Re-engineering the Mets

Carlos Delgado, the Slugger: Someone has to replace Piazza, in the lineup and as a big New York character; that'll keep the tabloids quiet, so the team won't be tempted to make fan-friendly stopgap choices. Plus, he comes with a .556 lifetime slugging percentage. Not great with the glove, but his hitting will compensate for anything that skips by him in the field. Photo: Andy Friedman

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.

Scott Kazmir, the Pitcher: A fire-balling left-hander who's just 20 years old but considered one of the best pitching prospects in the entire minors.Photo: Andy Friedman

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.

José Reyes, the Leadoff: Young, homegrown talent costs less, so the team has cash in reserve for when it's really necessary. Promoted to Shea last summer at 20, Reyes exploded with a .307 average and 13 steals in 69 games. A classic top-of-the-lineup speedster—as long as that hamstring pull doesn't turn out to be serious.Photo: Andy Friedman

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.

Mike Cameron, the Center Fielder: A defensive whiz with some power.Photo: Andy Friedman

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.)

Preston Wilson, the Prodigal Met: Once the homegrown pieces are in place, it's time to throw some money at the right-field spot. This former Met prospect—Mookie Wilson's stepson—is now 29, and can hit 30 homers anywhere he plays. Wilson tore cartilage in his knee in April, but it's not the kind of injury that ends careers—he should be fine for 2005 and beyond.Photo: Andy Friedman

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.”

Cliff Floyd, the Left Fielder: A slugger who get's on base, though he's injury-prone.Photo: Andy Friedman

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.

Kazuo Matsui, Great Import: His signing this winter was an early indicator of a smart renewal plan. A .309-hitting shortstop over nine years in Japan, the switch-hitting 28-year-old blasted a home run in his first U.S. at-bat, but he's more of a slap hitter who keeps pressure on the opposing defense. Bonus: He's a top-notch fielder and can steal twenty bases a year.Photo: Andy Friedman

To add rotation depth, as insurance against Trachsel’s or Glavine’s being too old and Kazmir’s being too young, let’s try to trade for one more good starter who has become unaffordable for another club. Lefty C. C. Sabathia of the Indians and Ben Sheets of the Brewers are good candidates. Others may appear between now and then; Duquette has to be incredibly vigilant, watching the league like a stock-market ticker, waiting for little dips in value that constitute buying opportunities. Offer three prospects—top outfielder Lastings Milledge, a young arm not considered integral, and a mid-range guy—and one of those teams could bite. That would give us a well-rounded rotation for 2006: Burnett or Penny, Sabathia or Sheets, and then three from the mix of old (Glavine and Trachsel) and young (Kazmir, Peterson, and Keppel).

The payroll at this point? About $88 million, leaving a good $12 million, which is plenty to build the bullpen. Some would argue that more attention needs to be paid to the relief staff, specifically the closer. “Look at the Yankees with Mariano Rivera and the Dodgers with Eric Gagne,” a veteran scout told me. “They have that hammer out of the pen to depend on.” But if you don’t already have one of those elite firemen, there’s no need to overpay for one; a perfectly adequate one can be groomed. Either Farnsworth or Yates will be our man. The other becomes a setup man, joining two veteran free agents, each of whom will cost about $2.5 million apiece. Bingo.

So we’re in good shape: decent offense, deep rotation, solid relief, a veteran core invigorated with youth. We’re just waiting for Opening Day.

2006 Season: In Perfect Position

For all our efforts to build a traditional team—defense and speed up the middle, sluggers on the corners, balanced pitching staff—something will go wrong. Cameron will break his wrist catching a ball against the fence. Sabathia or Sheets or even Kazmir will tear his rotator cuff. The fragile Cliff Floyd will come apart yet again. The Phillies or Braves, probably the Mets’ main competition in the National League East, will get off to a 24-5 start. But we’re ready to handle any misfortune.

Because we haven’t busted our $100 million budget, we can do what has become an annual baseball ritual: pick at the carcasses of the clubs that fall out of the race, and trade for their prospective free agents. The Cubs did that to us in 2005 with Leiter. Now it’ll be our turn.

Whatever position we need to fill, options will abound. For first base, it might be Montreal’s Nick Johnson or Tampa Bay’s Aubrey Huff. Left fielders could include Minnesota’s Shannon Stewart or San Diego’s Ryan Klesko. As for starting pitchers, it’s conceivable that Andy Pettitte could return from Houston, or that A’s ace Barry Zito might find his way to Flushing. (Zito is pals with pitching coach Rick Peterson and might even sign long-term.) But the point is that we can get whatever we need: Recent history says that renting a top player for half a season can cost only two or three mid-range prospects, and our system is deep enough to handle that.

It’ll be quite a summer at Shea. Delgado will slam homers to right field like no Met since Darryl Strawberry. Reyes and Matsui will scoot around the bases and form an electric double-play combo. Every game will feature a good starting pitcher, with Kazmir the most exciting. Our club is strong enough to win 93 or 94 games, which should get us into the playoffs, at least as the wild card.

Let’s not forget that the last two World Series champions, the Marlins and Angels, were wild cards, too. There’s barely any disadvantage to entering the playoffs that way. Surviving baseball’s three-tiered postseason comes down in large part to two things: pitching depth and pure chance. We will have the first. As for the second, there is no way of knowing if our club will get the clutch hitting (also known as timely hitting, or, among more statistically sophisticated folks, utter hogwash) necessary to outlast our opponents. Baseball’s recklessly short best-of-five divisional series, let alone the best-of-seven affairs that follow, virtually guarantees that each of the eight playoff clubs has an equal chance of emerging as champion.

One of them will be our Mets. Tyler Yates could very easily be the new Jesse Orosco, heaving his glove into the air after getting the last out of the World Series. But either way, our playoff run will leave DELGADO 15 and KAZMIR 21 jerseys sprouting up all over New York. Shea Stadium will be rocking again. And the ghost of Roger Cedeño will have been exorcised forever.

Re-engineering the Mets