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A bit more than a year removed from his last major league appearance, Billy Wagner took the mound at Citi Field last night in the top of the eighth inning against the Braves. His entrance was greeted with loud cheers, and those cheers grew as he struck out the first man he faced and then completed his one-two-three inning with a second whiff. Wagner left the mound to the better part of a standing ovation, the crowd sounding a bit like it was celebrating the tension of a critical late-season game.

That’s not where the Mets were, though. The team Billy Wagner left last August 2 was two games out of first place in the NL East. The team he returned to is playing out the string in a lost year. The raucous cheers for Wagner, understandable for a good and popular player returning from a serious injury, fell flat to me. It was the absence of Wagner down the stretch in the last two seasons that was the single biggest reason the Mets missed the playoffs in those years, the single biggest reason for the enormous amount of pressure on the 2009 team. Wagner was intermittently available in ’07, watching his teammates blow leads in at least one critical game that September and himself losing two, including one to the Phillies in late August. By suffering a season-ending injury in early August last year, Wagner forced the Mets to use lesser relievers at a point in the season where finding substitutes would be difficult. Wagner’s hero’s welcome was dissonant.

The 2009 Mets are done, of course, and the absence of Wagner is one reason for that. The Mets invested in Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz this winter, and might have used resources in other ways had they had a healthy Wagner. Had payroll been allocated differently, the team might have been better prepared for the brutal wave of injuries that ended its season gradually. For it is injuries, now to all four of the team’s best position players, that are the defining story of the 2009 Mets.

Carlos Delgado played his last game on May 10. Through that day, the Mets were 17-13, having scored 151 runs in 30 games, or a tick more than five per game. May 10 was the last time the Mets were whole. Jose Reyes made his last start of the season May 20, and played just about 10 innings between May 13 and his last appearance, just one full game. Mark May 13 and see that the Mets were 18-15 and had scored exactly five runs per game; that was when Reyes hit the DL.

Playing without two of their top players, the Mets struggled to score runs. Over the next five weeks, through June 21, the team went 16-18 and scored 145 runs, 4.3 per game. That’s when Carlos Beltran‘s bum knee pushed him out of the lineup. Without Reyes, Delgado and Beltran, the Mets fell apart: 21-29, 3.8 runs per game. Finally, last Saturday, David Wright was beaned, and he hasn’t played since. The Mets are 1-3 without him and have scored just 3.5 runs per game in that span.

Each injury made the team a little bit worse until there was nothing left. It’s rare you find a pattern this clear in any data, but with the 2009 Mets, the situation is crystal-clear: they got a little bit worse with each lost starter until they simply couldn’t field a decent lineup. With none of the players having returned, they never reassembled the offense that was supposed to push them into contention. Injuries, so often an excuse, are clearly the sole cause of the Mets’ disappointing 2009.

There’s a guiding principle in baseball that you don’t lose your job because of injury. To fire Omar Minaya would be to fire him because half his payroll got hurt. If you want to criticize him for not having better depth, that’s your prerogative, but this Mets bench wasn’t bad. Alex Cora, Gary Sheffield, Fernando Tatis, Angel Pagan… that’s a good bench. The problem is that it’s been the starting lineup on far too many nights. The Mets had Cory Sullivan batting fifth last night. They play Jeff Francoeur-and it’s not the wrong move. They gave Angel Berroa a look. No GM can be expected to succeed if all of his best players get hurt, and that’s what happened to the Mets this year. Minaya, who assembled an improved bench and bullpen this year, isn’t the reason this team isn’t in contention.

The Mets could have used a healthy and effective Billy Wagner down the stretch in 2007, and even a cutdown version of the left-hander would have been useful a year ago. Now, he’s ready to pitch, but the roles have been reversed, and it’s his teammates who watch helplessly from the sidelines as a season fades away. Wagner’s best way of contributing to the Mets now is to pitch well between now and next weekend, which may allow the team to trade him and get some return for a player who’s contract expires-well, there’s an option year, but good luck getting that picked up-in six weeks. It would be funny if Wagner has a greater impact on the Mets’ fortunes in 2011 and 2012 via the return he brings the club in a trade than he had in the last three years in which he was wearing blue and orange.

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ElAngelo
8/21
How about holding Minaya accountable for having put together a hideous starting lineup beyond the Big Four?
warmsox
8/21
In the opening day lineup the only GLARING weakness was LF. Castillo has had a .400 OBP which is great for a 2nd hole hitter, and Schneider/Castro/Santos has been acceptable if not great all season. LF platoon of Daniel Murphy and Tatis wouldn't have worked out no matter how you played it, but in the end that's why they had Gary Sheffield. I think a lineup of: Reyes Castillo Beltran Wright Delgado Sheffield Church Schneider/Castro/Santos Pitcher would have been a force to be reckoned with, and then they could have added a LF at the deadline if they really needed to.
crperry13
8/21
Hardly fair considering they lost 3 starters to injury and Perez fell completely apart after finally looking like a real pitcher last season. Healthy and playing how they should, a rotation of Santana, Maine, Perez, Pelfrey, and Niese should have been more competitive in the NL East. Before Cliff Lee, the Phillies' rotation was patchwork as well!
nghunter
8/22
Joe, What's up with you of late? Trouble on the homefront? You are poo poo-ing the fans for giving Wagner a standing ovation welcoming back a player from grueling rehab and revelling in thoughts of what might have been in past years? That's just bizarre. This is the second time this week that you've used a misguided lead-in to make a completely different point (and attacked or quasi-attacked a player when it seems unmerited.) Like I said before, I think you are a great mind and writer, but I think you should consider sticking to writing your actual point rather than inappropriately shoe-horning in these other bits, particularly when they come off as grumpy and whiny.
warmsox
8/21
Joe, great points, and points I've been trying to make to my fellow Mets fans all year. Two quick edits though: Shea Stadium is gone, the Mets play in Citi Field now. And it's Angel Pagan, not Alex Pagan.
jsheehan
8/21
I don't get it. I call the new park in the Bronx "Yankee Stadium" and no one complains.
warmsox
8/24
If only. If only. I've let my bygones be bygones in this case.
bobgale
8/21
I must be missing something here...you're blaming Wagner for his injury and the subsequent domino effect on the team? Pitchers are now culpable for their arm injuries..? Why can't the fans just be glad to see Wags come back? Odd...
TaylorSanders
8/21
Agree. I was happy to see him come back because I still enjoy watching the games even if the team is not in contention and I would much rather see them win.
maxinparis
8/21
Considering the likely return in trade, I think Wagner could help the Mets most by declining arbitration next year.
Dodger300
8/21
No one has ever blamed Billy Wagner of faking his injury. He sacrificed his body for the team, yet you have the gall blame him for "forcing" the Mets to use lesser relievers. Sheehan, you are an ass.
husier
8/22
Sheehan implied nothing of the sort ... only that his extended absence late last season was uber-costly to the Mets.
SOJseth
8/22
I'm pretty sure it's not Wagner's fault that the next best reliever on the team in 2008 was Luis Ayala. And I'm pretty sure that is Omar Minaya's fault. It's also Omar Minaya's fault that the 2010 and 2011 Mets will still have Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez. It's also Omar Minaya's fault for thinking Perez was the great pitcher he's shown flashes of the last few years, and not the terrible one he's shown more. It's also Minaya's fault for mistaking Pelfrey's luck-induced dominance in 2008 for genuine improvement, and for thinking that John Maine could be a steady presence when he was coming off of shoulder surgery. It's also Minaya's fault for dealing Ramon Castro (Omir Santos!) and downgrading from Church to Franceour, because he hired a manager who apparently prefers players who are bad at baseball. Joe, I'm really not sure what your main point is here, but among the various options I can detect--fans shouldn't cheer a guy coming back from injury, Billy Wagner is the reason the Mets fell apart in '07 and '07, or Omar Minaya is a secret good GM--none of them hold up.
twinkies25
8/21
I don't think Billy Wagner needs to be ostracised because of an arm injury, but I do think that if he had been healthy all this time, the Mets wouldn't be in the situation there in now. Sheehan is not an ass, he's telling the truth.
ScottBehson
8/21
Re: Wagner- I don't think Joe was implying that Wagner's injuries were faked or deliberate- just that they were devastating. Re: the Mets bench- I thought the bench going into the season was okay. But even a lot of the bench got hurt, too. To date, the Mets have got 35 games out of starter Reyes (big injury), 56 games out of primary backup Cora (two separate DL stints), and 40ish combined starts from such immortals as Angel Berroa (who is, well, Angel Berroa), Wilson Valdez (who got hurt), Ramon Martinez (who got hurt), and Anderson Hernandez (who can't hit a lick). This is what Will would call an incredible injury stack!
nwherry
8/21
Would the Mets have been in contention if just two of those four had gone down? The severity of the injuries shouldn't gloss over the fact that there *was* a lack of depth. "There’s a guiding principle in baseball that you don’t lose your job because of injury. To fire Omar Minaya would be to fire him because half his payroll got hurt." That sounds like you're chalking the injuries up more to luck than anything. Doesn't Will Carroll say that health is a skill? A GM should be at fault in some way if he composes a team of players with injury histories. Plus, it isn't like there aren't plenty other reasons to can Minaya beyond the team's lack of contention this year.
Chomsky
8/21
Will Carroll gave Delgado, Beltran, and Reyes each "green lights," in his team health assessment before the season. http://baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8632
lunatic96
8/21
Getting hit in the skull with a baseball is somewhat a freak accident. You can't really blame Carroll for not foreseeing that.
sbnirish77
8/21
Great catch ...
husier
8/22
Was there any reason to see those guys as any kind of serious injury risk?
lunatic96
8/21
Anyone looking at the Mets objectively this offseason could tell that they had absolutely no pitching besides Santana. If you're planning on relying on John Maine or Oliver Perez to be your #2 starter, you're going to have problems, regardless of how many runs you can score.
mhmosher
8/21
His return "fell flat" for a Yankee fan. As Billy would say..."shocker"
DrDave
8/21
After reading the whole article I know what you meant, but I can certainly see why some people read this as blaming Wagner (and thinking he doesn't deserve a welcome back). "Wagner forced the Mets to use lesser relievers" is simply not a useful way of phrasing it -- it sounds like a blackmail-and-kidnaping plot, not an injury. The people cheering for Wagner were (shockingly) cheering for Wagner, not for the Mets or their playoff hopes. If that fell flat for you, well, I don't think that's Wagner's fault or the fans' problem.
jsheehan
8/22
Yeah, if this many people got the same thing from it, that's on me, my failure to make the point correctly. Anyway, I wasn't calling out Mets fans for their reaction, and I certainly wasn't criticizing Wagner. Guys get hurt. The scene just made me think of how critical the absence of Wagner was to the last two seasons--that Sept. 2007 loss to the Marlins, really the only time he didn't answer the bell, was maybe the critical game in the month. It was the jumping-off point for the whole thought process, seeing these raucous cheers in a lost season and wondering what the opportunity to cheer Billy Wagner in August would have meant a year ago.
SOJseth
8/22
I'd say the critical game in that month was the last game of the season, in which Tom Glavine gave up 7 runs before the Mets even came to bat. Let's not forget that the starting pitchers fell apart in 2007 as well. And we can blame Minaya for putting together a team in which Jorge Sosa made 14 starts, and Brian Lawrence made 6. Mets relievers had a 5.91 RA in September '07, but the starters were almost as bad, at 5.51. The starters also averaged less than 5.3 innings per start. When I look bat at 2007 I blame a lot of players and factors, but Billy Wagner, while on the list, isn't close to the top.
jballen4eva
8/23
Joe, you're freaking me out: some games are more critical than others, team fortunes come down to a proven closer (or just a proven 60 IP guy). Isn't it a little more reasonable to just say that the Mets would have fared better in 2007 and 2008 if they'd just (a) scored more runs and/or (b) allowed fewer runs? To be sure, Wagner was a part of the problem, but there was a lot more involved in those seasons.
eighteen
8/21
"There’s a guiding principle in baseball that you don’t lose your job because of injury. To fire Omar Minaya would be to fire him because half his payroll got hurt." No, to fire Minaya would be to fire a man who can't put together a playoff team with one of the biggest payrolls in baseball, in one of baseball's biggest markets. Minaya's many inadequacies have long been apparent to everyone not named Wilpon. Maybe 2009 will be a blessing in disguise for the Mets - it doesn't matter if Minaya's fired for something he couldn't control, just as long as he's fired.
deepblue64
8/22
Whilst no club could reasonably be expected to survive losing their 4 top position players Minaya has to take accountability for the organisation's slap dash approach to injuries - Ryan Church last year, letting players talk themselves out of sensibly scheduled rest, training staff not properly checking mid-game injuries before letting pitchers throw again. This is a dysfunctional organisation and the buck stops with Minaya.
sturock
8/24
... and there doesn't seem to be much help coming from the farm system. Isn't player development one of a GM's main responsibilities?