Saturday, September 30, 2023

Finding Value

If the Mets are to take a step forward under David Stearns, it will be because the organization finally figures out how to unearth value in building a deeper roster.

With the regular season all but over, we await the official beginning of the David Stearns era with the Mets. Although there has been plenty of speculation regarding what that might mean for the club, we won't really know what sort of changes Stearns might bring to this organization until the new PBO officially takes over. That should happen sometime on Monday. The time will depend on whether the suspended Mets-Marlins game from Friday needs to be completed to determine a Wild Card spot or seeding.

I hope Stearns's arrival will help the organization kick things up to the next level. There has already been a lot of improvement. The Mets team Stearns will take control of in October has been on an upward trajectory for a while despite this season's disappointing performance on the field. They've become a club that handles itself well in the MLB draft — no small achievement when you look at how bad they were in drafting amateurs in the early years of this century. Under Steve Cohen, they're also finally being aggressive with international signings. The Mets are looking to build on that strength with all the upgrades they made to player development over the last couple of years. Finding talent is nice, but the real goal is to take those talented kids and turn them into Major League ballplayers.

Even for a club that drafts and develops well, it's crucial to be adept at getting talent onto the roster in other ways. An essential method of accomplishing this is to turn other teams' trash into your treasure. This is a subject that I've been writing about here for a while. The Mets have been mainly on the wrong side of this: Justin TurnerPaul Sewald, and Rafael Montero are former Mets who went on to great success after the club cut them loose. This has been happening to the club for a while. I wrote a piece in February about Darren O'Day and Dan Wheeler, a couple of young relievers the Mets had in the aughts who went on to great success with other teams.

Tim Healey wrote a piece in Newsday a couple of weeks ago, "The Mets' Paul Sewald lesson isn't what you think." In it, Healey made a point about the club's mishandling of the reliever that captures my feelings:
You might think you know what comes next here. It should be a roasting of the Mets for letting another One Who Got Away get away, for not knowing how to get the most out of their own players, for being so inept or so enamored with others’ players that they don’t understand what is right in front of them.

Wrong. Maybe the above is true, but their real Paul Sewald lesson is different — and crucial to incoming president of baseball operations David Stearns' overarching goal of building a perennial playoff team. The Mets need to be much better at turning fringe players into impact players.

The "One Who Got Away" is a popular subject for the New York media, whether it's about Major League ballplayers like Paul Sewald and Justin Turner or prospects like Jarred Kelenic. The Mets haven't covered themselves in glory over the past couple of decades in identifying these players. For instance, the Mets had a bunch of possibilities for the bullpen at the beginning the year, some quite interesting. As the season concludes, none of them looks like a long-term answer. But, as Healey points out, "[The Mets] beefed-up analytics department ... and newly opened pitching lab in Port St. Lucie, Florida, are reasons to believe that can change.

The analytics department came in for a ton of criticism this season, with belief in some corners that over-dependence on analysis was a significant factor in the regression that some key players experienced in 2023. But having as much useful data as possible to improve organizational decision-making is a good thing. It just needs to be supplemented by having the right folks in place to use available data properly. Great organizations know how to integrate data with human scouting and coaching to achieve the best possible results. The Mets organization has more distance to travel before achieving greatness. That's why David Stearns is here.

I understand some Mets fans don't get why folks like me are so excited about Stearns being hired. Certainly, no one person can "fix" a struggling org by themselves. There is way too much to be managed for solo acts. What gives me some confidence that David Stearns can accomplish the task of elevating the Mets to the next level is that he has already done this in MLB with the Brewers. This distinguishes him from Chaim Bloom, just fired by the Red Sox, and beleaguered San Francisco Giants exec Farhan Zaidi.

What Stearns represents to me is a Mets organization finally willing to hire the best possible person for the job after decades of "settling" for lesser names for reasons of cheapness and ownership's desire to have an oversized voice in baseball decisions. Stearns's success with the Brewers in finding value in building a deep roster denotes a skill the Mets can badly use. But, while that's vitally important, it's only a piece of the puzzle.

Besides bringing his own talents and intelligence to a job, an outstanding baseball operations leader these days has to be gifted at running a massive operation with a lot of moving parts. A feature on David Stearns by Howie Kussoy in the New York Post this week included a quote from an MLB executive who has worked with him alluded to Stearns's people skills:

He's smart enough to use the data side, but to peg him as an "analytics" guy is not right. He has a great baseball mind. He's a good listener. It's consistent. It's authentic. When he talks to you, you feel comfortable, even if you don't like what he says.

In the past three years under Steve Cohen, the Mets have brought many talented people into their organization. While it's still a work in progress, this front office is miles ahead of where it was in the final years of the Wilpon era. By committing to a man who is acknowledged to be one of the most talented executives in the sport, the owner is showing that he's not willing to compromise in his quest to help the club outgrow the old, tired LOL Mets label.

I read a piece in The Athletic yesterday that honestly caused me to feel a bit of PTSD. The article by Sam Blum attempted to answer the question as to how the Angels managed to squander the prime of two of the best baseball players who ever stepped into a pair of cleats. The answer Blum offered was generally in being extremely cheap in spending on all of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that tends to separate great teams from the rest of the pack.

It was the subject of a post that I wrote almost three years ago, where I quoted extensively from a Bill James piece complimenting the Mets' hiring of Jared Porter. This was, of course, before the sexual harassment stuff that led to Porter's termination. James differentiated between what he termed as "top-level stuff" — essentially the work of a baseball organization that is most apparent to the public — as opposed to "ground-level work," which, although much less public-facing, James asserted was "60% of what makes an organization successful."

The Wilpon-led Mets were terrible at ground-level work, primarily because the frugal ownership balked at financially investing in it. They failed to realize that investment in that area would eventually save them money down the road in free agent spending. Moreover, the increased success on the field that would have resulted would have brought it much more revenue, essentially canceling out some of the spending. As the old saying goes, Fred and Jeff were very much penny-wise and dollar-foolish. Turns out, at least according to Sam Blum, Arte Moreno of the Angels has that in common with the Mets' former owners:

For many of those who have worked for Moreno... they'll tell you that good investments — the kind that don't make headlines, but that differentiate winning organizations from losing franchises — have been few and far between.

"Everyone in that organization knows that you're going to be nickel and dimed," said one former Angels employee. "The overwhelming perception that I got was that winning games was not the top concern from (ownership). It's 'How can we make at least one penny more than we did the year before?'"

Many of the investments that Cohen has made in the Mets have been in the ground-level work that, I believe, will make the club successful, despite the recent setbacks. The spending on payroll this spring — quintessentially top-level stuff — grabs all of the headlines. Because it didn't pay off this season, media types get to prattle on endlessly about the failure of 2023. It certainly was a failure as a season. But given all of the lesser-heralded stuff: the pitching and hitting lab and investment in the coaching and analytics staff, the Mets are miles away from what they were three years ago. Reading that piece about the Angels reinforced that for me.

Now Monday the David Stearns era begins. The hiring of Stearns qualifies as top-level stuff. He will be extremely well-paid, and the media coverage will be extensive. But what makes this exciting for baseball nerds like me is that Stearns is gifted in the ground-level work that is so important, and he's working for an owner who understands that. He won't have to twist Steve Cohen's arms to convince him to invest in whatever's needed to finally convert the New York Mets into a winning organization.
Be well and take care.

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