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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

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Omar's Alchemy's Short Shelf Life

I don't hold against Billy Wagner his sudden rediscovery of his inner Brave any more than I'd fume at Brian Schneider at this point for remembering what a Phillies fan he'd always been. This is what ballplayers who aren't Chris Coste do when they go to a new ballclub. They find a reason to have always wanted to be where they suddenly are. I'm sure Billy comes closer than most to meaning it when he says stuff like, “I remember Bob Horner hitting four home runs in a game.”

Billy wasn't quite 15 then and not actually on the Braves when Horner's four homers went to waste in an 11-8 loss to the Expos in 1986, so I don't know whether he hung Atlanta starter Zane Smith (4 IP, 8 ER) out to dry the way he did Oliver Perez when Ollie gave up a ton of runs against the Pirates in '08. Perhaps there's a school paper somewhere in Southwest Virginia with a damning quote along the lines of:

Zane Smith honestly has got to step up and know that we've just used every guy in the bullpen the night before. He can't come in and come out there and decide that he doesn't have it today, and so be it.

That's actually what Billy said on April 30, 2008 about Ollie after Ollie didn't have it. Kind of turned me against Wagner based on my concept of what a teammate should be. Not that Ollie wasn't particularly Ol-ful that day, but there's a difference between taking it up with your starter and taking it to the press.

Wagner would now and again spout off like that. Part of his roguish charm, I guess. There's a lot to sort through in the Billy Wagner Met legacy, some of it that was helpful to the greater cause, some of it that was less so, yet seeing him rematerialize as a free agent this winter brought to mind one particular image:

When Billy Wagner first got here.

There was an eleven-day period covering late November and early December 2005 when most of our problems were solved. We traded for an established first baseman with power. We obtained a catcher with legitimate offensive credentials. And we signed one of the best closers in the game.

Delgado. Lo Duca. Wagner. It was fantastic. It has to represent the best eleven-day period any Met hot stove has ever cooked up. In three significant swoops, the Mets weren't so much made over as successfully built upon, which made it an all the more incredible feeling. We went from a pretty good team with five pillars from 2005 — Pedro, Floyd, Reyes, Wright and, despite a lousy introduction to New York, Beltran — to a potentially very good team with eight pillars. All it cost was a barrel of money; four minor leaguers who were never missed; Mike Jacobs; and one first-round draft choice (which the Phillies received as compensation for losing Wagner and turned into top pitching prospect Kyle Drabek, a kid there's no guarantee the Mets would have taken had they kept the pick).

I don't know if it was a plan, but it sure sounded like one. Better yet, it worked like one. Thanks in large part to contributions from that trio of acquisitions, the Mets raced off to their fastest start ever in 2006, 10-2 with a five-game lead on April 17. After twelve games, Delgado had five homers and 14 RBI; Lo Duca was batting .368; and Wagner notched four saves. Two other off-season finds, Xavier Nady and Duaner Sanchez, were sizzling as well. The Mets never looked back from that launch of launches and 2006 became, in the best sense of the phrase, 2006.

It all made sense then. Omar Minaya made sense then. Between the end of '05 and the start of '06, he had jettisoned some solid veteran performers from the year before, the kind I was convinced would have gotten two-year contracts or three-year extensions from previous regimes. Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, Kris Benson, Marlon Anderson and Roberto Hernandez were among the jettisoned. A case could have been made to have kept any or all of them, but Minaya cut cords sentimental and otherwise. Sense trumped sentiment. Julio Franco was a Minaya favorite and Endy Chavez had once been Met property, but bringing them in for '06 made sense. Even where it seemed debatable (starter Jae Seo for reliever Sanchez), deplorable (Benson for Jorge Julio and John Maine) or largely inconsequential (Darren Oliver, Chad Bradford), it all clicked. Omar's most useless pickup, it seemed for the first month of 2006, was flailing pinch-hitter Jose Valentin. By June, Valentin was as valuable as anybody, taking over at second base and filling the last glaring gap on the field and in the lineup. Just about every addition Minaya made worked and just about every subtraction Minaya made worked.

What happened to that general manager?

I have no idea, not really. We know there was an ill-fated cab ride that sent too many dominoes tumbling, and we know some guys aged better than others. We know that the wizardry of 2005-06 was not repeated the following winter, when trusting Omar became an ever dicier proposition, and it has yet to be reconjured. Omar was a free spender with decent judgment of the obvious when he got here, signing Pedro and Beltran in '04, but he was an absolute baseball genius the second year. There was Delgado just before Thanksgiving, Wagner just after it and Lo Duca not a week later. There were also those smaller moves. What followed was a divisional romp and the appearance of the Mets being set for years to come.

Then Omar Minaya became, in the worst sense of the phrase, Omar Minaya. Not every subtraction was a bad idea; not every addition was a disaster by any means. But the ratio grew frighteningly out of the Mets' favor, and Omar the Alchemist wasn't in residence any longer. He revealed himself an increasingly clueless Met GM…or a Met GM whose clues led him down ever more futile paths. Thus far this winter, we've been led to Alex Cora, Chris Coste and, now, 38-year-old, seven-team catcher Henry Blanco. Blanco will join a backstop scrum that encompasses Coste, Omir Santos, Josh Thole and, for all we know, Junior Ortiz. Then again, Henry Blanco can't be much less effective than Brian Schneider was as a Met. If he is, there's not much point to his existence.

There will be more players to whom the GM leads us before the 2010 season commences. Some will actually inspire confidence, a commodity yet to emanate from Flushing. We know from Cora. We have a sense of Coste from his frequent visits. And Blanco…well, that guy's been around, hasn't he? Omar, according to Adam Rubin's book, tried to sign him for 2005, but Henry turned him down. As did Craig Counsell. Undeterred, Minaya went out and nabbed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran.

Talk about your Plan B's.

Meanwhile, in December 2009, Billy Wagner's a Brave, which is fine. Carlos Delgado may or may not get a one-year Met reprieve, which may or may not constitute wishful thinking on the part of both parties. Paul Lo Duca's a former big leaguer who wants another shot somewhere, which appears improbable, but good luck to him. Y'know, a couple of days before Wagner appeared on TV trying on the uniform of his new team, I caught a moment of Lo Duca decked out in the uniform of his old team. MLB Network was running an All-Star Game marathon over Thanksgiving weekend. When I saw they were airing the 2006 contest, I tuned in. I was briefly excited because I remembered how six Mets made the N.L. squad that year. Pedro didn't show because of an injury and Reyes, voted in at shortstop, was sidelined, but the Met presence was formidable nonetheless. As the game was about to get underway, they set the defense: Beltran in center, Wright at third, Lo Duca catching.

Ichiro Suzuki stepped in to lead off. Paul Lo Duca was clearly visible behind the plate. Paul was hitting .302 at the time. He'd finish at .318. The Mets were in first place by twelve games, exactly where they'd wind up at season's end. That was three years ago.

Like I said, I only caught a moment of it. I couldn't bear to watch anymore.

11 comments to Omar's Alchemy's Short Shelf Life

  • Anonymous

    From Bart Hubbuch in today's Post:
    “Chris Coste is burning bridges with Mets fans before he's even crossed them.
    The ex-Phillies catcher/first baseman signed with the Mets yesterday, just three days after expressing disdain for his new team in an interview with a Philadelphia sports Web site.
    After telling CSNPhilly.com he 'will always be a Phillie,' Coste said he had been hesitant to sign with Philadelphia's arch rival.
    'It was the Mets,' Coste said, according to the site. 'It's the last team I ever saw myself playing for. I knew I was going to accept [the contract], but had to think about it for a few days.'”
    Unbelievable, except that it's entirely believable for Mets fans.

  • Anonymous

    What's particularly odd about what is fast becoming one of the most infamous statements in Mets-signing history (right up there with George Foster warning the planes to not to fly too low over Shea lest he homer them from the sky and Bobby Bonilla insisting the smile would not be knocked off his face) is that Coste, the lifetime Phillie, wasn't even a Phillie when last year ended. They waived him and he was an Astro.
    If Coste wants to show up at Citizens Bank Park for Old Timers Day 2018 and proclaim his Phillieness, wonderful. That's what hindsight's for. But dude, chill that for now.

  • Anonymous

    I think it's kind of sad, or maybe funny, or maybe both, that you see the 2005 team as a good team with five pillars. Partially because I think, at least going into last year, the 2009 team was a good team; and partially because exiting 2009, they clearly have five pillars: Reyes, Wright, Beltran, Johan, K-Rod.
    And the gaps — well, 66% of them — are in the same spots. We need a catcher and 1B again, but instead of needing a closer, we need a LF, and thankfully, the free agent market this year has an excellent choice available in the spot, much like 2005 yielded a great closer.
    Heck, we may even have the 2010 version of Xavier Nady slated to patrol RF, albeit less so in Jeff Francoeur. And eerily, the big off-season question is whether we'll stupidly offer Bengie Molina a multi-year deal. It's de ja vu all over again.
    I think it's fair to say that if we got 120 games out of each of Beltran, Reyes, and Delgado, 83 wins — the win total of the 2005 Mets — would be reasonable. So really, there are a lot of similarities between the team's situations exiting both 2005 and 2009.
    What scares me are three dissimilarities:
    1) Our trajectory is in the wrong direction, and that's going to scare away free agents, or at least make them cost a bit more to come to Queens. And we're acting like drunk paupers anyway, unable to afford a warm coat but banging down $2 beers.
    2) That 2005 team had pillars and gaps, but no albatrosses. We have one in Oliver Perez, and that's a key difference. Had the 2005 Mets swapped out Victor Zambrano for Steve Trachsel yet kept Kris Benson in lieu of El Duque, that'd have been probably OK. But the 2009 Mets can't get rid of their Zambrano.
    3) While there's a Matt Holliday to match 2005's Billy Wagner, I don't know if there's a good match for LoDuca (especially with Kelly Shoppach gone) or Delgado.
    ***
    That all said, you are right that it's about Omar. In 2005 — and, honestly, 2003 (Pedro) and 2004 (Beltran), he acted decisively. As you pointed out, he either had a plan — or, one could have inferred one from his actions. Today? He's uberfocused on backup catcher — which, honestly, isn't a (big) problem anyway.
    It's sad, really, and in retrospect, not at all funny.

  • Anonymous

    The key word in all that is “trajectory”. What made the 83-win season of '05 satisfying was that the Mets were on the way up in a way they hadn't been in quite a while. Of the five pillars, two were youngsters with looming limitless potential and one was an in-his-prime superstar (albeit having a bad year). Pedro, on the back side of his career, gave us his one terrific year; Floyd was peaking and was kind of a bonus in all this, I thought.
    If you had the '09 team perform injury-free, or at least the five would-be pillars, yeah, I don't think 83 wins would have been out of the question (even with the lousy fundamentals surrounding them). Hell, four of the five made the All-Star team and none of those was a ridiculous choice, even as everything around them sagged. But 83 wins following 97, 88 and 89 — plus all the money that had been thrown at fixing this team via Johan and Frankie and others — would have seemed like a downer.
    83 wins in 2010 would seem like a godsend.

  • Anonymous

    “Talk about your Plan B's. ”
    Greg,wouldn't be surprised if Omar choses “Plane Nine From Outer Space” and tries to resurrect Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Walter Johnson from the grave. Probably better than anything else he's done of late.

  • Anonymous

    Trajectory, though, outside of the free agent question, is ethereal. It's kind of crazy to believe that 2010 is going to suck because 2009 was worse than 2008, and because the Mets choked in 2008 and 07 after coming oh-so-close in 2006. It feels that way, sure, but it's not rational.
    83 wins in 2010 is going to happen unless Omar adds liabilities (e.g. Molina, and unfortunately probably Francoeur), injuries re-roost, and/or Jerry keeps throwing crap out there. The injuries aside, a sub-.500 season is within control of this team. The fact that we don't trust Omar/Jerry makes us disbelieve.

  • Anonymous

    Well, as I said on Twitter..Buffalo is much like Philly, so he'll feel at home. Except wings beat cheesesteak any day.

  • Anonymous

    We'll see where we are entering April. Going into '06, there was only one potential everyday soft spot, and that was second base, eventually solved by Valentin. There was some flux with the rotation, but you had three known quantities in Pedro, Gl@v!ne and Trachsel and got by, really, until the playoffs with all the guys who came in and out successfully (El Duque, Maine) and otherwise (Lima, Gonzalez). As we stand now, there's no feeling secure and then some about any position on the field other than third, center and maybe short, hamstrings willing. Catcher, first, second and left (and, depending on how you feel about Francoeur — you don't seem to thrilled — right) are all no more than borderline at best until further notice. There's no 100% healthy starting pitcher we can trust instinctively, though we certainly hope Santana is that guy once Spring Training gets going.
    What I'm saying about trajectory is not 2009 = 70 wins, therefore 2010 equals less. What I'm saying is this team, as of now, does not appear on the rise.

  • Anonymous

    So here's a question. How far should Omar go to get Matt Holliday? Bearing in mind the following:
    1) He's better than Jeff Francouer.
    2) He's not as good as Carlos Beltran (assuming Beltran's knees are okay for at least a corner outfield position), figuring in park effects and the knowledge that Citi plays a lot more like McAfee than it does like Busch.
    3) The Yankees and the Red Sox both have interest, and if that interest holds, Omar will have to overpay out the wazoo to win out over either of those teams, given the Mets' relative disadvantages to them (and to the Cardinals, who haven't given up on re-upping him yet). You think he paid too much for Cora and Blanco? Whoever Holliday winds up signing for, he will be able to blow his nose in Cora's and Blanco's bank statements every day.
    4) Since top-heaviness was a huge problem last year, given that pretty much every Mets stud player got seriously hurt, is adding yet another stud (and one who will be 37 or 38 years old at the end of his contract, to boot) really an answer? I can't say “absolutely not,” but I'm having a problem with “absolutely yes” too. The problem wasn't that our studs weren't good enough (Bob Klapisch, blow it out your ass, part eleventy-hundred), but that there was such a steep drop in talent after them, and it just got worse with all the injuries, the sheer amount of which no team on earth could have survived.
    Yes, I know the odds are against '09's particular confluence of events recurring. (I honestly don't believe the Mets' medical staff was the cause or exacerbator of those injuries in any way; it seems more likely to me that the team was told how potentially serious the injuries really were from the get-go, but didn't want to believe it, and neither did the players themselves. And related to the latter: fuck the WBC.). But what you saw in '06 was Omar getting lucky. That's what has to happen to every GM who puts together a team with a winning record. They have to get lucky with the guys they pick up off the scrap heap, the ones nobody else wanted, in addition to having enough studs and all of them staying healthy, and a few deals that made people go “zuh?” at the time they were made paying off spectacularly (or at least not getting in anyone's way) . If that happens for you, you're God, at least for one more year. I don't think the Phillies' management is comprised of such stone geniuses either, they've just had the rabbit's foot a little longer.

  • Anonymous

    Omar's desire to build a team based more on what the players were rather than how good they were had as much to do with the team's (and his own) decline as anything else.
    From SI, June 2007, when he was on top of the world:

    “What do you think of when you think of the Mets in their early years?” he (Minaya) asks. “Power pitching and non-athletes. This is the team the Mets were supposed to be back then, the inheritors of the legacy of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Guys who stole bases and hit for power. A true centerfielder. A slick shortstop. Athletes. Guys of different colors and nationalities.”

  • Anonymous

    See Greg, I knew you could do it! No treacle or whining. Just the facts ma'am! And Andee, I agree F the WBC. Bud's had a lot of bad ideas, but that one is the worst. ~ano nymous.