By Mike Steffanos
In the three previous installments of this article we took a look at the moves Mets GM Omar Minaya has made since taking over the reins after the 2004 season. He made an immediate splash by signing both Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran that first winter. Although it is acknowledged that money played a huge part in those signings, it was still an impressive sell job by Minaya. The two big name signings brought some immediate juice to a Mets franchise that had been floundering.
Minaya complemented those moves with some really smart minor-league free agent pickups, with Roberto Hernandez, Ramon Castro, Marlon Anderson, Juan Padilla and Chris Woodward all making significant contributions to the 2005 New York Mets. The success of the small moves augured as well for the future as the big ones.
The following winter the Minaya regime made their major moves via the trade rather than the checkbook, but there were still several players who contributed to the 2006 club. Chad Bradford, Endy Chavez, and Julio Franco were signed to major league contracts, while Darren Oliver, Pedro Feliciano and Jose Valentin were initially signed to minor league contracts.
The off-season trades brought Minaya his first full-fledged second guessing, as popular Mets Mike Cameron, Mike Jacobs, Jae Seo -- and the less popular Kris Benson -- were traded away along with a couple of the Mets' top pitching prospects. Both the Seo and Benson deals were the most widely criticized, but Minaya has come out looking good on both.
In-season pickups of Roberto Hernandez, Oliver Perez, Dave Williams, Guillermo Mota and Shawn Green all made contributions the Mets playoff run. 2007 seemed to be a year of great promise.
In the off-season following their ouster in Game 7 of the NLCS, Minaya seemed to lose his touch with the free agents. Moises Alou and Damion Easley were solid while playing but missed significant time with injuries. Orlando Hernandez and Guillermo Mota were controversial 2-year re-signings, El Duque because of age and Mota because of a positive steroid test. Scott Schoeneweis, bothered by a leg injury, was bad for most of the season. David Newhan spent more time in the minors than with the Mets. Only Jorge Sosa and the in-season pickup of Marlon Anderson were great successes.
The trades look even worse in retrospect. Traded players Heath Bell, Royce Ring, Henry Owens, Matt Lindstrom and Brian Bannister all made significant contributions to their new clubs, while the players the Mets got back either suffered injury or were simply ineffective.
As the season went along with an oddly complacent club spending most of the season playing .500 ball and then collapsing in September, Minaya and his front office took their fair share of criticism for their mistakes. The Mets could have used some hard-throwing relief help of the sort that was traded away, and Mets fans could only imagine how Brian Bannister could have solidified a year-long weakness at the bottom of the rotation. In an atmosphere of "what have you done for me lately?" the answer was not a good one for Minaya.
After Tom Glavine's miserable outing on the last day of the season sealed the Mets fate, Willie Randolph took the lion's share of the fans' wrath, but Minaya was not immune. Acclaimed as a genius a year earlier, Minaya was now being called things that were decidedly not complimentary. In fact, it was only the level of anger directed at Randolph that spared Minaya from more people calling for him to be fired.
Beyond the bad trades made in the previous off-season, a lot of the criticism of Minaya centered on what was perceived as the organization's over-reliance on older, established players. Players such as Julio Franco, Orlando Hernandez, Moises Alou, Jose Valentin, and Luis Castillo were signed to contracts and perceived as being favored for playing time over younger, possibly more deserving players.
While much of the criticism was probably unfair, some it was justified. Minaya's gambles on older, fragile players have backfired quite often over the past two years. The justification for gambling with theses players short-term was in using them as place-holders for prospects who needed a little more time, but most of those prospects are now gone. Certainly the team has some talent lower down in the system, but this club teeters on the edge between win-now and rebuilding.
Signing the creaky-kneed Luis Castillo, whose value depends on diminishing speed, to a 4-year contract seems almost certain to be a cause for regret for the future. This is exactly the sort of move Minaya makes that drives fans crazy. I could see offering Castillo a 2-year contract, but I find it hard to believe there was another team willing to give Castillo 4 years.
Even 3+ years into his regime, Minaya is a puzzling paradox between the man who loves young talent yet always seems to elect the more predictable choice with veteran ballplayers. He has endlessly stated his goal to make the Mets younger and more athletic, yet they grow older every year. I could understand the frustration of the fan base with this. There needs to be a commitment to making "younger and more athletic" a reality following this season.
Complicating this will be decisions to be made about Pedro Martinez and Carlos Delgado. Martinez will be a free agent and Delgado has a $4 million buyout on a $16 million salary. If Martinez comes back and pitches effectively this season and Delgado continues to hit, there will be tough choices to be made. If Moises Alou comes back and manages to put up 350-400 productive AB, there will certainly be some thought of rolling the dice one more time.
Unlike some, I still give Minaya a lot of credit for what he has accomplished, and am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. There needs to be some tightening up, however, on the talent evaluation failures of last year that led to undervaluing what the Mets traded away and overvaluing what they received in return (although, in fairness, the jury is still out on some of the talent).
On the other hand, hindsight is always 20-20, and he might get a little too much criticism for three deals that didn't pan out. After all, he's had some successes, too. Nobody ever gets it perfect.
For my own part, I want to see this team get younger and follow the successful model of other clubs who have productive farm systems. It's no accident that the Mets payroll is actually higher this year than the Red Sox, who have been able to win and build a great farm system.
Over the past couple of seasons, culminating in the Santana deal, the trend has been for young talent going out of the organization. That needs to be reversed. Moreover, the Mets as an organization must be willing to display more faith in young players. While proven veterans will always have a role on competitive teams, there needs to be a balance of youth and experience.
Mets fans are tired of the endless story line of key veteran players going on the DL. It's certainly not helping the team now, and the Mets will be hard-put to compete against the strong young teams like the Diamondbacks and Rockies going forward with an overpaid roster of players whose best days were spend elsewhere.
To some extent, Minaya has been hampered by ownership's unwillingness to circumvent the arbitrary draft slotting guidelines of the commissioner's office while clubs such as the Tigers ignore them and wind up with superior talent. By all accounts the Mets are no longer willing to go along, and that can only help. Combined with their efforts in signing Latin American talent, this should bolster the system.
I have purposely not discussed the draft and development under Minaya. It's just too soon to evaluate players who were all drafted in the last 3 years. Still, there have been some successes already. Mike Pelfrey was a 2005 choice, as are up and coming pitching talents Jon Niese and Bobby Parnell. 2006 pick Joe Smith has contributed, and Kevin Mulvey was a key piece in the Santana trade. The Mets are high on some of the pitchers they drafted high last season, too.
Top prospect Fernando Martinez and pitcher Deolis Guerra, another key piece of the Santana trade, are examples of the Mets successful Latin signings.
The Mets under Minaya have placed a lot of effort into having a more productive farm system. They have a philosophy of pushing their best players at a fast pace to challenge them. Only time will tell how that works out.
With the success of revenue sharing and with MLB as a whole extremely profitable, you simply can't fill out a roster with free agents and hope to compete. Even the Yankees have abandoned that philosophy.
Minaya is at a crossroads here, with little talent that is close to major league ready, some aging veterans and a fan base that desperately craves a winner. How he balances all of these things over the next few seasons -- provided he doesn't get himself fired first -- will tell as whether he takes his place of shame with all the failed GMs since Frank Cashen stepped down or fulfils the promise of his early success. I still like his chances, but nothing is certain.