Monday, January 11, 2021

On Extending Lindor and Sustaining Success

Now that the Mets have Francisco Lindor on their roster, the next big question is how they go about trying to keep him past this season. I think we can assume that it's a given that they at least make a big effort at extending him. I've seen some in the media postulate that the Mets may want to wait until they've had a chance to see how Lindor reacts to playing in New York, which would obviously mean that negotiations wouldn't even start before the season got underway. I could understand the rationale for that thinking. Not every player thrives in this city. I might even feel the same way myself if Lindor was under contract for a couple of years. That's not the case, however, so if the Mets decided to go that route they would need to ask themselves how long they would be willing to wait to begin negotiations, and if Lindor would even be willing to negotiate during the season. At his press conference today he indicated fairly strongly that he wouldn't do that.

I think back to the Mets signing of Carlos Beltran back in January, 2005. Despite some injury issues at the end of his time in New York, signing Carlos Beltran was one of the best free agent acquisitions in Mets history. He's inarguably one of the top position players who ever played in New York, and as complete of a ballplayer as I've ever watched in a Mets uniform. But his first season in Queens was just plain awful. He was good but not great in CF, and struggled pretty much all season at the plate. But he bounced back to be a terrific player after that season. It's too bad the Mets clubs he played for were deeply flawed, and the way his injuries were handled go down as a huge black mark against the follies of the Wilpon era. But the fact remains that he was a great New York Met, and proof that sometimes you just have to give a player some time to settle into a new situation.

Francisco Lindor will need to get used to competing with a new team, in a new city, and in a new League. If he doesn't set the world on fire right away, that doesn't mean he can't play in New York. If the Mets really want to extend him, they shouldn't waste the time between now and the start of the season to see if they can get it done, even if Lindor could be convinced to negotiate with the season underway. Also, trying to extend Lindor should give them some clarity on where they stand financially as they consider what they will do with Michael Conforto, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, and even Steven Matz. It seems quite certain that they will not keep all of those players and Francisco Lindor, but they're not going to let them all walk away.

For a team attempting to follow the path of clubs like the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, maintaining competitiveness year after year without going into full rebuild mode, the decisions on which players to keep and build around going forward are pretty critical. We're going to learn pretty quickly about the Mets priorities this offseason as we watch how they decide to handle the upcoming free agency of Lindor, Michael Conforto and Noah Syndergaard. My guess right now would be that serious attempts are made to sign the first two, while Syndergaard probably makes it to free agency. Since it really seems unlikely that the Mets could keep all three long-term, I could only see a Syndergaard extension happening at all if the Mets strike out with one of the other two.

With the Mets finally in a position to run a big-boy payroll, they're going to be faced with more difficult choices, too. If a club overcommits to older, more expensive players, they have less room to bring in new talent or hold onto home-grown players in future years. It doesn't take too many large contracts before even a large payroll can get really top-heavy. Make the wrong decisions, and the Mets could wind up in a position where the Yankees are in now, where commitments to Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton have made it difficult for the club to bring back DJ LeMahieu and replace the starting pitching they've lost. The trade for Stanton never made sense to me. That contract, the propensity for getting hurt and the reality that he is becoming more of a full-time DH when he is healthy just don't add up, at least in my mind. It takes a lot of discipline on the part of teams in win-always mode not to paint themselves into a difficult corner like the team in the Bronx did.

I think the majority opinion in the matter is that the Mets will sign Lindor long-term as long as the contract he is seeking makes sense. I agree with that, and would expect it to happen some time fairly early in spring training.

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I've been writing a lot about sustainability here since before the team was sold. Steve Cohen talked about it at his initial press conference, Sandy Alderson has discussed it, too. Most of us who follow the team closely understand that, for a well-run large market team, avoiding long periods of rebuilding is a realistic goal, as long as the team is run correctly.

The Dodgers are obviously the gold standard in sustaining winning. From 2013-2019, the LA ballclub has won over 100 games twice and were over 90 wins the other five times. Then last year they went 43-17. But the Dodgers have had some help in this regard. The Giants are their only real large-market competitor in the NL West, but they've struggled to recapture their magic from the early years of the past decade. The Padres were in a protracted rebuilding process, and the Diamondbacks and Rockies are small market teams that rarely manage to threaten LA's stranglehold on the division.

The Yankees and Red Sox are large-market clubs that have sustained success in a much tougher division, the AL East. In their worst years, the Yankees are a team that finishes a few games above .500. In their best years, they contend for a championship. Rebuilding for the Yankees looks like 2013-2016, when they only made the playoffs one time in those four seasons. Even in those three non-playoff years they won 84 games twice and 85 the other season. Still, missing the playoffs 3 out of 4 years was a big deal for a club that had only missed the playoffs once in 18 years heading into that stretch.

The Yankees are pretty unique, though. Their history and dominance of by far the largest market in the country for so long (thanks again, Wilpons) have put them in a financial position to sustain success in baseball's toughest division. Conversely, it's also made it extremely difficult for them to take a step backwards and retool. Particularly after missing the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2016, there is little willingness from that fanbase for another dry stretch like that. Just the fact that the Yankees haven't won the World Series since 2009 is enough to send the faithful into a fit.

The Red Sox are a different story, though, particularly since Theo Epstein departed in October, 2011 to take over the Cubs. Epstein was hired as the Sox' GM after the 2002 season. From 2003-2009, the Red Sox won the World Series twice and made the playoffs 6 of those 7 years. But in 2010 and 2011, the Red Sox failed to qualify for the playoffs. They weren't awful, amassing 89 and 90 wins, but that was good for only consecutive third place finishes. What was worse, the Red Sox suffered a collapse in September of 2011 of the kind Mets fans are only too familiar with — going from first place in the division to out of the playoffs with an abysmal 7-20 record in that month. Manager Terry Francona was reported to have a problem with painkillers and an ongoing split with his wife, and players were accused of quitting on the team. Details can be found here.

Francona wound up being let go after the collapse, and Theo Epstein was allowed to depart to Chicago. Since Epstein left, the Red Sox have not enjoyed a strong record in sustaining winning. They replaced Francona with Bobby Valentine and fell to last place the following season. Now, I've always felt that Bobby V. got an unfair share of the blame for that bad club, but what was never clear was why the Sox brain trust felt he was the right kind of manager to work with a very modern, analytics-driven front office.

They replaced Valentine with John Farrell and won another World Series title the following season, but then fell to back-to-back last place finishes in the AL East in 2014 and 2015. That got Epstein's replacement Ben Cherington a pink slip in favor of Dave Dombrowski, of who I'm told that, as a Mets fan, I should be deeply, deeply afraid.

That edition of the Red Sox made the playoffs three straight seasons from 2016-2018, culminating in the club's third World Series title of the 21st Century, but Dombrowski was canned the following season and the Red Sox have been trying to rebuild their farm system for the past two years. They don't look like a contender for 2021, either.

My point in all of this is that the Red Sox enjoy a reputation as one of the best orgs in baseball, but their history has been pretty checkered since Epstein moved on. They've made some curious decisions over the years, too. Those three championships were awesome, but they've spent years out of contention in that stretch, too. If I was one of the people interviewing Jared Porter and Zack Scott, I would have asked both men what they felt the Red Sox have done right and where they've gone wrong over the years. Porter left in 2015, but Scott's been there the whole time, and I honestly feel that the Red Sox offer lessons in both how to succeed and how to fail in a sustainability strategy.

When looking at large market clubs that have a strong record of staying competitive, the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers offer different versions of how to accomplish that goal and also cautionary tales on the sort of missteps that can hinder a club trying to accomplish that. The Yankees and Dodgers have a better track record than the Red Sox of avoiding losing seasons, but the Sox have three titles compared to one each for the other two. All 3 clubs have depended on supercharging their farm system as a strategy of staying near the top. They all have made mistakes along the way that have hindered their efforts. All three, to some extent, also have to deal with the high expectations of their respective fanbases.

Provided they can keep him, the Mets have a superstar in his prime to build around now. They've come a long way towards the goal of being truly competitive in 2021, but there's work to be done this year and tons of work ahead if sustainable winning is to become a real thing in Queens. I'm sure I'll continue to come back to this subject often in the years ahead. I don't think there's any magical thing the Mets can do that can make this happen, nor do I believe there is one, single roadmap to accomplish this goal. The Mets can look at the successes and failures of the three clubs I've discussed here today and learn from them. I would certainly expect them to do exactly that.

After Theo Epstein moved on the the Cubs, he gave an interview with a Boston radio station admitting to some serious mistakes he made toward the end of his time there. Signing pitcher John Lackey and OF Carl Crawford were a couple of the big ones. Epstein felt that the pressure to try to keep winning caused them to lose patience and led them into mistakes that led to the subsequent failures of the team:

"If I have a regret about the way we handled that offseason (after the 2009 season), it was that instead of being more patient and saying, 'We'll strike when the time is right,' there was a lot of pressure in the environment at the time to do something," Epstein said. "If I learned a lesson from the offseason, it's never feel the need to do something. If you're trying to avoid one move that you don't think is going to work out, don't then settle for a different move that maybe doesn't check all the boxes. Be true to the philosophy and understand the bigger picture. There's always another day to fight. You don't have to get everything done in one offseason just because of what's going on in the environment around you."

Epstein is one of the greatest executives in baseball history, but he wasn't immune to making mistakes. That he brought championships to both the Red Sox and Cubs was truly amazing, but his record wasn't perfect in either place. The Cubs never built the sort of farm system that would allow for sustained success, and they're clearly heading into a rebuild. If you're a team like the Mets looking to move up, both Epstein's successes and failures should offer some valuable instruction.

While I believe there are many side roads that a successful organization can take, the basics really remain the same. Hire very good people. Implement a very good plan. Never stop trying to excel at everything you do, and never stop questioning if there's a way you can do it better. Never stop learning — from yourself and from others, from successes and failures. Enjoy your victories, but never allow yourself to be satisfied into complacency.

Thanks for spending some time with us here today. Please stay safe, be well and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

2 comments:

  1. Great stuff, Mike!

    They definitely need to focus more on player development, with different facets of that. I believe it was you that stated that just things like paying attention to the detail of making their minor league guys comfortable by helping with the language, living arrangements, nutrition, etc. is all very important. They cannot build a sustainable model without constant refresh from the top levels of the system. The Dodgers do that as well as anyone, with both position players (Bellinger, Seager, Smith) and pitchers (Bueller).

    Also, a little luck has to be involved. The Dodgers seem to have that too. Justin Turner really had no business turning into the player he was in LA. They cut their losses at the right time with players like Ethier and Kemp. That reliever (Graterol) that Boston turned down in the Betts trade from Minnesota ended up in LA and look what he did in the post season. He will be a fine pitcher for them.

    So they need to have Lindor stay healthy (and happy), build the pieces around him and while it looks like they are still a couple or maybe more years away from the sustained refresh of up and comers, they need to have wins with Allan, Baty, Crow-Armstrong, Ginn, Alvarez, Mauricio, and maybe find a lower level draft pick diamond in the rough like McNeil or deGrom. They must have better success than they showed in 2014-2015 timeframe.

    Lots more to write, but I'll call it a night with this. . . always appreciate reading your writing.


    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks. Good points here. One aspect of luck is probably making solid evaluations of other teams discards like JT and then having some of them prosper

    ReplyDelete

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