The key to our revival is found on the mound, but not with the pitchers you recognize now. Previous Mets pennant winners were tent-staked by young, homegrown pitching (Seaver-Koosman-Matlack, Gooden-Fernandez-Darling), and our team will be similar. Shea Stadium’s deep fences form a perfect incubator for rookie pitchers, a soothing training ground in which they won’t get battered while they learn. We will use it to train a deep group of mound prospects now just one to two years from New York.
Current thirtysomethings such as Leiter, Glavine, and Steve Trachsel might slog through this year and next, but probably won’t be forces in 2006, when those young pitchers begin to blossom. Only one of those prospects is all but a sure thing: fireballing left-hander Scott Kazmir, a Ron Guidry type who’s just 20 years old but considered one of the best pitching prospects in the entire minors. It’s impossible to know which of the others—Jae Seo, Tyler Yates, Aaron Heilman, Matt Peterson, Bob Keppel, Jeremy Griffiths, and more—will emerge as significant contributors. But to find two legitimate starters, you must begin with five or six prospects and give them a chance to show whether they belong. That means a 2004 season, and even 2005, of letting those kids fail. “That’s great in theory, but I’m not sure if they can do that in New York with the expectations there,” one veteran scout told me. But it’s that kind of shortsighted thinking that got the Mets in this mess in the first place. Marketed properly, this plan gives the club legitimate, long-term traction.
We must be conservative here: In 2006, expect Kazmir and only one of the other pitchers to be good enough for the rotation. But those young parts will give the Mets tons of flexibility to address their needs, because it nails down a substantial portion of the team without soaking up payroll. With that in mind, let’s start spending some money.
2004–2005 Off-Season: Buy a Bopper
A lineup must do two things: put runners on base and bring them home. The Mets have done neither lately, posting on-base (.314) and slugging (.374) percentages that ranked next-to-worst in the National League last year. The deep fences of Shea Stadium always make Mets hitters look bad, but the ’03 lineup managed that all on its own.
A healthy Mike Piazza could make the next year or two endurable, but we must swallow hard and build our 2006 lineup without him. Reyes and Matsui have the speed and on-base potential to form a credible duo at the top of the order. Floyd and Cameron will settle in the fifth and sixth slots. We don’t want current catcher and first baseman Jason Phillips—our backstop of the future—or the young Wright to wind up batting anywhere other than seventh and eighth. So we’ve got the prestigious No. 3 and No. 4 holes to fill.
Shea Stadium’s deep fences form a perfect incubator for rookie pitchers, a soothing training ground in which they won’t get battered while they learn. We will use it to train a deep group of prospects now just one to two years from New York.
There are two choices here: Sign a right fielder or a first baseman. Unfortunately, those are among the most expensive slots to fill, along with starting pitching; fortunately, we’re a big-market team with some money to spend, and this is where it’s appropriate to do so.
If it’s a first baseman we’re going to sign, that almost certainly means trading Piazza. As unpopular as that might sound, it’s the smart and healthy decision, and the first in the new way of conducting business that the Mets must embrace. It’s easy to think of the Mike Piazza of 2006 as the Piazza we had in 2000, but he won’t be. He’ll have aged, while the talent on opposing teams will be newer and stronger. Standing still is not a possibility, because the aging process doesn’t cooperate—staying put means giving ground to other teams that aren’t. The hardest thing for a baseball club is to deal with its present and its future simultaneously, and in this case, it’s time to look forward. (Besides, Piazza’s trade value will only diminish; we may as well get something for him while we still can.)
If the Seattle Mariners can remain contenders despite losing Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, and Alex Rodriguez, the Mets can suck it up without ol’ Mike. “It’s the way baseball is today,” former Mariners general manager Pat Gillick says. “You have to have a plan to stay competitive.” History proves that as much as fans complain about modern baseball’s roster hopscotch, they’ll show up if you win.
We will. Besides, we’re going to replace Piazza with someone exciting, which will dilute the inevitable criticism. Two first basemen—Toronto’s Carlos Delgado (.302 batting average, 42 home runs, 145 RBIs last year) and Arizona’s Richie Sexson (.272–45–124)—will probably be free agents this winter, and either is a perfect cleanup hitter. Delgado is better and has star power, while Sexson is a little younger (31 versus 32) and will be cheaper. Given the public backlash that surely will meet our attempts to trade Piazza, let’s make the electric-smiled Delgado a priority and prove to the fans that only the best will do. He might cost $75 million for five years, but he will be worth it.
As for the Piazza trade, he has to go before we start talking (in public, anyway) about Delgado. We can’t advertise that Mike’s on the block, or we’ll lose the trade leverage we have and inflame the tabloids and the fans even further. Moreover, don’t expect too much in the trade. Piazza’s guaranteed $15 million for 2005, and only a rich contender that needs a first baseman or designated hitter will offer to pick up a significant part of that contract. Just get a few mid-range pitching prospects from Anaheim or Seattle, and move on. If you want a major-league-ready reliever or a young right fielder, pair Piazza with the young arm you think won’t be around for the renaissance anyway. (Our pick for that is Aaron Heilman, who probably doesn’t have the fastball to be a frontline starter.)