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The Mets were the storyline team a year ago, convincing three of the most sought-after free agents to call Queens home for the next several years. For just three players–Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and their very own Kris Benson–the Mets committed $195 million. This winter the payroll might not get shell-shocked in quite the same way, but there are several prominent Mets players with unsettled contracts. Today we will identify and investigate some key areas of weakness that should be addressed this winter.

  • After seven and a half years and having claimed roughly 100 million of owner Fred Wilpon‘s dollars, the clock finally struck midnight for Mike Piazza. During the first three and a half seasons as the pride of the Mets, from May 1998 through 2001, Piazza hit .317/.388/.591 with 137 home runs in 2157 plate appearances. In the four years since: .270/.354/.482 with 83 home runs in 1784 plate appearances. That’s a big drop-off, but it’s still quite a stick for a catcher, and Nate Silver showed recently how catchers tend to age quickly. The subpar defense becomes much less tolerable when he’s not leading the National League in everything.

    Using a new valuation method that Nate unveiled last month, we can get an idea of how the seven-year, $91 million contract worked out for the Mets. MORP stands for Marginal value Over Replacement Player; it may help to think of it as a fiscal version of Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP).

    Piazza    Marginal_Salary     WARP       MORP*    Net_Value
    1999           $9.80           7.9      $12.28      $2.48
    2000           10.80           7.6       12.03       1.23
    2001           12.30           7.3       11.74      -0.56
    2002           12.80           4.1        4.51      -8.29
    2003           14.20           2.5        2.12     -12.08
    2004           14.70           2.8        2.66     -12.04
    2005           14.70           3.0        3.12     -11.58
    TOTALS         89.30          37.5       80.25     -40.84
    (dollar figures in millions)
    *MORP deflated 5% annually for the time value of money

    In Nate’s article on Manny Ramirez, he cited the Mets as one team for which a marginal win has more value, so from their standpoint, the contract ends up significantly less damaging than the net loss in excess of $40,000,000. Certainly Piazza played an enormous part in winning the 2000 National League pennant, but any way you slice this deal, it cost the Mets. Now expired, that contract is nothing more than an interesting diversion for us, a point of reference for future mega-contracts and the aging patterns of top-shelf catchers.

    Thanks to the ongoing defensive limitations, his quietest bat to date in 2005, a poor showing at first base when given the chance in 2004, and a desire to continue catching everyday, Piazza has almost certainly played his last game in blue and orange.

  • On Monday GM Omar Minaya declined the 2006 options for Braden Looper ($5.5 million) and Doug Mientkiewicz ($4 million). Looper had a very disappointing year after emerging as a successful closer in 2004, striking out just 27 in 59 1/3 innings and struggling through his worst season since the early days in Florida. Mientkiewicz also struggled, for the second straight year, and his defense at first isn’t the same defense he flashed in Minnesota. Danny Graves, for $5 million, was also refused.

    Actually, the Amazins have lots of options. Also on Monday, they chose to exercise Steve Trachsel‘s $2.5 million option, making him the fifth starting pitcher under contract for 2006, behind Martinez, Benson, Jae Seo and Tom Glavine, whose performance secured a $10.5 million vesting option. Kazuhisa Ishii gives the Mets another option, an unlikely one at $3.25 million, as does Felix Heredia at $2.5 million. Victor Zambrano heads to arbitration after earning $2.1 million in 2005. But Seo, after besting Pedro’s ERA in 90 innings, is more deserving of a rotation spot than Ishii or Zambrano.

  • Aaron Heilman also held his own in the rotation, but he was outstanding in the bullpen, allowing just two runs and 18 hits in his final 37 1/3 innings. He’ll be needed more from the pen, where, due to various DFAs over the past several months and the impending free agency of surprising setup ace Roberto Hernandez, the pitchers under contract accounted for just 41 percent of the relief innings in 2005. Expect Minaya to go bullpen shopping this winter, while the prime in-house candidates for increased roles in 2006 are Heath Bell, Juan Padilla and Royce Ring.

The most glaring needs on the Mets roster this winter are at first base, catcher, and the bullpen. Wilpon has never been afraid to throw greenbacks at big-name free agents, and while his options are fewer this year, that probably only means he’ll spend more. As for trades, Minaya can dangle starting pitching, and if he so desires, Mike Cameron, in order to fill the team’s most obvious holes.

Nate Silver, the man of the hour, contributed research to this column.

Dave Haller

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  • Under New Management: We don’t know what was asked during new manager Jim Tracy’s successful job interview–it seems that Dave Littlefield swept the office for listening devices soon after showing Lloyd McLendon the door. The quick hire (Tracy became manager eight days after exercising an escape clause from his Dodgers contract) indicates that he said and did the right things, whatever those were.

    Most employers have a single focus in interviews, one thing that they’re really interested in learning above all others. The rest of the interview is important–good to make sure that the person you’re about to hire doesn’t have a felony record, after all–but most often this is filler for the main issue, which can be broached a number of ways.

    No matter how they were phrased, there were two questions which the Pirates’ decisionmakers must have asked Tracy in some form: “You like young pitchers?” (Correct answer, “Love ’em!”), and “How do you treat young pitchers?” (Correct answer, “Gently,” although other adverbs such as “carefully” would also be acceptable.) When you have the arms of Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, and Oliver Perez to worry about, what else really matters?

    Looking back at Tracy’s years with the Dodgers, his record with the young ‘uns is a mixed bag:

    Tracy’s Kids (pitchers 25 years or less when they joined Tracy’s team, minimum 20 IP)

                                   With Tracy    Without Tracy
    Pitcher           Year (Age)   IP     ERA    IP     ERA
    Eric Gagne        2001 (25)    412.0  2.91   131.3  4.45
    Luke Prokopec     2001 (23)    138.3  4.88    92.7  5.92
    Odalis Perez      2002 (25)    712.7  3.70   199.0  5.38
    Edwin Jackson     2003 (19)     75.3  5.50   N/A    N/A
    Duaner Sanchez    2004 (24)    162.0  3.56     6.0  9.00
    Yhency Brazoban   2004 (24)    105.3  4.44   N/A    N/A
    D.J. Houlton      2005 (25)    129.0  5.16   N/A    N/A
    Steve Schmoll     2005 (25)     46.7  5.01   N/A    N/A
    Franquelis Osoria 2005 (23)     29.7  3.94   N/A    N/A

    It’s a small sample, but some things stand out. Eric Gagne, after his bullpen conversion, is one of the great successes of the Tracy era. At the time Tracy moved Gagne to the bullpen, he’d already washed out on a couple of chances to stick in the rotation, so Tracy’s intervention might just have given him a career.

    Odalis Perez is a more quiet accomplishment, but perhaps a more significant challenge in terms of usage. After three promising but ineffective seasons in Atlanta, Tracy brought Perez to prominence with the Dodgers in 2002, but also nearly doubled Perez’s innings pitched from the previous season. Despite relatively low STRESS scores for 2002 and 2003 (12 and 19, respectively), Perez has been fragile in his Dodgers career, losing time to elbow, biceps, and shoulder problems. Indeed, Gagne, Perez, Edwin Jackson and Luke Prokopec have all had serious arm trouble in their post-Tracy career.

    As always, it is difficult to isolate the cause and effect when it comes to usage and pitching injuries. There’s no telling whether some pitchers arrive at the Majors with the damage already done by their mechanics and usage in the minors and as amateurs. Aside from Perez, none of the young Dodgers pitchers posted a double-figure STRESS score during Tracy’s tenure. Nonetheless, the situation bears watching.

  • Free at Last! Free at Last!: A quick rundown of the Pirates’ potential free agents:
                    Age   IP     RA+   VORP
    Rick White      36    75.0   0.98   6.9
    Jose Mesa       39    56.7   0.96   4.7
    Brian Meadows   29    74.7   0.87   1.8
                    Age    PA    EqA   VORP
    Daryle Ward     30    452    .252   7.2

    Not a win over replacement in this bunch, so it’s no big deal if any of them leave. Jose Mesa‘s contract was bought out, so it is widely assumed that he won’t be back. Still, the Bucs have shown a tendency toward recidivism with the erstwhile closer, and may be tempted to bring him back–again–at a lower salary than the $4 Million he was scheduled to receive.

    Meanwhile, Daryle Ward not only proved that he wasn’t terribly good in 2005, but he also lost his playing time to big Bradley Eldred (Ward only started three of the Pirates’ last 20 games). So the question is, is it worth it to bring back Ward, at any price, to hang around if Eldred falters, or perhaps be a lefty bat off the bench?

    Considering that Ryan Doumit and Craig Wilson could also be competing with Eldred for playing time at first this spring, it’s doubtful that Ward’s attendance will be required. Even if Ward were to, say, take a Spring Training NRI, he would have to hope Tracy doesn’t recognize him from his stint with the Dodgers in 2003 (.114 EqA).

    Sometimes you just have to start over.

Derek Jacques

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  • An AGM: After interviewing two candidates, new GM Jon Daniels zeroed in on Rockies Senior Director of Baseball Operations, Thad Levine. Levine graduated from Haverford College, the alma mater of new Arizona GM Josh Byrnes. Levine earned his MBA from UCLA and got his start in baseball with the Dodgers in business development. He joined the Rockies at the recommendation of Byrnes, who was then Dan O’Dowd’s Assistant GM.

    For the next six years he worked his way up the baseball operations department, always attempting to bridge the gap between the business and baseball sides of the organization. When Texas GM Jon Daniels was an intern in the Colorado front office Levine was there as the Assistant Director of Baseball Administration.

    In Texas he will be primarily responsible for negotiating contracts, especially with arbitration-eligible players like Mark Teixeira. Talk about being thrown into the fire.

  • Teixeira Contract: First baseman Teixeira, a fifth overall pick in the 2001 draft, was convinced to sign with the Rangers by an incredibly lucrative four-year contract. How lucrative? Most sources quote the total value at four-years and $9,500,000, but that ignores the $541,668 in roster bonuses that Teixeira has earned in each of the last three years. Add his All-Star bonus for 2005 and you end up with a net payout over the length of the contract of just over $11,175,000 (and that’s not even mentioning the salary guarantees offered had baseball gone into any sort of work stoppage). That is a lot of loot for a a player in his first three years of baseball.

    But Teixeira didn’t disappoint in the production department.

    Mark Teixeira Career Statistics
    2003 23 146 589 137 26 84 44 120 .259 .331 .480 22.0
    2004 24 145 625 153 38 112 68 117 .281 .370 .560 52.6
    2005 25 162 732 194 43 144 72 124 .301 .379 .575 73.1

    Assuming that the market price of an additional win is worth about $2,140,000, Teixeira’s three year performance would have been worth about $38,948,000. Fun fact, but not all that helpful going forward.

    You see, that four year deal is up. Teixeira has 3+ years of Major League Service and if the team isn’t able to reach an agreement with him he will have his salary determined in an arbitration hearing. With his new Gold Glove award in hand, Teixeira poses a unique arbitration challenge. His platform year was incredible, his career numbers are superior, and he has Scott Boras as an agent.

    Albert Pujols was heading into a 3+ arbitration in the 2003/2004 off-season that centered around a mid-point of $8,500,000 ($10,500,000 player filing point, $7,000,000 from the club). He avoided the hearing and accepted an enormous seven-year, $100,000,000 contract that paid him $7,000,000 in the first year. Teixeira is certainly no Pujols, but through their first three years they’re close enough to think that Teixeira is going to net big bucks this off-season.

    Albert Pujols Statistics Through 2003

    2001 21 161 676 194 37 130 69 93 .329 .403 .610 84.6
    2002 22 157 675 185 34 127 72 69 .314 .394 .561 72.6
    2003 23 157 685 212 43 124 79 65 .359 .439 .667 108.2

    Look for either a one year settlement of $7,250,000 to $8,000,000 or an enormous multi-year deal. Note that Texas hasn’t gone into an arbitration hearing room since John Hart came into the front office in 2001 and Jon Daniels arrived in 2002.

The Newberg Report was the source for some of Thad Levine’s biographical information.

Tom Gorman

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