Crash and Burn

So now that the Mets have parted ways with both Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, there are a variety of opinions on how this soap opera has panned out.  Should they have stayed on because they were owed a king’s ransom, the Mets would essentially be paying them either way, right?  Or does this truly show that the new world order on the Mets front office team has an agenda, one that says, if you don’t perform, take a hike?

If the latter thought tags me as an optimist, then consider my glass half-full (but bartender, please keep the refills comin’).  Yet, the dialogue has continued into the organization’s past, present and future.  Present times it’s easy: the Mets are going on hungrier talent from within, plus a few reclamation projects with some upside and an intact core of talent that’s getting older (but on good days we can see why they were once the Children of our Future).  The future we see in fuzzier terms.  The new brass has a plan and while able to listen to the rumblings of fans in the current construct, they are willing to take a more patient approach in internal growing.  As for the past, well, it’s evident in seeing David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, among others.  But we know after this season, one of those three will still certainly be a Met…

This brings me to a cycle of abuse that the Mets have had historically, not just in the free-spending Omar Minaya administration, but even dating back to the M. Donald Grant days.  Couple that with since basically the Joe McIlvaine days (which in baseball parlance, lasted about 15 minutes), there hasn’t been a steady draft or even a drafting plan.  It’s a double-edged sword, building one’s team.  If one chooses to do the free agent route, one has to part with many first round draft picks and harbor questions about future performance.  If you go the prospect route, some of them might not pan out, but can be used as bargaining chips to solidify teams that are one or two pieces away from it all.

If you’ve read the Maple Street Press Mets Annual 2011, two pieces addressed these very issues.  Jon Springer, of Mets by the Numbers fame, wrote a piece on the Mets history of free agency dealings titled “I’ll Buy That For A Dollar,” while Toby Hyde of Mets Minor League blog wrote a piece on the last draft that Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta and JP Ricciardi are working around called “Back Draft: Same Old Song in the Last Minaya Draft.”  By the way, if you haven’t read the MSP Mets Annual, well…why haven’t you?

Springer lays the foundation for the Mets history of free agency, starting mostly in the M. Donald Grant era, which famously lost two superstars in Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman to begin with, then set off a chain of events that kept the Mets from not only being uncompetitive, but being basically rock bottom in anything.  The idea, Grant suggested, is that “we’re sportsmen — we’re not in it for the money,” until, Springer relates, money got involved.  Grant went on to say that by not going after high-profile free agents that he was keeping costs low and visiting the ballpark as a cost that was within reach.  This in and of itself was a double-edged sword.  If he wasn’t putting money into the team, why should the fans?  We see some of that now, except prices are high for free-spending at CitiField these days, but with absolutely nothing to show for it except for some guys who are still being paid to potentially play for other teams.

However, it wasn’t for lack of trying.  In a twist of fate, they showed interest in Gary Matthews, Sr. (you may remember his son, who had a bloated free agent contract himself with the Angels), but was about $750K less than what he eventually signed for.  You see, we did show interest, we felt we gave him a fair offer but it was trumped.  However, how much of it was a low-balling-let’s-hope-he-really-doesn’t-take-it offer?

Even Frank Cashen’s days weren’t without free agent drama.  For a General Manager who was revered as a visionary in his time, and is even a charter member of the Mets Hall of Fame, his luck with free agents wasn’t all that great.  Take for instance losing out on the Dave Winfield sweepstakes, who went to cross-town rivals the Yankees, and settling for George Foster instead.  This appears to be a common thread in Mets lore.  Even though Minaya didn’t show interest or visibly anyway, settling for Jason Bay who was the “second best guy” in the free agent pool in the going-into-2010-season, after Matt Holliday.  It’s tough to judge who might have been the better signing, but that’s neither here nor there.  The point is, the Mets have had to settle for “sloppy seconds” in the free agency pools.  How much of it was perception of playing with the Mets (did anyone truly prefer playing in Queens as opposed to the Bronx or anywhere else for that matter?) or was it that they truly felt they were giving what they thought was fair market value and allowed FAs to walk out?

Springer even relates how the Mets lost out on Darryl Strawberry going into 1991 as a free agent.  After negotiations went south with a contract extension, Cashen panicked and had to instead give extra money to Vince Coleman.  A few firecrackers later, we know how that one turned out.  Here’s the thing though: if Cashen maybe was a little more serious about keeping Strawberry, perhaps not lowball him (even though Straw made it clear he’d wanted to play for his hometown team, the Dodgers).  Overall, this attitude seems to be one that pervades even more recent teams.  Let’s overpay the guy we didn’t really want just to say we got him.

Like I said, a cycle of crash and burn that ended with the release of Castillo and Perez.

Springer did a good job of intermingling the drafts in between those times.  Cashen was gifted in that he was able to trade off some valuable pieces he inherited for value (take for instance his deal that sent fan favorite Lee Mazzilli to the Texas Rangers for Walt Terrell – who in turn ended up into Howard Johnson — and Ronnie Darling, whom we still hear today).  Creativity is something that had to come into play, but if a General Manager lacked that acumen, it meant trouble.  Not saying that only happens to the Mets, but we follow them so closely, it does hit close to home.

The idea is that in the last few years, the farm system is a little middle-of-the-road, too MOTR for Alderson’s liking as he’s said, which is how Toby Hyde starts his discussion with “Development is Job One.”   It’s a misnomer that big market teams should spend big; they should also develop big to use as bargaining chips or to have them become superstars after development.  It’s clear after reading Hyde’s piece that the Mets system isn’t neglected nor barren: it just needs some structure.

Which leads into the “Back Draft” piece.  An issue that seems to pervade the front office thinking is that there is a strict adherence to the slotting guidelines set forth by the Commisioner.  I think this is something that needs to change, personally, and perhaps we will see these changes with this so-called executive dream team.  However, the last draft was indicative of previous Minaya drafts: “parallels continued into specific picks” according to Hyde.  Minaya liked to collect arms; I guess one could argue there is no such thing as too much pitching, but on the other hand, it doesn’t give a lot of diversification in building around a core unit.  The good news is that there is some bona fide talent in the system such as Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Cory Vaughn and Matt den Denker.  The bad news, if you can even call it that, it will take a few years before they are truly “ready.”  Perhaps Nieuwenhuis is the closest, according to Hyde’s estimates.

These two, actually three, articles jumped out at me because we’ve discussed this ad nauseum on the boards here at Metsmerized Online, and even in person when I get together to discuss Mets baseball with other fans.  The free agency cycle for the Mets has caused horrific crashing and burning that we’ve had to sit through and deal with, while the farm system lays barren that was mostly done to keep progress of winning teams going.

It backfired.  We’ve seen more bad than good come out of that.  I think it’s high time to try another route, one that won’t cause these dramatic peaks and valleys that make me write 1500 word posts.  In any event, ESPN came out with a piece on how the Mets are paying their dumped players the most.  Along with all the other poor contracts they got out of in the early 2000s, it’s evident that the cycle needs to end.  Period.

In the meantime, I highly suggest reading the Maple Street Press.  If I can get this much out of it, imagine what you can!