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August 13, 2004

Rational Exuberance

Meet the Mets: A Decade Without a Plan

by Jonah Keri

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Just before last month's trade deadline, the Mets giftwrapped top prospects Scott Kazmir and Justin Huber along with various shiny trinkets for two mediocre starting pitchers in a desperate attempt to stay in the playoff race. When they weren't stabbing themselves in the eye with their Cliff Floyd commemorative pins, Mets fans could be heard in unison, yelling the same refrain in anguish: "Here we go again."

In jettsoning a big chunk of their future for the dishwater-dull duo of Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson, the Mets had found a way to prove yet again that they had no semblance of a plan. They're contending for the future. No, for this year. No, for somewhere in between.

The latest theory being floated by management is an eye toward contention in 2005. Nice theory. But Piazza's getting old, Floyd can't stay healthy, Leiter, Glavine and Trachsel are long shots to repeat their 2004 performances, Reyes' health is a huge question mark, the bullpen's weak and Matsui hasn't come as advertised. To name a few of the team's problems.

When you get down to it, the Mets have made ill-fated move after ill-fated move, season after season, each time trying desperately to keep up with the Steinbrenners and curry the hearts of New York fans. They've dealt away top young talent for veteran mediocrities at the trade deadline, when their status in the pennant race was dubious. They've overpaid big-name, overrated free agents, hoping to make a marketing splash and thinking the club was one player away from glory. They've ruined the careers of phenoms and mismanaged their way out of opportunities. Even when they've done things right--nabbing Mike Piazza, hiring Bobby Valentine, trading in old mascot Rizzo The Pock-Ridden Rat for Mr. Met--they've usually found ways to screw it up.

After buying the team with Nelson Doubleday for $21.3 million in 1980, real estate magnate Fred Wilpon saw his share of success early on. With Frank Cashen in the GM chair, the Mets built one of the best farm systems in baseball, producing the likes of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. They supplemented their young core by landing key veterans such as Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter. The Mets won 90 or more games for five straight years from 1984 through 1988. From 1986 to '88, they racked up 300 wins, two division titles and a World Series victory.

Anyone who's tasted success wants to get there again. But from the time the Mets sacked Johnson in 1990 to today's out-of-contention, sub-.500 team that continues to flush away its future, the team has mostly gone in the wrong direction. If anything, the success of the Bobby Valentine Era in the late 90s and 2000 almost made matters worse; after finding success again, the Mets have gone to any and all lengths to hang onto it.

As many mistakes as the Mets have made, the list of offending parties reads nearly as long: Jeff Torborg, Dallas Green, Joe McIlvane and Steve Phillips have all worn the goat's horns at various times, garnering ridicule from the media and scorn from jilted fans. But when a franchise goes through regime after regime, failing time and again, it's time to look beyond all the scapegoats and ne'er-do-wells, and point the finger at the man in charge every step of the way: the owner. Having bought out Doubleday in 2002, that blame now lies entirely with Wilpon.

To crystallize the damage done under Wilpon's watch, let's take a quick stroll through Mets history. In the interest of space, rather than go back to 1990, we'll start in 1995, making for an even 10 seasons. (Transactions taken from retrosheet.org, one of the best Web sites in the world.)

1995

Generation K Arrives: Amid much fanfare, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher make their major league debuts. Manager Dallas Green rides the pair hard: After 91.2 innings at Triple-A Norfolk as a 21-year-old to start the year, Green piles another 126.2 onto Pulsipher's plate; 23-year-old Isringhausen goes on to log 221 frames between Double-A, Triple-A and his 128 with the Mets. The young pitchers' workload features multiple high-pitch count games and high-stress innings; all this for a non-contending Mets team that finishes 69-75. Pulsipher succumbs to a major arm injury after the '95 season, Isringhausen during the '97 campaign. Isringhausen eventually resurrects his career as a closer, his best years coming after his departure from the Mets. The now-30-year-old Pulsipher's career washes out, with the pitcher now property of the Mariners, barely hanging on.

1996

The Third Young Gun: Paul Wilson cracks the big club to complete the Generation K trio. Though his usage patterns are somewhat milder than those placed on Isringhausen and Pulsipher, Wilson struggles with ineffectiveness before eventually going down to injuries of his own. Like his Generation K mates, Wilson revives his career years later, after leaving the Mets.

Daft Draft: Though they'd eventually recover with the likes of David Wright and Kazmir--and even there the jury's still out--the decade from '95 to '04 featured a cavalcade of horrendous drafts. The '96 entry was especially flaccid, though, even by Mets standards. The following is a list of all the '96 draftees to make the majors:

3rd round Ed Yarnall
16th round Dicky Gonzalez
40th round Josh Pearce (did not sign)

Ouch.

Traded Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino to Cleveland Indians in exchange for Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza: Every team makes bad trades, so we'll let a fair number of smaller-scale stinkers--David Segui for Reid Cornelius, for instance--slide.

But the Kent/Baerga deal hurt. Baerga had started his career in fine form before falling apart over the 1996 season's first four months, hitting an ugly .267/.302/.396. But he was just 27 at the time, so the Mets banked on a rebound, hoping to buy low with Kent as bait. Of course Kent was hitting .290/.331/.436 at the time of the deal in tough Shea Stadium, had piled up solid power numbers for a player on the happy side of the defensive spectrum, and was just eight months Baerga's senior. Though you'd have been hard-pressed to find anyone who thought Kent would break out in his 30s and put up Hall of Fame-level numbers for half a decade in San Francisco, this was a serious whiff by the Mets.

1997

Bobby Ball: In his first full season after taking over for Green in '96, new manager Bobby Valentine guides the Mets to an 88-74 record. The team finishes third in a loaded NL East behind the 101-win Braves and wild card-to-World Series Marlins. The Mets play it smart, letting Valentine's charges play out the year without making any obviously rash moves.

1998

Amiably Aggressive: The Mets are the busiest they've been in years, making a dizzying number of trades, pickups and drops in an effort to build a winner. Trading A.J. Burnett may look shaky now, but the Mets got Al Leiter in return, who's given the rotation several seasons of solid contributions. Preston Wilson has forged a strong career since being dealt out of Queens, but one nowhere near as impressive as that of Mike Piazza, the man who came the Mets' way in return. Having taken over as GM in July 1997, Steve Phillips executed the kind of moves you'd hope to see from a large-revenue team: Though the Mets traded away promising young talent for more expensive alternatives, they did so to acquire upper-echelon players in their prime. The Mets finished 18 games behind the dominant Braves, but with another 88-74 season in hand and a stronger core, the Mets look poised to contend in '99.

Except...the Mets signed Robin Ventura to a four-year contract. Already 30 years old, two years removed from his last big season and one season removed from a gruesome leg injury, the Mets overreached to fill their third-base hole. They looked like geniuses in '99, as Ventura terrorized the league to the tune of .301/.379/.529. He then fell off a cliff, hitting .232 and .237 the next two seasons before getting shipped to the Yankees. It's still a net positive season for the Mets, but signs of overaggression are starting to show.

1999

Climbing the Ladder: Led by a full season of Piazza and Ventura's huge year, the Mets shoot to 97-66, claiming the NL wild card slot. The season proves quieter on the transaction front, as the Mets already fielded the nucleus of a winner, needing only minor tweaks to make it to the postseason. In December '99 the Mets trade Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel to Houston as part of a five-player deal, getting Derek Bell and Mike Hampton. Hampton would go on to post a strong 2000 season before leaving for Colorado's all-world school system at the end of that year. Dotel blossomed into one of baseball's best relievers. Bell and Cedeno would both prove to be disappointments. Though the crosstown Yankees were still getting most of the attention, the Mets' outlook seemed bright for a run in 2000.

2000

Subway Series: Thanks to an MVP-caliber season for Piazza, a monster year for Edgardo Alfonzo and strong showings by Hampton and Leiter, the Mets seize the wild card with a 94-68 record, then ride an improbable run all the way to the World Series, losing to a loaded Yankees team. Working on the last year of their contracts, Phillips and Valentine secure extensions with the team's success. Their jobs secure, facing a roster with no good regulars under age 29 save Alfonzo, the time seems right to retool around Alfonzo and Piazza. Hampton's departure to Colorado makes the path seem even more obvious. The Mets would target young talent and look to sustain a winning team for years to come...

...Or Maybe Not...: Following a season in which he gave up more hits than innings pitched, as well as 28 homers in 184 frames, the Mets opted to reward Rick Reed anyway, handing him a three-year, $21.75 million contract; Reed is 35 at the time of the signing. Not done panicking over Hampton's departure, the Mets signed Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel to free agent deals totaling nearly $50 million. Appier, 33 when he signed, was coming off a 4.52 ERA in pitcher-friendly Oakland, having walked a mind-boggling 102 batters in 195.1 IP; that earned him a four-year, $42 million deal, still one of the most confounding contracts of all-time. Trachsel was a relatively spry 30 at the time, coming off 5.56 and 4.80 ERAs in 1999 and 2000; at least the Mets only gave him two years at $7 million. Signing middle reliever Turk Wendell for three years, $9.4 million was the capper.

At precisely the time that they didn't need to be desperate, the Mets acted out of desperation. The Mets needed top-flight performances from all their key players to contend again in 2001. Fail to do so and the team could implode under a pile of old talent and bloated contracts...

2001

...And That's Just What Happened: An old roster showed it was just that, old, slipping to 82-80 as multiple key players fell off considerably. The Mets did well to unload Reed's heinous contract on the Twins in exchange for Matt Lawton.

Piazza Redux?: Seeking the same kind of returns they got from dealing for Piazza, the Mets pull off an eight-player trade with the Indians that lands them Roberto Alomar. Though the Mets give up Lawton and promising outfield prospect Alex Escobar in the trade, they see a big winner in Alomar, author of a massive .336/.415/.541 season in 2001. Though heading into his age-34 season, even with a small regression in '02 Alomar projects to invigorate the Mets' attack.

Shifting Mo-Mentum?: Having stated their priorities for the off-season as "offense, offense, and offense," the Mets went to work. They unloaded Ventura's salary on the Yankees for David Justice, then flipped Justice and his contract to the A's. Quickly realizing the folly of the Appier contract, the Mets search for a sucker...err...taker. To dump Appier, they take a chance on Mo Vaughn. After signing a six-year, $80 million deal following the 1998 season and missing all of 2001 to injury, the Mets hoped to revive the 34-year-old Vaughn's career. To invigorate the top of the order, the Mets sign Roger Cedeno to a four-year, $18 million contract. Though his withering plate discipline resulted in a sub-par .337 OBP in '01 and his defense was starting to sound alarm bells, the Mets--as they did with Vaughn--hoped new surroundings would be just the right cure.

The Mets also subtracted Todd Zeile's hefty salary while adding Jeromy Burnitz's bat in a three-way deal. Coming off a big 2001, the team expected more of the same from Burnitz, as they did from Alomar.

2002

When It Rains...: Everything that could go wrong for the Mets in 2002, did. This wasn't a case of mere bad luck, though. Granted, few would have expected Alomar's .266/.331/.376 tanking after an MVP-like 2001; but the All-Star second baseman was in his mid-30s, an age where decline is to be expected. Burnitz's .215/.311/.365 embarrassment plunged below even the most pessimistic projections; but the history of barrel-chested sluggers entering their age-33 seasons reads like a punchless horror story. A year after not getting on base enough, hitting for no power, playing lousy defense and stealing a lot of bases, Cedeno didn't get on base enough, hit for no power, played lousy defense and stole fewer bases. Throw in the Mets' stubborn insistence on polluting the lineup with Rey Ordonez's incompetence, and the Mets' battle cry of offense, offense and offense started sounding downright offensive. The team finished the year at 75-86, and Valentine was out of a job.

Throwing Good Money After Bad: That's the expression used to describe investors who try to grab a bargain by buying falling stocks. Instead of seeing the dangers of trying to catch a falling knife, they figure they can outsmart the market, buying shares for a lower price than they did previously. If it was a good buy at $50, they rationalize, it must be a great buy at $25.

After the 2002 season, the Mets were in position to start digging out from under years of bad contracts and roster decisions. The team had started seeing some slow success in its drafting and signing of amateurs. Another year or two and most of the ugly deals signed over the previous few seasons would be off the books. Show restraint and shop wisely and the Mets could field a young, dynamic team in the near future, with plenty of money to spend on high-impact free agents and trade acquisitions.

So of course, the Mets went out and...signed ancient set-up man Mike Stanton for three years, $9 million? Handed a four-year contract to 30-year-old Cliff Floyd, one of the most injury-prone players in the game?! Paid soon-to-be 37-year-old Tom Glavine $35 million over three years, plus a $7.5 million option at age 40 with a $3 million buyout?! As Mets fans painfully found out, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

2003

Couldn't See That One Coming: The Mets, already an old team lacking in talent, made themselves older, more expensive, and not appreciably better. Their resulting 66-95 record shouldn't have surprised anyone.

Phillips Phlipped: The Mets fire their GM of six years in June 2003, replacing him with Jim Duquette. The Duquette Era starts in promising fashion, with the Mets grabbing some intriguing talent from the Dodgers in a deadline deal for Burnitz. Trades with the Yankees and Royals let the Mets unload Benitez and fungible reliever Graeme Lloyd.

With plenty of cash cleared off the books and young players like Jose Reyes poised to make an impact with the big club, Duquette shies away from the Appier-like deals of Mets' seasons past. Instead, he targets two premium free agents, landing underrated center fielder Mike Cameron and highly-touted Japanese import Kazuo Matsui to provide pop and strong defense at key up-the-middle positions. In a weak NL East, the Mets could at least make some noise, even if they aren't quite ready to contend.

---

Which brings us to 2004. Duquette, who looked like he'd exhibit patience and good judgment in the GM's chair, instead reverted to the bad habits of his predecessors. On the day the Mets took out a 14th mortgage on their future by overpaying for Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson, they stood seven full games behind the NL East-leading Braves and 7.5 games out of the wild card lead. We heard all the excuses: Pitching coach Rick Peterson had found an easily correctable flaw in Zambrano and would also fix Benson; Mets superscout Al Goldis was staking his reputation on monster performances from the team's newly acquired pitchers; sure, Scott Kazmir was a great prospect who'd dominated the minor leagues, but high school pitchers take forever to develop, so why not go with a guy who's already arrived?

The Mets could pile the excuses a mile high. The bottom line was they'd goofed, just as they had so many times in the last decade. The Mets must now race against Zambrano's rapidly ticking service-time clock, shelling out big arbitration dollars while hoping to solve his huge control problems. Benson's never been the same since missing the 2001 season to elbow surgery, let alone hurting his shoulder last year; though the Mets claim the trade would be worth it if they lock him up long-term, why couldn't they have waited until after this latest non-contending season to sign him?

The questionable decisions by management, the excuses from all sides, the continued second-division performance by a team that perennially features one of the highest revenue streams and payrolls in the game. We've heard how Dallas Green was a butcher who shouldn't have be trusted around young pitchers. How Steve Phillips was too impetuous to run a ballclub. How Jim Duquette may be in over his head. When a team makes a bad trade, a manager fails or a free-agent signing blows up, it's inevitably the general manager or manager who gets blamed. At what point does the person who hired all these people get his share?

The blame cuts both ways too. As the Mets' trades went down at the deadline, the buzz had Fred Wilpon going over his general manager's head to get the deals he wanted, something he's reportedly done in the past. If the owner constantly intervenes in a futile attempt to instantly turn a mediocre team into a winner, he's also to blame for meddling where he shouldn't, instead of leaving the decisions to the people he hand-picked to run the operation.

No matter how you slice it, for the team's years of bungling, Fred Wilpon owes Mets fans an apology. A big one.

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

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