By Dave Mills
The first quarter of the 2008 season is three games in the past and the Mets are basically treading water as a .500 team. This probably comes as a surprise to Omar Minaya and the Wilpons, who figured they made two very good deals over the winter to obtain Johan Santana, Ryan Church and Brian Schneider.
Fact is--they did, and those three players are proving their worth. Problem is--except for those three, Billy Wagner and perhaps John Maine, Joe Smith, Jose Feliciano and Duaner Sanchez--everybody else is underperforming to a significant degree. Judgment is reserved on the oft-injured Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez and Ramon Castro.
Brutal as has been the performance of the team to its fans, no one is running away with the NL East and the Highlanders are in last place in the AL East, which always warms the cockles of a Mets fan's heart. Going into Wednesday, only three NL teams had fewer losses than the less-than-Amazins and they are now 3.5 games behind the division leading Florida Marlins. Not exactly a margin that can't be overcome by winning 8 of 10 or so.
Wouldn't it be something, and good for baseball, if the two Florida entries can win their respective divisions? My hope is the Mets win the division and the Fish grab the wildcard. Can it happen? Sure. The Rays are the better of the two Florida teams and it is conceivable that they can pull off a playoff spot in the AL. This might teach GMs around baseball that building from youth and developing a powerful organization is the best way to go. The Highlanders and BoSox, two of the top three payrolls (along with the Mets), have completely screwed up the game. The reason the boo birds are in force everywhere (not just at Shea) are the incredibly high salaries, which are driving up prices and expectations.
If you think the Mets are in bad shape, have a look at the woeful Detroit Tigers. With some attractive acquisitions and the best strategic manager in baseball, the Bengals are wallowing deep in last place. Is it the manager's fault? Not likely, as many pundits rank Jim Leyland as one of the best pure managers of all-time. Instead, his team is dealing with injuries and underperforming "assets." Are there any calls for his head, like the multitude calling for Willie Randolph to be drawn and quartered, not to mention--fired?
While I have never really understood why he was hired in the first place--having been so identified as a Highlander--Willie is not the reason the Mets "assets" are underperforming. Not to say he has no responsibility, or that he has not exacerbated the problem by making some inane statements about race and SNY.
In today's game, what is the role of a manager? Clearly, and for my money, the most advantageous trait for a manager is how he can inspire and motivate these high-priced players to whom a powerful record and a championship may not be quite as meaningful as it once was. Perhaps Lou Piniella is the best model in this regard. Ozzie Guillen is also of the same mold. Interesting that both are currently fielding first place clubs that may be playing slightly over their heads in Chicago. The oft-mentioned Wally Backman appears to be the same sort of feisty character who will kick some butt while fully understanding the game and its various strategic nuances. Backman was truly a gritty player who played with brawn and brains.
Perhaps Willie will prevail and prosper, but it is difficult to imagine that he can endure the trials and tribulations that come with managing high-priced talent in The Big Apple.
There have been a plethora of suggestions as to how to deal with the Mets current malaise. The most interesting have been Carlos Beltran for Matt Holliday and Carlos Delgado for Richie Sexson. Both are intriguing. Sexson appears to have melted down even earlier and worse than Delgado, so it doesn't necessarily make sense to me. However, the Mets could use a potent righthanded bat, especially when Alou is out of the lineup. Speaking of a righthanded bat, Holliday is one of the best players in the game and I would not hesitate to deal for him straight up for Beltran if they both had the same number of years on their contract. Holliday is a free agent at the conclusion of the season and will command mucho dinero. Beltran has a no trade on his contract, so the obstacles are considerable. It is more than interesting to note that the presence of Moises Alou on the roster might actually preclude dealing for Sexson or Holliday.
And with another one of those nagging Alou injuries popping up with Pagan and Church on the shelf, it is time to get serious about whether or not it is wise to sign aging talent, no matter how well they do when they actually play. Castillo and Alou are not really helping the Mets even though their personal numbers will be respectable at the end of the campaign. I would much rather watch Ruben Gotay and Chavez/Pagan in those key roles. Wasn't it Willie who didn't care for Gotay and Jeff Keppinger?
Frankly, the Mets are stuck with Castillo for a long time. Delgado and Alou are history at the end of this season. With Mike Carp, Dan Murphy and Nick Evans ripping up Double A pitching, there are more than a few youthful alternatives playing 1B in the system. Fernando Martinez is also waiting in the wings at Binghamton.
If the Mets can right the ship during the next 37 games or so and get some consistent hitting and bullpen, things should be OK, but someone has to step up and lead. Who and where are the leaders?