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Separate the Wheat from the Chass

These days, it's pretty easy to pick on Murray Chass. And it's fun, too, so why not?

For the last 2+ years, the former New York Times sports scribe has been reduced to plying his trade as a blogger, on his own site, no less (insert mother's basement joke here). In that time, he's ruffled many a feather with his cranky, self-serving, and often unsourced accusations. Like his curious and continued vendetta against Mike Piazza for alleged steroid use only he seems to have "evidence" for (said evidence being him constantly writing about it) or care about.

Most recently, Chass got into some hot water when he wrote that's Tom Verducci hadn't voted for Marvin Miller for the Hall of Fame. The piece was only slightly inaccurate, in that Verducci had actually voted for Miller. Verducci proceeded to verbally eviscerate Chass for publishing such poorly sourced rumor as fact. Chass responded by saying this was the first time in his illustrious career he'd committed such an error, which drew many well deserved and incredulous snorts.

Over the weekend, as many of us were sipping egg nog and furiously hunting down gift receipts, Chass decided to pen a column about the state of the Mets. This time, he decided to keep his rumors more general and less likely to attract vitriolic response--but they remained just as worthless.

The premise of the column is the same as ones you've no doubt read many times already: The Mets haven't done anything this off-season and are unlikely to do much more, and this is bad. Why is this bad? Because it means more empty seats in CitiField next season. These columns rarely (if ever) state what the Mets should do, and some even admit that overspending for free agents when next season holds little promise might not be a good idea. But ultimately, they argue that the Mets should do something.

While still GM of the Mets, Omar Minaya said that New York is "not a market where you can go young." No doubt he was thinking of the negative press coverage that would result from an offseason such as the one the Mets are currently enjoying (although "enjoying" is an innacurate word). New GM Sandy Alderson has been put into the unenviable position of laying low this offseason in order to not do any more damage to an already broken payroll and farm system, while at the same time insisting, if only for appearances' sake, "hey, we could compete next year, ya never know!"

Columns like Chass's are to be expected in this environment, and if Alderson's long-term strategy leads to success down the road, no one will remember these pieces. (Or, if you're not feeling magnanimous, maybe we'll all remember them to throw such words back in the authors' faces.)

I haven't responded to most of these kinds of columns because most of them are just expressions of opinions. I'm on board with Alderson's approach, even if it means a lean 2010, but I could be proven wrong just as easily as those critical of the new Mets GM. Only time will tell.

What distinguishes Chass's piece is its willingness to print supposition as fact, while making sure to couch it in the language of plausible deniability. Oh, and it's also dead wrong about more than a few things. Here's a choice chunk about the Wilpons, particularly Jeff:

The Mets have a new general manager, Sandy Alderson, and a new manager, Terry Collins, but the reality is they won’t get headed in the right direction until the owner, Fred Wilpon, fires the owner’s son, the chief operating officer, Jeff Wilpon.

Jeff Wilpon is typical of a wealthy owner’s son, in his position by birthright, not by merit. Unfortunately for the Mets and their fans, Jeff Wilpon is more like Peter Angelos’ sons in Baltimore than like Carl Pohlad’s sons in Minnesota.

The Wilpons say they don’t interfere with the Mets’ baseball operation, but they would be hard-pressed to find anyone in baseball who believes that claim. The man who knows best, Minaya, has repeatedly declined to discuss that aspect of the Mets’ operation. The Mets owe him more than $2 million, and he knows better than to jeopardize his financial future.

Fred Wilpon has often used the phrase "skill set," which can’t be applied to Jeff and baseball operations. I recall that a year ago I criticized Minaya for not negotiating with free agents on parallel tracks, thereby putting himself in position to sign one free agent if he failed to get the other.

It’s a routine strategy in baseball in the competitive pursuit of free agents, but Minaya stuck to one free agent at a time, very likely losing out on one or two worthy free agents. I suspect it was not Minaya’s idea to work that way but Jeff Wilpon’s. As with other issues, Minaya has refused to address the Mets’ failed strategy.

Alderson, Minaya’s successor, apparently won’t be in position to discuss the team’s off-season strategy because the Mets don’t appear to have one. Don’t ask, don’t tell seems to apply more to the Mets now than it does to the United States military.

Jeff Wilpon needs to fired, says Chass. Why? Because he "suspects" he is responsible for the team's dysfunctional operations. Because, according to him, no one in baseball "believes the claim" that he doesn't interfere with the running of the Mets. It'd be nice to know why you think that, Murray. Even a quote from an Unnamed Source would do. But we don't get that, or anything more substantial than insinuation and innuendo.

For all I know, Jeff Wilpon is the root of the Mets' evil. If you're going to say he is, though, you should produce some evidence to back it up. Chass's sole exhibit in The People vs. Jeff Wilpon is the fact that Minaya won't express an opinion about him one way or another. If someone's silence indicated another person's guilt, we'd all be in jail.

Personally, like many Mets fans, I've suspected the Wilpons have had their hands in the Mets' business too much for the team's good. I also suspect that this will largely end now that Alderson is in the GM chair, because I agree with what Jason Fry wrote at Faith and Fear in Flushing: "Sandy Alderson is too old, too well-paid and has too many opportunities available to him to take shit from Jeff Wilpon." I honestly don't think of a man of Alderson's reputation and age would have taken the job if he didn't expect full autonomy.

That is total supposition on my part--just like Chass's assertions. The difference between Chass and me is I don't confuse my guesses with facts.

Chass also criticizes Alderson for not discussing the team's off-season strategy. If you ask me, one of the Mets' biggest problems in recent years was a front office full of leaks. Every time Minaya sneezed, the press knew to offer a gesundheit. Many internal disputes came to light that never should have, such as the disagreement over Carlos Beltran's knee surgery and the idiotic Walter Reed Hospital visit kerfuffle. A healthy organization does not let squabbles like this become back page fodder. If preventing such things from becoming public also means the team doesn't telegraph every single move it wants to make, that's probably a good thing.

The magic phrase around the Mets this winter is "payroll flexibility." The Mets, they say, don’t have it so they can’t sign any expensive players or even inexpensive players based on the market rate.

Mets’ officials use the phrase so routinely that beat reporters have adopted it and use it to justify why the Mets are making no attempt to improve the team.

"We don’t have a lot of payroll flexibility so we’ve had to be somewhat realistic this off-season," Alderson said in a telephone interview this week.

That statement doesn’t require a talented translator. Put simply, don’t expect the Mets to spend any money this winter.

Oh Murray, you're much too clever for Mr. Alderson! You've solved the mystery! "The Mets are saying they don't have the money to spend on free agents, but what they're really telling you is that they don't have the money to spend on free agents." I bet he whipped off his David Caruso sunglasses after that brilliant deduction. ("YEAHHHHHHHHH!")

Amazingly, Chass tries to spin Payroll Flexibility--which represents a rare instance of a front office being honest with its fans--as some kind of huge snow job. Remember the days when the Mets would feign interest in free agents like Alex Rodriguez and it would turn out later it was all a ruse? Would that be preferable?

When observers talk about the Mets’ lack of payroll flexibility, they point to the team’s "bad contracts," particularly the one that will pay [Oliver] Perez $12 million and the one that will pay [Luis] Castillo $6 million next season.

Most competitive teams however, wind up with contracts they wish they hadn’t given players. It’s part of the price of doing business; it’s part of the price of competing. It should not be part of the excuse for not trying to improve the team.

Actually, Murray, the payroll is a very good excuse. If your payroll is taken up by wastes of space like Perez and Castillo, who can not be unloaded at any price, there's nothing to be done about it. Saying the Mets' payroll is no excuse for not adding players is like saying my height is no excuse for not being able to dunk a basketball.

Fred Wilpon has never liked spending the kind of money he has had to spend to compete with the Yankees in New York. When Nelson Doubleday was Wilpon’s partner in the Mets’ ownership, it was Doubleday who wanted to spend money on good players (see Mike Piazza).

Sometimes you see a pile of stupid so huge and so defiant of any rational fact, you almost have to admire it. This is such a time.

In 2002, the last year Nelson Doubleday co-owned the team, the Mets' payroll was $94.6 million. The next year, with Wilpon having the purse strings to himself for the first time, it ballooned over $117 million. It has been above $100 million every year since 2005. It was close to $140 million in 2010, and will be so again in 2011. During Wilpon's time alone at the top, the Mets have never been lower than fourth-highest payroll in all of baseball.

Chass says "see Mike Piazza." I'd tell him to see Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana, Frankie Rodriguez, and Jason Bay--top flight players with huge contracts either signed as free agents or traded for since Fred Wilpon has been sole owner of the Mets.

Signing big names to big money has never been a problem for Wilpon. Spending money wisely has. Conflating the spending of money with the long-term good of the team is exactly what got the Mets into Blow It Up and Start Over Mode to begin with.

What should the Mets have done, according to Chass? He doesn't quite say. Although the fact that he puts pitchers like Jon Garland, Jake Westbrook, and Vicente Padilla in with "the best of the market" makes me glad he's not running the team. I can see him handing out a six-year, $140 million contract to Carl Pavano.

The Perez and Castillo contracts will be up next season. So will the contracts of Beltran ($18.5 million), Rodriguez ($11.5 million) and Jose Reyes ($11 million), and the Mets’ apologists point to the greater freedom the team will have to sign players to big contracts.

By then, however, another season will have been lost. In addition, the Mets will be asking their fans to pay to watch a team that they themselves don’t think enough of to spend to improve it.

I love Chass's special vocabulary. Apparently pointing out a fact about the Mets' payroll makes you an "apologist," as opposed to "aware of reality." His ominous note about the team not spending to improve itself before 2012 also assumes that there will be absolutely zero additions to the team not only this offseason, but the next one as well. If Chass has such powers of prognostication, maybe he should put them to more humanitarian use. Like, say, predicting when he'll stop plaguing us with his writing.

Look: I don't hold out a huge amount of hope for the Mets in 2011, either. And Alderson's power to improve the team, even long term, is not guaranteed. But I prefer to wait until people fail before I judge their efforts--or at least until they're on the job more than two months.

If Chass disagrees, he's entitled to that opinion. And that's all it is: an opinion, no more valid than mine, and no more closer to being fact, his delusions to the contrary notwithstanding.