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October 22, 2011

The BP Wayback Machine

Closing the Book on Omar Minaya

by Marc Normandin

If you had to script an end to the Omar Minaya era in Queens, you couldn't have outdone reality: Oliver Perez, the $12 million-a-year albatross in the Mets' rotation, pitching for the first time in a month on the last day of the season, promptly walked three straight batters to send the Mets home losers in extra innings. A sarcastic chant of “M-V-P” followed the first out that Perez recorded during the debacle, and illustrated how fed up the fanbase was—not just with Perez, but with everything the pitcher and his contract represented.

Perez embodies so much that was wrong with the mindset of the Mets’ previous administration under general manager Minaya. The Mets gave Minaya his first genuine GM job, since his mandate as the league-appointed guardian of the dying Montreal Expos had included overseeing a form of organizational euthanasia, as opposed to the involuntary manslaughter he could be convicted of for bringing the Mets' roster to its knees. While he had his successes in New York, there were far more misses, and they all came back to one fundamental and repeated problem.

If serving as a general manager can be equated to shopping, then Minaya proved himself capable of doing two things at least adequately. Minaya could go into a high-end store and whip out his credit card, pointing at all of the shiny Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and Jason Bay baubles and having them wrapped up for the little Mets fans for Christmas. Minaya deserves some kudos for his salesmanship in convincing these stars to choose New York's other team, but signing them was not a matter of good taste, discernment, or insight—these were often the most obvious candidates for large free-agent contracts, and Minaya bought because the Mets had both the need and the budget.

Minaya also demonstrated the ability to dive into the dumpster behind that store and—after rifling through the garbage of others—occasionally come up with a Jose Valentin, Fernando Tatis, or (most recently) R.A. Dickey whom the Mets could utilize. Sure, they were a little used, and they may have had the stench of failure on them, but when employed correctly they had their uses. Minaya's bargain-hunting wasn't always successful, and sometimes the pieces he picked up stuck around longer than they should have or were already past their expiration date and beginning to decompose—Fernando Nieve comes to mind—but the GM had no problem rolling up his sleeve and shoving his arm into the waste basket on the off-chance that he might find something useful and free.

What Minaya could not do was shop intelligently at a store like Target, where someone who is wise with his money can come away with a lot of valuable items on the cheap. Minaya never got a handle on putting the finishing touches on his roster. Instead, he was more likely to come home with a $300 Margaritaville Mixer that the Mets didn’t really need, blowing his remaining budget and leaving his to-do list undone. Why spend $300 on something that makes margaritas when you can do that by hand, with just the cost of materials as the expense? Plus, with all of the moving parts in a machine like that, chances are good that it will break in a year and you won’t be able to fix it. Oliver Perez was Minaya’s margarita machine.

Considering the Mets' strong core, they should have been able to overcome injuries to players like Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran over the years, but with the roster's middle and lower tiers perennially talent-deprived, that proved an impossible task. Minaya rarely bought low on anything but a player who filled the back-end of the roster; the trade for Delgado and the exchange that netted the Mets Johan Santana were without question the best major moves made during Minaya's tenure, as in both cases he gave up little in comparison to what he acquired. Excluding those swaps, Minaya's transaction record reads like a litany of overpays for players with whom the team was already familiar (Luis Castillo, Oliver Perez) as well as high-priced free agents who weren’t worth the money (Francisco Rodriguez), and let’s not even get started on his obsession with unwieldy vesting options like the one that still looms in K-Rod's future. Minaya's overspending on mediocrity gave rise to scenarios wherein a player like Jeff Francoeur would be able to pick up at-bats on a consistent basis simply because he was inexpensive and available. While that may be a useful strategy for dating in high school, it’s not the way to build a championship roster.

In addition to wasting dollars, the Mets expended outs by the truckload; those are two finite resources that a team can’t afford to give away, especially in tandem. Last season was no exception to this trend, as the Mets awarded 40 percent of their plate appearances to players with True Averages of .250 or worse (.260 is average). That was the National League's highest percentage, earning a place in the company of teams like the Astros, Nationals, and Pirates. Drop the threshold to a .240 TAv, and the Mets shift to third in the NL.

It’s not like the players whom the Mets employed showcased fine defense to make up for their offensive inadequacies, as they finished eighth in the National League (and 17th in the majors) in Defensive Efficiency. In a park geared toward run prevention, the Mets employed a team full of players who couldn’t field, and paired them with a staff that leaned on pitchers like Perez to succeed. This came on the heels of Minaya’s comments to the media that he wanted to focus on pitching and defense to succeed, which suggests that he might have needed a refresher on what makes a player a quality defender or useful pitcher if he isn't a high-priced free agent.

Manager Jerry Manuel was sent packing along with Minaya this past offseason, and while he was no master tactician, he wasn’t given enough from upstairs to be able to feign adequacy, either. That doesn’t excuse his consistent oddities, such as his obsession with Defined Roles for players. Second basemen batted second in Manuel lineups, even if they were offensively-challenged like Castillo and Alex Cora. David Wright struck out too much to bat third in Manuel’s mind, so Beltran would have batted third—ergo, when Beltran was out, replacement center fielder Angel Pagan hit third. Frank Catalanotto, who was last seen hitting four years and three teams ago, batted cleanup in between Mike Jacobs' designation for assignment and Ike Davis' call-up, just because he happened to be playing first base that day, and that is where first basemen were expected to hit. Manuel actually called for Luis Castillo to lay down a sacrifice bunt against Joe Mather when the outfielder was on the mound in an extra-innings game in April, a decision wrong on so many levels that it's tempting to set aside a 31st chapter of this book just to talk about it.

Minaya was been replaced by Sandy Alderson, who then hired former general managers J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta to be his right- and left-hand men in a new-look front office, and Manuel was exchanged for Terry Collins after a long and well-publicized succession of managerial interviews. Alderson is best known for his role as Oakland's GM from 1983 to 1997, a successful stretch that included three pennants and a World Series victory, as well as his mentoring of current A's GM Billy Beane. After a stint as MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, Alderson returned to a front office in 2005, this time as the CEO of the San Diego Padres and part of a brain trust that included many former general managers working in concert. Ricciardi most recently worked as GM of the Toronto Blue Jays, and while his reign yielded some questionable moves and nary a playoff appearance, the foundation for the exciting Toronto club of today was laid during his time at the helm. DePodesta was Beane's top lieutenant in Oakland before becoming the short-lived GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He worked with Alderson in San Diego, and is renowned for his statistical and scouting acumen. Collins, a former minor-league shortstop, began his managerial career in 1981 and landed his first big-league managing job with the Astros in 1993. Houston's late-season collapse under Collins in 1996 is sure to be headline fodder for the shellshocked members of the Mets' beat given New York's recent history, as has been his loss of the Angels' clubhouse in 1999, but for a while he'll get bonus points by virtue of being someone other than Manuel.

Before a single decision could be made by the new guys, the Mets were obligated to set aside nearly $120 million in payroll distributed among eight players. There will be much more flexibility for this front office after the coming season, when Beltran, Perez, Jose Reyes and Castillo come off of the books; unless his option vests, Rodriguez will vanish then as well. Alderson and Co.’s first series of moves involved cutting costs and non-tendering non-vital pieces such as John Maine and Chris Carter. It was announced almost immediately that no long-term contracts would be handed out that might hamper the team's rebuilding efforts, just one more sign that the front office is waiting for next year to engineer a real overhaul.

The new regime's preference is for youngsters Jenrry Mejia and Ruben Tejada to spend a full season in Triple-A rather than rushing them to the majors or once again forcing Mejia into the bullpen for short-term gain, rather than letting him linger in the rotation with a view toward further development. This is different than the “accelerated development” program that Minaya had in place for prospects, a system that existed partially due to Minaya’s problems with filling out the back end of the roster through other means. The Mets don’t have much help coming from the farm in 2011, which represents another reason for the organization to wait to see what transpires in 2012 and react from there.

Despite his pronouncements to the contrary, Minaya did not build the team to be successful in Citi Field, a park that severely curtails home-run production. Alderson and DePodesta are both fresh off of making the Padres jibe with Petco, building a roster that worked in its environment rather than the one that they may have wanted to build, and Alderson has already stated that there are no plans to bring in the fences in Flushing. Having those two executives on hand to oversee the Mets' metamorphosis into a team that can use Citi to its advantage should make fans optimistic about the organization's future, especially since Alderson and DePodesta will have access to something they have rarely had the chance to use along with their baseball acumen: cold, hard cash.

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