A ghost haunts Shea Stadium, and its name is Roger Cedeño. Although the Mets finally dumped their untalented and overpaid outfielder on the St. Louis Cardinals this off-season, he remains on the Flushing payroll, pulling down 9 million bucks for doing nothing but serving as a reminder of the club’s recent bumbling profligacy.
Cedeño’s incompetence still pervades the Mets organization, not just financially but emotionally. But the situation is fixable. Not this year, with the club caught in the transition between aging veterans (pitchers John Franco and Al Leiter) and its young future (infielders Kazuo Matsui and José Reyes). Not even next year, before the organization’s flamethrowing prospects start to contribute. But by 2006, with some deft maneuvering, the New York Mets could be playing baseball, rather than golf, in October.
One move won’t do it—the current club has a pallid offense and too many declining veteran pitchers. The Mets must follow a comprehensive plan that incorporates the club’s financial wherewithal (annual revenue estimated at $158 million), the primacy of a strong farm system (cheap parts allow extraordinary flexibility), and the demands of the New York market. Raving yahoos on WFAN—Trade Tyler Yates for Vladimir Guerrero!”have no idea how complex reworking a baseball roster in the Moneyball age can get; from luxury taxes to arbitration schedules, carping press-boxers to union grievances, this isn’t some office rotisserie-league team where you just add up the stats. Plausible moves might not get your heart pounding right now, but they are the only way to eventually defibrillate this franchise.
Recent Mets teams have been a lethal mix of misjudged talent laced with ill-founded optimism. Steve Phillips and Fred Wilpon saw the club as just one or two players away from the playoffs, but the problems went far deeper.
A new philosophy must grow from within. Recent Mets teams have been a lethal mix of misjudged talent laced with ill-founded optimism. The 2001 signing of Cedeño to bat leadoff was horrifically symbolic of how former general manager Steve Phillips put together the roster—Cedeño had speed but couldn’t walk, hit for power, or catch easy flies—and the trade for slugger Mo Vaughn showed that management paid far more attention to the bulges in his biceps than to his ever-expanding waistline. (Vaughn’s knees finally buckled and blew out, leaving the Mets and their insurance carrier on the hook for more than $30 million.) Other veteran acquisitions (left-hander Tom Glavine, outfielder Jeromy Burnitz) demonstrated that Phillips and owner Fred Wilpon saw the club as just one or two players away from the playoffs, but the problems went far deeper. Phillips was fired last June and replaced with Jim Duquette, who must continue to snap the club out of its sentimentality toward players such as Mike Piazza, Leiter, and Brooklynite Franco, and realize that a winning future can’t include them. Tough choices? Yes. But tough choices become easier when they’re smart.
The Mets need not become spellbound by statistics, the East Coast counterpart to Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, to rebound. For all the hysteria that Michael Lewis’s bestselling Moneyball has caused over the past year, most clubs—including Duquette’s Mets, by the way—use advanced statistics to analyze players; Beane & Co. simply do it well enough to overcome a small payroll, outlasting big but bloated clubs like the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles. But Moneyball methods don’t necessarily apply in New York.
In a market that can easily support a $100 million payroll, the model for the Mets should be far less the A’s than the crosstown Yankees. This doesn’t mean throwing money around willy-nilly: The late-nineties Bronx dynasty was built by developing stars (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte) through the farm system and surrounding that nucleus with good role players such as Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius.
Any club, rich or poor, must develop young talent; it’s the wealthy ones that can then use their advantage to acquire the best supplementary players to put them over the top. In that regard, the Mets are in the ideal position to rejoin the Braves, Giants, and Dodgers among the National League elite—if they start making the right moves now.
Want to know how a major-league team truthfully travels the road to resurrection? No one outside the Mets can know the club’s exact plans, but a highly educated guess—or at least what the team ought to be doing—looks like this.
2004 Season: Assessment
Taking a realistic look at the future of any baseball team means three things: assessing the talent under contract and the cost of retaining it, forecasting the quality of the players who will arrive from the minor leagues, and tailoring moves in recognition of those realities. Upon this examination, the Mets emerge with a brighter outlook than one might expect. While recent Mets teams were weighed down by albatross contracts to the likes of Roberto Alomar, Armando Benítez, and the infamous Cedeño, the payroll now finds few expensive commitments past the 2005 season. (Slugger Mike Piazza and left-hander Al Leiter, fan favorites or not, will be in their late thirties when their contracts expire after that season and cannot be mistaken for key parts of the future.) The hitters to whom the Mets are contractually committed past ’05 are left fielder Cliff Floyd (a slugger who also gets on base, though he’s injury-prone), center fielder Mike Cameron (a defensive whiz with some power), and shortstop Kaz Matsui (a well-rounded talent with speed). Given the promise of sophomore second baseman José Reyes and top third-base prospect David Wright, it’s easy to see five reasonably productive position players costing the Mets only about $23.5 million in 2006. Given that the payroll will be at least $100 million, the club has plenty of wiggle room.
By the way, this doesn’t include the silly $2.4 million a year already committed to manager Art Howe through 2006. Howe has the effervescence of oatmeal, but as long as he doesn’t decide to overwork our pitchers (and that hasn’t been a habit of his), he should be pretty inconsequential. Unless you have a fantastic game manager—and Bobby Valentine was one of those, but Phillips fired him two years ago, deflecting blame from where it truly belonged—baseball teams’ records are determined far more by their talent than by how that talent is deployed. The modern manager has become in many ways a glorified babysitter, keeping his Romper Room of a roster focused and cohesive for 162 games. The A’s know this, and deftly allowed Howe to be wooed away by Phillips two years ago so he could be replaced by a much cheaper manager. Given that Howe is already under contract, he is harmless, and will do just fine.