the sports section

Leitch: The Unfortunate Legacy of Pedro Martinez

In case you can’t tell Abrams is left, Sklar is right.

Remember when Pedro Martinez was to be the savior of the Mets? Now the Mets don’t even want him back. Pedro’s contract, signed in 2004, is off the books, and while he claims he wants to come back, the Mets don’t seem to have room for him in the rotation. Partly this is because he has been injured and pitched poorly last year. (Also, former Red Sox teammate Derek Lowe is a better fit.) It’s also partly because he no longer has any symbolic value. But the question now is, did he ever, really?

In 2004, the Martinez acquisition was perceived as a coup for Mets general manager Omar Minaya: Pedro had just won a World Series with the Red Sox and Minaya spent Thanksgiving in the Dominican Republic wooing him before outspending the Sox with a four-year, $53 million offer. (The Red Sox wouldn’t give him that fourth year.) It’s hard to argue that the signing was successful in pure baseball terms: Martinez was great through 2005 and the first two months of 2006, then got injured, struggled through the season, and missed the playoffs. After surgery, he openly discussed retirement and missed most of 2007 while the best Mets team in twenty years came up just short of the World Series. Pedro made five starts in the last month of the ’07 season, pitching well — but not well enough to help the Mets avoid one of the worst collapses in baseball history. For those five starts, he earned $14,002,234. Last season brought twenty mostly ineffective starts. His ERA was 5.62, by far the highest of his career. Four years wasn’t too much to give Pedro. Two, it seems, was pushing it.

But conventional wisdom still says that the trade was crucial because it “legitimized” the Mets, making the team seem more serious and attractive to free agents. Here’s a more logical theory: The reason free agents came to Shea was because the Mets offered more money than anybody else. Every big-timer the Mets scooped up — Carlos Beltran (2005), Billy Wagner and Carlos Delgado (2006), Johan Santana and Luis Castillo (2008) — were showered with cash. 2007, when they brought in no free agents, was the year they were outbid for Daisuke Matsuzaka and Barry Zito.

And about the wisdom of all these signings: Pedro’s early “success” fooled the Mets into thinking big-name players were all it took to become champions. (Or become the Yankees — whatever.) Thus: Beltran, solid; Wagner, destroyed by injuries; Delgado, initially effective and then a mess until the second half of last season; Santana, outstanding — for now, just like Pedro in his first season — and with five more years to go; and Castillo, horrific, and with three more years to go. The team spent a ton of money with no World Series to show for it. Once those contracts end, odds are that the Mets will breathe the same sighs of relief that they are now with Pedro leaving.

It’s something to remember as the Mets enter free agency. They’re eyeing Derek Lowe, saves leader Francisco Rodriguez, and even — heavens — Manny Ramirez. If the Mets sign any of these gentlemen to extended contracts, fans will cheer, and everyone will praise Minaya for recognizing that, after two awful Septembers, he needed to shake things up. People might even say the pick-ups help legitimize a flagging franchise.

Leitch: The Unfortunate Legacy of Pedro Martinez