Since the Mets' 2007 season went off the cliff, there's been no shortage of plans to get the Mets back on track, from trading Jose Reyes for Johan Santana to doing more or less nothing. A Met blueprint is a Rorschach test both of how angry you were at the 2007 club as it imploded and where you stand on the question of quantifiable vs. qualifiable and stats vs. intangibles.
Of course, the 2007 Mets themselves were a Rorschach test for this endless debate. You can read their Pythagorean record of 86-76 and conclude that they simply weren't that good, that they actually slightly outperformed their record and the rest is just noise. Or you can look at that now-infamous seven up with 17 to play, a team that statistics said would win the division 499 times out of 500, and conclude that a lack of character (whether in the clubhouse, the manager's office or both) had to be the difference — particularly when the veterans themselves were saying the team was complacent.
I like to fancy myself a stats guy, but I don't have the math chops for it — and this September has pushed me back into the camp that talks of intangibles and chemistry. When players collapse as horridly as the Mets did in those final two weeks, making ungodly errors and losing their composure and irking opponents at the wrong time, you can't tell me there isn't more going on than statistical snake-eyes. If intangibles mean anything to the sport, September 2007 was proof of it.
I'm still disgusted with the 2007 club — the sight of the clubhouse guy in the Kenny Lofton DHL ad pisses me off. That said, I'm glad the Mets decided against some spasm of vengeance. Willie Randolph should have kept his job, and did. And when you put 20-20 hindsight aside and look at a lot of Omar Minaya's 2007 moves in context, you see a fair amount of bad luck but not a lot of what any fair-minded person would call negligence or stupidity. Alex Nelson at MetsGeek did a bang-up job with such a review last week. It's worth reading, and I concur: I wasn't exactly upset when hefty arsonist Heath Bell was sent packing, thought the trade of tightrope-walking soft-tosser Brian Bannister for live-armed Ambiorix Burgos made sense, and didn't mourn trading two late-to-develop Double-A guys in Matt Lindstrom and Henry Owens for Jason Vargas, a promising starter with two plus pitches who'd shown some success in the big leagues. The moves that proved least-defensible were multiyear deals for Scott Schoeneweis and Guillermo Mota, but even here, it's easy to lose perspective: The Orioles gave Chad Bradford an insane three years and $10.5 million, a deal as certain to blow up on them as the sun will rise, and every middle reliever still on the market sang hosannas.
Did Willie handle the staff badly down the stretch? Hard to argue he didn't. Mota kept pitching, Schoeneweis and Sosa were used too much and Feliciano too little, and Philip Humber was left rotting on the bench while the deservedly anonymous Brian Lawrence took the hill. Still, plenty of comparatively reliable relievers had blow-ups down the stretch, too — it's not like any of us had much faith in anybody in September. And it's somewhat odd to think that players need a few years to develop and learn but managers can navigate every nuance of the interaction between strategy and personalities from the get-go. For a guy entering his fourth year as a manager, it strikes me that the key issue shouldn't be what Willie did wrong but whether he'll learn from it.
So, my vague blueprint. I apologize in advance that it's less a coherent plan than a series of bitter observations and diatribes. It goes without saying that I'd rather be considering how the Mets match up against the Diamondbacks.
First, some principles:
1. No More Half-Seasons: Why on earth does anybody think bringing back Moises Alou is a good idea? The Mets were 47-40 with him. Fantastic! But that means 75 times they were stuck figuring out who was going to play left field. I'd like to know how Moises being a year older improves on that scenario. It's hard enough mixing and matching veterans and kids and role players to make a World Series club; it's a lot harder when too many of those veterans are going to miss too much time during the season. Jose Valentin, El Duque, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green — all aging players who missed significant time with a variety of ailments. One reason the 2007 Mets had trouble gelling? They were hardly ever on the field at the same time.
2. I Believe the Children Are the Future: And, y'know, we've got to, like, give them a sense of pride. There's such a thing as too much faith in intangibles. Lastings Milledge is a brat, but he's a better player than Shawn Green in every respect except deportment. Carlos Gomez and Ruben Gotay may be a bit raw, but one can imagine them as productive big-league players in 2010, when Moises Alou and Luis Castillo will be playing golf. You can roll the dice on aging, brittle veterans not falling off and/or getting hurt, or try to develop players who have potential. Because baseball is so insanely conservative, teams get stuck doing the former when they ought to do the latter: The Yankees saved their season almost by mistake, as injury after injury forced them to rely on youth, and youth turned out to be a good bet. Even then, they got Pleistocene when it mattered: With the season on the line, they gave the ball to a 45-year-old Satanic mercenary with a bad hamstring, watched him pitch like a 45-year-old with a bad hamstring, and only lived for another day because a 21-year-old and a 22-year-old rescued them. They got beat by a young Indians team anyway, as their scouts were preparing dossiers on two young teams in the Rockies and Diamondbacks.
3. The Myth of the Incentive Deal: Of all the fancies of WFAN callers, this one is my favorite — the idea that Player X should take a one-year deal with lots of incentives. Paul Lo Duca is 35 years old and has spent nearly two decades squatting behind the plate listening to his knees pop and taking foul balls off his thighs, shoulders and thumb. He should take a one-year deal because fans in New York City are vaguely mad at him? Luis Castillo is a 32-year-old with bad knees and 11 big-league seasons on his resume. Players like Lo Duca and Castillo are looking for that last three-year deal, not some one-year flier. In their shoes, you'd do the same.
4. Eat Your Mistakes: One of the principal benefits of being an obscenely rich club? It's being able to shrug off a bad $6 million here and a hard-luck $8 million there. A regrettable two-year deal for a middle reliever can kill the Kansas City Royals' hopes, and that sucks — but it's not our job to right that wrong. Guillermo Mota is owed $3.2 million in 2008, and a blind Irish setter could tell you that he has no business being near a pitcher's mound any longer. For God's sake, eat that contract.
And now, some prescriptions for individual players….
Not Even a Question: Shawn Green, Jose Valentin, Aaron Sele. They have no future here.
Only a Question If You Weren't Watching: Tom Glavine. Glavine torched the Mets' season in less than an inning on the mound, but it was his postgame comments that destroyed his future with the club. Sitting amid the wreckage of the season, the Manchurian Brave uttered his usual alibis about balls finding holes (two he threw found Dontrelle Willis with the bases loaded and a phantom fielder playing 20 feet behind David Wright) and then lectured us on the difference between “devastated” and “disappointed.” Anybody who'd want Tom Glavine back probably also thinks it would have been a good idea to have Kenny Rogers start the home opener in 2000.
Thanks for Services Rendered: Moises Alou, Luis Castillo, Paul Lo Duca. I like all three of these players, and their only sins are age and questions about their ability to stay on the field. But at this pass, those are sins enough.
Let's Pretend We Didn't: Guillermo Mota. Summoning the Pink Slip Fairy for Mota is a helluva way to spend $3.2 million. But have you seen what this man does to games?
Stuck With You, Part I: Orlando Hernandez. El Duque is owed $6.5 million. He's a legend, and his annual vacations used to be kind of cute. They aren't cute anymore, and as a starter he's blocking the likes of Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber and Jason Vargas, about whom more needs to be known. El Duque as a middle reliever or a long man is an intriguing idea, but I'd bet El Duque is the least-intrigued guy in the room when that particular conversation comes up.
Stuck With You, Part II: Scott Schoeneweis. He's signed through 2009. It's hard to see him going anywhere unless he turns into Mota. (And hey, he's already been named in steroids reports.) This leaves us stuck hoping that since he's been good in the past, he might be good in the future. With middle relievers who aren't named Guillermo, that's not entirely insane. Particularly if he's used properly.
Stuck With You, Part III: Carlos Delgado. He's owed a jaw-dropping $16 million in 2008. He's a horrible first baseman, his value as a hitter has dropped to near replacement level, and his leadership disappeared in 2007. Yes, he said the right things about focus and lessons learned after Game 162, but before that the only times I remember him registering as a clubhouse voice were a) the farcical day when Lo Duca was supposedly a racist; and b) when he admitted the Mets got bored. Since his contract is immovable, at least I have my scapegoat for 2008.
Time to Step Up: Jose Reyes, Lastings Milledge, Willie Randolph. Jose came down with a bad slump and a chronic case of the stupids, but you don't exile a young player for being a young player — particularly not when he's the most electric player in the game. There's a fine line between enthusiastic and bush, and you'll consistently find Milledge just on the wrong side of it — his antics on the second-to-last day of the season woke up a Marlins club that should have been left to slumber. But I stubbornly believe Milledge will be worth the wait. In both cases, adult supervision is needed, and will be rewarded. Not coincidentally, more adult supervision has to be on Willie Randolph's to-do list. I've been won over by his calm demeanor and the patience with which he brought along the likes of Reyes and Wright, but now he's got work to do. I hope 2007 showed him the dangers of being too calm — it would be a wonderful world if every veteran played with Willie's passion and poise, but some of them need the whip hand now and again.
Bring 'Em Back: Jorge Sosa, Ramon Castro, Damion Easley. Sosa showed enough to deserve further consideration as a starter or setup guy. If Castro's back doesn't betray him, he should be the starting catcher. I think Easley would be a good bench guy. Update: And Marlon Anderson, who never should have left in the first place.
Stick With 'Em: Oliver Perez, John Maine, Joe Smith, Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman. (None of these guys is a free agent.) They didn't have perfect seasons — Perez's final start was all kinds of ugly, Maine seemed to hit the wall a couple of times, Wagner and Heilman had avert-your-eyes weeks and Smith wound up exhausted. But they all either maintained a high level of performance or matured sufficiently in 2007 that you can hope for better things in 2008.
Blameless: Pedro Martinez, David Wright, Carlos Beltran.
So where do we go from here?
The Mets need a Goldilocks offseason — one that's not too hot, not too cold but just right.
Too hot is a danger. The Mets are no longer a cheapskate outfit scorned by run-of-the-mill free-agent catchers — they now spend money like the big-market colossus they are, and they're about to have a lot more of it. The final game witnessed by ownership might well have been the darkest moment in the franchise's history, and they're going to be sorely tempted to do something big to try and make us forget about that. But how big is wise? I can't see the Mets acquiring Johan Santana without taking an ax to the core of the team, and I shudder to think of Jose Reyes in a Twins uniform, to cite one hot rumor. No offense to Santana, but we would regret that one forever. Reyes is the engine of the team and the darling of the fanbase. Yes, I was mad at him in September — but I want to summon Joshua home from college to see a graying Reyes wave farewell and No. 7 go up on the CitiField wall. He's ours — don't you dare touch him.
There's another brand of “too hot” that I admit I can't get out of my head: A-Rod is about to be seeking $300 million over 10 years. Yes, he's emotionally needy and socially maladroit, but he also just put up 54 home runs and 156 RBIs playing in a cauldron. And tell me the Mets wouldn't enjoy that back-page knife to the Yankees' heart, as well as the chance for everybody to say bad things about Steve Phillips. Besides, starting in 2009 Citibank would pay two-thirds of the freight. It's tempting, isn't it? Sure, something about it makes the head throb, and there's the small matter of him not having a position. (A-Rod to third, Wright to first, Delgado becomes a $16 million bench player? Um, no.) Still, 54 home runs and 156 RBIs, no Jeter to treat him like Martha Dumptruck, and he'd be playing for the team he loved as a child.
More realistic would be to try and pry Dontrelle Willis loose from Florida — he had a lousy year, but he'll be 26 on Opening Day, he's left-handed and he speaks his mind in that clubhouse. I'm not going to say Rick Peterson could fix him in 15 minutes, but I bet 15 weeks could do it.
Then, of course, there's too cold. Don't like A-Rod? Think Dontrelle's done? Too in love with Heilman and Milledge to imagine them on another team? Just think how you'll feel in February, reading the same interchangeable stories about how new Met Livan Hernandez is in the best shape of his career and Moises Alou has been doing flexibility drills — and suspecting that none of it will make a damn bit of difference.