Episode 11: August 13, 2010
Every year the Mets’ payroll is one of the highest in baseball and their results are mediocre. What’s going on? What are the problems and what do Mets fans have to look forward to?
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
For the past 14 years the New York Mets payroll has been in the top 10 among all MLB teams, and it's been in the top 5 every year since 2003. Number of championships during that time: zero. Number of World Series appearances: one. Number of division first place finishes: one. Their record over the past 14 years: 18 games over .500.
I'm Alex Reisner...
In the past 14 years the Atlanta Braves have been to the playoffs 9 times, while spending far less money than the Mets. The Athletics, as we all know from Moneyball, perennially have one of the lowest payrolls in the game and have a .530 winning percentage since 1997, compared with the Mets who are at .517. Other teams with similar or lower payrolls and better records include the Angels, Cardinals, Astros, Giants, and White Sox. Since 1997, the team with the winning percentage closest to the Mets is the Cleveland Indians and, well, you can probably guess what their payroll is.
For a while now the Mets management has been spending a lot of money to field a very average team. Because they're in New York there's always a lot of hype but most Yankee fans think of the Mets as a sort of hapless younger brother. Kind of cute, and in no way represent any kind of threat.
Anyone who thinks the Mets are a good team this year and having a little bad luck since the All-Star Break is completely wrong. The Mets finished 5.5 games under .500 last year and they're not that different this year. As I mentioned in episode #2 they still have no starting pitching, and they got incredibly lucky in the first half. What's happening now is what stock market analysts refer to as a "correction." The Mets will continue to lose until they reach a record that reflects their actual ability. I've believed all year that this is slightly below .500.
If you don't believe me, let's look at the 2009 and 2010 Mets more closely. Last year there were obviously a lot of injury problems. Delgado and Reyes missed most of the year and Beltran missed about half. But Angel Pagan did a great job of filling in for Beltran in center field. He hit over .300 and his SLG was only .013 lower than Beltran's. Beltran's numbers would have been better, but not by a huge amount. The bigger loss was Reyes, who is the more valuable player and whose replacements were terrible in comparison: Anderson Hernandez, Wilson Valdez, Alex Cora...it was pretty ugly at shortstop. But how many wins did that cost the Mets? Reyes' Wins Above Replacement was around 5.5 the previous three years so let's say the Mets would have been a .500 team if Reyes was healthy.
Carlos Delgado also missed most of the season, but Delgado at age 37 was not Delgado at age 31 or even 34. He would have hit 25 home runs and grounded into a lot of double plays. At most he would have brought the Mets 3 more wins.
You could argue that all the injuries the Mets had, to Reyes, Beltran, Delgado, David Wright, Fernando Martinez, John Maine, John Niese, J.J. Putz, Johan Santana, and at least 5 others kept the Mets from reaching their glorious potential, whatever you think that was. But Reyes *wasn't* healthy. Beltran *wasn't* healthy. Delgado *wasn't* healthy. The Mets chose these players, and they weren't healthy.
At the end of 2007, when the Twins were ready to trade Johan Santana, the Yankees looked at him and the Red Sox looked at him, and both teams decided his elbow was too much of a medical risk. The Mets took him. One and a half years later he needs season-ending elbow surgery and is now considered a strong candidate for the Tommy John procedure. The Mets can't seem to avoid injury-prone players and, as I mentioned in Episode #7, they don't deal with injuries well when they happen.
So, end of 2009: Santana was the only Mets starting pitcher to throw 100 innings and have an ERA under 5.00. And remember: this is in a pitcher's ballpark. The lineup wasn't amazing, but it wasn't bad if everyone returned from injuries as scheduled. The bullpen was also fine, so the obvious off-season move for the Mets was to pick up some starting pitching to back up Santana. The owners didn't have a ton of money to spend because of the Bernie Madoff scandal, so they did the logical thing: they signed a decent outfielder to a big contract.
The Jason Bay signing is a very typical Mets move: 2 years too late, and not what they need anyway. Bay's lack of production this year is not surprising. CitiField is huge, and Bay is a master of the "just enough" home run that barely goes over the wall in left field. It's possible Fenway Park gave Bay 6 home runs he wouldn't have had last year, and CitiField will take away at least that many this year. I'd say Jason Bay in CitiField is good for 20 HRs and a .280 batting average with a lot of walks, a lot of strikeouts, and average defense in left field. That's all assuming he recovers from his concussion. That's what the Mets got for $16m per year for the next 4 years. Of course, he's 31 now and he broke out late so expect him to start declining soon, like before that contract is up.
And the starting pitching problem which has existed for three years now, still stands. And if you look at the Mets roster today, it's basically the same as it was last year. That's why I'm pretty confident they're no better than a .500 team.
So, it's easy to sit here and criticize, but what *should* the Mets be doing?
Well, they need to stop signing guys who are just past their prime. Recognizing a player's peak isn't rocket science. If he's been playing for at least 5 years and he just had an unusually good year, assume he's *not* going to do that again. If he's over 32 years old and not a perennial All-Star, assume he'll start to decline soon. Consider where he's been playing and how his home park affects his hitting. If he's a pitcher, consider the same, plus the defense that's been playing behind him.
The Mets need to stop signing guys like Jason Bay and Francisco Rodriguez right *after* they have a good year. Get players *before* they have a good year so they're on *your* team when they do it. Make sense? Of course it's not that easy, but if you avoid guys who just had a big year you reduce your risk significantly.
The Mets also need to address their starting pitching problem. It's gone on for *way* too long already, and the fact that they play in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball makes it even less excusable. Unfortunately it's also a difficult problem to solve right now, because pitching stats are so inflated this year. A young pitcher like Gio Gonzalez or John Danks is the kind of player they should be looking for, but it's hard to tell if those guys are really worth their 2010 numbers, and their teams are probably not willing to deal them anyway--at least not for anything the Mets have. And that's a big problem: what do the Mets have?
They have a good, young infield, or at least they will if Ruben Tejada starts to hit. After that they have a lot of overpaid players over the age of 30. It's not a lot to work with, so at the very least, solving the pitching problem involves not trading away pitching prospects. Remember when Scott Kazmir was in the Mets farm system? And then the Mets traded Kazmir for Victor Zambrano? And then Kazmir had 5 straight 10 win seasons, 900 strikeouts and a 3.8 ERA for Tampa Bay? Zambrano had a 4.5 ERA and 100 walks in 200 innings before retiring. Bartolome Fortunato, the other guy the Mets got for Kazmir, threw 30 major league innings, allowed 20 runs, got injured, and retired. Kazmir is struggling this year, but he's *still* just 26 years old and he's a two-time All-Star! The pitchers the Mets got in return had a total of 230 innings left in their careers.
Right now Jenrry Mejia and Jonathon Niese are the Mets pitching prospects. Niese is probably the nicest addition to the Major League team this year, followed by Ike Davis. Mejia is the *one* pitcher in their minor league system who looks promising. The *one* pitcher. I mean, tell me if I'm missing someone, but I think that's it. That is not a good sign. Mejia is still probably a couple of years from being a starter at the major league level. Hopefully the Mets can hang onto him long enough that we can see him instead of the next Victor Zambrano.
I should also mention Pat Misch who's 28 and pitching very well in AAA. He's got 150 major league innings...he's certainly better than Oliver Perez, but I think we've seen everything he's going to do. At the big league level he's good for a 4.5 ERA--pretty much a league average starting pitcher. Good to have, but nothing to get excited about.
Speaking of Oliver Perez, the Mets need to give up him. Seriously: if there was ever a player that needed to be released, it's Perez. Whatever possessed the Mets to sign a guy with an ERA just under 5 outside of his one good year, and to pay him $12m a year after two below-average seasons... When you have a guy who not only can't pitch but refuses to go to the minors to work on it, and you find yourself glad that he can go on the DL for a couple of weeks, you have to get rid of him. It's gotten ridiculous. I'd rather have a guy with a 6.00 ERA who was willing to *work* and get better. Putting him in the bullpen and using him when the Mets are already losing big...it's just sad. They need to drop him. There shouldn't even be any discussion once a player becomes as much of a problem as Perez.
Anyway, what do Mets fans have to look forward to? During this past offseason the Mets hired a new Minor League Field Coordinator to replace the raving mad Tony Bernazard. They hired a former big league manager named Terry Collins. You've probably never heard of a Minor League Field Coordinator or Terry Collins, but in my opinion this was the smartest thing the Mets have done in the past year. Collins organizes the daily workouts in spring training, and then he travels from team to team throughout the year and keeps an eye on all the players in the farm system. He is primarily responsible for the ML call-ups which, as you've probably noticed, have been pretty good this year. Ike Davis, Jon Niese, Mejia, Tejada...they've all made sense, and they've worked out very nicely. Tejada didn't hit well, but he's just 20 years old, and he wasn't thrust into a big role where he was in over his head. Collins is committed to slowing down player development to avoid calling up guys who aren't ready. He's a guy with a lot of energy, who loves being on the field, and from what I've read I really like his approach to building players' confidence.
So Collins brings something the Mets need desperately: patience. The Mets rush into everything. They rush prospects to the Majors, they make hasty trades, they rush players back from injuries, and they always seem to think they can win this year because they're constantly acquiring players that too old to hang around any longer (Ken Takahashi: 40 yrs old, Hisanori Takahashi: 35 yrs old, Elmer Dessens: 38 yrs old, Gary Mathews, Jr: 35, Frank Catalanotto: 36).
Maybe the problem is cultural. New Yorkers have a reputation for being impatient, and as far as the fans and the media go it's true. But as the General Manager of a team you have to be above that. You have to have a plan and do the right thing for the team. Omar Minaya came in and made some good moves back when there was money to spend. He got Beltran, Delgrado, and Santana. But he doesn't seem to know how to build the rest of the team. Other GMs stare in disbelief when they see his moves. Gary Mathews, Jr? Frank Catalanotto? There is absolutely no way that those guys make any sense as part of the Mets, and everyone knows it, except the Mets. You have to build an organization from the farm system. The Mets have no foundation. There's no plan.
That's why if you're a Mets fan you have to believe in Terry Collins. I think he's the most powerful guy in the Mets organization that understands where they are and what they need to do. Hopefully Ike Davis finishes the year strong and Collins gains credibility and his influence grows. The Mets can't keep embarrassing themselves like this. If they don't have big money to spend every off-season like the Yankees, they have to be smarter. And I think right now, the brains of the organization is Terry Collins.
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