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June 20, 2003

6-4-3

Overhang

by Gary Huckabay

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Everyone knows the shorthand of fan apparel. A Red Sox hat? Well, you know you're dealing with a borderline alcoholic with a proclivity for self-flagellation. (See also: Woolner, Keith.) An old-time White Sox uniform fashioned from modern fabric? Probably a gullible masochist whom you can defraud for a lucrative second income; but be careful--could also be creepy, stalking Scientologist. A Pete Rose jersey and matching haircut? That's a future Wal-Mart greeter who spends the majority of his free time calling political talk radio shows. A cap sporting the colors of both the A's and Giants? Those are David Koresh rejects who should be dragged from their '82 Dodge Colts and savagely beaten into a persistent vegetative state.

But save your pity for those gilding themselves with the colors of the New York Mets.

As you know, the Mets fired Steve Phillips, and now find themselves facing not only their own intra-Gotham inferiority complex, but with a number of landmines in house that may not be possible to avoid. The days of being able to readily unload horrifying, soul-draining contracts is largely over, and the Mets have their share. They're not going to be able to Mondesi someone about the head and shoulders, a la Toronto. Those days are over. What are they really facing as they try to rebuild a team?

In terms of young talent, they're in better shape than most. Jose Reyes is up, and will likely be the best shortstop in the National League before too long. (I would have kept him in Triple-A to avoid starting the service time clock, but hey, it's not my money.) Aaron Heilman looks promising, and even high school pitcher Scott Kazmir looks awfully good thus far, but he's still a long way away from helping a major league club towards a title, and there's a ton of developmental and injury challenges in his way. The Mets have a few young players that could be part of the next championship club.

Unfortunately, there are limitations other than young talent. You need money. You need roster spots. You need developmental and front office talent. For now, let's just focus on the money. What kind of handcuffs will new GM Jim Duquette be wearing?

Free Agents after 2003 Season, or One-Year Deals:

  • Rey Sanchez
  • Jae Seo
  • Tsuyoshi Shinjo
  • Scott Strickland
  • Ty Wigginton
  • Vance Wilson
  • Long-Term Deals:

    PlayerEncumbered CashContract Years
    Roger Cedeno$10,000,0002004-2005
    Cliff Floyd$19,500,0002004-2006
    Tom Glavine$24,000,0002004-2005
    Al Leiter$10,000,0002004
    Mike Piazza$30,000,0002004-2005
    Mike Stanton$7,000,0002004-2005
    Steve Trachsel$5,000,0002004
    Mo Vaughn$17,000,0002004
    David Weathers$3,600,0002004

    I've rolled in buyout payments into encumbered cash, and eliminated the option year from the contract years, so this is really a table of what the Mets have to pay, and to whom, after this nightmarish season comes to a merciful and inglorious end.

    Well, it could be worse. The cash/talent ratio is considerably higher than the cash/likely decline ratio, which is a very bad sign. If Piazza moves to first base and undergoes normal decline, that's bad. Actually, there's not really much reason to break down these signings individually; these expenditures are all pretty much ill-advised. From overpaying for fungible players ($3.6 million for David Weathers next year?), to praying for favorable arbitration or negotiation with your insurer, there's no long term deal here that's a good investment for the Mets.

    Others have made the case that Steve Phillips did a better job than people think, because he was given a mandate of immediate championship contention, and he pursued that goal as best he could, given the limitations of the demands of ownership. Ownership wasn't interested in rebuilding, and Phillips had to make the moves he did in order to compete, even if it meant buying into declining properties.

    Hogwash.

    Part of the job of anyone in management is to educate the people above them. Phillips, and for that matter all GMs, need to take an active role in the creation of goals, not just in their execution. I have always maintained that the "Success Cycle" of contend/rebuild/compete/repeat is totally and completely incorrect. It is not only possible, but necessary, to maintain a balance of personnel within an organization that allows a team to fight off the ravages of age while continuing to perform at a high level on the field. That's the GM's job. The personnel part of the mix to make that happen is probably the easiest part of the job; the tough part is getting your organization to take a good, honest look at itself as part of the normal course of doing business. It takes discipline, foresight, and confidence, but since there's only 30 of these jobs in the entire world, it seems reasonable that you could find those traits if you look hard enough.

    "I was just following orders" is no excuse. Part of the job, perhaps the most important part, is playing a part in the creation of those orders.

    The Mets have a number of dog contracts on their books that are going to make it tough to come back to respectability any time soon. One could argue that the worst thing to ever happen to the Mets is that they never admitted they had really hit bottom. From the Al Harazin signings to the Dallas Green ligament-ripping to the Alex Rodriguez negotiation dances, this team has never had any interest in a time horizon longer than the end of the day. If the Mets enter into the free agent market this offseason, and miss out on the biggest single prize out there, only to sign the next two down the list for too much money, Mets fans will know for certain that the future's as truly bleak as the present, despite the addition of an expensive, aging outfielder or a No. 3.5 starter coming off an 18-win season.

    But if Jim Duquette (or whoever ends up with that position) does something dramatic like shipping off a real prospect to get rid of a whole bunch of bad money in the deal, and then picks up a couple of Phelpsistas to fill out the back of the roster, then get ready for an exhilarating ride. Everything's in place for a dynasty once the front office and boardroom of the Mets finally gets it. But the first, and hardest, step, is to take a careful look at the organization and realize a fix needs to be made.

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

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