December 9, 2011
Sunset in Flushing
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Jonathan Bernhardt is a freelance writer born in Baltimore who lives and works in New York City. He is an occasional contributor to the Et tu, Mr. Destructo? blog.
Jarrett Seidler is a life-long New York Mets fan and IT manager living in New Jersey, where he lives and works.
He hasn't overwhelmed the NL East so far, but few pitchers in their early 20s do. Niese's strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved every season; his first year in the majors, just under 44 percent of his pitches that were put in play were groundballs. Last year, 51.5 percent. This is exactly the sort of development a team wants to see, because groundball contact leads to an out almost 80 percent of the time, and by definition, it cannot clear the fences. Meanwhile, the percentage of plate appearances against him that end in a base on balls has dropped by half since he entered the league—from 11.6 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent in 2011. By his peripherals, he is a fine young pitcher for any team to have in the back of its rotation, and if his development continues, he'll be moving to the front quickly.
The Mets could use him up there. Ace Johan Santana missed the entire season with a shoulder injury that still hasn’t fully healed, and there's no way to say how good he'll be when he returns. After breakout knuckleball superstar R.A. Dickey, the Mets’ leaders in innings pitched in 2011 were Mike Pelfrey and Chris Capuano. Pelfrey is a headcase who throws a number of pitches, none of which consistently strikes batters out; Capuano has departed for the Los Angeles Dodgers in free agency. And as fantastic a story as R.A. Dickey is, a 36-year-old knuckleballer who started being effective only two years ago is almost the definition of unprojectable.
The Mets had a bad 2011, and Niese is exactly the kind of commodity an established team in the biggest sports market in the world covets as it tries to bounce back into contention: young and talented, with another season of team control before arbitration. Even as a back-of-the-rotation starter, he is promising and cheap enough to allow the team to focus its short-term payroll on other roster spots. Factoring in his age, projectability, and the scarcity of his skill set, he should be effectively untouchable.
On December 8th, the Mets begin shopping Niese.
It is July 31, 2011, Major League Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline looms, and New York Met Jose Reyes is one of the most valuable commodities in baseball. He has been for some time now: an elite shortstop in full command of all his tools, Reyes can hit for average and power, has great speed and an arm that plays well from the hole, and defends his position well. The biggest complaint anyone has about his game is his durability, followed by throwing errors. When a shortstop's greatest perceived flaws are that he doesn't play enough games and that maybe he rushes a throw or two, he is a rare find.
It's impossible to complain about Reyes's bat: he hit .354/.398/.529 (.927) in the first half. He is not only the best-hitting shortstop in baseball, he is one of the best-hitting players period. And Reyes is not only hitting, he's hitting hard: by the time the dust settles on the 2011 season, shortstops in the NL will have slugged .374 with Reyes—and .356 without him.
Reyes is not actually this fantastic a hitter; he hasn't seen any noticeable spike in the percentage of line drives or fly balls that he hits as opposed to grounders, but his batting average is over .350 on balls in play. A massive part of his power surge is due to his 16 triples; he hits 12 of these at home in the cavernous confines of Citi Field. This is clearly a career year for his bat, and it comes right as his contract with the Mets is about to expire. Reyes will hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the season unless he is re-signed.
In theory, Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson has a choice: he can keep Reyes and try to re-sign him at the end of the season, or he can trade Reyes to a contender for prospects. By the end of July, the Mets are 55-53, well behind the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies (68-39) and the second-place Atlanta Braves (63-36). They are not in a position to make up that ground; their season is, essentially, over. If they are making moves at the deadline, they should be selling, and Reyes is their highest quality piece.
Except that Alderson has already made his decision, or had it made for him: the Mets all but announce through Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman and Buster Olney of ESPN that Reyes will not, under any circumstances, be traded. They do this over a week before the deadline, and there is justification for it at the time: Reyes has just come back from a hamstring injury that kept him from participating in the All-Star Game, to which he was selected as a starter. Nevertheless, that isn't the sort of injury that keeps a franchise shortstop off the market if his team thinks he'll simply walk in the offseason. The move is taken as a sign that the Mets are committed to re-signing Reyes, and why wouldn't they? He and third baseman David Wright are pillars of the franchise, and Reyes is a top-five talent at the most difficult position to play—and groom a replacement—in Major League Baseball. And he's just now entering the traditional prime years of his career. Why not lock him down for five or six more seasons? Even if the next two aren't any good, with a New York market team's money and resources and a somewhat weak National League, they should be back in the thick of things by the middle of the decade.
But this point of view ignores what's really wrong with the Mets, and Jose Reyes remains on the team through the July 31st deadline. Reyes hits .305/.356/.428 (.784) in the second half, which is much less impressive than his numbers from early in the season— and still 100 points higher than the OPS of the average NL shortstop. He remains on the team through August, when the team is 10-16, and September, when it’s 12-16, and the playoffs, which it misses. He remains on the Mets through October and November, when no progress is made on any sort of new deal in New York. He remains on the Mets up until the moment free agency officially begins on December 1st.
As the Mets open talks with multiple teams about Jonathon Niese's future on December 8th, Jose Reyes is being introduced in a conference room in a Dallas hotel. He has just signed a six-year, $106 million deal with the Miami Marlins. The Mets never even made him an offer.
Why did the Mets let one of their franchise players walk, and why are they now shopping one of their most valuable major-league pieces?
Because the Mets are owned by the Wilpon family, and their troubles are legion. There is not space enough here to recount the legal turmoil their ties to Bernie Madoff have put the team through, as well as the failures of their real-estate investments when the housing bubble collapsed. Imagine them as a caricature of everything wrong with the financial sector of the American economy, and you'll have paid them their due.
They will not be selling the team; not at all. And so that the Wilpons can recoup all the losses they've recently suffered, the Mets will have to tighten their belts and pretend that $90 million is the highest payroll they can afford to run in a metropolitan area over 11 million strong, broadcasting on their own TV station. Sandy Alderson essentially has to act as if he's running a small-market team under the watchful eye of a big-market media. It's an unenviable task, doubly so since he has to pretend like it's all his idea. His problems begin with the decision not to trade Reyes. Unless Alderson is completely unaware of how compensation worked under the previous collective bargaining agreement, the decision to not deal Reyes at the deadline and then not credibly try to re-sign him falls squarely on ownership; otherwise, one hopes, Alderson would have dealt him and gotten something back. As it is, the Mets will receive the Marlins' second-round pick and nothing more.
Part of the low-yield return for Reyes is simply bad luck. Under Alderson's predecessor Omar Minaya, the Mets had generally hewed closely to Major League Baseball's draft pick slot recommendations, often drafting easy slot signees with early picks and rarely buying out signability players in the later rounds. Alderson and Vice President of Player Development Paul DePodesta completely reverse this philosophy, plowing the extra couple million dollars a year into player development to maximize impact talent. In 2011, the Mets award bonuses of at least $250,000 in the 11th and 13th rounds to high-upside prep right-hander Christian Montgomery and athletic shortstop Brad Marquez, give a nearly unprecedented $650,000 bonus to shortstop Phillip Evans in the 15th round, and pay about 125 percent of slot to first-round outfielder Brandon Nimmo and supplemental-round pitcher Michael Fulmer to buy them away from college. Suddenly, the Mets are spending heavily to get their preferred talent in the draft, increasing both the projected value of draft picks obtained for Type-A free agents like Reyes and making rebuilding more feasible in general.
And then everything goes wrong. First, the Elias Sports Bureau ranks Reyes only in the middle of the Type-A tier, meaning it's possible that the Mets won't even get the highest possible pick from Reyes's new team if that team signs someone above him on the list. Reyes then signs with the Marlins, a team with a first-round pick already protected from Type-A free agent signings. The Mets will still receive a supplemental first, but the compensatory pick from Miami will be a second-rounder at best—if baseball’s newest big spender signs Prince Fielder as well, that pick drops to a third.
Meanwhile, the new CBA implements a strict cap on yearly draft spending. All teams will now have to abide by Major League Baseball's slot regulations—the ones the Mets had just started ignoring this year—at the risk of heavy financial and competitive penalties. This lessens the relative value of the picks the Mets will get back for Reyes, but worse, it eliminates the Mets' ability to buy projectable athletes away from college only a year after they'd started tapping that pool of talent.
The new agreement leaves only two avenues essentially uncapped: MLB's traditional free agent market, and the international posting system that brought players such as Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka from the Japanese professional league to America. Any player in either market is at best already developed and worst declining—neither of which is an attractive option to a team in New York's position.
The reason the Mets are shopping Niese in this environment is because Alderson realizes that with the restrictions imposed upon him, a Mets rebuild will not be short. For a few years, it will be ugly. R.A. Dickey will likely play out the rest of his career on teams fighting the Washington Nationals for fourth place or, at best, the Atlanta Braves or Miami Marlins for third, assuming he's not dealt somewhere else. The Mets' strategy is to spend like they're a Kansas City, a Pittsburgh, or a Baltimore, though one hopes with a bit more competence; Alderson and company are stalling until the cavalry arrives and hoping pitching prospects Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, and Jeurys Familia will lead the charge.
When running a full-on, tire-fire, small-market rebuild under a CBA designed to prevent them, the ability to acquire elite talent through the trade market is essential. While Jose Reyes was off-limits at the deadline, long-time Met Carlos Beltran was not; Alderson sent him to the San Francisco Giants and got Zack Wheeler in return. Wheeler was taken sixth overall in the 2009 Amateur Draft and was ranked the 52nd-best prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus this past offseason; Baseball America had him 55th. This year he struck out over 10 batters per nine and showed improved command at High-A, mixing an excellent fastball with a developing curve, and he has the potential to lead a rotation. When you can get a guy like that for two months of a right fielder with an arthritic knee who contractually couldn’t return draft picks as a free agent, you pull the trigger and walk away.
Harvey and Familia have broadly similar profiles to Wheeler: good fastballs, potential out-pitch breaking balls, changes that need lots of work, and tons of strikeouts. Harvey was ranked 75th by BP despite never having thrown a professional pitch before this season. Working off his fastball and an excellent curve, he struck out over 10 batters per nine in a year split between High-A and Double-A. Familia rebounded from major control problems in 2010 to dominate the same levels and may reach the majors the fastest of the three.
They're not the only talented pitching prospects the Mets have; there's Jenrry Mejia, who already appeared on the big-league club in 2010 as part of Omar Minaya's last, farcical year as general manager, and Michael Fulmer and Darin Gorski have promise as well. But Wheeler, Harvey, and Familia are the most promising and exciting of the bunch, and the Mets are betting the rebuild that the three of them turn into the next Generation K.
Generation K, of course, was an abject failure. In 1995, the Mets had three young strikeout artists who caught fire in the minor leagues, skyrocketed through the organization, and looked poised to dominate the majors for years to come. By the end of 1996, that dream was done. Only one of the three men, Jason Isringhausen, pitched in the majors for any substantial length of time, and he quickly moved from the rotation to the bullpen. The other two, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson, ended up like so many other elite pitching prospects, their careers derailed by arm injuries, their time in the majors bitterly short. Hopefully the current crop fares better, but the odds aren't in their favor. The overhand throwing motion is one of the most unnatural, destructive things an arm can do, and many young people with bright futures ahead of them suffer for it. In 2011, Generation K remains as much a cautionary tale against expectation as it does a wistful descriptor.
And that's what the current Mets rebuild is depending on: a crop of very good pitching prospects, any of whom could explode at any time. The hitting side of their system is a hodge-podge of filler and risky players with potential. The 2011 class, led by Brandon Nimmo, was very heavy on high-upside, high-school talents, most of whom made only token appearances in rookie ball after signing. It will be years before the Mets can evaluate whether they have any keepers in that lot. They have toolsy hitters Wilmer Flores and Cesar Puello several levels up in A-ball, but neither has converted his tools into skills yet. The most polished position prospects in the system are center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis and second baseman Reese Havens, both of whom missed much of 2011 with injuries. Havens cannot stay healthy, averaging only 63 games played in his three professional seasons, and Nieuwenhuis’s ultimate future may lie in a corner instead of center. Both will get their shot; with Angel Pagan gone to San Francisco and Ruben Tejada moving over to shortstop, center field and second base could be open on the major-league team as early as spring training. But these players don’t have the high ceilings of their pitching counterparts. New York doesn’t have any cornerstone prospects who play the field; the next Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran isn't waiting in Double-A. Those guys the Mets will have to go out and get.
For fans, a rebuild is often humbling and occasionally humiliating. There are moments of rage during press conferences, envy as rivals grow stronger, and despair as summer marches on, loss after loss. The losing isn't so bad; it's not competing that hurts. Hope is fleeting and untelevised; it lives only in minor-league box scores. A rebuilding team is a miserable shadow of something meant to be fun. And there could be a moment coming for Mets fans more painful and distressing than any moment that's come before, even more so because it is the sort of move that is absolutely essential to a rebuild's success. The Mets have their eyes on tomorrow, and Sandy Alderson knows that to get there he must bargain away today.
Today, the New York Mets are David Wright.
Wright is a conundrum. He turns 29 in a few weeks and should be in the prime of his career, but after hitting .312/.396/.537 (.933) from age 23 to 25, he's slowed to a more modest .284/.364/.463 (.827) since. Perhaps Wright’s dropoff at the plate is due to his ballpark and a string of fluky injuries, including a severe concussion from a fastball to the head in 2009 and a broken back that he played with for nearly a month in 2011. Or, more forebodingly, perhaps it’s a sign of an early decline.
In theory, the Mets control Wright for the next two years at $31 million, making him an attractive commodity in a market where many teams are looking to avoid long-term commitments. But the Mets can only effectively market one of those two years. The final year of Wright's contract is a team option with a twist: if Wright is traded before the option is picked up, Wright can void the option year and become a free agent after the 2012 season. At the time of his extension in 2006, it seemed inconceivable that the Mets would ever trade David Wright; he was the young superstar face of a franchise poised to compete in the National League. Five years later, that minor provision is suddenly a major factor for both Wright and the Mets. The new CBA further complicates things, as it removes free agent compensation for departing players acquired during the previous season. Thus, players like Wright may have more value as full-year rentals even though the market can be most competitive near the trade deadline; it depends how the buyer values compensatory picks.
Given that it barely matters when Wright is traded, Alderson now needs to figure out which is the real David Wright: the superstar on track for the Hall of Fame, or the solid third baseman with growing injury concerns. If it's the latter, he should trade Wright immediately, because his value will never again be higher. Even if he thinks Wright will come back strong but not as what he once was, he should still deal him—just not until the trade deadline, or even after the 2012 season. (The Mets are free to exercise Wright's team option and then deal him, after all.) And if Alderson thinks that the real David Wright is that guy who hit the majors at age 23 and set New York City on fire, a legitimate Hall of Fame third baseman, then he might even explore extending Wright long-term as a bridge to those hopefully-contending teams four or five years down the road.
Make no mistake: it is sunset in Flushing. The Mets said as much when they didn't offer Reyes a contract. Nevertheless, Wright was not on the table at this year's Winter Meetings; it remains to be seen if the Mets will part with him, and if not, whether that's Alderson's call or ownership's.
As Jose Reyes begins moving his life down the coast to Miami and Jonathon Niese waits by the phone for the other shoe to drop, all that's left for Mets fans is the sighing, the cursing, the bitter unfairness, and the waiting. But soon it will be spring, and they'll find themselves checking reports from spring training; hearing names like Wheeler and Harvey and Familia maybe for the first time. A year will pass, then two, and those names will become familiar to their lips. They will worry about these names and their arms, perhaps more than is healthy. In time, they will begin to hope. They will check the minor-league box scores and try not to think of 1996.
Then they will wait, and wait some more. And one day the sun will rise again.