Only a shock in that it happened in November and yielded a single X-Man, the Mike Cameron Era's end coincides with that of the Braden Looper Epoch and, unless somebody plum forgets to detach themselves from him, the Kaz Matsui Millennium.
And, just like that, there goes the 2004 rebuilding project, crumbled to bits not two calendar years after it was undertaken.
On one hand, who cares? That was one of the worst off-seasons in Mets history, I've just decided, in that we signed those three guys and brought in as our rightfielder the two-headed momser Sharim Spencia, lowballing Vladimir Whatshisname in the process. Granted, we shot straight from 66 to 71 wins in the year that followed, but what annoys me now is that a front office that collected five very ordinary players pretended it was operating according to a plan.
Quick, anybody remember the plan?
The Mets have a ton of holes to fill, and they'll attempt to do so via the free agent and non-tender market, while staying far, far away of any commitment deemed “long” (Fred Wilpon said that would be four years; five years is “very long”).
The Mets aim to tailor their team to the spacious reaches of Shea Stadium, where power hitters are more of a complement than the rule — expect to see a young, exciting team created around speed, defense and pitching (think 1986). Sure, that's what every team wants to create, but the Mets really, really intend to do it this time.
Or so they say.
—NJ.com's Always Amazin', October 29, 2003
That coherent organizational philosophy — based on the sudden realization that Shea is 396 in the alleys — is what brought us Cameron and Matsui (for the speed and the defense) along with Looper (the pitching) plus Spencer and Garcia (no long commitments). It was gussied up by the marketing department as Catch The Energy.
It was unplugged by the end of 2004. The Mets never do anything that takes. Instead, every winter sees them overreact to perceptions that they don't do enough even though it's been a long time since they haven't done plenty. Sure, they often don't do it well, but they always keep busy. When was the last off-season, for example, that the Mets didn't sign themselves a fairly glittery free agent?
It was the winter of 1997-98, coming off their surprising dalliance with contention and even there, there's an asterisk to be applied because they were able to avail themselves of the Huizenga fire sale and pick up Leiter and Cook on the cheap (unless you consider giving up young A.J. Burnett as shortsighted). When they didn't immediately improve on their pace of '97 in the early part of '98, they went out and traded three kids for Mike Piazza to compensate for Todd Hundley's lengthy absence (Spehr, Castillo, Wilkins, Tatum not adding up to a hair in Mike's mustache) and, more significantly, to shut up everybody who said the Mets never made big moves.
Since then, the Mets have executed splashy transactions, or at least costly ones, every winter, either via free agency or trading for contracts somebody else could no longer afford.
1999: Ventura, Henderson, Bonilla
2000: Hampton, Bell, Zeile
2001: Appier, Trachsel
2002: Alomar, Vaughn, Cedeño, Burnitz, Weathers
2003: Glavine, Floyd, Stanton
2004: Cameron, Matsui, Looper
2005: Martinez, Beltran
We could sit here and deconstruct which moves necessitated other moves and how the Mets seemed to dig themselves deeper and deeper personnel holes down the line, but the point is the Mets do act. They're afraid to not do something whether it makes long-term sense or not. Ownership's rabbit ears are stuck on the criticism that they don't take the big dare the way the other New York team does.
Was Let's Get Athletic a valid stance? We'll never know. The Mets Dropped The Energy the minute they tired of Jim Duquette playing smallball and brought back Omar Minaya. I don't know what Minaya's plan is, and that's fine. I have an inherent trust that he will do something right this offseason, but that doesn't mean it will add up to worth a damn because eventually he'll do something wrong and the Mets will fall all over themselves to correct it and, inevitably, make it worse.
The Mets' nominal starting lineup in 2005 included two shortstops and two centerfielders. Now after essentially throwing away almost $30 mil the last two years on the guys who became the ill-fitting second baseman and the reluctant (nearly tragically so) rightfielder, they're scrambling again. Xavier Nady? He may be the answer, but probably only to some alphabetically themed trivia question. Think about that $14.5 mil annually tossed at Cameron and Matsui. Think that couldn't have been spent more wisely? Think that plus whatever they were offering Vlad could've outbid the Angels? Think they knew that Carlos Beltran (no long commitments?) might very well be available after 2004 so maybe they could've kept their wallet in their pants before splurging on Cameron, a guy whose presence here always seemed a bit of a mystery?
Mike C. did some nice things as a Met. We saw him hit a walkoff homer against the Tigers the night Mike P. drove home in the Ambiguously Gay Chevy. He hit 30 dingers in 2004 which still reads like a typo. His catch last June in the game when the sprinklers turned on and Cameron stuck his glove out and came up with an out, was stupendous. And that abysmal business in San Diego, of all places, in August elevated him to richly deserved baseball sainthood in our eyes. For all the talk that he wanted out and couldn't deal with right, he gave us his all wherever they stuck him.
But Mike Cameron was a Met because the plan of the week demanded he be hired. The plan of the subsequent week demanded he be traded.
Now what? There's 40 miles of bad road up ahead if you're a Mets fan. Deleting Cameron and Ishii and Heredia (Question No. 22 lives!) Graves and Mientkiewicz and Piazza is the easy part. If you don't believe Xavier Nady is a foundation element to the 2006 Mets, and I don't, we're looking at at least four everyday positions that remain definitively unfilled to say nothing of the hypothetical position of closer. That's all right in November, but what's gonna happen?
Catcher scares me the most because this is something the Mets haven't had to worry about for more than a couple of minutes in the past 15 years. Hundley grew into a temporarily fearsome slugger and moments after he shriveled, Piazza replaced him without missing a beat. Now what? Something inadequate, I hunch.
The frightening part is what a comedown from the Piazza of our dreams Bengie Molina (my guess) or Ramon Hernandez (my god, another player tantalizing us based on one good season) or the Japanese guy (my bad — his name is Kenji Jojima) will be. Don't know anything more than I've read about Jojima, but I've watched more than a bit of Molina. He's not an automatic out and he sure can play his position if he's not hurt (which he's been recently, of course), but man is he slow. So? All catchers are slow, right? Ramon Castro is slow, but he's not as torpid as Bengie Molina and, besides, we're still rubbing our eyes over how clutch Ramon was. Point is we're used to Piazza compensating for he inadequacies with his mighty axe. Mike wasn't much with the defense, but who really noticed? He was Mike. None of these fellows is Mike. (Nor is Mike at the present time, just to be clear.)
As you've no doubt figured out, not having Mike, not having even the 2005 Mike, is going to destabilize everything because for the first time since the early '90s, we can't necessarily count on the catching position to produce meaningful power. Hundley and Piazza were the exception, not the rule, at their position. As long as they were driving in runs, we could slide by with dead-ball corner outfielders and infielders. We could get by with the Timos and the Phillipses and their ilk. We had RBIs from an unlikely source so we could overlook how few were emanating from where they were “supposed” originate. Free ride's over, fellas. First base and right field are now officially offense issues.
Then there's the closer. Sign Billy Wagner? Well, it wouldn't be folly, I suppose, but we'll overpay and he'll deteriorate. He'll blow a save or two in April and he'll hate himself and we'll be blogging our asses off over how Mets fans are not helping him by booing him so vociferously so soon. It's a worst-case scenario, but you can't say it doesn't have touches of precedent to it.
Too bad we can't get a Bobby Jenks to close for us. You know, some guy with an arm and a bushel of ability that needs to be harnessed by a smart pitching coach. Oh wait, we can. Anybody can. That was the beauty of the White Sox closer. He threw hard and somebody figured how to make that work. Whatever Chicago was spending on, it wasn't on a name reliever. They didn't need to.
Nor do the Mets. Did I not just see Aaron Heilman improve over the course of the year coming out of the pen? Did I not see Juan Padilla get just about everybody out? Did I not see Roberto Hernandez stubbornly refuse to grow old? Out of those three guys you couldn't reliably weave a couple of innings when needed?
When needed. This is a matter beyond the scope of the Mets, and it's not by any means new, but this closer mentality is the biggest crock since Le Peep discontinued its Bottomless Pit of Onion Soup promotion.
Roberto Hernandez might not act his age, but I will and say dagnabit, in my day, you pitched to win the game. Meaning? Meaning you sent Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine and every other starter out there to go as far as he could. When a reliever was needed, you brought in your best reliever and let him go as far as he could. If he were up to the task, he'd finish the game. It worked a lot. It worked when the man who got the call was Tug McGraw or Jesse Orosco or Roger McDowell. It worked from the seventh inning to the ninth as necessary.
Nowadays? It's a frigging bureaucracy. It's the Department of Ninth Innings. Nobody's eyes are on the prize anymore. Teams like the Astros, with routinely brilliant closers, short-circuit themselves with their philosophy of “Get it to Lidge.” The minute Lidge doesn't get it done (versus Pujols, versus Podsednik), they are so screwed. There is no court of last resort when your big-time closer fails. Eight innings of great work down the drain. The philosophy that's worked so well for so few (Eckersley, Hoffman, Gagne, Rivera) has sabotaged everybody else, including us. Then there's the White Sox with their mixing and matching and coming up with a scrap heap special. Which ones are the White Sox? The ones with the rings, baby.
But they have a great pitching coach in Don Cooper. We apparently don't have anybody special in that role. Oh wait, we do, or so we were told in that magical winter of '03-'04. We're also being told that Heilman, after finally maturing, is being shopped because he doesn't abide by Rick Peterson's rules of order. What in the name of Rube Walker is going on around here?
I thought the same thing when I saw the MVP balloting. Congrats to our boys David, Cliff and Jose for attracting support, however scant, in the 44th consecutive installment balloting that didn't yield a Met on top. But where oh where was Pedro Martinez? C'mon BBWAA members, what's up wit' dat? Who on the Mets was more valuable in every sense of the word than Pedro Martinez? Who redefined the franchise with every start he'd take, every strike he'd make? Who stopped losing streaks time and again? Who, if not for a boy named Loop, would've at least scraped 20 wins? Who set the stage for the Mets contending as long as they did, who carried the staff through dry spells and who shook off the late-season sag and right the Mets back to respectability?
Where MVP-deciding is concerned, once you stray outside the Albert/Andruw stratosphere, who was more valuable to his team's season than Pedro Martinez? Bad job, writers. Pedro was The Man and The Man deserved a vote.
Speaking of The Men, happy 41st birthday to Dwight Eugene Gooden, born November 16, 1964, and happy 61st birthday to George Thomas Seaver, born November 17, 1944, each unmatched as The Man in his respective time (time that didn't last nearly long enough for one of them, but that's another sad story). It's always tickled me that they entered this world almost exactly twenty years apart. There's gotta be a kid born 11/15/84 a couple years away, no?
Oh Hell, I almost forgot to have a good look around your First Circle. Before I go do whatever else it is I do when I'm not doing this…
STRAWBERRY: There is a gigantic blind spot blocking my ability to notice his severe drawbacks as a human being. It's 252 home runs wide.
ORDOÑEZ: He was Stephanie's favorite Met back when it meant something for her to have a favorite Met. That my wife cared more for him than he cared for his own wife is immaterial. Greatest Infield Ever, bud. Fonzie, Robin, Oly and Rey. I know him by the company he kept. With the glove of a lifetime, he could be as truculent as he wanted to be. And after absorbing years of abuse over his dumb bat (like we hadn't already figured out he couldn't hit), if all he could spit out in his second language was “stupid” to characterize the fans' reaction to him, then so be it. Stupidity was running rampant in these parts by the end of 2002.
HENDERSON: There's a reason dairy products come with an expiration date. As delicious as fresh milk or cottage cheese can be, keep it around too long, you know it's gonna go sour.
McREYNOLDS: One good season. Then one very good season. Then three years of dispiriting deterioration, none of which he helped with his hello, I must be going demeanor. The 48th Greatest Met of the First Forty Years struck me as a lump and a load. Burn, baby, burn.