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Built To Fail: Auditing Omar Minaya's Front Office

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Earlier in the season, the fine folks here at Amazing Avenue renewed debate about Omar Minaya's failures, a good time-killer when waiting for Alex Cora's release. And while the discussion covered many familiar points, it also veered into relatively unchartered territory--speculation on the Mets' workplace dynamic. 

I've written somewhat extensively on why the Mets' decisions are bad ones, why they should make better ones, and what better ones might be. Never, though, have I speculated on how they come to these decision. Sure, I had my suspicions, but it seemed pointless to guess when the apparent side of things was so obviously bad and open to criticism.  

So that's my disclaimer. I am going to attempt to describe how the Omar Minaya front office failed from the inside-out, but really, my guess is as good as yours. 

This offseason could be as important as any in the franchise's history. Replacing Minaya and Manuel can for better or worse (surely it can't be worse) change everything. Remember, though, as you're waving that snakeskin around, celebrating the death of tyranny, the serpent is back in his hole, negotiating Orlando Cabrera's new five-year contract. 

Chapter I: Meet The Mets

Jeff Wilpon

Title: COO, Executive Vice-President of Sterling Equities 

Place in the Hierarchy: The extent of Jeff Wilpon's influence in the Mets' decision making is subject to as many conspiracy theories as Roswell. His tendency to assert himself sporadically and strategically has only added to this man-behind-the-curtain lore. I won't give my theory here, though--this section is for what we do know.

Role Issues: While Jeff Wilpon may be very well qualified to run a baseball team from the top, he got the job by being born, forever putting his qualification as anything more than a check-signing owner under scrutiny.  

Signature Bad Idea: Again, while nothing specific is known, I ascribe the "Prevention & Recovery" mantra to J. Wilpon. When the Mets announced this farcical slogan during Spring Training this year, Wilpon walked around camp in a custom windbreaker bearing the short-lived shield-logo. The slogan played off the idea that injuries in 2009, and nothing else, constituted the team's problems. It was a perfect slap-in-the-face to fans after a stagnant offseason and a monumental deflection of blame from a front-office now famous for doing so. 

Omar Minaya

Title: Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations & General Manager

Place in the Hierarchy: The buck stopped here, at least until Jeff Wilpon said otherwise.

Role Issues: The Mets are currently indicating they might reassign, instead of outright firing, Omar Minaya. Most fans probably agree with this course of action. The idea that Omar Minaya is a great "talent evaluator," but a little out of his element as a GM, is something I've grappled with before (and more or less agree with).

Minaya's famous people-skills help in negotiations and inspire loyalty, but also severely hamper his vision as a GM. As his tenure went from good to bad to worse, he continually mistook personal security with an individual for the team's security with a certain player. After the initial good ideas ran out--Endy Chavez, John Maine, Jose Valentin, etc.--Minaya fell back on needlessly resigning these players, trusting small sample sizes, paying for names, and yielding to idiot managers. 

Call the lacking element sabermetrics if you want--I'll call it good sense. Regardless, Minaya went from making some clever little moves to making obviously dumb ones and the deserved results followed. He may be a good advocate for the under-looked player, a worthy voice in the room, but he never should have had his finger on the button. 

Signature Bad Idea: Luis Castillo 4-years/$24 Million. It is hard to pass on Oliver Perez here, but the Castillo-contract perfectly encapsulates several forms of recurring bad decision making: inability to let a player go, ignoring medical history (BOTH knees surgically repaired that offseason), no upside, and bidding against no one (the infamous Ed Wade was the only other GM to express interest). 

Signature Good Idea: The Santana trade was a deft move, exemplifying incredible patience. I wish Minaya had pursued more big trades. 

John Ricco

Title: Assistant General Manager

Place in the Hierarchy: Direct vote in the now defunct Bernazard-Ricco-Johnson triumvirate. Supposedly assumed more influence in recent years.

Role Issues: Media surrounding the Mets often misleadingly calls John Ricco the Mets' "number guy," playing off the perception that the Mets don't embrace sabermetrics. Really, Ricco's background is in contract law and labor relations. He's a statistician in the same way I'm a chemist, because I cook with NaCl. Unfortunately, though, it's a perception the Mets perpetuate and maybe even created, by making Ricco informal-head of the statistics department. Every Front Office can use a John Ricco, but with no background in player evaluation and no background in statistics, it's completely ridiculous to call him a sabermetric voice in the Mets' dealings. 

Signature Bad Idea: Do I even need to say? Omar Minaya gushed at the press conference how John Ricco proposed the Church-Francoeur trade. While Church was no loss, the idea of even auditioning Francoeur in rightfield is example-A why you need someone who can combine long-term vision and player evaluation skills with statistical knowledge. Francoeur was never a good hitter, he is unlikely to ever become a good hitter, and his defensive ability is overrated. Maybe making Frenchy a starter is on Minaya, but the whole fiasco reflects poorly on a potential GM-of-the-future. 

Tony Bernazard

Title: Former Vice President of Development

Place in the Hierarchy: see above

Role Issues: Before his hilarious firing, Bernazard exemplified the bizarre dynamic of the Mets' front office. Yea, yea, he did something with the minor leaguers (besides assaulting them). Really, though, Bernazard was just another baseball guy around the office, pitting his opinions against Minaya's, Ricco's and Johnson's. Besides the power allotted by their positions, Bernazard was basically interchangeable with Minaya. It was just some guys offering their take, with no one to synthesize them or hold them to a plan.

Signature Bad Idea: Taking his shirt off.

Signature Good Idea: Keeping his shirt on all those other times he wanted to take it off. 

Rudy Terrasas

Title: Scouting Director

Place in the Hierarchy: Final say in the amateur draft

Role Issues: Unlike these other men, Terrasas may just be bad, not misused. Granted, the Mets have one of the smallest draft budgets in the league, but Terrasas hasn't exactly adjusted to this limitation. For instance...

Signature Bad Idea: Eddie Kunz! With a limited budget, one might choose to draft more "sure thing" college position players, or maybe some underrated high risk/reward guys. One should not pick with a limited budget, however, FAT RELIEVERS WITH ONE PITCH, IN THE FIRST ROUND.

Signature Good Idea: Reese Havens, Ike Davis, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

Ben Baumer

Title: Statistical Analyst

Place in the Hierarchy: Under John Ricco, "One of 8 or 10 people" to give Minaya direct input on decisions.

Role Issues: With Ricco clearly not a statistician and the mysterious Adam Fisher also involved in amateur scouting, Baumer is, as he describes himself, "the Statistical Analyst for the New York Mets." Baumer was actually hired during the brief Duquette-reign, as a direct result of the popularity of Michael Lewis' Moneyball. He is a PhD candidate, lecturer, and holder of a Master's Degree in Applied Math, an impressive background in math and maybe a suggestion that he isn't around Flushing full-time. That would explain why he characterized his interactions with Minaya as answering email Q&A. 

My impression of Mr. Baumer is that he's a mathematics/programming expert who was introduced into a player evaluation setting and not the other way around. This suspicion was not abated by this video of him presenting an algebraic proof of OBP being better than BA. Ben Baumer definitely understands sabermetrics, as fully as anyone else. His background, however, means he approaches sabermetrics as a mathematician appraising their methodology, not a talent evaluator using them to fill-in and guide his analyses. Ben Baumer seems like a very competent statistical analyst, but not The Statistical Analyst, charged with challenging the views of the GM. 

Signature Bad Idea: For those of you who still rue the Pedro-contract, wait until you hear Baumer's alternate history

Baumer agreed that Martínez would be the better pitcher in 2005, but he marshaled stats suggesting that Clement might well be a better value over the course of a four-year contract. Martínez's walk rate was trending up, while his strikeout rate was trending down, and in 2004, for the first time in his career, Martínez exceeded the league average in home runs per pitches thrown. Clement, by contrast, was still improving. His control wasn't as good as Martínez's, but his 2004 strikeout rate was, and he had held opposing hitters to a lower batting average. In three years, Baumer figured, Clement could be as good or better than Martínez, and he was certainly going to be a lot more affordable.

Clement was 30 in 2004, so betting on his improvement was kind of out there. Clement had a good strikeout-rate that year, but at his age, it was probably an aberration. Now retired, he had a career 7.75 K/9, 4.14 BB/9. Pedro: 10.04, 2.52. The two knocks on Pedro above, HR/FB and BABIP, are skills largely outside of the pitcher's control, and both predictably regressed back to normal in his first season with the Mets. Clement would only play one more full season, before his arm gave out in 2006. 

Signature Good Idea: Rejecting my facebook friend request.

Chapter II: Jeff Wilpon Killed Peter Gammons' Cat

The past few season, many fans have viewed Omar Minaya as a sympathetic figure, a perception fueled by Peter Gammons' repeated pronouncements that Jeff Wilpon was the GM and Minaya was "out there to take the heat." Funny thing is, Gammons said the exact same things when Minaya was hired:

The Mets won't have fun, fun, fun until Daddy takes the Lear Jet away. Omar Minaya is a very good evaluator, but Junior Wilpon made trades and blamed Jim Duquette.

In this light, Jeff Wilpon's usurping power seems like a transitory device--let the current guy off easy and save on a year of his salary. Hopefully Wilpon yields to the new guy, giving him a fair shot like Omar got. 

Chapter III: The Impending Change

I said after last season that sabermetrics wasn't going to save the Mets; that a glorified Moneyball-scenario in which a handful of teams control a set of proprietary information and exploit market inefficiencies just isn't feasible. The standard for baseball front offices is too high now.

Money won't fix your problems, either. Every year, it seems more arbitration-eligible players are resigned to team-friendly deals or traded pre-free agency. And every year the free agent class becomes less appealing.

Nor will the Mets' problems be fixed if they simply call on a "smarter" GM, as some have suggested. The Wilpons employ plenty of smart people, but the Mets' current MO of coming up with an idea and asking 7 or 8 people around the office what they think is embarrassing. That's how you run a fantasy football team. Creating a championship-level MLB organization is a deeply complex affair. The Mets need a General Manager who knows what he wants in a player. A good General Manager uses his subordinates as experts, feeding him information to complete his evaluations; he doesn't decide to sink a small fortune into Oliver Perez and then run it by his "stat guy" and "scouting guy" via text message.

The next Mets general manager needs to articulate to the Wilpons a long-term plan for the team's success, beyond lip service to "developing from within" and other obviously good things that everyone tries to accomplish. 

And if the Wilpons are serious about reassigning Minaya, maybe they should consider doing the same for some others--take the millions they're planning on sinking into the next over-the-hill free agent and invest in some real talent evaluators. Right now the Mets have a front office full of people who you might find in a Major League front office making moves a Major League front office might make. 

But it's time to stop dealing in notions--notions of how a front office operates, notions of who might be a good pitcher in the rotation, notions of who will play left field next season. It's time for the Mets to act confidently and dynamically, because their moves are based on a rigorously tested plan and well-conceived evaluations of a players' talent. 

It's just time, because Omar Minaya's time is up. Let's try again.