By Mike Steffanos
The 2003 Mets began the season with the second-largest payroll in baseball, $117 million. While this figure was significantly less than the $152 million the Yankees spent, it was also $11 million more than the third place Braves. The 2003 Mets won 66 games.
A housecleaning ensued, rightfully, as the Mets informed their fans that the franchise would be taking a new direction: emphasizing developing talent and building with pitching, speed and defense.
After the debacle of the last couple of years of Steve Phillips' regime, the majority of Mets fans seemed on board with the new approach. There was guarded optimism, which the franchise sadly squandered by the way it mishandled negotiations with free agent Vladimir Guerrero.
Guerrero was by far the top free agent hitter that off-season, but some back issues had many teams leery of giving him the big contract. The list of power hitters derailed by back problems is extensive, and the Mets had been burned on some contracts. They were already paying Mo Vaughn a lot of money not to play.
When the Yankees didn't pursue Guerrero and he continued to be unsigned, the Mets came under increasing pressure from talk radio to take a shot at the slugging outfielder who was still a couple of years shy of 30. By all accounts his back was fine, and he was young enough to seem to be a perfect star to build around.
Looking back, it seems clear that the Mets didn't want to take a chance with Guerrero. I could only believe that if they remained firm in their stance they would have been better off, but they chose to make a show of negotiating with Guerrero that was transparently insincere.
Guerrero signed a very reasonable 5 year/$70 million contract with the Angels with a club option for 2009. Although starting to decline a little, Guerrero has remained productive enough for the Angels to happily pick up that $15 million option for next season. The Mets came off looking deceitful and silly, and the free agents they did sign (Kaz Matsui, Mike Cameron, Braden Looper, Karim Garcia, Shane Spencer and Todd Zeile) proved to be a less than inspiring group.
I bring up Guerrero because what happened with him has proven to be an ongoing problem with the Mets -- the way the situation was handled provoked a lot of anger from the fan base. Again, it's the lack of a clear direction and a firm commitment to a game plan that causes more frustrations than if they made a decision and stuck to it.