When a bargain ceases to be a bargain, then it’s just business. LaTroy Hawkins was a baseball bargain in 2013, getting paid a paltry (in the business where “paltry” is a highly relative term) million bucks for his Metropolitan services. He proved so valuable, he earned himself a nice raise.
Too nice to remain a bargain and too nice to remain nearby. Hence, the man who issued only 10 walks in 72 appearances took a walk himself, clear to Colorado where he projects as the Rockies’ closer for 2014. The million bucks has multiplied by two-and-a-half. The impulse is to say good for LaTroy — one of the swell guys of the game by all accounts, at least until those ever-present “Mets people” whisper from the shadows that he always hogged two parking spaces — and, in a way, good for the team that let him walk. Hawkins was reborn as an effective late-innings pitcher at the age of 40. What are the odds he’s gonna stay vital at 41? I’m a sucker for a heartwarming endurance story, but the Mets used to extend veterans who had given them one wonderful year just enough to make fans of all ages regret the decision.
On the same day Hawk flew to Denver, I noticed the Padres appointed Jose Valentin their first base coach. Valentin was a scintillating second base surprise for the 2006 N.L. East champion Mets, socking 18 homers for a below-market rate of a shade over $900,000. When his minor miracle season was over, Omar Minaya reward him with a contract for 2007 for more than four times as much. As if on disappointing cue, Jose Valentin slumped and did not finish out 2007, never to play in the majors after that July. (Somehow Minaya resisted the temptation to slip him a long-term deal; he saved that gem for the about-to-be acquired Luis Castillo.)
I’m also inclined to assume almost all relief pitchers are best recycled before they degrade. Your elite closers and your lefty specialists you might want to hold onto. Everybody else answering to the job description of “long reliever,” “middle reliever” or “setup man” seems a perennial candidate for eventual promotion or benign expulsion. It’s just the nature of the non-Rivera beast that getting attached to an arm for one season too long can lead to a particularly horrendous case of heartbreak.
But I would like to back up to LaTroy’s $2.5 million payday. If — if — Hawkins remains reliable for the Rockies, that’s not a lot to pay a closer. Even if the Rox rearrange their pile of pitchers and assign Hawkins the eighth inning and the righty retires batters in that role, that’s not a lot, either, not if the goal of the team is winning every game possible, not just getting through another sub-.500 campaign.
Should the Mets have attempted to match the Rockies’ offer to LaTroy Hawkins? For the reasons stated above, probably not. But devoting a suitable sum to a key cog on a major league ballclub — and as we’ve been reminded repeatedly over the decades, scoreless sevenths and eighths are pretty damn key to attaining victory —doesn’t always add up to Minayan madness. The average MLB player salary edges relentlessly upward; last year it was approaching $3.5 million. If you can get away with something cheaper as the Mets did for the innings they squeezed out of Hawkins and the hits they derived from Marlon Byrd ($700K), fan-freaking-tastic. There are budgets and strategies and dozens of contracts to take into consideration. Don’t throw money away if you don’t have to.
But geez, I hope the Mets weren’t overcome with the shakes that an experienced pitcher coming off a fine year was compensated well. I hope this doesn’t touch off another round of recriminations about how “scary” it is to pay for quality.
I hope the Mets find some good players, mostly. And I hope they don’t hide (or aren’t forced to hide) behind a new line of fiscal barriers and consign us to another season when the competitive lights are dimmed by August. Not having a Cano for more than dinner conversation is one thing. Not devoting sizable resources to a Choo or an Ellsbury is seated at the same supper as that one thing. But if we’re uncomfortably slinking away from the table that hosts the possibility of a Peralta or a Cruz…
Please serve us up somebody who will help us win measurably more games than the number to which we’ve become uncomfortably accustomed is all I’m asking of the Met waitstaff…y’know?
One other thought on Hawkins and Byrd: When Terry Collins was moving toward his inevitable naming of David Wright as captain in March, he mentioned that he planned to talk to both of those guys to get their input. Neither one had ever been a Met before Spring Training (and neither had played for this manager elsewhere) but Collins explained both men had been around, both saw how things operated in a plethora of clubhouses and he wanted to hear what they had to say on the subject of captaincies. Apparently neither LaTroy nor Marlon vetoed the idea.
Eight months later, neither player is a Met. I’m guessing new versions of wise old hands will materialize in St. Lucie, and if they stick with the team and make contributions, their comparatively callow teammates will swear by their humanity and the skipper will attest to their wisdom and we’ll feel good about those guys until they, too, have to get going. To a degree, that’s how the “industry” works for most players who cross to the far side of the rainbow. Only a handful of players receive the kind of eight-year contract David Wright was offered, and precious few don’t make you at least partially rue the dotted line on which it was signed.
I have no real actionable agenda regarding the circle of baseball life, except it does leave me to wonder if someday the Mets will keep somebody besides Wright around long enough to grow into a wise old hand on their watch.
The Mets signed a catcher to a seven-year, $91 million contract fifteen offseasons ago. On the night of June 30, 2000, it felt like the deal of the century. Watch here as Jason and I join a joyous SNY panel in recalling the eighth inning that produced ten runs of Braves-beating fun.