day roster. For Martinez and Almora, who can be optioned to the minors, that isn’t necessarily the case. But that is by design.

The Mets identified improving the bottom of the roster — and the top of the farm system — as an area of immense need early in the offseason. With National League pitchers back to needing to bat this year, the quality of the bench is more important than it was in 2020.

"It's ironic that we were able to add a lot of those depth pieces because our upper-level minor-league system is so barren," team president Sandy Alderson said this week. "As a result, we ended up being able to sign a number of players who have options, who are able to go down and come back up."

Those who do win jobs will join a pair of homegrown players, catcher Tomas Nido and utility infielder Luis Guillorme, on the bench.

The Mets got a glimpse of their reserves’ worthiness in the first inning. Facing St. Louis lefthander Kwang Hyun Kim, Pillar led off with a triple off the top of the leftfield wall (then scored on J.D. Davis’ single). Martinez walked, one of his two free passes on the day. Guillorme (2-for-3) and Nido (1-for-2, walk) had back-to-back singles.

"We just go about it with 100% professional[ism]," Martinez said. "This is all about winning over here. This organization wants to win. It’s a good group of guys."

Martinez would fit the Mets’ roster better if the NL had the DH, which still might happen for 2021. During camp, he has been splitting time between first base and the corner outfield spots and said he feels comfortable at both, though he rates better in the infield.

"I felt pretty good," Martinez said of his leftfield appearance Monday. "I didn’t get any balls, but it’s good to be out there and let the game come to you. Don’t try to rush nothing. Make the routine plays."

Add it to the list of Rojas’ options, even if it is not the first option.

"We’re definitely always looking to have them in there," Rojas said. "It looks like we have a platoon-type of depth here."

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