Suffice to say Jeff Wilpon, chief operating officer of the Mets, will never be confused with George Steinbrenner. A former major-league hopeful—he briefly appeared at spring training with the Montreal Expos in 1983 before changing his career trajectory to join his father and uncle, who owned a stake in the Mets, a decision he still quietly laments—he keeps as low a profile as anyone named “Wilpon” possibly can. He has long been rumored to be responsible for various front-office moves—and the internal discord that resulted—but he typically stays in the background, more a string puller than a public hatchet man. So when he showed up in Atlanta last Monday, with the last-place Mets in the midst of a five-game losing streak, eyebrows were raised. Let’s just say it’s rarely a good sign when your COO feels obliged to say, unsolicited, “I didn’t come down here to fire anybody.”
No one was fired, for the moment, but the meeting Wilpon held in manager Jerry Manuel’s office still had that now-familiar Mets stink of chaos. Jut a few hours before game time, Wilpon gathered Manuel, general manager Omar Minaya, and assistant general manager John Ricco and shut the office door in front of reporters, who dutifully sat and stared at the wall until, after about half an hour, Manuel came out, joked, “I’ve got a uniform on,” then fetched pitching coach Dan Warthen, bull-pen coach Randy Niemann, and trainer Ray Ramirez, and, presumably, conducted his own dressing down. It was a disturbing spectacle, this impromptu State of the Mets meeting, and did little to assuage fans’ fears that this is an organization collapsing on itself.
Save for an 11-2 stretch at the end of April, this Mets season has been riddled with head-scratching moves that bespeak an organization without direction. Jose Reyes was hurried back from a thyroid ailment, then placed, inexplicably, third in the lineup. Carlos Beltran had knee surgery in January without the team’s approval; the Mets subsequently criticized his decision, and five months later, everyone’s still wondering if he’ll play at all this year. Twenty-year-old pitcher Jenrry Mejia, the team’s most prized prospect, was rushed to the majors because Manuel wanted an extra arm in the bull pen; he was set to be sent down to be a starter again after the Wilpon meeting, delaying his development by months. Minaya and Manuel are so concerned about their job security that they’re trying to contend now by mortgaging the future, with a team that seems far from able to do so. There doesn’t seem to be a master plan, and in the absence of one, Mets fans are losing hope. Attendance is down nearly 7,000 fans per game from last year; the shiny new $800 million ballpark is losing its luster. (Depressingly, it takes a Yankees series like the one this past weekend to give the place much energy at all.) The Mets appear lost.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As painful as the past three and a half years have been—essentially, every moment since Carlos Beltran watched Adam Wainwright’s Bugs Bunny curveball swoosh past him in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series—the Mets are not, in fact, doomed. The vast majority of teams in Major League Baseball would love to be in the Mets’ position, with a loyal fan base, a pretty stadium, a surprisingly fertile minor-league system, and, of course, hundreds of millions of payroll dollars. In 2006, the Mets, with their core of David Wright, Reyes, and Beltran, seemed primed to dominate the NL East for years. It has all gone wrong since then. But it’s not too late: Wright is only 27 years old, Reyes 26. Minaya and Manuel might not be the right men to steer this ship in the right direction—and nothing is going to help them catch the Phillies this year—but the Mets can still fix this. Here’s how.
Pounce on bargains and the draft.
At one point this past off-season, the Mets’ largest weakness—their pitching rotation—appeared to be easily fixable at a discount rate. In late January, starting pitchers like Joel Pineiro and Jon Garland were still looking for teams, with the Mets likely suitors. For whatever reason—the Wilpons’ reported Madoff losses, the insane belief that Oliver Perez would return to some past, nonexistent glory—the Mets passed and found their rotation immediately deficient. (New starter R. A. Dickey, a late-in-life knuckleball convert, is the answer to a question no one should ask.)
The divide between the haves and the have-nots in baseball has narrowed in recent years, but it’s still there, and the Mets are on the right side. They can afford to make relatively low-risk moves—signing spare starters for $2 million or so a season, say—that no one else in their division save the Phillies can. Whether it’s grabbing useful utility men in February (like the Cardinals did with Felipe Lopez) or paying extra to sign bonus-baby draft picks poorer teams are loath to spend on, the Mets can, and should, pony up. If you miss on one or two guys, it’s just a few million dollars. The Mets have spent far more for far less.