The Mets have (presumably) finished work on their 2009 starting rotation and the results look like this (2008 WAR):
- Johan Santana (4.8)
- Mike Pelfrey (3.0)
- Oliver Perez (1.3)
- John Maine (1.4)
- Tim Redding (1.1)
Those last three are what should depress Mets fans about the re-signing of Oliver Perez to a three-year, $36 million pact. John Maine, who pitched sixty fewer innings than Perez in 2008, was nevertheless more valuable. Tim Redding, whom the Mets signed for just a single year and $2.25 million, was almost as valuable as Perez. These numbers alone don't necessarily portend anything for 2009, but neither are they cause for any kind of celebration.
Why should we be angry?
Apparently unprovoked by pressure from any other bidders, the Mets increased their (already too high) initial three-year, $30 million offer to the $36 million deal Perez ultimately accepted, and from where I'm sitting Omar Minaya looks like an absolute chump. Maybe there was some secret team involved that nobody else was aware of, but smart money is on the Mets actually bidding against themselves to retain a decent -- not great, not even really good -- starting pitcher for fear that they might have to settle for Ben Sheets (better pitcher, more injury concerns) or Randy Wolf (2.0 WAR in 2008).
In 2008, Derek Lowe was worth $16 million more than Perez ($22.4 million vs $5.8 million). He's older and a safe bet to decline somewhat, while Perez is much younger and might actually improve (or not). Even accepting those likelihoods, there is almost no way that Perez is as valuable as Lowe over the next four years. It's true that Lowe will make an extra $4 million and was signed by the Braves to a four-year deal (not three years), so there's some risk that they'll be paying good money for his declining golden years (or that he'll break down altogether). At all events, whether the Mets are playing for 2009 or beyond, it's tough to argue they'd be better off in either fight with Perez over Lowe.
Looking beyond the Perez-versus-whomever arguments, a larger issue casts a cloud over the events of this offseason. The Mets are putting the finishing touches on a fancy new ballpark funded by public money during the worst economic recession in recent memory, and as it stands now the Mets are set to move into Citi Field with a payroll similar to last year. Ticket prices at the new facility will be higher than the final year at Shea Stadium and seating will be in much shorter supply. Concessions are likely to be more expensive, too. Much has been made of the Wilpons' fleecing of (possibly hundreds of) millions of dollars at the scheming hands of Bernard Madoff, but we've been led to believe this whole time that any losses incurred there had nothing to do with the Mets. So I have to ask: If we're all paying more money to build a new stadium just to pay more money to see games there and eat and drink and adorn ourselves with Mets trinkets, how can it be that in 2009 the Mets will be investing in the on-field product exactly as much as they did in 2008?
This isn't to imply that the Mets are cheap; they did have one of the game's highest payrolls last year and figure to be in the upper echelon of player expenditure again this year. But they are also one of the most profitable teams in the game playing in its biggest market and it's hard to believe they won't be increasing payroll. With Perez's $12 million their docket reads around $140 million, the same as last year and $22 million shy of the luxury tax threshold. If there's an explanation for the Mets' seeming lack of payroll movement over last year I'd be interested in hearing it.
Why should we be optimistic?
Perez is occasionally very, very good, and it's not as if he is just sometimes effective and sometimes not. There is a noticeable difference in his mechanics and in the behavior of his breaking pitches when he is throwing well. I suppose this is true of all pitchers to some degree, but most would agree that Perez has the talent to be a very good starter; most pitchers with league-average ERAs have no hope of achieving greatness. Unfortunately for Perez (and us, by extension) there exists a chasm the size of the Manson crater between Perez's current level of performance and his potential level of same. It's not inconceivable that Perez will finally "put it all together" one of these days, but as each middling month passes it becomes less and less likely that it'll ever happen.
Even if Perez doesn't become a superstar (or even a regular star), if he can throw 200 innings of league average (or better?) performance he'll still have some value. He was a 2.2 WAR player as recently as 2007, and a repeat of that over the next three seasons will leave the Mets paying him about what he's worth over the contract's duration.
I guess he's also a safer bet than Randy Wolf. Wolf would have cost less in years and money but he has a spotty injury record and a history of mediocrity. He was better than Perez in 2008 (getting tired of hearing that?), but isn't a good bet to be better (or healthier) than him in 2009. Really, if the best you can say about Oliver Perez is that he might be better than Randy Wolf why bother?
Now we wait. Pitchers and catchers report in less than two weeks and the Mets are likely to stand pat between now and then (and beyond). We can sit here and hope the Mets still go out and sign Ben Sheets, Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez (or whomever), but I don't think it's going to happen. It took a month longer than it should have but the Mets are right back where they started. Their bullpen is certainly improved over last year, but their starting rotation isn't and their lineup isn't, either. Maybe they'll get lucky and their non-bullpen parts will be as effective as they were in 2008 and the added wins to the bullpen will be enough to put the Mets over the hump. Or maybe they won't and we'll all be home listening to the new Titté Brothers record next October.*