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October 17, 2006

Future Shock

Where Did the Mets Come From?

by Kevin Goldstein

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Since playing in the World Series six years ago, the New York Mets have been a perennial disappointment, going 377-431 over the next five years and not returning to the postseason until this season, as a combination of homegrown stars and bigmoney free agents cruised to the National League East title. Let's dig a little deeper...

Catcher:

Ramon Castro (Free Agent, 12/04)
Paul Lo Duca (Trade 12/05)

Lo Duca came over in the Marlins housecleaning efforts over the winter. He's already clearly paid dividends for the Mets, but we won't be able to fully evaluate the trade until we see what kind of pitcher Gaby Hernandez turns out to be. Hernandez projects as a solid starting pitcher, and he has the raw ability to upgrade that projection. There was once a "Free Ramon Castro" movement, and who knows, maybe there's a warehouse somewhere with t-shirts and everything, but that window is now closed and he's simply a serviceable backup catcher.

Infield:

Carlos Delgado (Trade 11/05)
Julio Franco (Free Agent 12/05)
Anderson Hernandez (Trade 1/05)
Jose Reyes (FA, Dominican Republic, 1999)
Jose Valentin (Free Agent 12/05)
Chris Woodward (Free Agent, 12/04)
David Wright (Draft, 1st round, 2001)

Let's start on the left side of the infield. Only two other teams, the Athletics (Chavez/Crosby) and Rockies (Atkins/Barmes) can claim to have an entirely home-grown left side, and neither compares to the Mets pair, who combined for a 17.2 WARP3 in 2006. Originally miscast in the leadoff role, Reyes thrived there this year, becoming a multi-faceted threat with 66 extra-base hits )including 19 home runs), 64 stolen bases, and a walk rate that doubled. Still just 23, he's one of the most valuable properties in the game. So too is Wright, even though his overall numbers were brought down by a rough second half. Like Lo Duca, Delgado came over in the great Florida liquidation sale, for a larger, yet less risky package than was handed over for Lo Duca. Mike Jacobs proved to be what he is--a decent hitter with some power, but a total offensive package that is really only average for a first baseman. As for the other component shipped out in the deal, scouts wondered when Yusmeiro Petit would hit a wall because of the disconnect between his stats and stuff, and the answer has been he hits the wall at Triple-A.

Valentin's impact on this team has been overshadowed by the big-name stars, which is a bit of a shame. When Kaz Matsui turned into a total bust and Hernandez couldn't hit his way out of a paper bag, Valentin went from someone signed as a utility player for under $1 million to someone they needed who responded by slugging nearly .500. Strange, but true--the most similar player to Jose Valentin? Mickey Tettleton. Hernandez is on the postseason roster because he can run and play shortstop, with Woodward serving as the primary utility player.

Obviously, one could write a book on the career of Julio Franco, who is still active, and can tell stories about sharing a locker room with the likes of Pete Rose, Steve Carlton and Mike Hargrove.

Outfield:

Carlos Beltran (Free Agent, 1/05)
Endy Chavez (Free Agent, 12/05)
Cliff Floyd (Free Agent, 1/03)
Shawn Green (Trade, 8/06)
Michael Tucker (Free Agent, 4/06)

After signing the big free agent deal of the pre-2005 offseason, Beltran was a massive disappointment last year, but he looked to be worth the money this season by finishing fifth in the National League in VORP. Floyd was injured much of the season, and pretty bad when he was healthy. In his four years with the Mets, he gave them one healthy season, and that was after giving the Marlins two such seasons in five years and going 0-for-3 with the Expos. Oh, what could have been. People forget that the great debate in the early '90s as to who was the best hitting prospect in the minors--Floyd, or Manny Ramirez? Chavez has been the Valentin of the outfield, filling in holes at all three positions and having a career year. Green had a five-year run as a dangerous hitter that ended abruptly when he hit his 30s in what has been a surprisingly steep decline. Tucker suddenly showed up on the roster at the end of the year, though nobody has really figured out why.

Starting Pitchers:

Tom Glavine (Free Agent, 12/02)
John Maine (Trade, 1/06)
Oliver Perez (Trade 7/06)
Steve Trachsel (Free Agent, 12/02)

Glavine's four-year deal is over, and the Mets did fairly well with it. He stayed healthy, and was an above-average starter in the last three years of the deal. He wants his 300th win and should get it next year, but that probably won't happen in New York. Maine came over in the Kris Benson deal, arrived in the rotation at mid-season, and was often the Mets' most consistent starter down the stretch, making talk about the sky falling because El Duque is injured a bit laughable. Maine is very much a grinder in the Steve Trachsel mold, as opposed to any kind of future star, but I'd still much rather have him than Benson for the next four years. Which brings us to Trachsel himself, who was awful in Game Three of the NLCS, and really pretty bad for most of the season despite getting credited for 15 wins. Perez has been forced into the rotation due to injuries. It's hard to give up on him based on his relatively young age and what he did in 2004, and there are people out there who would love the opportunity to try and fix him.

Bullpen:

Chad Bradford (Free Agent, 12/05)
Pedro Feliciano (Free Agent, 1/05)
Aaron Heilman (Draft, 1st round, 2001)
Roberto Hernandez (Trade 7/06)
Guillermo Mota (Trade 8/06)
Darren Oliver (Free Agent, 12/05)
Billy Wagner (Free Agent, 11/05)

While he's pitched only 12 years, Billy Wagner is already among history's best closers, already ranking 11th on the all-time saves list with 324. The 12th overall pick in the 1993 draft, Wagner spent his minor league career as a starter, striking out 489 in 407 innings, but he always lacked a third pitch, as he never needed one while dominating on velocity alone at tiny Ferrum College in Virginia. He didn't come out of the bullpen until he was in the big leagues, and unlike many closers, he broke in with that job. (There are some parallels here to current Giants top prospect Tim Lincecum, when it comes to little guys throwing remarkably hard, and there are those who believe Lincecum has Wagner-esque closer potential.)

Heilman was the team's first-round pick in 2001 out of Notre Dame, and he moved quickly through the system, reaching Triple-A just over a year after signing. While he always put up solid numbers in the minors, he was a failure as a starting pitcher in the big leagues, and pitching coach Rick Peterson deserves some credit for transforming him into the team's primary set-up man. Feliciano is the primary lefty specialist, and he bounced around the minors (including one stint with the Mets) and Japan before the team re-acquired him before the 2005 season. Hernandez was the 16th overall pick by the Angels in 1986, and he looked like a complete bust early on, with a six-plus ERA in Double-A before going to the White Sox in a minor deal in late 1989. Still a starting pitcher, he turned things around and got his first callup in 1991, finally making his big league debut just short of his 27th birthday. The next year he inherited the closer job from Bobby Thigpen, and the rest is history, which consists of a 16-year career that has earned him more than $40 million.

Mota was originally signed by the Mets out of the Dominican Republic in 1990--as an infielder. He hit .251/.317/.356 in six seasons, none above High-A, and the Expos snagged him in the minor league section of the Rule Five draft in 1996, immediately moving him to the mound. Inconsistent secondary pitches always hindered his development, but at the same time, his size and velocity remained intriguing, and led to his being used in trades to the Dodgers, Marlins, Red Sox, and Indians, and finally back to the Mets two months ago. His 18-game run in New York was the best of his career. The ultimate journeyman lefthander, Darren Oliver's six innings of relief on Saturday could end up being one of the more valuable performances by a reliever in a losing playoff game you'll find.

The Breakdown:

Free Agent Signs: 14
Trade: 8
Drafted: 2
International: 1
Waiver Claim: 0
Rule 5 Draft: 0

While very little of the team is self-developed, the combination of Reyes and Wright gives them a left-side of the infield with two impact players that combined to earn less than $1 million this year. That, combined with deep team coffers, gives the organization tremendous flexibility to spend big money elsewhere. To their credit they did, and it paid off quickly.

The remarkable thing about this team is more about the quick turnover in personnel. Thirteen of the 25 players didn't play for the Mets in 2005, and only six of these players were around in 2004, when the team won just 71 games in the face of high expectations.

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

Related Content:  Trade,  Free Agent,  The Who,  Impact Trade,  Free

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