March 20, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
New York Mets: You Will Always Have Enough Pitching Injuries
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the front offices of New York (Yankees), New York (Mets).
Once upon a Spring Training, the Mets had the major-league team’s dream: six viable starting pitchers—and in Rafael Montero, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz, a trio of promising prospects hoping to crash the party.
Then, on Monday, six became five: Zach Wheeler’s torn UCL, the latest in a rash of spring-training elbow injuries around baseball, has shelved him for the season. Dillon Gee, just moved to the bullpen in February, returned to the rotation slotted as the no. 5 starter.
So the day had come when the Mets thought they were safe and happy, and now their joy has turned to ashes in their mouth. Or did it? Here’s Mets GM Sandy Alderson on Monday, just after the injury was announced:
We had been forewarned by the doctor that his elbow was a concern and it was going to have to be managed over the course of this season.
On the MRI itself: You're always prepared for bad news … But honestly, I have to say that this kind of result is not totally unexpected.
On elbow injuries: It’s an industry-wide issue that needs to be addressed.
It’s ironic that Alderson has spent most of the week defending the organization’s handling of Wheeler—whose agent has no problem with it, by the way—because in every other aspect of this story, Alderson looks like an absolute genius.
Much has been made of the Mets’ refusal to deal from its pitching abundance to bolster the lineup. Wilmer Flores has mild breakout potential at the plate, but is virtually guaranteed to be a poor defensive shortstop. Trading Flores, along with a pitcher or two, to a team with a third-base hole would probably bring a nice return.
That trade never happened, and neither did any others. Some said the Mets’ limited budget precluded them from making a trade—for Troy Tulowitzki, say—that would be tantamount to a free-agent signing. That may well be true, especially in Tulowitzki’s case, but it doesn’t explain why Gee (making $5.3 million this season) couldn’t have been tossed in to balance the books.
The more likely story seems to be the Mets’ Moneyball: that Alderson isn’t just preparing for injuries to his starting pitchers—in a way, he’s counting on them.
Alderson has been planning for this injury for years. When writing the Mets comments for the 2014 Annual, I turned the number of hard-throwing right-handers into the chapter’s running joke. Add to that Alderson’s steadfast refusal to trade—Bartolo Colon, who we all thought was signed specifically to be flipped, is now the odds-on Opening Day starter—and his defeatist attitude towards elbow injuries, and it all makes sense. Every team knows you can’t have too much pitching, but Alderson has managed to create a worse team on paper with the expectation that, when the inevitable occurs, they won’t get any worse.
So the plan comes with two drawbacks: first, if everyone stays healthy, Alderson is perceived as not doing his job as well as he could be, and second, Alderson has to say some really weird, inconsistent things to throw us off the scent.
Boy, has he delivered on the latter. Since the Madoff scandal rocked the franchise, Alderson has routinely interrupted his usual refreshing lucidity to inform us that the Mets in fact have cash to burn, except when they don’t.
His latest, from last week: “[Payroll] has never been an issue. We’ve never talked about the payroll as an unfortunate limitation to us.” Never. Okay. Here’s Alderson in an article from December 2013, on filling the shortstop hole: “The financial consideration is always an important one. I don’t care what team you’re with, what player it is.” It’s an important consideration they’ve never talked about!
It doesn’t stop there. Alderson also has to convince us that the players who could have been traded are more than up to the task. To wit: the only way to be impressed by Wilmer Flores at shortstop is to first watch lots and lots of Daniel Murphy. Yet Alderson took the winter—November, December, and January! —to remind us that, man, Flores has some real potential at shortstop.
I don’t think Alderson believes this. I think he wants to walk around saying things like, “Of course he’s not that good, but we’re out of money and just wait until someone’s UCL goes flying into the third row,” and, “Sit tight, Dillon. One of these poor bastards is about to be in a world of pain.” But he can’t say either, because those would be the greatest moments in the history of general managing. We aren’t ready for that.
So depending on your narrative, Alderson looks foolish or brilliant. He’s looks foolish trying to convince us that Wilmer Flores can be a good shortstop, then brilliant when his starters go down and his backup plan is already in place. This is why the Mets can’t have nice things. But when the nice things the Mets do have break down, their fatalist GM has other nice things ready to go.
The Mets’ initial PECOTA prediction was 82 wins. Zack Wheeler will not pitch this season; PECOTA’s prediction is now 83 wins. That is a very nice thing.