- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Very Bad Things Are Coming

(For posterity: Mike Pelfrey was bad. Cory Sullivan was briefly good. Mets lost in Florida [1]. None of this matters.)

The Mets, I fear, are about to tumble into an abyss. I fear they are nearing a horrifying period, duration unknowable but probably not brief, that will damage the franchise and fray its ties with its fanbase. I'm not talking about 2009, that plague year of injuries that keep mounting when you don't they can any more. I'm not talking about Citi Field, a nice place to see a ballpark whose flaws are fixable and, indeed, gradually being fixed. I'm talking about things that are harder to fix, and will take longer to recover from.

Yesterday afternoon, amid news of MRIs and trades and press conferences and conference calls, I felt a twinge of unease that had nothing to with Johan Santana's elbow and what value the Mets would get back for Billy Wagner. I couldn't quite figure out what it was until later — and when I did figure it out, I wondered if I'd known what it was all along, and just hadn't want to admit it.

Simply put, I didn't believe a single thing anyone connected with the New York Mets said on Tuesday afternoon.

Actually, that isn't true. I do, for instance, believe that Omar Minaya was telling the truth when he appeared foggy on the details of the condition of Santana's elbow back in spring training. “Spring training was such a long time ago,” he said. And I believe him when he said that he couldn't remember what an evaluation of Santana's elbow at the All-Star break had shown. (See Joel Sherman [2], if you dare.)

Which makes it unbelievable that the Wilpons could even think of letting Omar keep his job.

Let's review. This is not an ingrown hair Pat Misch might have complained about to a trainer. This is Johan Santana's elbow. And Johan Santana's elbow is the hinge around which much of this team's fortunes turn, and in which the Wilpons have invested more than $100 million. How is it that Omar Minaya is not intimately familiar with every medical report concerning that elbow, with every pang reported or suspected, with every nuance of its care and protection? Spring training is not such a long time ago where Johan Santana's elbow is concerned — it was the starting point of 166.2 innings of wear and tear, every 0.1 of which needed to be justified when talking about that amount of money. And Omar's own words make it glaringly obvious that when it came to the Wilpons' prize investment, he's been asleep at the switch.

“Paperwork, that's false hustle.” Uh-huh. More and more, that foolish quote given to Sports Illustrated in better times looks like it should be Minaya's professional epitaph. Because it seems like every time he addresses the media, he reveals that he hasn't done his homework.

As for Johan's own conference call, in which he said he was fine with how things had been handled? I don't believe him either. I believe he's a good employee who wouldn't hang his bosses out to dry for a bunch of reporters, and I believe he'd pitch until that arm was ready to fall off rather than give in to pain or defeat. But the former has little bearing on the truth of what happened, and the latter is just another indication that the Mets' baseball people have been cavalier at best and negligent at worst.

Next came the trade of Billy Wagner to the Red Sox for two prospects (Chris Carter and someone yet unleaked) we've been telegraphed not to expect too much from. Here the Mets said the right things — Billy's a good soldier who deserves a postseason shot, we got prospects back, etc. — but I didn't believe any of that either. The Mets dumped Wagner's salary, plain and simple. They could have held on to him, offered him arbitration and taken a shot at high draft picks, but they didn't do that. What does it say about the state of the Mets that they felt they needed to recoup the relatively paltry (by baseball standards) sum of $3.5 million?

And this is where it starts to get really troubling: I don't believe the Mets are going to put that $3.5 million towards making the baseball team better.

I've read analyses of the Wagner deal arguing that two middling prospects are a better bet than two draft picks when you take into account the uncertainty of signing and developing draft picks, and maybe that's true. But I also read a lot of approving reactions to the Wagner trade based on the assumption that prospects are better because the Mets draft incompetently and/or won't sign their draft picks anyway. And even if nothing else I imagine to be true is true, that's incontrovertible evidence of a serious fan-relations problem.

But let's talk about draft picks. As noted in the New York Times [3], the Mets signed only seven of their picks from the draft's first 10 rounds and spent $1.86 million on those signings. That's less than the Tampa Bay Rays spent. Less than the Florida Marlins spent. Less than the Oakland A's spent. Less than the Kansas City Royals spent. Less than the Pittsburgh Pirates spent. In fact, it's less than every other team in baseball spent. Asked about this by the Times, the Mets' director of amateur scouting pointed out that the Mets went nearly $400,000 over slot to sign top pick Steven Matz, as if we should be proud of them for ignoring toothless bullshit decrees from Bud Selig they never should have paid attention to in the first place.

And going back to Omar, you probably remember reports doubting that he'll be fired — not so much because he doesn't deserve it, but because he'd pocket $2 million and the new guy would want his own staff, leading to more payouts to freshly terminated employees. Again, the kind of money that would instantly bankrupt me or Greg and most of you, but not a huge amount of money for a giant-market club with a new, high-priced stadium.

And all of this seems to point to what we'd prefer not to discuss.

The Mets have been tight-lipped about exactly how much money Bernie Madoff stole form the Wilpons — I've seen estimates ranging from $700 million [4] to less than you'd think [5]. Whatever the figure is, I sympathize immensely with the Wilpons. To be robbed by someone you trusted must be beyond awful, and to have the extent of your violation be the subject of endless questioning and voyeuristic interest must be infuriating. The Wilpons should have been able to enjoy the first year in the new ballpark they built to evoke things they hold dear, and they've had little chance to do that. None of what they've gone through should be anybody's business.

Except, unfortunately, it is. What the Wilpons can and will pay, and what that will mean for the team that takes the field in 2010 and subsequent years, affects everything. It affects free agents big and small, not just in who gets offers in the first place, but in how agents assess the overall competitiveness of the team and the likelihood that team will add pieces to try and get their clients a ring. It affects sponsors wondering if their companies will be showcased with a winner or a laughingstock. It affects draft picks, scouting and minor-league operations. And, of course, it affects fans wondering if it's worth it to shell out for season tickets or partial plans.

If the Wilpons have absorbed horrific losses that are indeed affecting the team, sooner or later that will be impossible to hide. If they haven't, their silence and their team's recent actions have created the perception that they have. Either way, the team we love is mired in a toxic situation. Loyal, rational fans openly scoff at what the Mets say about injuries, personnel moves or draft picks. They don't believe the GM has a plan, and they're starting to believe the owners won't spend money to put things right.

I desperately hope I'm wrong about this. I hope the Wilpons are OK financially, for their own sakes and not just for how it might affect my evening plans. I hope that their team is really unaffected by their losses. I hope that they are looking hard at what is wrong with their considerable investment. And I hope next year all this looks like paranoia and distraction bred by a year of buzzard's luck, and we spend a summer to remember in Citi Field, enjoying the terrors and joys of watching a healthy team chasing a division title.

But I fear the goblins are all too real. I know the Mets are badly run, I fear they're financially damaged, and I worry that the latter will make it impossible to fix the former. And if that's true, 2009 is just a preview of what awaits us, for who knows how many years to come.