Johan Santana mimics the old Mets' front office's approach to team building realities. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Doom doesn't really exist unless you're looking for it, and everyone near the Mets seems to want to hunt doom down in all its forms. There is financial doom, of course, highlighted by the latest judge's ruling that puts the Wilpons on the hook for at least $83 million. There is health and wellness doom, where David Wright's routine early spring ouchies and Ike Davis's mysterious illness are taken as signs of a medical curse haunting the team. There is seller's remorse doom, where the team's beat writers breathlessly cover every single at bat from every single player the Mets let go in the last year, needling us all with I toldja so's.
Mostly, there is the general sense of doom around the Mets, the pall that hangs over any team that has little hope of seriously competing in the immediate future. In the case of the Mets, that projection is compounded further by their shaky financial outlook. This sense of doom has an extra slice of hopeless on top of it, because it says that even if the Mets defy all odds and play well, they will lack the funds to take the next step and bolster themselves with pricey talent.
Earlier this week, Will Leitch of New York magazine wrote an assessment of the Mets with this sort of dim outlook. Compared to what you might read in the local newspapers, it was a lot more fair and a lot less hyperbolic, but still rather grim. Reading the article, I couldn't say I disagreed with any of the assessments contained therein. However, I can't bring myself to look at the team's state and see nothing but Doom.
It may just be a fan's blinders. It may just be my reluctance to view baseball--a thing I enjoy, something that's supposed to be fun--as a slog and a trial. Allowing for these possibilities, I still think these are not the worst of times for the Mets. Primarily, it's because I think the team will be much more enjoyable to watch than most people suspect. Which isn't to say I think they'll compete; in order for that to happen, I fear several teams among their NL East competition would have to be taken hostage. I simply think the 2012 Mets will be a better on-field product than people are giving them credit for.
But even regarding the team's finances, I can't look at this time with doom-colored glasses. In fact, I wonder if Bernie Madoff might be the best thing that happened to the Mets.
Leitch's article notes of the Mets, "They are starting over. Again." But the truth is, the Mets haven't had a true rebuilding since the early 1980s, when Frank Cashen slowly assembled the 1986 World Champs. The Mets made a half-hearted stab at rebuilding in the mid-1990s, post-Worst Team Money Can Buy, but got anxious when an approach focused on their farm system did not reap immediate dividends. The minors produced players like Rey Ordonez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Todd Hundley, and Jeromy Burnitz, but it also produced Generation K, one of the most overhyped flameouts ever (with most of the hype coming from the Mets themselves). They also chafed when the Yankees, who bought one player after another in 1980s to no good effect, finally got smart in the early 1990s, assembling themselves into a dynasty and claiming supremacy in the back pages.
Then in 1997, Steve Phillips became the Mets' GM. He was a media darling who loved the spotlight and had little patience for a talent-development-driven approach. The Wilpons were happy to grant his wishes, since they were tired of losing headlines to the ascendant Yankees. Together, they developed what would be the Mets' approach to teambuilding for the next decade-plus: Buy big players and...buy some more big players when needed. That's it.
Phillips was the exec who first articulated the idea that a New York team could not rebuild, a mantra later repeated by Omar Minaya, his one-time assistant and successor. It was repeated so often that fans began to believe it, eventually coming to see the acquisition of one (or more) big ticket free agent each winter as their birthright. Whether the contract or the player was a good fit was irrelevant. What was important was the Mets got somebody, thus making the fans and the newspapers happy for a few cold days in December.
In the climate of the late 1990s, the Mets were actually behind the curb in adopting this approach. The collusion that had artificially repressed salaries and led to the 1995 players' strike was long gone. Free agent price tags skyrocketed exponentially each offseason. The Mets were simply adapting to how business was done.
Their approach worked in the sense that it led to playoff spots in 1999 and 2000, and again in 2006. What most other teams eventually figured out, however, is that this model is only sustainable if you have the endless resources of the Yankees or if you win every year. Otherwise, the piper comes calling in the form of a depleted farm system and a payroll full of elderly, untradeable talent being paid for what they did 10 years ago.
The Mets were allowed to delay this end for as long as they could because they had the Bernie Madoff cash cow in their back pocket. Those "fictitious profits" let them pretend they were the Yankees, money-wise, and ignore a farm system that was bereft of talent. And so each winter, the front office was forced to buy another big-ticket item because the minor leagues had no viable options to fill their needs, and because fans expected them to. The idea that a more fiscally conservative approach might be better for the longterm was rejected because, the front office said, the fans wouldn't stand for it. This reminded me of Homer Simpson's reaction when someone tells him he should really discipline Bart: "Nice try, but he hates that!"
Those days are over. The Mets are now concentrating on talent development. Sandy Alderson and company are trying to build a sustained winner that won't need to rely on annual injections of superannuated free agents in order to win, a team more like the Rays or the Braves than the Mets of old. It's something that should have been done a long time ago, and which will hopefully forestall the manic-depressive peaks and troughs that have marked the Mets' fortunes since the late 1990s.
Given the Wilpons' dreams of grandeur, it is unlikely they would have ever allowed any of this to happen unless they were forced into it. Which means that their dire financial straits have actually hastened a necessary rebuilding and restructuring process. That's why when I look at this team, I choose to see the seeds of future success and not a pall of doom. And amazingly, I have Bernie Madoff to thank.