Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Eating Your Vegetables

When I was a kid, my brother and I were raised by my maternal grandmother after my underequipped Mom punted on the responsibility. My grandmother has been gone for many years now, but she remains one of the finest people I have ever known in my life, and also one of the greatest Mets fans. My grandmother had the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known, but she was somewhat overmatched trying to raise a couple of kids at an age when she should have been able to kick back and relax a little — not that that was ever part of her personality. Looking back, my grandmother contributed much of what has made me a decent person. Sadly, though, I didn't realize most of this until many years later.

At the time I was a smart, angry and insecure child. One of my favorite pastimes for a while was engaging my grandmother in useless, obnoxious debates over stuff that never really mattered. (Something I would recognize years later in sports talk radio banter.) I was smart and read a lot for someone my age, while my grandmother was forced to quit school before high school to work on the family farm. I usually had the facts on my side, but my grandmother only saw facts as inconveniences. (A precursor of modern-day political discourse — I guess we were both ahead of our time.)

Anyway, one of our ongoing debates was over eating vegetables. I would eventually wind up over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds as an adult, but as a kid I was so thin that if I turned sideways I would disappear. This was the ultimate insult to an old-fashioned Italian-American woman like my grandmother, but I was a really picky eater until I hit a growth spurt in adolescence and discovered the joy of food for the first time. As a kid, food was something to devour as quickly as possible so I could get back outside before dark.

Being picky, there weren't many things I would eat, but anything green, leafy and/or full of vitamins was most definitely not on the menu. We didn't have quite the knowledge of nutrition back then that we do now, but trying to get kids to eat vegetables was still very much a thing. My grandmother was fully committed to getting her obnoxious little charge to eat some stuff that was good for him. I, being a precocious young brat, would demand to know why I should be forced to eat things that didn't taste good. Not being armed with much actual data on vitamins, nutrition or the like, my grandmother just insisted that eating vegetables was a requirement for me to grow up into something more than a 90-pound weakling. Apparently disgusting foods like spinach, lettuce, green beans and cauliflower contained secret muscle-building powers to offset their nasty taste. If only someone let Robinson Cano in on this magical secret!

As I grew older and my tastes matured, I actually came to like eating many vegetables, although I remain a committed carnivore to this day. Back then, I only ate as many of those things as I was forced to eat. I was skeptical of any benefits from what little I did grudgingly choke down as I didn't see any immediate results in the mirror. Thus was revealed one of the overriding truths of much of the first few decades of my life: I was never very patient when it came to doing something I didn't want to do if the payoff wasn't fairly immediate. Going to school, saving money, long-term plans in general were not things I embraced. Things that I didn't enjoy which promised benefits in some far-off future time became synonymous with eating my vegetables — something to be avoided if at all possible.

This wasn't the ideal way to run a life, and eventually I realized that there actually were negative consequences of choosing to not eat life's vegetables. In my thirties it finally occurred to me that making better decisions earlier in life would have allowed me more and better choices in the here and now. Sometimes eating those damn vegetables did pay off.

So, being me, I chose to do a 180 in the opposite direction for a while with my life. Much like my grandmother back in the day, I took a somewhat magical view of the power of doing things that were supposed to be good for me. For a few years I forced myself to do the things that I felt I should do, while deferring to do the things that I really wanted to do. Shockingly enough, this didn't work for me very well, either. I wasn't very happy during this period, and wasn't much fun to be around. Eventually the part of me that always avoided eating vegetables rebelled, and I often found myself shifting back and forth between the two extremes.

After some more time passed, much, much later than it should have happened for me, I found the joy of striking a balance in my life. My decision making may not be perfect, but I can do a decent job of getting the things done that I don't love but know are important, and taking enough time to do what I love. I'll eat all of the vegetables that I need, but I'm still going to have some ice cream for dessert.

As I watch what has transpired over the last couple of days with the San Diego Padres trading for a pair of top of the rotation starters, I can't help but get excited at the prospects of the Mets making that kind of splash. Signing Trevor May and James McCann doesn't quite match up with pushing your chips in the center of the table and boldly going for it, as Padres GM A. J. Preller has just done.

Of course, Preller had years of developing a top farm system behind him. Not that he was great from the get-go on eating his vegetables. In his first offseason with the club, the winter of 2014 - 2015, he engaged in a series of trades, including significant pieces from his system, to build the Padres into an instant contender. He failed miserably at it, setting up manager Bud Black to be fired and the Padres for a series of fourth and fifth place finishes through the 2019 season. At the time Preller took over the team, they hadn't finished over .500 since 2010, and would not manage that feat until last year. That's a lot of vegetables that Padres fans were forced to eat.

It's a good part of the reason why the Padres were able to build such a strong farm system under Preller. As Eric Longenhagen points out on FanGraphs, it put the Padres in the unique position of being able to trade a boatload of talent without completely emptying the cupboard:

In roughly 24 hours, the San Diego Padres traded away a total of six players who, were they dropped into the amateur draft tomorrow, would come off the board somewhere in the top 50 picks. It’s the kind of talent few orgs have in their systems at all, never mind in such excess that they can ship it away without totally nuking the farm.

Not to take credit away from how successful the Padres have been in building their system, but it's important to realize that 9 years of sub-.500 records played a part in that end result. That was never an option in New York for Steve Cohen, so the task is degrees of magnitude more complicated for Sandy Alderson, Jared Porter, Zack Scott and the many other people this organization will depend upon to write a better story than the one that happened under the Wilpons. It will not at all be easy to build a powerful farm system while trying to compete for the playoffs on a yearly basis. It's not reasonable to expect that the Mets can accomplish that without exercising a considerable amount of restraint in the here and now. And, as I've said, restraint and patient waiting was never a particular strength of mine, as a person or as a fan.

What makes it all a bit easier to take is the lessons I've learned from being a Mets fan that paralleled the ones I learned in my own life. Take the 2005 season that I enjoyed writing about back in the spring. In many ways it was a delightful return to competitive baseball after miserable seasons in 2002, 2003 and 2004. It was the formation of the 2006 Mets that remain one of the few highlights of the last two decades. In other ways, however, that whole era serves as a cautionary tale for the consequences of avoiding eating your vegetables.

I remember when Omar Minaya was hired after the disastrous 2004 season. The Mets were pretty awful that season, then they capped it off by trading top prospect Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano. The farm system was quite barren, particularly after David Wright was promoted that summer. Most of us thought that Minaya, who had the reputation as a scouting guy, would concentrate on rebuilding the system and try to get the Mets in position to compete a few years down the road.

Instead, Minaya signed Pedro Martinez to a contract in December and Carlos Beltran, a great player still in his prime, in January. The Mets made it interesting in that 2005 season before fading badly in September. Then they traded for 1B Carlos Delgado and C Paul Lo Duca and signed closer Billy Wagner for the 2006 season, and the rest is history.

That team could hit, but it was deeply flawed. When Pedro Martinez started to break down the already thin starting pitching was threadbare, indeed. They had a pretty solid bullpen, but had to lean on that bullpen pretty hard. What was fortunate for the Mets was that the rest of the NL East was quite weak and even the better teams in the National League were flawed, also. The Mets came within an eyelash of making it to the World Series despite losing Pedro and then El Duque before a single playoff game was played. If they had beaten the Cardinals and if the Tigers played as poorly against them as they did against St. Louis, all of the flaws of that team would essentially be forgotten.

But, of course, that didn't happen. The starting pitching was a problem during Minaya's whole tenure, and the farm system offered no real reinforcements nor trade chips to fix the team's flaws. The two ensuing September collapses that came to define that entire era were directly related to the weak starting pitching and an overworked bullpen that fell apart down the stretch both seasons. The Phillies got to be a pretty good team later on, but they weren't that great in 2007 and 2008. The Mets were done in by their own flaws more than anything else. By 2009, the party was completely over and a long rebuild lay ahead.

As cool as it was when the Mets achieved immediate relevance with Pedro and Carlos Beltran, it was the wrong move. It put the team in full win-now mode without any resources in the system to provide help. Moreover, the free agent signings in those early Minaya years cost the Mets draft picks and the farm system stayed quite week. Then Minaya tried to use what picks he did have to get college relievers to provide quick band-aids to the Mets problems, but those guys didn't pan out.

At least in my mind, the Mets of that era were defined by a management that failed to do the work required to build something real and lasting. They skipped eating their vegetables and jumped right to dessert. It was a cool ride for a short while, but ultimately left a bad aftertaste.

In San Diego, the fans had to live through a lot of crap before they got to last year's playoff run and the ability to make a couple of big trades for really good pitchers without completely decimating their system. As much as it might be cool to see the Mets sign top free agents and swing trades for guys like Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Blake Snell or Yu Darvish, I'd rather wait a bit longer for this stuff to happen and see the team better set up to achieve and sustain greatness. As hard as it is for me to eat those veggies, I don't want to find myself wishing that I did a couple of years down the road.

A friend of mine who reads my blog told me that I sound like the voice of reason quite often, and he knows me well enough and for long enough to be surprised by that. And I guess I do come off that way a lot this year. Trust me when I tell you that it's only from watching quick fixes fail so often that I come to that point of view.

One last point if I might, though I know this is already a long post. I do think there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when the Mets are doing moves like this. Just be prepared for constant updates from the local media on every prospect they choose to deal away that enjoys some success. It's a New York media tradition that most clubs don't have to deal with. Or how about if the Mets make a deal like the Mike Clevinger trade the Padres made in August, trading 3 top prospects for a pitcher who makes 4 starts and then needs Tommy John surgery and is going to be out for a full season? That's the breaks sometimes, and it looked like a great deal when it went down, but you'd never hear the end of something like that in the local media. Be prepared, my friends.

In the end, I agree with Steve Cohen's tweet on the matter:

It sucks to watch some other team make the kind of splash you dream of for your own team, but the Padres did the work they had to do to put themselves in that position. Now it's time for the Mets to do the work and lay their own foundation for the future.

With that, I'll check my oh-so freaking reasonable veggie-eating butt out of here for today. Please stay safe, be well and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

10 comments:

  1. When you start posting your secret Brussels Sprouts recipes, we might have a problem :)

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  2. The secret is dipping them in dark chocolate and then just eating the chocolate

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  3. That is a good way to ruin dark chocolate.

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  4. It’s possible when you are a billionaire, and a Met fan, to build for the future while overspending for the present. We were hoping for an off season that didn’t look like the Wilpon’s off seasons.
    So far, not the case.
    Everyone talking Dodgers this, Dodgers that.
    Well, Dodgers are #1 in salary.
    How about emulating that for a start.
    Hey Steve, you’re a billionaire and supposedly a rabid Met fan
    How about acting like one?

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    1. The thing about the Dodgers is to emulate the development of the young players, scouting the risk/rewards correctly and fill in the holes without spending the prospect currency. A little luck helps sometimes. Yes, they traded for Mookie and paid him big bucks, but did not sacrifice much to get him. They don't win the World Series without Kershaw, Bueller, Bellinger, Seager, Smith, etc. They got quite lucky with Turner over the past 5 years. . who saw that coming. Max Muncy was released by Oakland a couple weeks before signing with LA. And they were astute to grab Graterol when Boston balked at the physical.

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  5. Unfortunately the work that San Diego put in, much the way Houston did 10 or so years ago is not acceptable in New York. That work involved a lot of poor teams and losing.

    There are only a couple ways to build the farm system.
    (1) Draft well and retain.
    (2) Trade the pieces that are valuable to a major league roster

    For (1), the last couple years have been a wash - the 2019 and (short) 2020 drafts actually look pretty good, but trading Kelenic, Dunn, and Woods-Richardson did not help. I think Cohen might have just told us that he wasn't going to get BOTH Springer and Bauer, and maybe neither. They need those top draft picks.

    (2) By trading valuable MLB players, you pretty much have to punt on a season or two or three by swapping guys like Conforto, Alonso, or even deGrom. I do not see that happening, especially in a year that is so up in the air as this one. And no, J.D. Davis or Amed Rosario, or ever Brandon Nimmo does not have that kind of purchasing power.

    Bottom line is that eating vegetables takes time to see the results and you can't give them up for Big Macs and ice cream sundaes for a couple years or the results will come that much later. It will take at least a couple more years of good drafts and moving the young guys through the system (and minor league baseball in 2021) to make progress on the farm front.

    Lastly, from a comment I posted a week or so ago about doing a deeper dive into the prospects and minor leagues, I think I'll take some time to really look at the draft results under Alderson. My first glance is that it does not look stellar. 2014 yielded Conforto and nobody else, 2015 has yielded nobody so far and doesn't look promising unless Szapucki comes around somehow. I would like to compare the last 10 years of Mets drafts vs. the Dodgers, Rays, or even Yankees or Indians.

    I am hoping that past results don't predict the future.

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  6. Rick, I don't expect everyone to agree with what I write but, for the record, I'm in favor of spending some money this year and signing at least one big free agent.

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  7. I think the Mets have upped their game in the draft over the last few seasons, but they could do a lot better with international signings and maybe successfully developing a few more later round guys into useful pieces.

    I still think they try hard to sign a top free agent. Their first round pick is protected. Losing a second rounder would hurt, but could be overcome

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  8. I agree - the last three years look a bit better, but until Allan, Ginn, Wolf, etc. move up through the ranks, it will be hard to tell for sure. I think Kelenic was a keeper :-(. I also am hopeful with both Crow-Armstrong and Greene.

    Yes, the international signings are also an important part of the prospect development. My bad for omitting that one. That may be the fastest way to upgrade the system a bit.

    As far as losing the picks go, I suspect they won't want to lose both a second and a third round one. I do believe that Springer is a real target. I am not so sure about Bauer. Sugano would be a nice international prize, along with a tier 2 or 3 signing or two.

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  9. The Padres' path to relevance is a well traveled road, with the Astros and Nats having preceded them. All it takes is a few seasons of absolutely miserable ball, coming in at the bottom of the standings, and thus snagging draft picks at or near the top. I don't think Met fans are willing to swallow that. I know I'm not.

    What we need, and I believe that Porter, Alderson and Cohen are in agreement, is to build a great scouting operation, staffed by pros who are skilled in evaluating raw talent, and a strong player development program. with coaches who can both teach and mentor that young talent. Draft wisely and trade for prospects when there is an opportunity to do so.

    That's one of the reasons I am in favor of signing, and/or trading for 2 quality starters this winter. That way, if Thor comes back strong in June, we might be able to trade Stroman for 2 or 3 high level prospects in July, and still have a killer rotation in August and September. The Mets' offense, with Springer hopefully joining McCann, and possibly a bench piece like Kike Hernandez, should be sufficient to carry us into the post-season.

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