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November 4, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Sandy's The Man

by Jay Jaffe

Last week, the Mets took a bold step away from four years of ever-increasing disappointment and organizational chaos by hiring Sandy Alderson to succeed Omar Minaya as their general manager. The soon-to-be-63-year-old Alderson, who spent 15 years as the GM of the Oakland Athletics, was by far the most experienced candidate in a field which also included former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes, former Royals GM Allard Baird, White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, Dodgers assistant GM Logan White, and Blue Jays special assistant Dana Brown. Perhaps just as importantly, Alderson is the first Mets GM to ascend to the post from outside the organization since Frank Cashen in 1980. He is a fresh start for an organization in desperate need of one.

Minaya spent six years at the helm of the Mets, and while the team won at a .520 clip and came within one victory of reaching the 2006 World Series, it found much more disappointment than joy on his watch. The 2007 and 2008 Mets both suffered late-season collapses that ended with them being knocked out of the playoff picture on the final day of the season. The former blew a seven-game lead over the final 17 games; by Nate Silver's calculations, that was the second-worst collapse in major-league history. The latter blew a 3 1/2-game lead in the same timeframe during a tumultuous season which saw Minaya fire manager Willie Randolph and two coaches in the dead of night while the team was on the West Coast.

As if bearing the psychological scars of those collapses, the 2009 and 2010 Mets both slipped under .500 while being hamstrung by plagues of injuries which took on biblical proportions while affecting the organization's biggest stars save for David Wright (Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Johan Santana, Jason Bay, Francisco Rodriguez) as well as key supporting cast members such as John Maine and Luis Castillo. The 2009 club led the majors with 1,451 days on the disabled list and $52.2 million of salary lost; the 2010 squad was sixth with 929 days lost (comparable salary figures aren't available at this time). The effects of those injuries were compounded by internal disputes involving medical prognoses and failures to reckon with their impact on organizational depth. Meanwhile, Minaya's regime was further undermined by ugly altercations which spilled over into the tabloids (vice president of player development Tony Bernazard challenging minor-league players to fight, closer Rodriguez injuring himself while attacking the father of his common-law wife), and public relations gaffes which made those matters worse, such as the GM's attempt to deflect attention away from Bernazard's firing by accusing New York Daily News reporter Adam Rubin of lobbying for a job within the organization.

All of this happened while the Mets spent more money on payroll than any National League team:

 

Rk

Team

2005-2010 avg

1

Yankees

$201.6

2

Red Sox

$134.0

3

Mets

$123.2

4

Cubs

$113.5

5

Angels

$108.1

6

Phillies

$104.4

7

Tigers

$103.8

8

White Sox

$101.6

9

Dodgers

$100.7

10

Mariners

$97.5

 

Of course, the Mets were spending more money than any NL team before Minaya came along as well; they had the NL's top opening day payroll in 2003 and 2004, too. But Minaya handed out free agent contracts ranging from ghastly to merely vastly overpriced to the likes of Rodriguez, Bay, Castillo, and Oliver Perez on top of bigger deals to Beltran, Santana and Pedro Martinez which didn't age well. At the same time, his club received an ever-diminishing share of its production from players on non-market salaries, those in their pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible years—the testaments to a productive farm system and the building blocks of an affordable ballclub. On just about every front, this was a rotting apple for the Big Apple.

Into the breach steps Alderson, a former Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam and is a graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard Law School. After working as a lawyer in San Francisco, he joined the Oakland organization as its general counsel in 1981, helped with arbitration cases, and took over as its general manager in 1983, an unorthodox move by team president Roy Eisenhardt. As an outsider who lacked a baseball background, Alderson had taken an interest in the nascent field of what later became known as "sabermetrics" long before joining the A's, even going so far as to order Bill James' self-published Baseball Abstracts via adsin the back of The Sporting News. Once with the A's, he happened across the work of Eric Walker, a former consultant for the Giants who had published a short book called The Sinister First Baseman and Other Observations which above all else stressed the value of not making outs, emphasizing on-base percentage as the key offensive measure.

Alderson hired Walker as a consultant, and though the A's didn't meet with much success in the mid-'80s—they didn't even reach .500 until 1987—he kept Walker's philosophies in mind when it came to drafting and player acquisition, building the A's into a dynasty that won four AL West titles, three pennants and one World Series from 1988-92. Alderson didn't do it alone; longtime scouting director Dick Bogard, farm director Walt Jocketty, and manager Tony LaRussa certainly played key roles in the A's not-so-sudden success. Players such as Terry Steinbach, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss were drafted on his watch, and prodigal son Rickey Henderson–whom Alderson had traded in 1985—returned to the fold. Those dynastic A's finished in the league's top three in OBP in all four years they made the postseason despite playing in a notorious pitchers' park. Alderson's approach didn't go unnoticed elsewhere, either. Yankees executive Gene Michael, who ran the team during George Steinbrenner's suspension, took note and sowed the seeds of the Joe Torre dynasty of the late '90s. The Red Sox have similarly built upon such a philosophy, and so have other teams as well. What was once radical is now at least somewhat conventional.

The A's fortunes took a downturn after 1992, as injuries and free agency took their toll, and budgets tightened as the team changed hands from Walter Haas, Jr., who'd bought the A's from Charley Finley in 1980, to Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman. It was here that what's become known as the Moneyball philosophy was truly born. As quoted in Michael Lewis' landmark 2003 book, "We had new owners who weren't going to spend any money... They made it clear that this had to be a business. And so we suddenly were put in the position of: we can only afford a one-tool player. Which tool is it going to be?"

Drawing on Walker's work, Alderson's answer was the ability to get on base, and he implemented his organizational philosophy throughout the A's minor-league system. Again quoting Lewis, Alderson's approach had three core rules:

1. Every batter needs to behave like a leadoff man, and adopt as his main goal getting on base.

2. Every batter should also possess the power to hit home runs, in part because home run power forced opposing pitchers to pitch more cautiously, and led to walks and high on-base percentages.

3. To anyone with the natural gifts to become a professional baseball player, hitting was less a physical than a mental skill. Or at any rate, the aspects of hitting that could be taught were mental.

While Alderson's views were implemented in the A's minor-league system with relatively little resistance, they sometimes clashed with those of LaRussa, who departed for St. Louis after the 1995 season. Alderson hired Art Howe to succeed him, with the specific instructions to put his philosophy into practice. After the 1997 season, Alderson moved upstairs to the team presidency, handing over the GM reins to Billy Beane, an all-too-toolsy former player who'd found the religion of Walker's OBP-first approach while working as Alderson's assistant.

The A's would go on to make the playoffs five times from 2000-06, but Alderson left the organization after 1998 to work in the commissioner's office as Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations, where he oversaw umpiring, on-field operations, security and facility management. He helped expand baseball internationally, securing MLB's cooperation with the historic games between the Orioles and the Cuban National Team in 1999 and the 2000 Summer Olympics, and created MLB academies in Australia and Italy. He left MLB to become the chief executive officer of the Padres in 2005, overseeing a team that won back-to-back NL West flags in 2005 and 2006 (a franchise first), and helping to bring the inaugural World Baseball Classic to San Diego. He left San Diego in 2009 as the team was sold to Jeff Moorad, and most recently worked for the commissioner's office in reforming operations in the Dominican Republic, specifically addressing issues of corruption.

Alderson brings that impressive resume to the Mets via a four-year deal with an option for a fifth year. As an outsider who's succeeded by doing things his way, he's not beholden to whatever entrenched factions exist in the team's front office. While he may run into obstacles—chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, who's been accused of meddling in the team's day-to-day operations, being potentially the largest one—his hiring indicates that at least one of the Wilpons understands the need to implement a coherent philosophy and demand accountability. You don't hire Billy Martin to sing your team lullabies, and you don't hire Sandy Alderson to kiss somebody's ass. You hire him to kick it, but hopefully it doesn't come to that.

Some may see the hiring of Alderson instead of a younger gun like Byrnes (the other finalist for the job), Hahn (another popular candidate) or the Rangers' Jon Daniels (who may or may not have been interested in the job but was occupied by the World Series) as a missed opportunity for the Mets to find their own version of Epstein—a wunderkind who can be there for the long haul. But even the most cursory look at Alderson's background shows that he successfully mentored not only Beane but also Jocketty (the GM of seven division winners and one world champion in St. Louis from 1996-2007, not to mention the division-winning 2010 Reds), Ron Schueler (a special assistant in Oakland and the GM of three division-winning White Sox teams from 1991-2000), and J.P. Ricciardi (Toronto's GM from 2002-09). Assistant GM John Ricco, who some feel should have been a candidate to succeed Minaya, and who gets high marks for his ego-free style while drawing comparison to Daniels, could in fact be an ideal successor for Alderson to mentor.

But Alderson isn't simply content to work only with what's currently on hand. He's already brought Ricciardi aboard as a special assistant, and for whatever you might say about the man's caustic waysand profligate spending in Toronto, he did build some surprisingly strong teams in an exceptionally tough division, and he's well known as having a good eye for talent. Alderson is also rumoredto be interested in both Grady Fuson (the A's scouting director from 1995-2001, and then the Padres' VP of scouting and player development under Alderson from 2005-09) and Paul DePodesta, another former Oakland exec who went on to serve as the Dodgers GM in 2004 and 2005, overseeing one division winner, and who joined Alderson in San Diego as well.

The first big task Alderson faces, however, is to hire a manager. Feisty former Met Wally Backman, who piloted the team's Low-A Brooklyn affiliate, may have been the favorite prior to the new GM's hiring, but he hardly fits the model of the level-headed, low-profile operator who will subordinate himself to the front office's vision. Mets first base coach Dave Jauss, who has experience managing in the minors as well as serving as a coach for the Dodgers and Red Sox, and former Diamondbacks and Mariners manager Bob Melvin were lined up to be interviewed this week. Third base coach Chip Hale, who spent five years managing in the Diamondbacks chain, is another candidate, and other names such as former Mariners skipper (and former A's bench coach) Don Wakamatsu and former Blue Jays pilot John Gibbons may be candidates as well. A return engagement with Bobby Valentine, on the other hand, is out of the question.

Alderson and his new manager inherit a team that under Minaya and Jerry Manuel was going about the business of scoring runs in the most ass-backwards way possible. The 2010 Mets ranked 13th in the NL in scoring (4.05 runs per game) and 12th in True Average (.257) thanks in large part to their dead-last .314 on-base percentage, a function both of a low batting average (.249, 13th in the league) and the league's fifth-lowest unintentional walk rate (7.3 percent). While injuries and pitcher-friendly CitiField certainly played their parts in those rankings, Manuel's penchant for smallball (37 sacrifice hits by position players, fourth in the league) and Minaya's low-OBP choices to fill lineup vacancies with hackers such as Rod Barajas (.263 OBP), Jeff Francoeur (.293) and middle-infield fill-ins Alex Cora (.265) and Ruben Tejada (.305) are antithetical to an Alderson-style approach.

Alderson takes over knowing that the Wilpons aren't expecting any quick fixes. He'll have his hands full trying to rebuild his roster around the Mets' walking wounded, most of whom are carrying salaries that preclude their being made somebody else's problem anytime soon. Bay didn't play after July 25 due to a concussion (one that not surprisingly was mishandled by the team). Beltran was limited to 64 games due to chronic knee woes that could prevent him from playing regularly in center field. Reyes, who was limited to 36 games in 2009, played in 133 games after returning from a thyroid imbalance, but posted a .321 OBP, 34 points lower than his 2006-09 mark. Rodriguez is coming off surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb. Santana underwent surgery—open, not arthroscopic—to repair a tear in the anterior capsule of his shoulder, an injury which may prevent him from being ready by Opening Day and could keep him out until midseason. Assuming Alderson chooses to bring back R.A. Dickey—one of the team's few bright spots last year, and one of Minaya's more inspiring finds—the Mets have at least one other rotation vacancy to fill behind Santana, Mike Pelfrey, and Jonathan Niese; Perez, in the final year of his three-year, $36 million deal, is best dealt with as a sunk cost.

The Mets' roster has several other holes to fill as well, and no shortage of questions that need answering. But exactly how Alderson will tackle the myriad problems he faces is less the issue during the first week of November than the knowledge that for the first time in all too long, the Mets are in good hands.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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