April 12, 2011
The BP Broadside
New Age Mets Mass-a-cree
It’s time to talk about the New York Mets’ season as if it’s already over, because that’s what responsible scribes are doing.
In the mid-1970s, the Mets anticipated the worst aspects of the latter day Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates. They had an ownership that was uninterested in running the club and largely delegated most decisions to the team chairman. The chairman was strictly a bottom line guy who couldn’t find the bottom line. He knew relatively little about baseball, and had apparently learned his communications skills from Heinrich Himmler. With attendance down and free agency, something the club was bitterly opposed to, coming in, the Mets decided to divest themselves of their biggest stars.
That decision, carried into action on June 15, 1977, was instantly and forever after known as “The Midnight Massacre.” The Mets took a player so identified with the team that he was called “The Franchise,” 32-year-old ace Tom Seaver, and dumped him on the Reds, then completed their self-immolation by taking Dave Kingman, a limited player but nonetheless one of their leading hitters, and threw him to the Padres for no return.
The Mets were not necessarily looking to rebuild or reload a team that had been of 90-win quality the year before; it seems more likely that the chairman, M. Donald Grant, was simply trying to rid himself of players whose contracts were up, had asked for more money, and had made it clear that they despised Grant personally. That said, let’s review how the Mets made out on the deals:
1. 1B/3B/OF Dave Kingman (28) for LHP Paul Siebert (24) and INF/OF Bobby Valentine (27).
Mets Five-Year WARP out: 11.3
Mets Five-Year WARP in: 0.9 (Siebert 0.9, Valentine 0.1)
2. RHP Tom Seaver (32) for INF Doug Flynn (26), OF Steve Henderson (24), OF Dan Norman (22), and RHP Pat Zachry (25).
Mets Five-Year WARP out: 16.2
Mets Five-Year WARP in: 6.8 (Henderson 10.4, Zachry 6.2, Norman -0.9, Flynn -8.9)
In part due to the missed opportunities presented by the Seaver and Kingman trades, the Mets lost over 90 games a year from 1977 through 1983 (they were on a pace to do so in the strike-shortened season of 1981). During these hopeless years, Shea Stadium became so depopulated that it was referred to as “Grant’s Tomb.”
This period, relieved only by the arrival of the now-greatly derided current ownership, should be kept in mind when visions of a 2011 Mets fire sale are contemplated. Trading Carlos Beltran seems like a no-brainer: he is in the last year of his contract, will turn 35 next spring, and, due to myriad knee problems, isn’t the player he used to be. There is very little reason to keep him, even (or especially) if he has a big year; should the Mets fail to contend, they may as well try to get whatever they can.
Similarly, one of the worst disasters that could befall the Mets this season would be to have Francisco Rodriguez’s $17.5 million option, which kicks in if he finishes 55 games this year, vest. Though only 30 next year, Rodriguez already has 10 seasons of mileage on his arm, throws with great effort, and has shown that he’s not going to win the Humanitarian of the Year award. As importantly, Rodriguez is already one of the highest-paid relievers in the game, and if his contract vests, he will vault to the top of the list, surpassing even the paycheck of the the Great Mariano. He would be an extravagance for even a good team, even if he were a better closer than the 83 percent saves conversion rate he had compiled with the Mets.
Neither of these players is a Seaver or even a Kingman, who for all his faults was good for nearly 40 home runs per 162 games played at a time when few players were hitting that many (the reason why his career WARP totals are positive despite miserable on-base percentages and negative defensive value). However, the third Met connected to trade rumors, shortstop Jose Reyes, may garner Seaver-like interest should he be put on the market.
Reyes is hardly a future first-ballot Hall of Famer like Seaver, something that many observers would have predicted for the pitcher even in 1977, but he is a rare commodity nonetheless due to his being an above-average hitter as a shortstop. Despite flaws that include susceptibility to injury and a walk rate that fluctuates more than the price of frozen concentrated orange juice, he has to be considered among the elite of his position as the fraternity is presently composed. As has often been observed, baseball is experiencing a deficit in the two-way shortstop department. Last season, there were just a handful who were significantly above-average at the position: Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, Rafael Furcal, Stephen Drew, and Reyes. If you want to consider shortstops who were above-average only if compared to other shortstops, you can throw Marco Scutaro onto the list.
It’s a thin group, and not every contender has quality at the position. The Yankees and Giants are trying to contend with players who are too old to play the position. The Rangers’ shortstop can field but, despite a rare home run this month, can’t hit (though Elvis Andrus may yet be three years away from his prime). Paul Janish is off to a Williams-esque start for the Reds, but they will be lucky if he loses only 200 points off his current .400 average. The Cardinals are suffering through a team-wide slump, but Ryan Theriot isn’t likely to be the hitter who pulls them out of it. As such, should Reyes stay healthy and merely match his career .286/.335/.433 rates along with his typically adequate defense, he will be correctly perceived as a player who could put a club in a close race over the top.
In concept, then, the Mets should be able to command a decent return for Reyes, but three factors complicate matters: (1) He might not be willing to forego free agency to sign with an acquiring team, (2) as the Seaver-Kingman example shows, just because you trade a good player doesn’t mean you get equivalent value back, and (3) if the Mets intend to contend anytime soon, they’re going to have to do so without a shortstop, because there is no one else. The same shortage that would make Reyes an attractive acquisition target would likely prohibit them from picking up a suitable replacement.
The Mets do have a potential replacement shortstop in the minors in Ruben Tejada, but the then-20-year-old hardly impressed in his 78-game audition last summer, hitting just .213/.305/.282. Given his age, he has time to add some hitting authority should his tools permit it, but he has a long way to go to match Reyes. Wilmer Flores lurks further down in the system, but both his bat and his ability to remain at his position remain in doubt.
Reyes is only in his age-28 season this year. A five-year-contract would take him only to 33. The original Midnight Massacre proved to be a self-inflicted killing, sending the Mets on a downward spiral that would require six years and a change of ownership to resolve. If they want to avoid having history repeat, they would be wiser to hold back Reyes when Rodriguez and Beltran hit the road. If ownership has left any change in the piggy bank by trading deadline, it would be far wiser to withdraw a couple of coppers and sign him to an extension.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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