Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 8, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 METS PREVIEW
Originally posted on Projo.com
Mike Piazza's Mets have found themselves in the same trap that ensnared Patrick Ewing's Knicks and Dan Marino's Dolphins (to say nothing of Pedro's Red Sox, but that's another week's column) for years: the star is so good, and a type of player who's so hard to come by, that you always feel like a championship is a possibility; he's also getting old and banged up, so you can never be sure if he'll last long enough at this level to risk a 2-3 year rebuilding process. So, every year, you give away a few more shots to develop young players, drag in wheezing veterans, and take another shot. Yet, every year it seems to get further away.
It's an unenviable position for a GM, but as a fan there are worse things (ask any Knick fan in the post-Ewing era); the Mets will contend for a postseason berth again this year, and that beats being the Orioles. Whether it also risks becoming the Orioles later will depend on the decisions the Mets make once Piazza starts to lose his edge as a hitter.
In an ideal world, we'd all love to see our favorite team build a multi-year champion from the ground up, with young players who grow and develop into stars, the way the Mets did in the 1980s. (Recall that under the present divisional alignment, that team would have won 7 consecutive NL East titles). With this ideal in mind, some in the "sabermetric" community have tended to be harshly critical of any non-Yankee team that adds expensive veteran players in an effort to get over the top or sustain a run at the top. It's true that it merits criticism when teams overpay for help they could have had on the cheap, as the Mets and others have done in recent years. But, to my mind, you only get so many chances to make your run, and once you've got the talent to commit to it, it's sometimes more short-sighted to start rebuilding or even retooling while the window is open and the chance is there. After all, anything really can happen in a short series; while there is generally at least one team in the postseason these days that has no realistic prayer, a team with an outstanding offense OR great starting pitchers always has the potential to run off a hot streak if it gets to October, at least a streak that (like the 1999 Mets) gives the fans a ride to talk about for years. You can criticize the Mets' decision to stage an offseason makeover aimed solely at 2002, but they may not come this way again for many a year. With Piazza still near the top of his game and more popular than ever in NY, the fans aren't crazy to expect another shot at October drama.
Once you accept the premise of the Mets' approach to the offseason and the reality of who was available on the market, most of Steve Phillips' moves made great sense. After dumping the veterans in the bullpen just before they lost their trade value, the Mets in 2001 had a team with strong but not overpowering starting pitching, but the worst offense in the major leagues: a combination of old, slow power hitters with little or no power left (Ventura and Zeile), impatient, slap-hitting outfielders who hit for unimpressive batting averages (Payton, Shinjo, Timo), an injured Edgardo Alfonzo and the dismal Rey Ordonez, who as I noted in this space last fall needed a late season hot streak to avoid setting a new record for fewest runs scored by an everyday player. This would have been a horrifying record to set in a league where the average team scored 4.7 runs per game, close to the highest levels of offense seen in the National League since the foul-strike rule was implemented at the dawn of the 20th century. To top it off, Benny Agbayani proved unequal to the task of playing everyday, and Matt Lawton failed to hit the way he had in Minnesota. Two of the team's three best hitters were utility infielders having career years: Joe McEwing and Desi Relaford. Even the pitching staff was one of the worst-hitting staffs in baseball.
Defying conventional wisdom about the scarcity of pitching, Phillips surveyed the market and apparently decided that, in this offseason, it would be easier to find cheap help for the rotation than for the lineup. With Rick Reed already gone in a midseason trade, Phillips proceeded to get rid of Kevin Appier, who had rebounded strongly in 2001, and Glendon Rusch, who was coming off a poor season but remained a good bet to be significantly better than a league-average starter in 2002. On top of that, promising reliever Jerrod Riggan was shipped to Cleveland in the Robbie Alomar deal. This left just Al Leiter, who pitched brilliantly in 2001 but missed time with injuries; Bruce Chen, a talented lefty who remains maddeningly inconsistent; and Steve Trachsel, who was one of the league's best pitchers in the second half (9-3, 2.74 ERA after the All-Star break) after struggling to get his ERA below 10.00 before a late-May demotion. To fill the two primary holes, Phillips signed free agent Pedro Astacio on the rebound from surgery, and added a second irritating lefthander in Shawn Estes (8-5, 3.33 ERA at the end of July, but started just 7 more times and was bombed in 4 of them), who the Giants - in a fit of frustration and Bonds-induced
Astacio may be a real find, although he may never regain his health; the strain of pitching all those long innings in Colorado for several years will wear down nearly any pitcher. Estes is also talented, and we were treated a few weeks ago to that annual rite of spring, the newspaper story about which Mets pitcher was getting tutored by club president Fred Wilpon's close friend and high school teammate, Sandy Koufax. Personally, I'd rather see Sandy teach Estes how to throw 335 innings in a season than how to get his curveball over better, but that's just me.
The Mets also brought in Jeff D'Amico, who makes Estes look like Don Sutton in the durability department and is roughly the size of Estes and Sutton put together. I regarded D'Amico as basically free dummy - the deal was essentially Burnitz for Rusch, with the other players the Mets gave up being either expendable (the justly popular but limited Agbayani) or simply not worth their salaries (Zeile, manager-in-training Lenny Harris). For that price, a guy with D'Amico's talent is worth the gamble, but I wouldn't go trading Chen to make room for him in the rotation, because he'll just be visiting.
The bullpen is headed by veterans with various question marks. When Armando
I still strongly suspect that, in addition to Chen and D'Amico, a big part of the story of the Mets' pitching staff this season will be told by pitchers with limited major league exposure, specifically Satoru Komiyama, Grant Roberts, Dicky Gonzalez, Eric Cammack, and possibly Adam and Tyler Walker. Komiyama was called the "Japanese Greg Maddux," which is a nice description of his style, but he appears to be essentially an over-the-hill starter who might be useful out of the bullpen. The Mets have a fairly good record with Japanese players owing in part to the fact that Bobby Valentine managed over there, and if the Mets are lucky, Komiyama will give them something reminiscent of a good Mike Maddux year. Gonzalez is a guy I inexplicably like - he's just got nasty-looking stuff, but couldn't seem to get out of the fifth inning last year as a starter. Roberts, once a highly over-touted starting prospect, seemed to find his true calling as a
A staff like that can win you some games, but only if you succeed in turning the game's worst offense, overnight, into a truly outstanding unit. There are a lot of high-risk bids here, but Phillips may yet have done just that.
Let's look at the lineup:
Cedeno is the first of the gambles. We know he can play everyday, we know he can hit around .300, we know he can draw walks, we know he can steal bases by the carload. Cedeno is, in fact, probably the finest base thief in Major League Baseball today. But can he do it all at once? Cedeno last season managed the improbable accomplishment of raising his batting average 11 points, while dropping 46 points from his OBP. To analysts accustomed to the notion that batting averages vary from year to year but "secondary skills" like a good batting eye are stable, Cedeno is an enigma. Hopefully, the Mets can get him to be patient and focused on getting on base to help win games; one got the distinct impression last season that Cedeno, finding himself on a dead-end team last season, was just playing for numbers and thought it was a waste of time drawing walks if he saw a pitch he might be able to hit. He also needs more than a few days off, since he's a high-energy player who can lose focus and some of the spring in his legs if he plays too many days in a row.
Warning: Baseball-Reference.com lists the most similar player to Alomar at the same age as Robin Yount, with Ryne Sandberg third and Joe Morgan (probably the player, along with Jackie Robinson, most genuinely similar to Alomar's talents) seventh. Yount, the AL MVP at 33, lost 71 points off his batting average at 34 and was never again an above-average player. Morgan went from .288, 22 homers, 113 runs and 49 steals to .236, 13 HR, 68 R and 19 SB, and never again scored more than 72 runs in a season, only hitting above .250 one more time. Sandberg dropped from 26 homers to 9, lost 100 points off his slugging average, and was never a star again. Joe Torre is also on the statistical list and fell off sharply at 34, but the fact that the Similarity Scores system thinks Joe Torre, the second-slowest man in baseball in his prime (ahem, Rusty) was similar to Robbie Alomar shows why you can't take it too literally. The news isn't all bad: Frankie Frisch tailed off slowly, Robinson started missing games but stayed productive, and Charlie Gehringer at 34 batted .371 and won the MVP Award. Similarity Scores aren't destiny; all they do is give us the cautions of history. History says that even players as good as Alomar - including several players with similar talents - can just lose it overnight at his age.
That said, the Alomar deal was the key to the whole offseason. All the other players the Mets got are, at this stage, fundamentally supporting players. Alomar gives the team a second superstar; if you want to win championships, you need players like this. He was expensive in terms of depth, but easily worth the cost. Escobar, when he's played, has looked similar to a young Sammy Sosa, moreso to a young Mike Cameron, but even before he blew his knee out this spring, his injury record suggested that he'd be very fortunate to match Cameron's career path. The days of comparing him to a guy like Vladimir Guerrero are gone. Matt Lawton's a fine player, but he's no superstar, and while I like Jerrod Riggan, I liked Robert Person, Jeff Tam and Corey Lidle too, and life went on at Shea without them.
Piazza's probably reaching the end of his days as a .320-.330 hitter, but he's still the man, and the best hitter the Mets have ever had. Piazza clearly prefers burning out to fading away; he will probably just retire when he can't catch anymore.
Mo is the one offseason acquisition I was not too enthused about. He's a dreadful fielder, his contract is huge, he's been in decline since leaving Fenway and was always helped by the place, he's hardly a conditioning fanatic, he missed last year with injuries, and he's even slower than Olerud or Zeile. It was particularly depressing to see the Mets pass on bidding on the far superior Jason Giambi to sink tens of millions into Mo. The Mets also apparently backed off rumors in the fall that they were considering bringing back Roberto Petagine, who would not have been that expensive and continues to hit well in Japan.
That being said, Mo should at least remain a reliable power source for a year or two if he stays healthy, and he has to be a big improvement over Zeile, who was a few years older and had never been near the player Vaughn was in his prime. Plus, while Kevin Appier revived far more than I had thought possible last season, the fact is that Appier's contract was also a millstone, and dealing Appier was a critical part of the Mets' strategy to pull off this entire offseason renovation without substantially increasing their payroll. One thing working against him, however: Mo's big strikeout rate is likely to go over the edge this season in the poor visibility of Shea, plus he's got to adjust to a rearranged strike zone that everyone else has lived with for a year now.
The popular perception among analysts is to project a gradual decline from a point below where he left off, which would rapidly make Vaughn a below-average first baseman if he wasn't already. But we have seen plenty of examples in recent years of the old power hitter having the One Last Big Year in his thirties - Robin Ventura and Matt Williams in 1999, Gary Gaetti in 1996, Galarraga in 1998, David Justice in 2000, Tino Martinez in 2001 - so it would be foolish to write of Vaughn entirely. If Vaughn gets 500 at bats and slugs .500, he'll be worth it, and I'd give him at least a 40% chance at each of those goals.
No player is more critical to the Mets this season than Alfonzo, one of the best in the game in 1999-2000 and a dud with a bad back for the balance of last summer. If Fonzie rebounds, this team will be in the race all year; if he doesn't, it's time to start rebuilding no matter what else happens. It's that simple.
It's always better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late, and the Brewers will eventually congratulate themselves for choosing the former. Burnitz, a guy I never thought the Mets should have let go in the first place, is probably better suited to Shea Stadium than Mo because he has proven the ability to put runs on the scoreboard without hitting for average. The Burnitz deal was a steal, as I mentioned before; Rusch still looks like a guy who could break through big time, but his chances of doing so look rather slimmer with the Brewers' track record with young pitchers.
I contended for several years that the much-maligned Garret Anderson would eventually have a season when he hit .330 and was a legitimate All-Star. It might still happen, but don't hold your breath. Payton, who was seen by many as a better prospect than Nomar when they were college teammates, had the talent to be a rich man's Garret Anderson, but he spent too many years mending from injuries when he should have been learning to lay off bad pitches, drive the ball and steal bases. He may yet hit .300 himself, but even at that he would not be a star. Gary Mathews jr. may take his job, but Mathews is just a different flavor of mediocrity. Since Cedeno is defensively overmatched as a center fielder, the Mets may be stuck with one of them.
Then there's Timo. The sole grounds for my limited optimism about Timo Perez entering last season was his youth: a guy who could hit the ball with some authority at 23-24 years old has some growth potential, and has time to learn something about the strike zone. Turns out, though, that Perez, like so many other Latin American players, is older than advertised, which combined with a reportedly poor work ethic, clashes with teammates and bad on-field decisions, makes Perez a highly unlikely candidate to ever contribute anything useful at all to the Mets. Perez has seen some of the blame for the 2000 World Series drift away, as Game One is now more remembered as part of a long series of blown big games by Benitez, but there's really no reason to keep around a guy with minimal talents -- the upside on Timo is Randy Winn -- if he's not busting his hump.
Rey Sanchez was picked by the Red Sox off the scrap heap, and the Royals couldn't get takers for Neifi Perez; clearly, players like Ordonez are not in high demand. Now we don't even know how old this guy is. But the departure of Relaford leaves the Mets without even a halfway plausible alternative. Ordonez' steady defense will be needed this season, but is he really the game's only dependable shortstop? Ordonez' .299 on base percentage last season (against a league average of .338) sounds awful, but then it gets worse: that was the second-HIGHEST figure of his career; it was actually .274 if you take out his 17 intentional walks; and Ordonez hit into 17 double plays last season, so his true cost to the offense was much higher. The past three seasons, Ordonez has hit into 37 double plays while scoring just 90 runs, a ghastly ratio. Probably half the players in AA right now could do better than that.
The NL East was very ripe for the pickings before the Sheffield trade, and even fortified by Sheffield, the Braves can still be had. After all, he can't possibly hit the Mets any harder than Brian Jordan did last season. The rest of the division is getting stronger, but nobody else added any real help over the offseason; the Marlins and Expos still have questions about the health of their pitching staffs, and the Phillies still have Doug Glanville playing everyday (at least the Mets aren't playing Ordonez in the outfield) and still call Robert Person the ace of their rotation. With the growing powerhouses in St. Louis and Houston, the Wild Card is likely to come from the Central this season. In other words: the Mets can take this division, but if they don't they go home.
In spite of Ordonez and Payton, I see the offense being in the top third of the league and probably the best in the division, but not matching up to some of the Central division monsters. This won't be a top-to-bottom machine, but the Mets have two good tablesetters, plus Piazza and Alfonzo can get on base, and Mo and Burnitz should hang just above the league average in OBP. With the tremendous power the Mets have in the 2-6 slots, that should make this an efficient offense, one that's very hard to shut out.
That leaves the pitching. With some defensive question marks and a shaky bullpen, the Mets could give up a lot of runs, but there are high-upside pitchers here as well. The best outcome would be a replay of 1999: the Mets rotation muddles through the summer and gets hot down the stretch, particularly if Rick Reed comes back in July. This isn't a juggernaut - but this team has hope, and for now, I'll take that over the alternative.
QUOTE: The Red Sox "talked briefly [to the Mets] about Carl Everett, but after the Wilfredo Cordero affair, they are not going to bring in Everett"
-- Peter Gammons, November 2, 1997.