Through all this, the Mets shouldn’t jump too fast and offer long-term deals to the veteran pitchers on the 2004–05 free-agent market, stars such as St. Louis’s Matt Morris (a bubbly upstate native) or Philadelphia’s Kevin Millwood. First, the payroll probably won’t allow it. More important, though, several of the Mets’ rookie pitchers—specifically Peterson and Keppel, with Kazmir still a little too young—will need 20 to 25 starts apiece in 2005 to prove whether they have what it takes for 2006. Patience pays.
If we need to sign an arm, if only for PR reasons, take a flier on Pittsburgh’s Kris Benson, a former top prospect who has had horrible arm problems but might have something left. Even though he’s high-risk, he’ll be worth a shot—exactly the kind of die-roll that a rich team can make, since the more cash-strapped outfits have to make every dime count. New Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson specializes in keeping pitchers healthy, so Benson could pay off nicely with twelve or thirteen wins.
2005 Season: Make More Room
The priority for 2005 is to fold in young players while not advertising to impatient New York fans that we’re rebuilding. Piazza will be gone, but Delgado will replace his juice. A few deft trades could net some more.
That means breaking up the starting rotation. Our 2005 staff looks like Leiter, Glavine, Trachsel, and two of the young pitchers, probably Yates and Peterson. The veterans are perfect candidates for trades: They aren’t part of our long-term plans, and could be attractive to contenders making a pennant push. So whether it’s late in spring training or just before the July 31 trading deadline, let’s work on dealing one or two of those pitchers.
What makes the opportunity even more interesting is that Ty Wigginton, the Mets’ current third baseman, will be superfluous with the development of top hot-corner prospect David Wright. Wigginton is average at best, but his low salary (about $450,000) makes him attractive. “I like to make trades with what I call ‘legs,’ ” says A’s general manager Billy Beane, one of our prospective suitors. “If I acquire a veteran, I make sure to get a young guy, too, who I can keep for a while.”
Leiter—an expensive lefty with whom a contender would want to shore up its staff—is our man to move. He has a no-trade clause but might accept a deal to a playoff-bound team. (There’s always a wealthy team that needs a veteran starter for the final push, and it’s not always the Yankees.) The Red Sox are a possibility. The Twins have some young, big-bat right fielders (Michael Cuddyer and Mike Restovich) they might not have room for. Our pick, though, is to deal with the Cubs, and get in return two hard-throwing relievers: righty strikeout artist Kyle Farnsworth and a top prospect to add to the future mix. Farnsworth will be a free agent after the season, but must be persuaded to stay as a focal point of the 2006 bullpen.
This move accomplishes what must remain the Mets’ pitching priority: getting starts for the young arms. This is vital on any team that’s rebuilding, and too many teams say they will do so, then lose patience partway through the process or overworking the kids before they’re ready. They need to be broken in slowly, over time. The payoff could be five years or more of good starts, plus flattering press coverage that praises “loyalty to one’s own players.”
Leiter’s exit would allow either Peterson or Keppel to get two to four months’ experience in preparation for being a rotation candidate in our 2006 pennant push. This is what the Marlins did from 2001 to 2003, investing time in pitchers Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, and Dontrelle Willis to the point where they led the club to last year’s World Series championship. Our 2005 Mets team will finish just under .500, maybe 78-84, looking like a disappointment. But again, steadiness in the face of criticism is going to be necessary. The team will have matured to the point where two more moves can make it an instant contender. While the Yankees will enter the off-season bloated with aging, rickety stars like Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi, the young and lithe Mets will be in perfect strike mode.
2005–2006 Off-Season: Bring In Name Talent
Our needs at this point are pretty straightforward: a right fielder to join Delgado in the heart of the lineup to drive home Reyes and Matsui while getting on base for Floyd and Cameron, as well as a top starting pitcher to take pressure off the young arms. Delgado aside, we haven’t gone on a Steinbrenner-style spending spree yet, so here’s another spot where having some money to throw around is particularly important—we’re able to get over the top in a way that poorer teams can’t.
For that right fielder, the free-agent market presents two top choices, either the Rockies’ Preston Wilson or the Dodgers’ Shawn Green. Because Wilson—a former Mets prospect and the stepson of former Flushing star Mookie Wilson—will be younger than Green (31 versus 33) and bats right-handed (the opposite of Delgado), we’ll entice him back with a contract worth $40 million over four years. Backups behind the Floyd-Cameron-Wilson outfield will be a youngster, current prospect Victor Diaz, and a veteran signed for $1 million, Detroit’s Bobby Higginson. (If Floyd continues to be more brittle than matzo and Diaz doesn’t develop, Duquette should figure out a way to siphon away strong on-base man Brad Wilkerson from the Expos.)
Next comes the starting staff. By 2006, Trachsel and Glavine won’t be anything better than No. 3 and 4 starters. Kazmir and one of the other youngsters (probably Peterson or Keppel) can be Nos. 2 and 5. So we need a No. 1 from the free-agent ranks. Unfortunately, Oakland ace Tim Hudson, a self-described “Alabama redneck,” isn’t likely to come to Gotham. So we will probably need to overpay for one of the current Marlins, A. J. Burnett or Penny, signing one of them for three years and $23 million. We’ll do that. But we’re not finished.