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Spare Parts and Broken Hearts

“This is Country Time lemonade mix. There’s never been anything close to a lemon in it, I swear!”
—Kid from Shelbyville, “Lemon of Troy,” The Simpsons

Upset that the Mets don’t have a plan? Please. The Mets have never had anything close to a plan in them.

I swear.

It would be too easy to say “plan” is a four-letter word to the Mets. I’d say it’s a no-letter word, given that the Mets plan nothing where baseball is concerned. Nothing from nothing, as Billy Preston advised us [1] in 1974, leaves nothing. And you gotta have something if you plan to win again in our lifetimes.

By win again, I mean a title, though at this point I’d settle for a game.

Wednesday night, the Mets seemed close to snapping their losing streak that has now reached four [2] but feels like forty. When the brainlessness of Mike Jacobs and the carelessness of Jose Reyes combined to let pitcher Aaron Cook score from third with two out and give the Rockies a 5-3 lead in the fourth, I braced for the worst. I braced for 2009 because that was a play straight out of last year.

What had kept my spirits from sinking through the wan homestand was that even though the Mets were losing, it was standard-issue losing. It wasn’t the fall down in left, don’t touch third, I GOT IT! I GOT IT! I don’t got it ineptitude that defined the previous season. It was a teamwide LOB slump that was bound to turn and mediocre starting pitching that could be attributed to arms still loosening (if you believe in the arm fairy). They didn’t look great, but they didn’t appear irretrievably irredeemable.

Then came the third inning Tuesday night, the Rockies leading 3-0, Maine struggling but surviving. Clint Barmes bounces one hard to the pitcher. The pitcher knocks it down. Alas, the bouncer knocks the pitcher down at the same time. The pitcher crawls, lunges, grabs and throws the ball somewhere toward Fort Collins. Two runs score to make it 5-0 and, six pitches/two Smiths later, it’s 8-0.

Seven games into 2010, and the Mets recalled 2009 from their Hades farm club. To make room on the roster, they designated immediate hope for assignment.

Of course the Mets would go on to lose 11-3 and look every bit the 2-5 team they were becoming. There was even a Dodger Stadium-style outfield interlude [3] in the eighth. Last year it was Beltran and Pagan so successfully calling each other off Xavier Paul’s fly ball to deep left center that Paul wound up on second. Tuesday night, with Pagan in center and Bay in left, there was a replay of sorts, with the Jason the kind Canadian and Angel the polite Puerto Rican each practicing international diplomacy on Miguel Olivo’s similarly placed fly.

Sir, I would not deny you the pleasure of catching…

No, my good man, I cannot possibly allow myself to overstep…

Forgive my interruption, but truly that ball belongs to…

Now I will risk terrible uncouthness and interrupt you to say, really, I want you to have…

Olivo wound up on second. He didn’t score, but the point was made. The Mets sucked this year as they sucked last year. And the point was underscored again last night when Jacobs didn’t think to look Cook back to third and Reyes didn’t think to look up from not quite tagging out Dexter Fowler (who wasn’t too bright, either, but he’s Colorado’s problem) at second. While Mike and Jose weren’t thinking, Aaron was crossing the plate with the fifth Rockie run. It was 5-3 and I fully expected the floodgates to not so much open as come unhinged.

When they didn’t — when it remained 5-3 under the auspices of the Mets’ suspiciously effective bullpen — I began to have a feeling we weren’t quite dead. This was a game the 2009 Mets would have thrown away by the sixth or so inning. But Valdes bailed out Niese, Nieve bailed out himself, and two non-’09 Mets, Bay and Barajas, built themselves a run in the seventh. Feliciano was felicitous in the eighth, setting the stage for the top of the ninth when the Mets were the beneficiaries, not the instigators, of some shoddy defense. Gary Matthews was hilariously credited with an infield hit; he took off for second and wound up on third when Chris Ianetta’s throw just kept going. Luis Castillo brought Matthews home with a fly ball.

Igarashi kept things tied through nine, the fifth consecutive scoreless inning posted by Met pitching dating back to Niese’s last. When Jacobs launched a deep fly to right through that thin Coors Field air, it seemed the tables had finally and definitively turned in the 2010 Mets’ favor. Except the ball hit the high scoreboard, which was fine, and Jacobs had broken into a home run trot, which wasn’t. He stood on second with one out when he could have been standing on third.

Advantage Rockies — and 2009 Mets.

Everything after that was fairly predictable. Our best hitter, Francoeur, would be walked to set up a double play. In the midst of Barajas batting, Tatis was sent in to pinch-run for Jacobs. Tatis’s talents are limited, but I’d take his bat over his feet. Barajas grounds out, Tatis is on third, Francouer is on second and Cora comes up. Cora could have pinch-run and Tatis could have hit. Instead, Jerry Manuel went the characteristically unorthodox route.

It didn’t work. Nothing ever works. Cora hit a soft liner to second to end the threat. Ianetta made up for his lousy throw against Matthews by ending the game by taking Jenrry Mejia to school. As we learned long ago from ex-Rockie ace Mike Hampton, Denver has awesome schools.

So it’s 2009 again. Or maybe it’s 1992, the last time the Mets lurched to a 2-6 start. That season turned out so well that it was immortalized in its very own book, The Worst Team Money Could Buy, co-authored by John Harper, who continues to write for the Daily News and has, in today’s paper, a story on how Joel Piñeiro — 1 ER in 7 IP against the Yankees yesterday — sure would have liked to have been a Met, but said the Mets’ approach toward obtaining his services was “just weird” [4]. Joel would have liked a million dollars more than the Mets were offering (an annual sum less than that currently being deposited in Kelvim Escobar’s account) but they never really got their act together. Like the man said, weird.

Was Piñeiro the answer? Were any of the free agent pitchers the Mets passed on answers? I don’t know, since I’m just a fan, but it’s obvious Omar Minaya and his merry band of talent evaluators didn’t know, either. They didn’t have an idea, and from a distance, it appears they didn’t have a plan.

Because they never have a plan. The Mets never have anything close to a plan. The Mets just take shots at players and hope some of them work out. This isn’t hyperbole. This is how the Mets have operated for more than a decade. Sometimes the pants-seat method pays off — fire sale Marlins, Quadruple-A journeymen finding themselves, high-priced free agents whose first year as Mets are their last years as topline stars. It’s great when the dice are rolled and come up sevens and elevens. It’s not so great when the Mets throw whatever at the wall and nothing sticks.

Not much is sticking at the moment. Jeff Francoeur wasn’t a plan, he was a division rival’s project, yet thus far the project has developed into something sturdy. Rod Barajas wasn’t a plan. He was approximately the third catcher, after Bengie Molina and Yorvit Torrealba, the Mets tried to convince to come aboard, and they seem to have found the charm. The various relievers who’ve not made us regret their innings weren’t a plan. They were inventory, to use of one of those charming Mets front office words for when they’re stockpiling and hoping to not run out of arms.

When things work out, nobody really questions how they came to be. Nobody cared in the late ’90s that Al Leiter and Dennis Cook weren’t the result of charts, graphs and scouting; we were just happy to scoop them up when Wayne Huizenga was going out of business. Nobody except hard asses with Players Association cards in their fat wallets cared that Rick Reed came out of nowhere in 1997. We were just thrilled that he chose to arrive as a Met. When Pedro Martinez in 2005 and Billy Wagner in 2006 did their best work immediately, not a lot of us wondered and worried about the years that remained on their pacts.

But when things don’t work, everything is up for grabs and under the microscope. That’s reasonable. We don’t have wins, so we want answers. If we have answers but not wins, we’ll want heads. That’s also reasonable. We’re not in this to be or fully satisfied by process or more than temporarily distracted by potential. We want to be 6-2, not 2-6. If we’re 2-6, we want a hint that we won’t be 4-12 before long. When we’re 2-6, we can’t believe we won’t be 2-160.

Ideally we’d like some long-range telescope that can see past whatever morass has semi-conditioned us to accept 2010 as a regrettable holding action against the promise of 2011, but in the Age of Minaya, there is no next year, just more of last year. And the year before that.

How the Mets nearly won the National League East or a Wild Card spot in 2008 continues to defy understanding. We had five great players — Reyes, Wright, Beltran, Delgado and Santana — playing great, and a cast of thousands slipping through Shea’s last set of revolving doors. I bring this up not just for hits and giggles but because I noticed something recently among one of the many Met lists I keep.

Every year there are players who make their major league debut as Mets. They are what an online acquaintance calls Born A Met. Conversely, every year there are players who play their last major league games as Mets. They are what this same gentleman calls Died A Met (died in the Jim Bouton sense of the word from the April 14, 1969 entry in Ball Four: “I died tonight. I got sent to Vancouver.”). This happens on every team every year, nothing unusual in that. Every player is going to debut somewhere, every player is going to stop playing somewhere, though that’s usually a trickier proposition. Few players take Ripkenesque farewell tours. They play until nobody wants them.

The thing I noticed in retrospect about the 2008 Mets is — pending any unforeseen comebacks — twelve different players played their last major league games in our uniform (not counting two youngsters, Eddie Kunz and Carlos Muniz, who were up in ’08 and are still in our system but haven’t been on the Mets since). None of them, from what I could tell, was bowing out gracefully. They were hanging on and, if somebody else would have had them, they’d still be hanging. Some are still doing so in minor, independent and foreign leagues. But two years later, twelve of them have been out of the major leagues for more than a full season and don’t show tangible signs of making it back

That’s a lot of players taking their last halting lap on the same team, a lot of players nobody wanted after we had them. As many players Died A Met in 2008 as Died A Met in 1963. That indicates the Mets of two years ago grasped at a lot of spare parts to fill in when they got desperate. They got desperate a lot in 2008, which is what they’ve been fairly often in the Minaya Era. (We can’t determine for sure yet all who Died A Met in 2009 as some not presently active aren’t technically prohibitively done [5].) It implies this is the way they’ve been doing business and it’s the way they still think.

In case you’re wondering, these were the 2008 Mets (besides Kunz and Muñiz, who still have a conceivable shot at returning) who haven’t been major leaguers since they were 2008 Mets:

• Brady Clark

• Gustavo Molina*

• Matt Wise

• Abraham Nuñez

• Raul Casanova

• Moises Alou

• Trot Nixon

• Tony Armas, Jr.

• Chris Aguila

• Brandon Knight

• Ricardo Rincon

• Damion Easley

Individually, Alou was supposed to be the starting left fielder, but age and injury took him out. Easley inherited second base for a spell, but age and injury took him out. The rest were essentially a series of stopgap moves. Collectively, the dozen Mets who nobody else has placed on a major league roster since totaled a 2008 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) rating of -1.0. That’s roughly a quarter of your players  — the Mets used 50 in 2008 — who were statistically disposable at best.

That’s not a plan. That’s the scrap heap come to life. That’s bad luck as the residue of lack of design. That’s hoping for the best and expecting nothing in particular. That’s not even accounting for journeymen like Argenis Reyes and Ramon Martinez and Robinson Cancel whose journeys would continue with the 2009 Mets. Even as we understand injuries take a toll and spit happens and all of that, the Mets under Minaya have constructed the planet’s busiest space shuttle. They shuttle used players in and out, and a lot of space is taken up in the process.

That’s the background. The foreground is the annual splashy winter signing: Santana prior to ’08, Rodriguez in advance of ’09, Jason Bay for 2010. They and the “core” pieces in the Metropolitan collection give us reason to believe the Mets can be pretty good. Most of the background players — truly “extras” in the Ricky Gervais [6] sense — ensure we probably won’t be.

Is it early? Is it not early [7]? It almost doesn’t matter, ’cause it’s almost always like this.

*Molina returned to the majors in 2010 with the injury-plagued, catching-strapped Red Sox.