May 26, 2008

The New York Mets: A Team At The Fork In The Road

[Editor's Note: This post was written before knowing the outcome of today's meeting between Willie, Omar & the Wilpons.]

I was all set to call this post "In Defense of Omar" when I began making notes on Saturday - and then something happened yesterday that really turned things around for me. I attended the Dodgers-Cardinals game on Sunday, which was won by the Dodgers in the 10th inning, and two things were most evident about their team: first, in spite of having a manager, Joe Torre, who has generally been reluctant to play youngsters over vets, their line-up included James Loney, Luis Maza, Blake Dewitt, Russell Martin, Chin-lung Hu, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, as well as pitchers Jonathan Broxton, Takashi Saito and Cory Wade - and the one thing they all have in common is that they've been promoted from the Dodgers minor league teams! [Andre Ethier was acquired in a trade for Milton Bradley, but never played a game in the majors with the A's.] Think about it- their entire infield was homegrown yesterday, due to injuries to Jeff Kent, Rafael Furcal and Andy Laroche (not to mention No-Mar, or No-More, as he should be called) - and they are doing it in LOS ANGELES, the number 2 market behind NY!!! OH - and the tipping point? That would be my second observation- their starting pitcher was 20 year old Clayton Kershaw, possessed of a superb 94+mph fastball (he reached 97) and a knee-buckling curve that makes a baseball-lover swoon (and look-out, big-swingers)! We don't have a young pitcher like that, nor are we stocked with waves of great, major league-ready players; and yet, this isn't Omar's least, not entirely. [The Dodger fans, by the way, were all excited about, and remain excited about, the young players on their roster- so much for a fan base in one of the top markets not being willing to support a team in the middle of rebuilding/contending.]

In order to look at where we are as a team right now, we first have to look at the circumstances that led to Omar and Willie's hiring, as well as their track record, to date, as a team.

When Omar Minaya took over the organization following the 2004 season, Mets' fans were punch-drunk over a.) the loss to the Yankees' in the 2000 World Series, b.) the after-math of 9/11 (as was the entire country, but none more so than those in NY), and c.) the trade that robbed the team of the player that should have been our number one starter for a lot of years to come, Scott Kazmir. In the wake of the Kazmir trade, and the boring, nee indifferent team that was fielded under manager Art Howe and GM Jim Duquette, drastic change was needed, and drastic change is what we received!

Omar was saddled by major league baseball with being the caretaker for a team, the Montreal Expos, that was without an owner, being as it was run by major league baseball itself, something that never should have been allowed to happen. Be that as it may, Omar was tasked with the hardest job of all- keeping a club in contention that had little to no funds, faced possible contraction or, at best, relocation and ownership change, and doing it without the funds to sign top notch young talent or high-priced free agents. To his credit, Omar kept the Expos in contention far longer then anyone had a right to expect, and can't be faulted for trading away the likes of Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips when he (and everyone else, for that matter) were unsure of the future of the team. Never had the saying "live in the present" been so relevant for a baseball team and their general manager.

Once the Expos were going to be sold, and a plan was enacted for their future (as the Nationals in Washington), baseball allowed the NY-bred Minaya to come home to run the Mets', and with his arrival came great expectations. Omar knew the pressure, the "win-now" culture that came with being part of any team in New York, let alone one that had under-performed for so long. He also knew that it was a different team that he was coming home to, different from the one in which he worked under former GM Steve Philips, as the minor leagues didn't have much in the way of good talent to offer the major league club in the near or long-term, and the major league team was composed of "parts" that seemed to be shoe-horned in sideways, as well as players who didn't live up to expectations alongside those who had no right being on a major league team, or, at least not one playing in Queens.

There were two paths Omar could have gone down; the first would have been to admit how badly their minor leagues were, and go about a long-term path of rebuilding that would, hopefully, offer talent to the bigs over a long period of time, after a 4-5 year program wherein fans would have to be patient while losing and rebuilding, something NY fans have been accused, unfairly, to an extent, of having little chance of being patient for, preferring the "win-now" culture to which they'd grown accustomed. The second path would have been to sign every free agent possible, to rebuild the team without the hoped-for long term major league plan, sacrificing potential draft picks to feed that "win now" attitude. To his credit, again, Omar tried to do both, and perhaps that is what has stopped him, and this team, from achieving the kind of success that all of us, with Omar at the top of the list, expected. It’s also that decision, to be all things to all people (the team, the Wilpon’s, the fans) that have led to the black hole that this season’s team seems to have fallen into. In place of the draft picks that we’d lose as the price for signing other teams’ free agents, Omar and company promised a steady stream of talent from the Dominican and other Latin American countries; to date, all we’ve seen is a trickle, with Fernando Martinez and Francisco Pena on pace to eventually (we hope) become productive major leaguers, while Carlos Gomez and Deolis Guerra were utilized in acquiring Johan Santana from the Twins. Again, certainly not a stream, but more on that later.

The 2005 team, which went 83-79, was a big step up from the prior year, in which the team went a paltry 71-91. The biggest additions, player-wise, to that '05 team were, of course, Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, while Jose Reyes and David Wright began displaying glimpses of the players they were about to become. Willie Randolph inspired quite a bit of confidence in both the team and the fanbase, a logical extension after improving by 12 games in the win column!

On the heals of a more successful 2005 season, the 2006 version of the New York Mets was built to win the World Series- plain and simple. They didn't do it, as the players and the manager under-achieved when the pressure was greatest; it's also as simple as that. That team was far and away the best team on paper in baseball, and the additions of Orlando Hernandez, Billy Wagner, Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green were aimed at winning that season. A Carlos Beltran strike-out brought a season of promise, one in which the Mets finished with a record of 97-65, to a screeching halt, as the St. Louis Cardinals, the teams' nemesis in the mid-'80's, took the pennant (and later, the World Series) while finishing 83-78, the worst record of any team that has ever won the Series! It wasn't Beltran's fault- how can it ever be the fault of one player, especially when there are 7 games with which to win 4? Yet that whiff hovers over Beltran to this day, like a case of horrible body odor, in the minds of many fans. That whiff, however, would serve as a mere appetizer to what was to come in 2007.

Again, that 2006 team was built to win the World Series and, short injuries to Duaner Sanchez and Pedro, would probably have done just that. That same success, however, loomed so large over the team during the 2007 season that anything less than a World Series victory would have seemed not only anti-climatic but unacceptable to everyone- ownership and fan-base alike. So much has been written about the 2007 season and the late season collapse that at this point, the less said, the better. However, the one thing that happened between that '05 and '07 season which was striking during last season and which has caused many to question the long and short term success of this team right now is the fact that, since 2005 and the selection of Mike Pelfrey, the team has had no first round draft picks in either the 2006 and 2007 seasons. There were no Ryan Braun's, Clayton Kershaw's, Evan Longoria's or Tim Lincecum's coming the Mets way, to step into the line-up or rotation when we needed a shot of life - we had to be content with second rounder’s like Kevin Mulvey, who, we were convinced, was a first round talent selected in the second round, while the major league roster received band-aids the likes of Brian Lawrence, Dave Williams, Chan Ho Park and Aaron Sele. One look at the team that passed us – the Philadelphia Phillies- and we knew everything we needed to know- Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell, all home-grown talent, on a team that possessed all of the fire, grit and determination that our team didn’t. Once again, the team that took the field for the Mets was shoe-horned into place, without as much attention to chemistry and balance as, in hindsight, should have happened during the team’s construction.

Where does that leave this team today, this year, a bit more than one-quarter in? Well, we are less than the sum of our parts, certainly less a team than in 2006 but, hopefully, a bit more than we were in 2005, an unacceptable place to be when your team possesses the second highest payroll in all of baseball behind the Yankees. One reason why I’ve been reluctant to criticize Omar’s short-term/long-term plans is the comparison that can be made to that mid – 90’s – early 2000’s Yankees team. Gene Michael was, along with Bob Watson and Buck Showalter, the architect of that Yankees’ team which had been pretty bad since around 1987. From 1990 through 1995, the Yankees won 67, 71, 76, 88, 70 and 79 games, while producing the core talent that would make them contenders for 12 years to come. That talent base included Derek Jeter, Andy Petite, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, who became the core of what became a team that went on to win 4 World Series and play in 2 more over a 12 year period. Having young talent arrive and mature together, in key positions, meant that the Yanks’ brain trust could fill in around them, utilizing the vast cash resources of Mr. Steinbrenner to once again create a winning culture around their storied franchise. This is the manner in which Omar, I’m sure, would have liked to construct his team if he had the time to do so. However, in attempting to both win now and win later, a price had to be paid and that price was the over-reliance on, and utilization of older veterans to fill out the roster in place of the youngsters who, it was hoped, would eventually replace them long-term.

Omar’s tenure to date is uneven at best. It’s not been the failure that so many have rushed to call it, as he took a team that had won all of 71 games and a mere 2 years later turned that into a team who won 97 games. In order to do so, as we’ve said, he had to “rob Peter to pay Paul” and the result is the current team which has gotten old quickly, has received more than its share of injuries subsequent to the first season MLB is testing for all controlled substances, and which seems to play at odds with both each other and their manager. Willie Randolph has received more than his fair share of criticism, the majority of it deserved, and lately greatly brought on by his own words in addition to the failings of his ball-club. We have a roster that is populated by a few younger players, Wright, Reyes, Church, Pagan, Heilman, Pelfrey, Smith, Maine and the newly promoted Nick Evans, and a lot of older players, including Pedro, O-Hern, Beltran, Delgado, Schneider, Alou, Castro, Castillo, Wagner, Tatis, Easley, Anderson, Wise, Schoeneweis and Casanova. At the end of this season, Oliver Perez will be a free agent; Delgado, Pedro and Alou are free agents; Wagner will have one season left and we still won’t have any major league ready talent able to step in to fill out the roster, unless either Mike Carp, Daniel Murphy or Fernando Martinez somehow step up their game and show the maturity that would lead to Omar’s believing that they were ready to produce at the major league level. This means that, once again, Omar is going to have to sign free agents and make additional trades to fill out the roster. Unfortunately for the Mets, things have changed drastically in just 4 years, as young talent is held at a greater premium then it ever has been, and there won’t be a Royals or Pirates team willing to trade top talent in order to have the Mets eat some of their bad contracts. Players like Braun and Longoria, not to mention our own Reyes and Wright, are being locked-up to long-term contracts well before what was considered to be the “norm” and therefore teams are more adverse to trading such talent since they’re signed to favorable contracts and with the vast sums of money coming to them via revenue-sharing. Furthermore, we aren’t loaded with “parts” that other teams are clamoring for, which means, once again, over-paying for players either via trade or via free agency.

Therefore, only one of two things can realistically happen; we overpay to keep Perez, and go hard after such free agents as Pat Burrell, Orlando Hudson, Jon Garland, Mark Teixeira and Ben Sheets; or we purge the team of the contracts of Castillo, Delgado, Alou, Perez, Wise, O-Hern and (dare I say it) Pedro, utilize the 3 upcoming picks in the first and sandwich rounds to grab close-to-major-league-ready talent, and spend the next 2-3 years developing not only the players already in the organization but spending what it takes to bring in more top international talent, including being aggressive when it comes to Japanese talent, too. The “X-factor” behind such decision-making is the opening of Citi Field in 2009, an event that the Wilpons expected would include a very competitive team, one they hoped would be coming off of a World Series victory to open the ballpark with. This opening probably means that we can count on another season of big free agents and trades, and another season bereft of additional, homegrown stars.

Ultimately, baseball teams and, by extension, their managers, coaching staff and front office, are going to be judged by their won-loss record, and rightly so. In the case of Omar and his tenure to date, I think he deserves more time to develop this organization, being that he’s been tasked to win from day one and in four years almost got us to the World Series. How long is “more time?” Well, at least one more season, during which we MUST see the drafting of major-league ready talent in the upcoming draft, without heeding MLB-induced “slotting”…we MUST see some clever free agent signings and trades, including those for the bench, which Omar had been know for…and we MUST see the fire and grit that a team paid as much as this one is needs to muster in order to remain competitive in this town, in their division and in the league. If this means that Omar is willing to tie his future to that of his manager and coaching staff, so be it – that’s his decision to make, much to the chagrin of most fans, but he will live and die with this decision, just as he will the decisions he makes in the off-season aimed at fixing this team. We want to win now, there’s no denying that fact; however, I’d bet that, if a poll was taken, the majority of real Mets’ fans would be okay with a year of rebuilding, even two or three, if we saw real progress, the development of great minor league talent and a plan that was leading to something. On the heals of last season, combined with the lackluster (I’m being kind) play of the first quarter of this season, fans can’t help but be angry, confused and disgusted, as the losing hang-over continues to haunt the club.

Mets fans are a peculiar lot- in spite of the beating we’ve taken lately by the local media. We are the logical recipients of baseball in the National League, being that our main predecessor was the Brooklyn Giants, whose rivalries with the Yankees were enough to challenge the biggest fan of the ‘Bums.’ The following quote comes from Joel Oppenheimer, quoted in Peter Golenbock’s great book about the Mets, “Amazin’” –

There always seemed to me an essential meanness among a lot of Yankee fans, like God owes it to them. And if they ain’t in the race, then it ain’t a race, and if they ain’t in the Series, it ain’t a Series. I think because it came so hard to the Dodgers, because they had to fight so long for it, and they came close so many times, they learned that ‘Gee, when it happens, it’s wonderful, and when it doesn’t, it’s still baseball.’

You can easily sub “Mets” for “Dodgers” and the effect would be the same. Perhaps if last season never happened, it would be easier for us to agree with “when it doesn’t, it’s still baseball.” Last year happened, but more important right now, this year isn’t happening, and something’s got to give. A new ballpark isn’t enough, and shouldn’t be enough, to guarantee a packed (and excited) fanbase– remember, as bad as some have painted Mets’ fans out to be, we still filled Shea with nearly 4 million bodies last season, and I’ve been to enough West Coast games to see the over-whelming support that our team receives on the road. We’ll continue to support our team, but it’s hard to think of the current incarnation as anything more than yet another disappointment, one on top of the other on top of the next…Omar, it’s in your hands to recreate this team, find the spark to get it ignited, and put the power to run things into the hands of the right caretaker (manager) to run with your vision. The Wilpons, amongst the very best owners in the game, deserve it…the fans, also amongst the very best and most loyal in the game (forget those boo’s) also deserve it…you deserve it, too, because of how hard you’ve worked and how much of yourself you’ve put into this team…now the players have to want it as much as we do, and they can talk about it all they want, and you and the Wilpons and Willie can have as many “meetings” as you want- but anything less than a change in the type of ball that we’ve seen to date and you, too, will have to fear for your job…I still believe in what you can do, but it’s beyond the “put up or shut up” phase- now it’s only “put up” or the end of that sentence will have already been written…the title of this post refers to the quote by former Met manager, Yogi Berra - "when you get to the fork in the road, take it." Let's hope Omar is so wise...

Finally, I wanted to take a look at some of the players Omar has traded away, some that he has traded for, and the top names remaining in our minor leagues. These names, ultimately, will be the ones that will take us forward or else they’ll be the names we curse for having been traded away…and after this season, it will be particularly interesting to see who falls into which category.

Traded For:
Anderson Hernandez, Carlos Delgado, Duaner Sanchez, John Maine, Orlando Hernandez, Oliver Perez, Ryan Church, Brian Schneider, Ryan Church, Luis Castillo, Matt Wise

Traded Away:
Vance Wilson, Mike Cameron, Mike Jacobs, Kris Benson, Jorge Julio, Kaz Matsui, Jeff Keppinger, Ruben Gotay, Xavier Nady, Tyler Yates, Heath Bell, Royce Ring, Henry Owens, Matt Lindstrom, Brian Bannister, Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, Phil Humber, Guillermo Mota,

Free Agents Signed (Current):
Scott Schoeneweis, Claudio Vargas, Billy Wagner, Pedro Martinez, Raul Casanova, Ramon Castro, Damion Easley, Marlon Anderson, Fernando Tatis, Carlos Beltran, Endy Chavez

Home-Grown Talent (Current Roster):
Pedro Feliciano, Aaron Heilman, Mike Pelfrey, Joe Smith, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Nick Evans

Top Minor League Talent
Fernando Martinez, Jon Niese, Eddie Kunz, Carlos Muniz, Brant Rustich, Mike Carp, Daniel Murphy, Francisco Pena, Scott Moviel, Nathan Vineyard, Ruben Tejada, Lucas Duda, Dylan Owen, Bobby Parnell,


Anonymous said...

Just a great, great article...Omar does deserve more time at the helm, cause we havn't exactly been the most forgiving fans in the world. He IS doing two things at once, trying to win now and in the future- I just don't think enough fans would come out, new ballpark or not, if the team was rebuilding and that's why they won't be too quick to get rid of Willie.
Keep up the great work guys! Your news sometimes scoops everyone else, but more important, your full-length articles are by far the best on the Mets out there! Thanks!!!!

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