Rebuilding the Mets, A Historical Perspective

An article by posted on February 8, 2013

frank cashen davey johnsonIn 1980, Baseball in New York featured a Yankee team that was a legitimate contender. Having won it all in 1978, they looked pretty solid. The overbearing and uncompromising Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was determined to establish his Yankees as perennial contenders by sheer force of will. The Mets on the other hand were awful and ended up losing 95 games. It’s almost hard to believe some of the guys the Mets ran out in 1980.  They ranked dead last in the NL with 61 home runs, their slugging percentage was .345 with a team OPS of .644. There were some bright spots –  a kid named Wally Backman hit .323 in 93 at bats for instance – but the positives were few and far between.

1980 was important, however, because it marked the Mets’ purchase by an ownership group that had the wherewithal to hire Frank Cashen as General Manager. Cashen, a former baseball writer turned lawyer, was highly regarded in baseball circles following a successful stint with the Orioles. Early on there were few trades, but in June of 1983 the Mets pulled off a trade for Keith Hernandez, and in 1984, with Strawberry hitting 26 home runs and a pitching staff anchored by Gooden and Darling they won 90 games. The Yankees that year won 87 games and finished 3rd. The following year, even with Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield the Yankees still couldn’t win their division while the drama of actual contention rose to a fevered pitch in Flushing as the Mets eventually hit pay dirt in 1986. 1988 and 1989 must to have been tough years for Steinbrenner, watching what was looking like a Met dynasty make the post season again while his team ended up 5th in 1988, dropping under .500 in 1989.

In an 8 year span from 1982 to 1990 the Yankees went though seven general managers. Then, from 1990 to 1993 Steinbrenner was banned from Baseball because he paid a guy to dig up dirt on one of his own players. Gene Michael, a long time Yankee insider who’d watched the Mets take over New York by building from their farm, was promoted to GM. In that 3 year span Michael was free to employ a very similar operational model to Cashen’s. He drafted or signed Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada, but more importantly, he held onto them. It should be noted that one difference in Michael’s draft strategy was an insistence on “character” guys.

I wonder what some of those conversations in the late 80’s among the Yankee brass were like, watching the Mets defeat the Red Sox in a fantastically entertaining 1986 World Series. I imagine Steinbrenner had his share of fits, something you might see in a Seinfeld episode. New York is after all a tough town. When something works here people notice, and when it comes to Met and Yankee success, NY is a tale of two paradigms. The Yankees learned the lessons of late 80’s and I often begrudgingly feel they were able to develop the dynasty the Mets should have had. To the Yankees, Cashen’s operational model was “the next big thing.” Michael saw the window to copy the wildly successful Met blueprint with Steinbrenner banished and he took it. The Mets of the early 90’s on the other hand resorted to ineffectual free agent acquisitions and past their prime stars as the team devolved from what was a ferociously young (albeit less than upstanding) home grown core to a detached and lethargic band of card playing hired guns.

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Our next wave of talent, over-hyped as a formidable group of power arms dubbed “Generation-K,” flopped spectacularly. The Yankees on the other hand continued to systematically augment their core, purchasing complements year after year as they built their franchise into a money making behemoth. Once they had the cash advantage they took steps to sustain it. They established Yes network in 2002, further entrenching a support apparatus unprecedented in professional sports. But you have to have the advantage in the first place in order to consolidate it, and the Mets blew their one big shot on drugs and partying.

So now we end up with Sandy Alderson, the latest in our long line of GM’s, and we listen as talking heads on sports radio compare what he’s doing here to what went on in places like Oakland and San Diego. Sandy himself would tell you, however, that if he were given the equivalent of a 90 million dollar payroll all those years ago in Oakland he’d have been thrilled to the gills. Does he know how big markets operate now that he’s running one? How NY operates?

The problem with the Mets over the last few seasons is that all the bad contracts came due at a time when ownership’s finances crashed and burned to the tune of 500 million in losses. Perhaps Omar Minaya expected the Wilpons would be in a position to bump up payroll when those contracts soured. It’s conceivable that Omar saw us becoming some kind of perennial contender perpetually awash in cash following the 2006 season — we went so far as to create our own sports network. But it didn’t work, and in truth it probably wouldn’t have even if the Wilpons’ finances hadn’t collapsed.

The DH, coupled with Yankee Stadium’s hitter friendly dimensions make building an offense heavy bash-you-to-death veteran team fairly uncomplicated, but the Mets have never played in a league where you can wait for the 3-run bomb, nor do we have the stadium to support it. Met success has always been rooted in young quality pitching, which is a much harder commodity to secure. We lost in 2006 to a team that had a firmer grasp of NL play, but they also out-pitched us. There is a good deal more subtlety in building a contender in flushing — speed and defense are paramount, intangibles can cost you games, and your bench is more than just a couple of past-their-prime sluggers. Success in 2006 also didn’t last because the team wasn’t crafted in the true mold of NY Mets baseball — a model epitomized by the 1969 Mets.

The Yankees, in the meantime, continue to be a perennial playoff team, but like the 10 year string of Atlanta teams that did so well to make it to the playoffs but didn’t do so well once there, the Yankees have been getting bounced regularly in recent years. The Braves were faulted for not making the expensive “A-list” move that might have put them over the top, conversely the Yankees are not faring well because no matter how many top free agents they sign, their core is slipping. Sure you can sign an elite pitcher here and a top first baseman there, but can you sign a top shortstop, third baseman, center fielder, a closer, a starter, and a catcher all in the same season? That’s a tall order and it’s pretty much what the Yankees will need over the next couple of years, again highlighting the importance of a viable farm system — especially one that can produce position players and not just pitching prospects. Much like “Generation-K,” the Yankee pitching wave that followed their excellent initial core, dubbed “the killer B’s,” seems to be very much in the midst of flaming out as well.

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The Yankees did well to copy Cashen’s model, but when we tried to buy our way into contention we failed because we never recreated a viable core. We had a kind of “mini-core” with Wright and Reyes, which Minaya heavily augmented with free agents, but again it didn’t last — in fact it disintegrated with phenomenal rapidity because the core was limited while our free agents were old and fragile. That 2006 team also neglected Met roots.

Neglecting the team’s roots seems to be a recurring problem with Met front offices since the early 90’s, a tragic flaw if you will. Tradition is important because as in any organization it hearkens to past success. Sometimes that success is rooted in location, climate, atmosphere, and culture, and those things don’t change as much as we may think they do. Now we are hearing this DePodesta term, “critical mass” a lot. It’s as good a descriptor as any to illustrate the premise that you have to have both quality and numbers hitting the scene on the major league stage at the same time, and it speaks to an abundance of a particular commodity reaching a kind of tipping point where you can be more or less certain it will yield results. That commodity seems to be right-handed power pitchers with durable profiles, and for once the push seems to be true to Met roots. Will it work? Well, there are the lessons of generation-k and the killer “B’s” warning against putting all your eggs in the pitching basket, and if you do, you’d better be sure you have an awful lot of eggs … we’ll soon know.

Either way you can bet Brian Cashman is keeping an eye on the goings on in Flushing ready to pillage what he can from what success may come our way. There’s nothing new about that, in fact I’d wager this went on when the Giants and Dodgers were in town as well. The Mets and Yankees have gone after each others’ talent shamelessly, so it isn’t surprising that they’d go after each others’ ideas. My only hope is that the Mets are the ones to take the next step in creating a new winning paradigm in NY, because it doesn’t look like the Yankees will be trying anything new as long as they keep making it to the playoffs.

About the Author ()

I’ve been a Met fan since August 1969 when a fire resulted in the Red Cross placing my family on the 6th floor of a building in Willets Point. I could see Shea from our balcony and I knew something big was going on. I followed them through the dark years and the resurgence of the 80’s only (sadly) to miss the fall of 86 because I was in Boot Camp. I've been serving penance ever since in Minnesota where I'm an SLP. I've written a lot about the Mets in an effort to share with my kids (and anyone else who might listen), a sporting tradition that made much of my childhood worthwhile. Follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewBalasis

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