By Mike Steffanos
In this, the third segment of our analysis of Omar Minaya's tenure as GM of the New York Mets, we'll take a look at the moves he has made since the collapse of last year's club.
Major League: C Ramon Castro (Re-sign), 2B Luis Castillo (Re-sign), RP Matt Wise, RP Jorge Sosa (Re-sign)
Minor League: C Raul Casanova, RP Juan Padilla, INF Fernando Tatis, C Robinson Cancel, INF Jose Valentin, P Nelson Figueroa, P Tony Armas Jr., INF Olmedo Saenz, OF Ben Johnson, OF Brady Clark
Traded RP Guillermo Mota to the Brewers for C Johnny Estrada.
Acquired P Brian Stokes from the Rays for cash. Traded OF Lastings Milledge to the Nationals for OF Ryan Church and C Brian Schneider.
Traded OF Corey Coles and P Ryan Meyers to the Cubs for OF Angel Pagan.
Traded OF Carlos Gomez, SP Deolis Guerra, SP Kevin Mulvey and SP Philip Humber to the Twins for SP Johan Santana.
The Mets weren't all that active in the major league free agent market this past winter, concentrating instead on the pursuit of a top of the rotation starting pitcher. Matt Wise was the only free agent from outside the organization who they chose to sign. Although not met with much acclaim, I liked the signing for reasons I'll simply quote from a post from opening day:
... [Wise] is a guy who was great two years ago, struggled somewhat in 2006, and then was very, very good last season until hitting a batter in late July. Look at his splits month-by-month last season. The league was hitting .213/.252/.346 in the first half. I think he has a chance to bounce back nicely. Keep in mind that he'll be pitching the innings Guillermo Mota was pitching last year, and I think we have quite an upgrade here.
Wise was a dominating setup man in 2005, struggled a little in 2006, and was pitching back to the high standard of his 2005 campaign when his season fell apart after hitting a batter in late July. This was a logical signing, despite his early struggles this season.
The Mets chose to re-sign 3 of their own free agents, handing Sosa a 1-year deal, Castro 2 years and Castillo 4. Of the three, Castillo seemed like a reach. He was solid down the stretch last season, but the way he's deteriorating physically he may be playing second base with a walker the last couple of years under contract. Plus, he's a guy whose game is dependent on speed. I find it hard to believe that he will be worth $6 million per at the end of his stay here. It's not a huge amount of money for a large market team to risk, but 2 or 3 years with an option would certainly have made more sense to me.
As for Castro and Sosa, I thought those were no-brainers -- reasonable term contracts for guys who contributed solid performance in 2007. Of course, Castro has those injury issues and Sosa can be bad at times, but for the money invested these were smart deals.
The minor league signings, one of the strengths of Minaya's regime, seem pretty solid judging them this early in the season. Casanova is the backup catcher while Castro heals, and looks like he can contribute with the bat when called on. Cancel looks like another solid insurance catcher. Tatis almost made the squad this spring, and is one of the few veteran insurance types that populate the New Orleans roster who has a little pop in his bat. Last year for the Zephyrs he hit 21 HR in 497 AB while putting up a solid .276/.359/.485 batting line. Brady Clark is currently the 25th man on the roster, with all of the job security that implies, but he certainly had a solid spring.
Figueroa is already in New York, thanks to Pedro's injury, and Tony Armas, Jr. is another guy who gives the Mets some pitching insurance. Padilla is still recovering from surgery, but is expected to pitch sometime soon. After missing so much time he's a long shot to make it back, but it's not impossible for a guy who pitches with guile rather than lighting up the radar gun. Ruddy Lugo, a waiver pickup this winter, is also contributing to the minor league depth in pitching.
Jose Valentin's playing days me be over after a neck problem surfaced, and Saenz left the Mets after not making the major league roster. That latter move disappointed me, because I thought Saenz could provide a second dependable RH bench bat behind Easley and also spell Delgado at first. On the other hand, he is a one-dimensional player for a 5-man bench. Ben Johnson made it through waivers and was willing to sign a minor league deal with the Mets. The biggest significance is that this ensures, for the time being, that the Heath Bell deal is still not a total loss. Maybe Johnson, once he comes back from last year's ankle injury, can prove that he can contribute something at the major league level and tilt the scales on that trade somewhere closer to even rather than giving Bell away for literally nothing.
We'll take the trades in chronological order, saving the big one for last. The Mets virtually dumped Mota since they elected not to tender a contract to Estrada. Hard to see how the emotionally high-strung Mota would have ever overcome the skepticism of the fans after last season's debacle. Stokes for merely cash was a solid insurance move.
The Milledge deal was the most controversial of the winter for Minaya. On the plus side he received two solid major leaguers in return for a prospect. On the negative he traded away a player who has the potential to become a star for those aforementioned solid major leaguers. What bothered me as much as anything about the deal is trading the kid with star potential to a division foe, where he can come back to bite the Mets for many years. People who like the deal point to Schneider's competence as a backstop and Church having potential to become a very good hitter. Unlike many, I can see both sides. In fairness, evaluating this trade will have to wait a few years. Again, what bothered me the most was trading him within the division. Time will tell.
Pagan was a solid pickup. He's grown into a solid extra outfielder. Coles was 25 before he got above A ball, and has a lifetime minor league slugging % of .387 in 1,480 AB. Meyers is a 21-year-old with some promise who had a solid season in Low-A ball last year.
The Santana deal is one that I both love and hate. I like the fact that they were able to land an ace pitcher and hold onto Fernando Martinez, their top prospect. On the other hand, every time that Johan Santana so much as sneezes for the next 7 years I'll be holding my breath. Such is the gamble when you pursue an elite starter in the current economic climate of major league baseball.
I liked all of the players the Mets gave up. I was sad to see them go, and suspect that at least a couple of them will have long, solid careers. On the other hand, Minaya refused to buckle under pressure and give up Jose Reyes. ESPN's Buster Olney was even promoting a deal which would include Reyes and prospects. This would have been ludicrous given the fact that the Mets are assuming all of the risk of giving out a huge long-term contract to a pitcher with no inexpensive years left, which was the case with Danny Haren and Erik Bedard.
Minaya had proven willing to play the big risk - big reward game, and this certainly qualifies. Again, you can't judge this for a few years. If Santana stays healthy and productive the deal is good even if the prospects pan out. One thing I'll say, as nervous as I am about committing so much for one player, I am grateful that Minaya did this in return for a great pitcher. For all those who crucified him for not making this sort of deal to Barry Zito, not only has Zito not performed, but the money to sign Santana would not have been there if Zito was getting paid $17 million per. This kind of financial risk for such a long term only makes sense if you are taking that risk on excellence.
Obviously the jury is still out on the just-begun 2008 season, but -- with reservations -- I like the moves a lot better that preceded this season than last. Minaya has been taking a lot of heat, some earned, some unfair, for the body of work he has produced since taking on the job after the 2004 season. While it's fair to judge him on moves that have backfired (Heath Bell, Matt Lindstrom, Brian Bannister), people quickly forget that the decision to pass on Barry Zito made signing Johan Santana possible. The Ken Rosenthals of the world are quick to damn Omar for the Bannister deal without acknowledging the Maine deal.
As best as I could, I have presented in the first 3 parts of this analysis the body of work Minaya has produced so far for the Mets. No one thinks he is infallible anymore, as some did when he was perhaps receiving a little too much credit in the early days of his honeymoon. On the other hand, the severity of the criticism from some quarters as of late seems equally overblown. Coming next, we will attempt to sum it all up in our conclusion.