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December 4, 2008
GM for a Day
Here's the thing about the New York Mets: for all of the focus on their bullpen, which was definitely a reason for their late-season collapses in 2007 and 2008, that is both the most easily explained and the most reparable problem that they have. In both years, the late-season loss of their best reliever-their only full-inning strikeout guy-created a domino effect that could not be patched internally. Had Billy Wagner stayed completely healthy in both seasons, it is probable that the Mets would be coming off of three straight post-season appearances.
So while there's a perception that the Mets have to sign two or three of the top free-agent relievers this winter, the reality is that they, like most teams, don't have to make massive investments in the bullpen to get production. They should focus their attention and resources on other areas of the team that need improvement, putting better players on the field and in the rotation to support one of the top four-man roster cores you're ever going to find, four Hall of Fame talents in their prime or late prime. That quartet makes up what is clearly a championship-caliber core, but if the other 21 spots aren't brought up to snuff, the Mets will resemble nothing more than the 1996-2000 Mariners, a team that made a couple of post-season appearances with a comparable core of talent, but one that was largely a disappointment.
In the absence of Wagner, the Mets' pen was inadequate for its lack of a pitcher who could go complete innings, even multiple innings, and be effective. It wasn't that the Mets lost their capital-C closer; it was that they lost their only reliever who was above-average. With Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez both having lost seasons, the eighth inning was a problem for the team all year long. What the Wagner injury did was to push those problems into the ninth as well, making them more apparent, but the issue at hand did not change. Even if Wagner were going to be available in '09-and he won't be-the Mets would need to sign at least one reliever with the skills to be their Scot Shields, their Grant Balfour. Sanchez doesn't seem to have the velocity any longer, while Heilman is something of an enigma. The rest of the Mets' pen consists of relievers with such significant platoon issues, both in performance and skills, that asking them to be complete-inning hurlers is a recipe for disaster.
So while the Mets do not need to sign all the big-name relievers, signing one isn't a bad idea. As the market turns, the price on Francisco Rodriguez appears to be leveling off. As I've written, he's not the guy I would pursue; that would be Kerry Wood or Juan Cruz, who come with lower prices thanks to not coming off of record-setting seasons, and strike me as better fits for the Mets. Both have more recent experience in roles that involve more than getting three outs than Rodriguez does, and the Mets need that. Neither was used that way last year, but Cruz in particular is a pitcher who can be signed without coming with a closer's price or a closer label, and that's something the Mets very much need. If you can get both him and Wood, that's a significant upgrade, and a good use of the additional revenues likely to be available in the team's first season in CitiField. It is possible to solve this problem more cheaply by assuming risk, but the Mets are in a position where throwing money at a solution, usually a dubious proposition, may make more sense than anything else.
All of the bullpen fixes in the world won't help if they don't upgrade the outfield corners, second base, and catcher as a unit. For the former, there are a whole mess of guys out there, as we've been discussing this week. The only one of the bunch who can play right field-although he did have a lousy defensive year-is Bobby Abreu. Abreu is also the most complete player of the group, in that he'll hit for some average and run the bases reasonably well. His perceived value within the game is lower than his real value, which should keep the necessary commitment to him within reason. Even though he's older than Adam Dunn or Pat Burrell, he's the outfielder for the Mets to target.
Danny Murphy isn't going to play second base at the major league level in any way that lets him do so frequently. His bat will make him a decent left fielder however, maybe better than that, and with the Mets spending money elsewhere, they should go to Florida intending that Murphy get most of the time out in left, with an eye towards having him play occasional games at second base. When you have Johan Santana, you can punt defense at second-and look to improve it in left field-once every five games.
You can't trade Luis Castillo, who has three years and $18 million left from the worst idea of Omar Minaya's career. You can't make him a utility infielder because he can't play shortstop, so you have to release him or use him as your second baseman. Is Castillo a viable starter when healthy? He did have a .355 OBP last year, brings some speed, has become a better basestealer in the past few seasons, and has a reasonable glove. If Murphy is going to play second 20-30 percent of the time, Castillo looks like a fair use of the roster spot because his skills and Murphy's mesh well. Despite not being a viable utility guy, Castillo nevertheless has bench value as an early-inning pinch-hitter and pinch-runner. He's a better hitter from the right side than the left, something the Mets need, and despite the valid perception of Castillo as a bust, releasing him is fairly pointless. It's not about his price tag-sunk costs are sunk costs-but rather that he does have some skills that the Mets can exploit, ones that they may not be able to find in another player.
Is Brian Schneider good enough? This is kind of the Red Sox' Jason Varitek problem writ small, where the catcher you have isn't really getting the job done and probably needs to be replaced, but the pool of candidates not currently owned by the Texas Rangers is so unimpressive that your guy starts to look good again. Headed into the last year of a four-year deal, and with the Mets having real needs elsewhere, they can make do with Schneider for another season while hoping that Ramon Castro stays healthy enough to get a few more at-bats than he did last year.
The Mets' bullpen would have looked a lot better had their rotation worked deeper into games. Santana and Mike Pelfrey did, but outside of those two, no one averaged six innings per start. The Mets have a lot of options to fill out the rotation, but no solutions, and while that's not a bad way to enter the spring, the package would look better if there was a little more certainty. That means looking away from the upside/inconsistency package of Oliver Perez, and for that matter, the high-strikeout model of A.J. Burnett. The Mets need someone who will make 32 starts, and of the available starters at the high end, the only ones I'd be comfortable saying will do that in the next few years are CC Sabathia and Derek Lowe. As you go down, though, there's Jon Garland, Paul Byrd, Greg Maddux... there's a drop in quality that makes it hard to commit to these guys as a number two starter between Santana and Pelfrey.
My sense is that the Mets should spend money in this market if it will get them Sabathia or Lowe. Again, this is a team that has to support a core that is peaking right now, and that's more than good enough to win a championship. If you cannot sign either pitcher within reason-and note that I'm pessimistic about Sabathia's ability to pitch effectively on the second half of a six-year deal, and that I already had the Dodgers sign Lowe-then investing in the bullpen and a takes-the-ball guy to pitch in front of a fairly good defense is the way to go.
So here's the plan:
The 2009-10 Mets will have a very high payroll-I just added $45 million to what looked to be a $95-100 million payroll prior to my spending spree-and may even be subject to the investment tax. At this point in their history, though, with an amazing core, a new ballpark, and a share of the largest market in the game, they have to commit to doing whatever it takes to put this roster over the top. This is not the typical Prospectus approach, but this is not the typical situation, and getting caught up in principles isn't going to turn a very good team into the very best one. This is how to help the Reyes/Wright Mets win a championship.