In The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, a book chronicling the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays from doormat to two time division champions, Sandy Alderson, interviewed for the book before being named general manager of the Mets was quoted, regarding the rebuilding of baseball teams, as saying:
There are certain places where there’s more latitude on the
part of management to deal with the issue of competition.
Places like Minnesota. Not that Minnesotans accept failure. But
there’ a long history of the Twins growing their own players, allowing
them to leave, and at least stay competitive. So they have more latitude
to get rid of, say, Johan Santana. Oakland, Tampa Bay, Florida- those types
of places would be more forging. In other of places- New York, Boston- it
would be unthinkable. It would be unforgivable.
What wonderful irony that Alderson finds himself in that exact position barely a year later. Even more biting considering the franchise player in question is just 28 years old and having a career, MVPish type season. Add to the mix that Alderson’s Mets can be said to have overachieved thus far this season stirring up fans in some circles for an outside chance of a playoff run and there are the makings of quite a conundrum.
Except that it probably isn’t. Last night’s loss leaves the Mets at 34-35 with 93 games left. While as Mets fans we’ve been stared of consistent winning baseball and fed gut wrenching loss after gut wrenching loss, it’s hard to see how even the most faith-filled Mets fans can doom themselves into gearing up for another failed playoff push. While the 2011 Mets, particularly in light of the injuries to David Wright and Ike Davis, have been scrappy, tough-minded, and pleasantly refreshing, a serious playoff run is far too much to expect. For instance consider that the Mets starting pitching ERA over the last 20 games before last night was less than 2.00. While the Mets may have two valuable young pitchers going forward in Dillon Gee and Jon Neise there’s no reason to expect Mike Pelfrey to be anything more than an inconsistent middle of the rotation starter he’s been for his entire career, R.A. Dickey is a 36 year old hit or miss knuckleballer, and while Chris Capuano has had moments of effectiveness it’s clear he isn’t a projected bulwark for the rotation.
As far as position players breakdown it appear obvious the Mets need a significant upgrade at catcher with Josh Thole hitting only .234/.315/.278 and Ronny Paulino, while showing some swagger with the stick, hasn’t been more than a platoon catcher in years. Jason Bay is well on his way to becoming another Luis Castillo, a player the Mets will probably just swallow whole what’s left of his bloated contract at some point. Carlos Beltran’s contract ends this season and whether he’s traded or not the Mets won’t and shouldn’t have his 35 year old legs patrolling right-field next season. Angel Pagan, who has obviously played much better since his abysmal start and DL stint, is currently hitting .248/.321/.359 after his ‘career’ year last season when he had an OPS+ of 107 (only a few points above average).
This leads us to the franchise players and the question before the house is this: will the Mets be the team Mets fans crave, the team that is a consistent powerhouse championship contender, the team that overtakes the Phillies and challenges and defeats the Yankees supremacy in New York, faster by keeping Jose Reyes (and David Wright) or by either trading him for best prospects that can be acquired or losing him to free agency and receiving the compensating draft picks? In other words is it better to go into full rebuilding mode or should the Mets keep their core together, squeeze out as many wins as possible and build the foundation with them? The question takes on greater complexity considering that it will in all likelihood, considering the year Reyes is having, a huge contract (probably 7 years) to resign him. Keeping in mind the number of pieces the Mets need (in my estimation at least two starting pitches, a catcher, a new outfield, 2nd base is still hazy), the thinness at Triple-A, and the state of the Wilpons’ finances it’s hard to picture the 2012 Mets as a significant improvement (indeed the same may be the case for 2013). That would take Reyes and Wright into their 30s. The debate over whether Reyes can be counted on to be a productive player into his 30s, especially considering his injury history and failure in big spots in the past, has been endless yet it seems silly to imagine that what we’re seeing now isn’t his peak. Sabremetric literature usually argues that players peak at age 27 or 29 and Branch Rickey probably had it right that it’s better to trade a player one year too early rather than a year too late. Reyes and Wright are both 28 and so far have been to the playoffs once in their careers. A glance at the stats of players somewhat comparable to Reyes (Rickey Henderson, Jimmy Rollins) show definite decline after age 30.
It’s unimportant whether for the next two years the Mets win 70 games, 75 games, or somehow get to 85. The future of the organization is in strong drafts and smart trades yielding young jewels and perhaps some veteran leadership. This isn’t an argument demanding a trade of Reyes. It would be nice, but probably unrealistic, to sign him to a five-year contract. However it does mean that no one should be safe and building a solid foundation from within should take precedence. That being the case Alderson should be under no New York pressure to keep the Mets core intact for slight short-term gain.