By Mike Steffanos
[Note: This is the conclusion of a 2-part article. For Part 1 of this article, please click here.]
For all appearances, the Mets operated this past winter without a real plan. Despite claiming that they were putting together a team that would contend for the division title in 2010, management did little to address their starting pitching concerns. Indeed, other than Jason Bay there was not a single addition to the roster this winter that is likely to have a major impact on the Mets' fortunes.
As I have stated in part 1 of this piece, I was not a believer that the Mets could add a couple of pieces and be assured of contending for the title. Even if they had traded for Roy Halladay or signed John Lackey, I thought their bullpen questions and other weaknesses made them anything but a slam dunk to compete against a Phillies team that was more intelligently put together -- and this was before we got the "good news" on Beltran.
Had the Mets had identified 2010 as a regrouping/rebuilding year, I would have been fine with it. As far as being truly legit contenders this season, however, I can only feel that upper management and ownership is deluding themselves.
If the plan was to compete in 2010, come hell or high water, here's where I believe the Mets missed the boat:
Failure to sign a dependable starter
John Lackey was the best available one out there, but I would have had reservations about the Mets giving a 5-year contract to a 31 year old who has failed to notch 200 IP in his previous two seasons. But there were a lot of guys under Lackey who wound up signing fairly reasonable contracts.
The Mets could have taken some pressure off Pelfrey, Perez and Maine by signing someone dependable to slot behind Santana in the rotation. They would have also had some real depth for a change with Jon Niese and Fernando Nieve ready to fill in. Now it's likely one will be the fifth starter.
Failure to sign a right handed hitting 1B with some pop
I like Fernando Tatis as a PH on the bench who you give just enough starts to keep him sharp. I don't like his offense for anything other than an occasional spot start as a corner infielder. The Mets missed a chance to pair Daniel Murphy with someone who could give them a power boost. In 104 AB vs. lefties in the majors Murph has put up a .240/.289/.442 batting line, so he needs some help.
Some people really like Mike Jacobs to step in an win the 1B job. I don't really see it, but if it did happen it's even more imperative to have a RH first baseman to share the load as Jacobs has a .221/.269/.374 batting line in 420 career AB vs. southpaws.
Failure to replace J.J. Putz
According to Baseball Reference, the 2008 Mets bullpen blew 29 of 72 save opportunities and lost 28 games. They finished 3 games behind the Phillies in the division and a game behind the Brewers for the wild card.
That bullpen had some major problems. Billy Wagner went down for the season early in August, and blew 7 saves even when he was pitching. Neither Aaron Heilman or Duaner Sanchez could solidify the eighth inning early on, and both failed as emergency closers when Wagner went down.
The failure of the 2008 Mets bullpen cost them a division title and playoff appearance. The primary reason for that failure was having relievers in roles for which they weren't suited.
Acquiring J.J. Putz was supposed to solidify the bullpen for 2009. We know how that worked out, but the underlying thinking was correct. It's impossible to mix and match your way through 3 or 4 innings every night and expect your bullpen to hold up over a 162 game season.
Yet the Mets were willing to go into 2010 with the top candidates for the eighth inning as Kelvim Escobar (who has missed most of the last two seasons with shoulder injuries), Bobby Parnell (yet to develop a reliable second pitch) and Jenrry Mejia (20 years old with only 210 minor league IP and control issues).
Even if Frankie Rodriguez shakes off his struggles of the second half of last year, the question of who will get the ball to him in the ninth inning looms as a huge question, with the bullpen looking a lot like 2008 rather than 2006.
So there you have what I consider to be formidable obstacles that the Mets will have to overcome thanks to a winter where these issues were ignored or inadequately addressed. An awful lot is going to have to go right for the Mets to contend for anything.
To make it even tougher, you are going into the season with a manager who almost undoubtedly has to win to keep his job. Moreover, said manager seems over his head in this job, with a penchant for dubious decision making.
Here are just a couple of things that I fear for with Jerry Manuel trying to win (and save his ass) with a team that isn't really equipped to win:
- Gary Matthews gets off to a less-than-putrid start and Manuel decides to go with the "proven veteran".
Any reputation that Matthews has as an offensively capable major league OF is built almost entirely on his 2006 season in Texas. In the 3 seasons since then, all with the Angels, Matthews combined batting line is .248/.325/.383. At 35 years old he's not the fielder he once was, either.
I'd rather see Angel Pagan get the chance while Beltran is out. He's younger, has some upside and is a better player right now.
- Kelvim Escobar's shoulder blows up and Jenrry Mejia pitches well enough this spring to earn a bullpen spot.
Mejia is a terrific young pitcher who has a legitimate chance to be a top of the rotation starter someday. Leave him alone in AA to work on his control and his secondary stuff. As a major league reliever he will have to rely almost completely on his fastball as Bobby Parnell had to last season.
If you have a young minor leaguer who already has command and reasonable off-speed pitches he might benefit from getting his feet wet in the bullpen in the majors. The Dodgers have done this a lot over the years with their young pitchers. However, taking an unfinished arm like Mejia's and asking him to get out major league hitters with the game on the line is more likely to retard his development.
Even if Mejia eventually profiles more like a late inning reliever than a starter, he'll only benefit from better control and dependable secondary pitches.
It's no secret that the Red Sox are the best run team in baseball right now. They've done this by building the strongest player development system in baseball that has allowed them to bring up quality players (Youkilis, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Lester, Buchholz, Papelbon) and make trades for missing pieces (Beckett, Lowell, Victor Martinez). This also allows them to be a little picky when going after free agents.
Moreover, they are smart at identifying players to fill their needs whether they come from within the organization, via trade or free agent signing. They're honest about where they are as a team and what they need to do to be better. They make some mistakes (Julio Lugo, Eric Gagne), but when most of your moves are smart you can overcome the ones that aren't.
The Phillies have built a strong team to a great extent by emulating what the Red Sox have done. They've used their farm system both to supply the big league club with talent and make important deals.
I like some of the moves the Mets have made since letting Tony Bernazard take his shirt and go home. Still, their lack of aggressive drafting and signing along with some questionable deals have them playing from behind when it comes to being able to use their system to fuel a championship run.
It seems to me that they are at somewhat of a crossroads once again with the 2006 campaign fading into memory. Rather than trying to delude themselves and their fans that they are a team with a real shot to win I'd love to see them do some of the smart things that build winners.
As previously stated, there are so many things that have to go right for them to get around the 90 win mark and really compete for the playoffs. It could happen, but it's going to take luck.
What the Mets really need to do going forward is to change their thinking and the way they run this franchise. They need to come up with a solid game plan and then stick with it long enough for the plan to succeed. The goal is to win championships, and it isn't wishful thinking that gets it done.
I understand there is a lot of pressure on this franchise to win back the fans after the 2007 collapse, the 2008 bullpen fiasco, and last year's 92-loss season. Unfortunately, Mets management seems to be living in some gray nether zone between really going for it in 2010 and taking the more deliberate, farsighted approach that I'd like to see. Regrettably for us all, halfway usually proves to be half-assed.