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Why National Baseball Writers Should Avoid Writing Team-Specific Articles

Jeff Passan wrote an article about the Mets at Yahoo! Sports yesterday which is about as poorly informed as anything I've read this offseason. I suppose it's par for the course for a national columnist to concern himself with only cursory details about specific teams, and I suspect a lot of non-Mets fans read the article and nodded along in agreement. And I'm certainly not a butthurt Mets fan who can't bear to read about their depressing outlook for 2012 and, in some likelihood, 2013 and 2014. I have few delusions about this team I love, so I can't fault Passan for reaching the popular and realistic conclusion that the Mets should consider themselves fortunate if they're fighting for fourth place in the NL East.

But, as they say, it's as much about the journey as it is about the destination, which is why I'll still watch the 2012 Mets even though they'll probably be terrible, and it's why I'm bothered by Passan's article even though he's ultimately correct about the team's short-term prospects.

Among the most frustrating aspects about being a Mets fan today – and Mets fans know frustration like the Duggars know procreation – is a simple fact: The cornucopia of middling free agents the Mets signed this offseason will make more money this year than Jose Reyes.

You know you're in for a bumpy ride when you can't escape the first sentence without tripping over a pseudo-topical cable TV reality show reference, but Passan goes on to commit perhaps the clumsiest of baseball's logical gaffes, which we might call the Many-To-One Payroll Fallacy. The trick here is to add up the salaries of a bunch of mediocre-to-average players and compare their aggregate cost to the salary of one superstar player.

You've seen it before, and the careful reader knows to watch out for it. The reasoning goes like this: If you have $X to spend, why spend it on a bunch of average players when you can just spend it one terrific player? The problem, as you might have guessed, is that it ignores the team's generally inflexible payroll ceiling as well as their desire to have an entire roster of players on Opening Day. It's like saying you have $1,000 to spend, so instead of leasing two Honda Civics and patching the hole in the roof, why not blow it all on a Maserati? Your wife can just walk to work and you always wanted a skylight in the bedroom!

It’s true. Among Frank Francisco ($5.5 million), Jon Rauch ($3.5 million), Ronny Cedeno ($1.15 million) and Scott Hairston ($1.1 million), the Mets handed out $11.25 million in salaries for 2012. The Miami Marlins will pay Reyes $10 million this year.

Yes, those are all players and numbers. Most of those players are average. Francisco is a very good pitcher.

And while one can question both the intelligence and sincerity of a mega-backloaded deal like the one Miami gave Reyes

We definitely can. Go on, though.

he will wear a Marlins uniform, not a Mets one, and that alone is damning.

I don't really get this. How is it damning? Yes, it's a bummer to see Jose Reyes in a Marlins uniform, but these decisions aren't made in a vacuum. Reyes will make a lot of money over a lot of years and he has spent much of the last three seasons on the disabled list. Maybe he'll play 150 games a year for the next half-dozen seasons, and maybe he'll rip his leg up again and fight just to stay on the field. Given the risks, I don't think Reyes was worth that kind of guaranteed deal.

Trying to piecemeal [sic] together a ballclub like the Mets have done almost never works. Incremental upgrades work for contending teams.

So noncontending teams shouldn't try to improve themselves? I don't know what Passan is advocating in lieu of modestly improving a nonplayoff team. Maybe he thinks the Mets should just pocket the money and play scrubs, but as a fan of plenty of crummy teams over the years, there's a huge difference between winning 50 games and winning 80 games. In other words, being decent and being awful are not at all the same thing, even if both outcomes would preclude the postseason.

As tough as it would have been to hand the injury-prone Reyes the six years Miami did, the structure of the contract actually made sense for the Mets, who have no money now but, whether under new ownership or a vanity-share-stabilized Fred Wilpon, should a few years down the road.

Backloading a deal to Reyes only makes sense if you think the total number of years and dollars are worth the risk. I don't think they are, and despite the paucity of decent shortstops around the league, every team with a shortstop vacancy apart from the Marlins apparently felt the same way. Teams balked at the asking price because they didn't want to pay a possibly injured Reyes $16 million in 2017, so they certainly wouldn't want to pay him $20 million by backloading the deal.

Instead, the Mets – the least-talented team in the NL East by a fairly large margin – spent the winter working on their bullpen. And while it projects as a potential strength, relief pitching is notoriously difficult to peg year-over-year, and the possibility for implosion is almost as strong. Moreover, bullpen strength is almost always an endgame for teams on the upswing.

Translation: Relievers are volatile, so don't ever spend any money on them. I think spending $10+ million over three or more years for a reliever is nincompoopery, but the Mets did no such thing. Maybe they spent a million or two more than they should have for Francisco, but again, Passan's point still seems to be that the Mets should have just spent all of that money on Reyes.

I can't quibble with his assessment of the team relative to the rest of the NL East, though.

The Mets are trying to build from the bottom up, the sort of strategy that works just about never.

They're not building; they're treading water. I'm sorry to bang on about this, but Passan's thesis can apparently be distilled to these two points:

  1. The Mets should have signed Jose Reyes, cost be damned.
  2. There's no real difference between a medicore team and a miserable one.

I should probably stop here because I flatly reject both premises. Oh well, on we go.

And so it’s Francisco and Rauch and Hairston and Cedeno and Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez. All of which is to say: It’s not Jose Reyes.

And so it's a decent car and the rent and the heat and the cable bill and the groceries. All of which is to say: It's not a Maserati.

General manager Sandy Alderson inherited a next-to-impossible situation: the biggest market with commensurate expectations and a cross-borough big brother that epitomizes success; a farm system devoid of talent; and an impoverished ownership group so intent upon keeping its claws in the franchise it had no qualms sacrificing a season or two, and maybe more, to ensure it stays in power. Mets? Psh. This is the New York Mess, and the ugliness is just beginning.

This is all pretty fair. The franchise was a mess, the Wilpons are a huge part of the problem, and so forth. The farm system wasn't entirely devoid of talent, though. It had Matt Harvey, Jenrry Mejia, Lucas Duda, Jeurys Familia, and others.

Passan goes on to say that the 2012 Mets won't be nearly as bad as the 1962 Mets, that the starting rotation is iffy, and that David Wright's future with the team is uncertain. All perfectly cromulent assertions.

Until then, it’s a holding pattern. Wait on starting-pitching studs Matt Harvey, who could arrive this season, and Zack Wheeler, who Alderson stole last year in San Francisco’s ill-fated Carlos Beltran deal. The Mets’ farm system remains thin on impact position players.

Beltran hit .323/.369/.551 with the Giants, but screw that, #BlameBeltran. Passan is mostly right about the system's lack of high-ceiling bats, though.

That, as much as anything, makes Reyes’ departure sting. For all the problems he had staying healthy, he was a homegrown impact player, the sort teams dream of cultivating and so rarely do. The Mets can sell the Lucas Dudas and Justin Turners and Josh Tholes and Daniel Murphys, but it’s the Jose Reyeses that win championships. It’s been far too long since the Mets have seen one of those.

I won't belabor this point any further, but again we see that this whole article is predicated on the idea that signing Reyes to an extremely risky contract was a no-brainer. The rest of this paragraph is embarrassingly lazy. Name a bunch of players who aren't as good as Jose Reyes, none of whom play the same position as Jose Reyes, and point out how they don't win championships. Neglect to point out that none of the two Jose Reyeses to play in the big leagues has ever won a World Series, and that tons of other great players have never won championships either.

Passan closes with a well-reasoned and poignant adumbration of the Wilpons' crummy financial situation and Bud Selig's bald cronyism which continues to keep Wilpon in control of the Mets. Then he caps it off with a stunningly unimaginative Haiku which is as humorless as it is predictable.