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.
Stop with the quick, empty “fixes.”
Jeff Francoeur is the type of player who should come with a warning label: Objects on the Field Are Lousier Than They Appear. Yes, Francoeur has a cannon arm and prodigious power, is media-friendly and occasionally great. The problem is that he is, in the words of Baseball Prospectus, an “out machine”—an undisciplined hitter who never draws walks and swings at everything.
The Mets have a lot of guys like this: Francoeur, Gary Matthews Jr., Alex Cora, Fernando Tatis, John Maine—below-average players allowed to suck up valuable roster space because they’re good in the clubhouse, have recognizable names, and can talk into a microphone. The Mets could help themselves tremendously this year just by swapping them for basic league-average players, as Eric Simon, of the great Mets blog Amazin’ Avenue, has written. (His blog, like most Mets blogs these days, is a poetic, hilarious daily ode to misery.) The Mets, because they’re a major-market team, will always be top-heavy with stars like Wright, Reyes, and Johan Santana. The trick is raising the level of the middle.
Recognize a sunk cost.
In 2011, the Mets will pay Carlos Beltran $20 million, Oliver Perez $12 million, and Luis Castillo $6.25 million. These are atrocious rates for players who are past their prime, untalented, or both. The Mets keep waiting around for them to earn their money rather than accepting that they never will. If Perez were not making $12 million this season and next, there is no way he would be allowed near a major-league rotation. Because he is, though, the Mets are doubling their pain: Perez has cost them in the pocketbook and on the field. When they finally pulled him out of the rotation recently, it felt like a mercy killing.
There’s no reason to stop there. The Mets have a glut of middle infielders in the minor leagues; it’s difficult to imagine any of them not being an improvement on Castillo. As for Beltran, the Mets keep acting as if he were mere days away from returning, rather than accepting that he’s unlikely to ever again be the player he once was. They hold his spot as if he were the final ingredient, like they’re one player away. He isn’t, and they’re not. It’s time to act accordingly.
Give the rookies a chance, but the right rookies.
If Mejia ends up never reaching his potential, he has a solid case for management malpractice. The two-month hiatus in the bull pen stunted his development for almost zero benefit for this year’s team. That doesn’t mean the Mets shouldn’t start promoting from Buffalo liberally. The call-up of Ike Davis earlier this year showed what a well-timed jolt of energy can do for a team, and now the Mets can evaluate Davis daily against big-league pitching. Minaya’s odd insistence on signing every free-agent catcher he came across to a one-year deal has kept the promising prospect Josh Thole in the minors; the Mets need to see if he is a big-league catcher or not, fast. (Find a trading partner for power-hitting out machine Rod Barajas. One will be out there.) When top hitting prospect Fernando Martinez returns from the disabled list, bring him up, too. Dillon Gee, Tobi Stoner … who wouldn’t rather see them in the rotation than Maine?
All of these moves are basic ones that almost any management team in baseball might have made. They are not ones the current Minaya-Manuel tandem have shown any tendency to even consider. (The Mejia decision was made only because Wilpon threw some chairs around in Atlanta.) What these moves require is a fresh perspective, an efficiency expert to come in, see what the Mets have and don’t have, and trim the fat. It is never particularly graceful to ask for someone’s firing: That’s more for Paul in Staten Island on the overnight show. But someone has to make these moves. Does anybody trust Omar Minaya to make them? The Mets aren’t as far away as you might think. But it might be time to take the keys away from the guy who put them in this mess in the first place. Then Jeff Wilpon can go back into hiding, dreaming his old major-league dreams, again, in private.