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November 2, 2012

Head Games

David Wright, R.A. Dickey, and What Smart Fans Really Want

by Will Woods

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I have two distinct memories of April 29, 2009. One is that Jerry Manuel, then with the Mets, made the single worst managerial decision I’ve ever seen. The other is that what should have been a treat—a Mets fan then living in Boston treated to a rare nationally televised game in resplendent high definition—was somewhat soured by the commentary of then-ESPN analyst and former Mets GM Steve Phillips, whose aesthetically pleasing screen presence was overshadowed by the negative associations of his time with the team.

Late in the game, talk turned to Phillips’ tenure as Mets general manager (which lasted from 1997-2003, or as I like to call it, forever). Phillips said some interesting things about having to learn to run an office and handle a large-market press corps and added a few other nuggets to remind us that being a GM would be much easier if it really were all spreadsheets and video. What he said next, though—a little side comment you’ve surely heard from your favorite team’s general manager, star player, manager, or owner—has stuck with me ever since. This was over three years ago, so allow me to paraphrase somewhat:

               Mets fans are the smartest fans in the game. They won’t tolerate a loser.

I don’t blame Phillips for saying this, nor do I think he meant anything by it other than to explain the pressures of his job. But when someone you don’t know throws you an unexpected compliment, you aren’t a cynic for wondering if perhaps you’re being taken advantage of. When the car salesman says, “Hey, you seem like a smart guy; you really know your stuff!” you roll your eyes. When a politician tells you you’re a great American who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and will no doubt make an informed decision on Election Day, you know he wants your vote.

Similarly, the above cliché, in no way unique to Phillips, comes off as so confoundingly disingenuous it makes me wonder what its originator meant in the first place. Whoever that originator is, though, should win an honorary MLB Executive of the Year award, because his turn of phrase has thrown a safety blanket over every shortsighted move a large-market team ever made. Sure, the trade didn’t work out, but we had to pull the trigger—these fans won’t tolerate a loser. Of course, the idea that any fan base is smarter than another is rubbish, but we accept that statement with a grain of salt as part of the de riguer politicking common to many public positions. What’s truly insulting is the idea that a fan base might not see the difference between a bad move and a move that weakens the team only in the short term. To then imply that it might somehow be smarter for not seeing this difference is all the more galling.

(While we’re here, what about the inverse of this statement? Are Royals and Pirates fans dumber for “tolerating” a loser for so long?)

Now comes news that the Mets have exercised a pair of critical player options for 2013: $5 million for R.A. Dickey, and $16 million for David Wright. This didn’t shock anyone, of course; picking up the options was the obvious and expected move. The real question is whether the Mets will decide to trade one or both of those players or shell out for contract extensions that might combine to exceed $200M. The franchise today looks something like the franchise near the end of Phillips’ reign: a couple of tantalizing prospects—Wright and Jose Reyes then, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler today—but by no means a deep farm system, and a big-league club that figures to be at least a few years away from contention. The difference, of course, is that the 2013 Mets will not be splurging on the likes of Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Cliff Floyd on their way to contention. (Although GM Sandy Alderson has hinted that the purse strings may be loosening somewhat in the aftermath of the Madoff scandal.)

It is a strong possibility, then, that Dickey and Wright won’t still be productive by the time the Mets’ rebuilding project is complete. With a full year of Harvey and the imminent arrival of Wheeler, the team appears to have a deep rotation for 2013, and if some spare bullpen parts can be found over the winter, the Mets should prevent runs at a decent clip. But scoring runs is another matter entirely: only five teams scored fewer runs in 2012, and that was despite some early surges from Mike Baxter, Kirk Nieuwenheis, Jordany Valdespin and others. The farm is almost completely bereft of offensive talent at the upper levels—Wilmer Flores and Brandon Nimmo, the former now an all-but-exclusive third baseman, are years away and have serious questions to answer as they climb the ladder—while two of their brightest young players, Lucas Duda and Ike Davis, earned a trip to Triple-A Buffalo and had one of the least helpful 32-homer seasons in recent memory, respectively.

Dickey’s career arc is next to impossible to predict, given that his 80-mph knuckleball has never been thrown before, but it’s safe to assume that the 38-year-old won’t be a top-end starter in, say, 2016. For this year at a bargain price, however, his value couldn’t possibly be higher. Wright, who turns 30 in December, may be in for a more traditional decline. Although his 25-homer days might be behind him, no matter what park he calls home, he very likely has four or five more sterling seasons in him before he begins to taper off in earnest. Even as a one-year rental player, he’d command a haul of prospects.

Alderson has already turned Carlos Beltran into Wheeler and let Reyes walk for compensatory draft picks, so to pony up the money to keep Dickey and Wright at this early stage of rebuilding would seem to go against the plan. And yet there may be an invisible floor at which the Mets perceive their fans would turn against them; in other words, just how bad is this team willing to get? Miami and Tampa have held famous firesales down the years and come out improved on the other side, but one could argue that those franchises felt they didn’t have much to lose on a PR level by outright tanking for a while.

You needn’t look far to find what a half-baked rebuilding project looks like. The Red Sox had the look of a likely playoff team entering 2012, but through injuries and an alarming number of decisions blowing up in Ben Cherington’s face, by midsummer the rebuild was on. Notice, though, that David Ortiz, enjoying yet another productive year, was not among Boston’s exports. Of course Boston will likely be active in free agency and might reload quickly, but the point is that the face of the franchise holds greater value; ask for Adrian Gonzalez or Jose Reyes, and we can talk, but ask for Ortiz or Wright, and the line goes dead.

With that in mind I took an informal survey of every Mets fan I know, and not surprisingly every one wanted Wright locked up long term. They all wanted Dickey extended too, although many said something about how they aren’t as emotionally tied to him. The prevailing reasons given for extending both were that a) the club needs some semblance of veteran leadership, b) I just love David Wright and R.A. Dickey, and c) the Giants just won the World Series with Gregor Blanco and Brandon Crawford prominently involved, so how far away could we be? There’s an argument to be made on all three counts, I think—especially the third, in light of the second wild card.

Obviously, it’s the front office’s job not to be overly conscious of these sentimental reasons for making personnel moves. It’s their job to either pay those stars and try to back into a wild-card berth, or blow the whole thing up and shoot for the moon with prospects. They should know that tightening their belt with Reyes only to turn around and pay Wright and/or Dickey doesn’t lead anywhere, and that letting off-the-field issues govern transactions does a disservice to the team. But they are conscious of those reasons, in their own way, in the way that they understand that their real job may be to entertain the fans rather than win games at any cost, that making those deals would flood their media relations people with calls from angry fans, that tabloid columnists would rip them to pieces, that reduced attendance would put ownership in a foul mood, that—

Wait. This feels familiar. I sound like Steve Phillips, circa April 2009. I understand why he did all those deals—well, maybe not those deals specifically, but I understand the intent. (And hey, Met fans were all excited for Roberto Alomar, if not Mo Vaughn.) The job really isn’t just spreadsheets and video; media pressure, fan expectations, and, at the core of it all, lack of job security get in the way of all but the strongest executives. The Mets franchise faces a similar crossroads today, and though to date Alderson has shown himself to be a capable GM, the coming winter will be the truest test of his resolve. If he caves and resigns Wright and/or Dickey, I’ll hold him accountable as both a fan and an analyst, although I’ll know why he did it. After all, I’m one of the smartest fans in the game. Even if I’d tolerate a loser.

Will Woods is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Will's other articles. You can contact Will by clicking here

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