Learn Your Lessons Well
In part one of this discussion, we looked at how the next Mets GM can reverse the trend of tepid drafts to strengthen the organization as a whole. Let’s say he’s done that. Good job next GM! However, acquiring riches does not mean you will automatically be smart enough to utilize them to their maximum effect, or have them when you need them most Just ask MC Hammer (I’m sorry….it’s just Hammer these days).
Can’t Touch This!
Now every team is going to make it’s share of mistakes with minor leaguers from time to time. And most will have their own “Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell” trade, made for short term gain (Flags fly forever), but leaving the fan base to wonder “what if we held onto that guy…?” Prospects, almost by definition, are unknowable quantities, and scouts and GM’s are constantly basing judgment on them based on what they could become, not what they are. As our friends at Baseball Prospectus like to say, TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect). But there are a few lessons that we can learn from the Mets handling of their minor leaguers over the last decade, and the next GM would be wise to heed the moral of the story.
Lesson 1: You have a finite amount of prospects other teams want. Spend wisely.
Player in question: Jason Bay
In March of ’02, the Mets were able to nab the Canadian born Bay from the Montreal Expos in the fallout of the Jeremy Burnets/Jeff D’Amico blockbuster earlier that year. In many ways, Bay was the best player to come out of the deal, be it the primary or secondary trades that it spun off. As a result, the Mets had a player, drafted out of an American college, who was beginning to make his move at Low A ball. His progress continued that year as he put up OPS’s over.800 (even in the pitcher friendly Florida State League). For anyone paying attention, this was a great improvement for a player from the Great White North, where baseball is usually a club sport that many schools do not carry. Thus, when taking an American and Canadian of equal talent, the American will develop more quickly, mainly because the he will have more exposure to the game against stiffer competition. But by the summer of 2002, it looked like the 24 year old Canadian was finally hitting his stride. However, at the trading deadline, the Mets had seen enough. They shipped the emerging outfielder in a package to the San Diego Padres for the immortal Steve Reed and Jason Middlebrooks. Somewhere along the line, someone deemed the Mets were two middling relievers away from the postseason, and a promising outfielder – now at AA, soon to be ready for Shea – was worth the risk. At the time, the Mets were 55-51, 13.5 games out of first place. They would go on to finish in last.
Reed left after ’02, Middlebrooks was done with baseball by ’04. Bay went on to be an All-Star, who the Mets signed to a $60MM deal just as his skills are beginning to erode.
Lesson #2: Leverage major leaguers of no value into something you could one day use.
Player in Question: Billy Wagner
As the 2009 season limped to a close, the Mets had a rare spot of good news. Someone actually got healthy! And that someone was coveted! By a team that had an excellent farm system! Thank God for small mercies. At the waiver wire deadline, the Boston Red Sox put in a claim on Billy Wagner, who had worked his way back from significant elbow surgery. This meant that the Mets had four options:
(A), pull Wagner back from waivers, meaning that he could not be claimed by anyone else, thus would not go anywhere, for the remainder of the season – when his contract would expire. At which point he could declare free agency, the Mets would offer arbitration, be denied (as was Wagner’s handshake understanding with Fred Wilpon), and the lefty would go on to close for another team whilst the Mets got two first round picks.
(B) trade him to the Red Sox, and pay his salary for the rest of the season. This means that the Sox are getting a lefty out of the bullpen whom they need badly, for free. At this point, the Mets would be in an excellent position to ask for, and get, two of Boston’s higher ranking prospects, injecting talent to a system that was much maligned as ’09 came to a close.
(C) trade him to the Red Sox and insist they pay his salary. In this scenario, the Red Sox would feel no obligation to send the Mets anything decent in return, and look under the couch for something to help the Mets save face.
(D) just give him away for nothing. Admit that all you were worried about was saving $3MM. And watch the angry mob gather outside Citi Field with torches and pitchforks.
Of course, the Mets chose C. Passing up the chance to bolster the farm system in any significant way (either through two upper tier players or two 2010 first round picks), the Mets simply valued saving money on Wagner’s salary (which had already been budgeted in for 2009, not an added cost) and would gladly accept the chaff of the Red Sox system – 27 year old bench hitter Chris Carpenter (sorry Animal, they could have done better) and Eddie Lora, a 20 year old Dominican who had never played States-side. And the Wilpons wonder why people think they are in financial trouble
Lesson 3: Understand the Baseball Landscape.
Player in Question: Scott Kazmir
And here we are, the worst trade in Mets history. I know you are thinking Nolan Ryan, and you are probably frothing at the mouth at my insouciance for the greats of yesteryear. Take a moment if you need one. Ok – calm now? Great. We all love Nolan, and rend our garments and gnash our teeth when we think of his seven no-hitters while we wait to celebrate the Mets first. And his strikeouts. And the fact that he is Nolan Ryan!!!
And could administer one hell of a noogie!
But what is lost in all of this is that at the time, Ryan was a long man/spot starter with a mid three ERA in his time in NY (for an era known for being pitching dominant, this was considered pedestrian). Take into account that this was also the time of the Reserve Clause (meaning no free agency, players played for the team that originally signed them until told otherwise); a pitcher like Ryan would not be highly valued by many teams. Oh sure, everyone loves a hard-throwing Texan, but the road to the Hall of Fame is littered with the tattered throwing arms of fire-balling Texans. By the early 70’s, he was seen as someone who had potential, but may or may not figure it out. Regardless, there were plenty more where he came from, and they were a dime a dozen. When the Mets decided they needed Jim Fergosi to be their long term third baseman, the California Angels were so impressed with Ryan that they needed three other players to seal the deal. Did the Mets know what they were giving up? No. Did the Angels know what they were getting? Likely not.
Fast forward to 2002. The baseball landscape has changed dramatically. The Reserve Clause is gone and not only are professionals allowed to shop their wares to the highest bidder via free agency, but amateur players now have currency. Since teams have six years between when a player comes into the bigs and he can declare to be a free agent, his price tag is kept artificially low. Many teams see the acquisition of amateur talent as a weapon against the wanton free for all of free agency – and more efficient as well ($7MM could get you one so-so professional outfielder, or 33 talented amateurs). The Mets took hard throwing Texan (sound familiar?) Scott Kazmir with the 12th overall pick. He was now theirs until six years of big league service. Across the industry, it is acknowledged that the Mets have landed a coup. Over the next two years, Kazmir develops into the Mets top prospect, one of Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects in the game, and generally considered the top lefty in minor league baseball. Unlike the early 70’s, other teams see not only the on field value of a player like Scott (mid 90’s fastball, nasty slider), but also his off field value (once he breaks into the bigs, he is going to be VERY affordable during his most productive years). These two attributes make him desired by EVERY other ballclub.
On July 30th, 2004, the Mets – who had “battled”, to use manager Art Howe’s term, to a 49-53 record, steaming toward 4th place – dealt one of the most sought after talents ever in their organization to the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays for…Victor Zambrano (last seen jogging off the Shea mound in 2006). In a irrational quest for a Wild Card spot (there were SEVEN teams in front of them), and despite a losing record, the Mets divulged themselves of one of the most sought after properties in the game for an “established veteran®”, and a reclamation project at that – ol’ Victor had walked over 200 batters (!) over the previous two seasons. Suffice to say, had the Mets shopped Kazmir to 28 other teams, they would have received 28 better offers.
Now we all know Kazmir has flamed out (cry not for him, he is a millionaire many times over), and there is no crystal ball that could have guaranteed what Bay would become. But there are lessons to be gleaned from these three examples: understand what you have, what it is worth to others, not just yourself, and deploy your assets only when it will bring back the biggest haul, not “to show the fans you’re trying”. Something you may have noticed, these examples stretch over the Mets last three GM’s (Steve Phillips acquiring, then jettisoning Bay; Jim Duqette, who at least took the fall for the Kazmir fiasco; and Omar, who took pennies on the dollar for Wagner). The one constant is the Wilpons oversaw all this. The blunders are on their hands. Hopefully, the next GM has the capacity to steer the good ship Mets to calmer waters, and can convince Fred and Jeff that you reap what you sow.