Monday, February 6, 2023

Remember When Darren O'Day Was a Met?

The Mets have had problems developing relievers — even when they already had one on their roster.

Veteran sidearming reliever Darren O'Day announced his retirement from baseball last week after 15 MLB campaigns. Age and injuries had slowed O'Day down quite a bit over the last few seasons, but he enjoyed an excellent major league career. He started with the Angels' organization as an undrafted free agent in 2006 after pitching for the University of Florida in college. This was back when the amateur draft was 50 rounds long. Hundreds of players were drafted who never even sniffed the major leagues. Meanwhile, O'Day went on to appear in 644 major league games, all in relief.

O'Day broke in with the Angels in 2008, appearing in 30 games out of their bullpen. But they failed to protect him in the rule 5 draft in December 2008, and the Mets selected the young righty. The Mets would have to keep Darren on their roster all season or offer him back to the Angels. He didn't pitch all that badly for the Mets in April, appearing in 4 games and allowing a pair of unearned runs. For a team that would go on to lose 90 games and finish a distant 4th in the NL East, holding on to a promising reliever who hadn't pitched all that bad might seem a no-brainer. However, after consecutive collapses in the previous two seasons, GM Omar Minaya was on his way out and desperate to cobble together a contender from what was left of the great 2006 club.

I don't even remember the exact move that led to O'Day being offered back to the Angels, but they declined, and Darren was put on waivers and selected by the Texas Rangers. Darren O'Day enjoyed two terrific seasons with Texas, then went on to pitch effectively over 7 seasons for the Orioles. Age and injuries caught up with him after that, but it was a hell of a career for a pitcher not deemed good enough to be taken by any of the 30 MLB clubs over 50 rounds of drafting.

Now, every club makes mistakes from time to time with personnel decisions. What irked me about the Mets' decision on O'Day was that their bullpen was not a strength for them that season, and O'Day went on to immediate success with the Rangers. This wasn't a fluke, either. During O'Day's prime, which began in 2009 through the 2015 season with Baltimore, O'Day appeared in over 400 games, pitching to a 2.07  ERA, striking out a batter per inning while stingily allowing only 6.4 H/9, 2.2 BB/9, and 0.9 HR/9. The Mets could have really used that guy.

The other thing that really bothered me about the botched decision on Darren O'Day was that it was a pattern of failure with the Mets in the 21st Century. Even as they struggled to develop bullpen arms from within the organization, there were some mighty poor decisions made with pitchers they actually had on their roster, like Darren O'Day.

In the awful 2003 season, when the Mets lost 95 games, a bright spot on the club was the performance of Dan Wheeler. The 25-year-old righty reliever had signed with the Mets that February after being released by the Braves. Wheeler began the year with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, then was promoted to the Mets in June and pitched for them for the remainder of the seasons. Dan pitched 51 innings over 35 appearances, going 1-3 with a pair of saves and a respectable 3.71 ERA.

Unfortunately, the 2004 season didn't go nearly as well for Dan Wheeler. He was very hittable, allowing 11.5 H/9 and 1.6 HR/9. Opposing hitters batted .307/.357/.486 against Wheeler in 50.2 IP. The Mets were terrible again that year, losing 91 games. The bullpen was awful. Reviled former Mets reliever Braden Looper actually enjoyed a solid year closing games for that club, at least statistically, but the supporting cast around him was just not that good. For those of us old enough to remember that club, a mere listing of some of the names is enough to send chills down our spines: Mike StantonRicky BottalicoDavid Weathers, and a wayyyyyyyy-over-the-hill John Franco were some of the "highlights."

I remember that season well. Wheeler wasn't good, but he was still reasonably young (26) compared to the 'pen full of relics of a bygone era that surrounded him. I was surprised when the Mets traded Dan that August to the Astros for Adam Seuss, a minor league outfielder who never made it out of A-ball. Suess played two games for St. Lucie in the Mets system before winding up back with the Astros for his final minor league season the following year. So, as they would with O'Day 4 years later, the Mets gave Dan Wheeler away for nothing.

Dan Wheeler immediately became the Astros' primary set-up man after the trade. Although Dan's career wasn't as long or successful as O'Day's, Wheeler was a fine pitcher for Houston in 2005 and 2006, and then enjoyed a renascence with the Rays in his early 30s. Wheeler was an effective MLB reliever in an era when the Mets really struggled to find bullpen arms who could keep them in games.

Other pitchers have left the Mets and gone on to become successful relievers somewhere else. More recent examples are Paul Sewald and Rafael Montero. Sewald showed some promise with the Mets but was never given a full shot at a major league job. He left as a free agent and immediately became an effective reliever with the Mariners. Montero was once a top Mets prospect as a starting pitcher, but never really got much of a chance to make it in the Mets' bullpen. He knocked around a bit until the Astros unlocked his potential as a reliever at age 31. Rafael Montero became the primary set-up man for a World Series championship club.

Don't get me wrong here. Every club has players they failed to develop who went on to succeed elsewhere. I usually stay away from dwelling on them, as Mets fans can absolutely count on the New York media to regularly throw these guys in our faces. Accepting that a club will get some decisions wrong is just part of developing players. But, if you've been reading my stuff for a while, you know that I believe that a requirement for the Mets to take a step forward as an organization will be to take some of their minor league pitchers and make effective major league relievers out of them.

What has always rankled me about guys like O'Day, Wheeler, Sewald, and Montero is that they reflect on the ongoing failure of the Mets to create some cheap, controllable bullpen arms. Whether it's turning a failed starting pitching prospect into a contributing bullpen arm, identifying someone early on better suited for a reliever's role, or taking another club's developmental failure like the pitchers in this post, creating bullpen arms rather than trying to buy them on the open market is a must for a modern, successful ballclub.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about Shohei Ohtani. My friend laughed when I made the point that, if you asked me to predict future success for the Mets, giving me a choice between the club signing Ohtani next offseason or developing some solid relief pitchers in-house over the next few years, it would be the latter that would give me the greatest hope for future success. But I'm not kidding here. The thing about Ohtani, unprecedentedly great as he is, is that the Mets have little control over where Shohei lands beyond offering him a sh*t-ton of money to get him here. There seems to be a good possibility that Ohtani will use the Mets' interest to jack up his price with the West Coast clubs he seemingly prefers. So I'll believe he's coming to the Mets once they announce the signing — and passes the physical.

On the other hand, becoming a ballclub that can develop some bullpen arms is absolutely within the Mets' control. And while spending millions of dollars on free agents grabs all of the headlines, Ohtani's current team is proof that being willing to hand out massive contracts guarantees nothing when it comes to building a successful organization. While Steve Cohen's willingness to extend his payroll out to extraordinary, unheard-of levels to try to bring a winner to Queens is rightfully lauded by fans and the scribes who cover the Mets, he's also spending big money in less-heralded areas that ultimately mean more when it comes to building a successful Mets organization.

There's an article on ESPN that features a long interview with Steve Cohen by Jeff Passan. Unfortunately, it sits behind the paywall there that requires a subscription to ESPN+. I'm not a subscriber, but Passan tweeted out an excerpt:

Spending, Cohen said, is just one part of the formula he plans to employ with the Mets. If there is a new product on the baseball side, Cohen wants to know whether it's worth trying. If other teams are excelling at player development, Cohen wants to know how the Mets can replicate it. If technology can enhance the fan experience, Cohen wants to be at the forefront.

Understanding the rhythms of baseball took time. It's a slow game and a slow business, lacking the everyday urgency of the hedge fund he runs. Still, plenty of similarities exist. In both, Cohen is hunting for value, relying on experts to inform him of the right moves and, most of all, trying to win.

"I didn't know I was going to have to spend like I did," Cohen said. "I actually was a little naive in that regard. But once I got comfortable and realized, OK, what's it going to take to put a great team on the field, I still had made a commitment to the fans, and to baseball, that I was going to come in and turn this thing around. I came in saying I'm all-in. And I keep my word."

As great as the spending is with the splashy signings, it's the willingness of the owner to invest in technology and the people to implement that technology that gives hope that the Mets will grow much better at making decisions with personnel, and do a better job of creating their own success stories in the less-splashy aspects of the game, such as bullpen building, that gets me most excited for the future. While many fans understandably dream non-stop of the possibility of Ohtani in orange and blue, I am juiced at the prospect of the Mets continuing to grow smarter and more efficient about all aspects of building a great team.

The Mets spent decades hampered by the Wilpon ownership. While the Madoff fiasco and the overall cheapness grabbed a lot of the headlines there, it was Fred and Jeff's resistance to building out the infrastructure of the club that really doomed their ballclub, year in and year out. The fact that Steve Cohen is "all-in" on much more than just running huge payrolls is why I'm grateful to have survived those lean decades into this era of Mets baseball.

Be well and take care. We're only just over a week out from pitchers and catchers. Let's go Mets!

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