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Better Player, Better Team?

The Mets are signing somebody [1]! Cue the applause!

I’m clapping, and not just politely, to my mild surprise. I’m all for the Mets securing the services of better players, and I’m fairly certain Curtis Granderson is better than what they had before they got him. Perhaps because I didn’t expect the Mets to actually get him — or anybody of note — I wasn’t all that enthused when he became The Guy a few days ago, a transformation that seemed rooted in his ordering a celebrated plate of salmon and the sense that with everybody else [2] doing something, why weren’t we?

Now that something’s been done, what the hell, I’m more or less on board. The more should be obvious, given what Granderson’s accomplished in the not altogether distant past. Why the less? Well…he was severely limited by injury last season; he’s beyond traditional “prime” age; he’s guaranteed maybe one year too many for our comfort; he’s changing addresses to dimensions that might not really play to his strengths [3]; and I am plagued by the nagging feeling that if something can go wrong for the Mets, it will go wrong for the Mets.

Those were my concerns before Curtis Granderson said yes to the Mets. With a reported $60 million committed over the next four years, those are still my concerns.

But we did something. We got a better player than anything we had in his neck of the field when 2013 ended and 2014 approached. The economics wouldn’t be worth talking about, given that economics [4] have blowed up real good [5] throughout baseball, except these are the Mets and budgetary implications aren’t just the stuff of lip service. I’m still in the dark about whether paying Granderson an average of $15 million a year over the next four years will represent an untenable burden in the Land of Wilpon.

I didn’t worry about those things when Mike Piazza, Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana were all lavished in riches for what were considered, in their day, luxurious long-term deals. I never complained about their lengths, either, not even when they crossed into albatross territory. Those guys were each signed to do more than merely “something”. Piazza (seven years) and Santana (six) were convinced, respectively to stay with and join contenders and, to my mind, did all they could do up front, making their back-end decline the unfortunate cost of doing serious business. Pedro’s four years seemed excessive, as they were tendered at one of those rare moments in the sport when sanity had seeped into executive thinking and almost no starters were being signed for more than three years at a time. Pedro was marquee-level Pedro for only his first season-and-a-half, but that’s what he had to be when he had to be it most, and his presence and performance made a massive difference in the big Met picture he entered.

Granderson is not the kind of megastar those guys were. The Mets don’t point and click on such upscale merchandise anymore. But Curtis — first-name basis OK? — is star enough in this market and, I’ll say again, he’s an upgrade in the post-Byrd world the Mets had been living in. If Granderson gives us a couple of seasons akin to what Byrd gave us over five months of 2013, and does it from the left side, that will be highly valuable. Of course it won’t be as cost-effective as Byrd’s output was, but when we’re focused on the games, we’re rarely calculating price unless someone expensive is exhausting our patience.

Which inevitably brings us back to if something can go wrong it will go wrong or, to use the convenient Met shorthand, Jason Bay. That isn’t fair to Granderson, no matter that Baseball-Reference’s comps [6] suggest the two outfielders hold very similar statistical profiles. They’re different people and different players, even if the circumstances of their arriving as Mets feel of a piece. By December 2009, the Mets didn’t really know what they were doing, so they defaulted to doing something. I kind of thought [7] buying Bay would work. It didn’t. Now that I’m spooked that grabbing Granderson won’t work, maybe it will.

How’s that for insightful analysis?

Let’s go out on a limb and decide Granderson won’t be Piazza 2000 but won’t be Bay 2010, either. Let’s assume Granderson is simply a pretty decent version of Granderson while he’s 33 and 34 in the first two years of contract. Let’s assume that’s better than running Andrew Brown into the outfield, to name a low-profile survivor of 2013 who started 27 games in left or right. Let’s assume that means maybe not as many homers runs as he popped into the infamous short porch slightly to our north but a Byrd-plus figure in the upper 20s. Let’s throw in his established glove, his extra-base power and whatever you want to assign to his undisputed good-guy intangibles.

Do all that and pencil in a (presumably) healthy Curtis Granderson for a couple of very fine seasons. What does that do for the Mets in 2014 and 2015?

I don’t know.

It’s better than seasons that aren’t very fine from a player who is less credentialed or capable. But what does it do if these are the blah Mets we expected plus Granderson? It’s the same philosophical quandary I encountered a decade ago when the Mets were reported hot and heavy on the trail of Vladimir Guerrero for five minutes. (Except Guerrero was close to his all-world peak and the numbers being thrown around were period-reasonable.) All I could think was “the Mets suck…if they get Guerrero, they’ll still suck, but they’ll have Guerrero, and he’s really good.”

The Mets needed more than one guy then — even if he really was The Guy — and they need that now. Otherwise, you’re talking about something along the lines of Willie Montañez coming to a dreadful Mets club in 1978, driving in almost 100 runs (which was the be-all and end-all of stats in those days) and the Mets being just a tad less dreadful than they were in 1977. Or, to borrow an example my blogging partner mentioned the other day [8], albeit I’m sure in a differently intended context, you have Cliff Floyd in 2003 and 2004. Floyd was a good player who had, basically, good Cliff Floyd seasons. He was productive when he played, he was held back by injuries both years and the Mets were, give or take an embarrassing contretemps here and there, as dreadful as they were in 2002. Floyd came around for a Monsta [9] year in 2005, which dovetailed with the additions of Martinez and Beltran and the blossoming of Wright and Reyes. He was 32 and in the third year of his four-year deal. The timing was great as the Mets leapt into legitimate Wild Card contention.

A year later, Floyd was hurt again and struggled. The Mets were much better overall and you didn’t really notice, if you were inclined not to want to, that Cliff wasn’t truly helping the cause. It wasn’t until he came up to pinch-hit in arguably the most dissected ninth inning in New York Mets history, Game Seven’s in the 2006 NLCS, that I realized how little I wanted our hobbled heretofore hero up in such a stressful situation.

It always comes back to October 19, 2006, in these parts, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the point, I think, is if you’re gonna pay as much as the Mets are paying Curtis Granderson, you want to believe there’s a high purpose to it. It was fun to watch Montañez drive in runs in ’78 and it was swell to see Floyd go on a pre-DL tear in ’03, but the team was still lousy. You didn’t really think about pound-per-dollar production where either of them was concerned because neither of them had been meaningfully framed as The Guy in the preceding offseason, not to the extent that we were led to believe either of them would make a ginormous difference in our lives.

Granderson, as old this coming Opening Day as Floyd was in 2006, seems to be exactly that at this December juncture, but that’s a function of the inflationary marketplace for available talent and probably as unfair as deciding he’s Bay after Bay became a synonym for everything going wrong. Problem is that without substantially more help, the Harvey-free 2014 Mets aren’t likely to contend. I wouldn’t hazard a guess about what lies beyond Opening Day 2015, except that once it gets here, Granderson will be 34. If we’re willing to believe in young pitching, speedy recoveries and a lack of prohibitive financial constraints, it’s not unreasonable to dream we might really make a run at a playoff spot by 2016 and be honest-to-goodness championship timber by 2017.

At which point Granderson will be 35 and 36 and be owed an average of $15 million annually and still employed by those wonderful folks whose last half-decade has been brought to us by Bernie Madoff.

Is there enough in the till to find enough help to make Granderson more than just an enhanced 2013 Byrd while we’re killing time wandering the competitive desert? Does this front office have the skill to parlay finite resources into infinite improvement? Did the plucking of Byrd and LaTroy Hawkins constitute the bulk of their luck for this decade? Is Granderson-Lagares-Young going to be an outfield that inspires absolutely no “what outfield” jibes?

What of the other Young and first base and shortstop and the fourth and fifth starters and who’s gonna close and close effectively if Parnell is slow to heal and is d’Arnaud gonna hit and will Murphy remain a Met long enough to make his date as the Mets’ designated Santa Claus given that it’s a role usually filled by a player who is about to be stuffed in a sack and boosted up the chimney with great care?

We’re getting into the details, and the details are potentially fun when you think you’re going in the right direction. I hope Curtis Granderson constitutes a one-way sign indicating a clear path to a club that every day in every way keeps getting better and better.

Obtaining a better player should seem like a surefire start toward that goal. With the Mets, though, I never can quite tell.