As the Mets’ skid continues and they prepare for an unexpectedly critical three-game series against the crosstown Yankees that, without hyperbole, can make or break the entire season, there is an ongoing and potentially franchise-altering debate as to the club’s direction.
Most observers have established positions on one extreme or the other. One side advocates for a complete and total rebuild trading any valuable assets to reload for the future. The other wants the team to spend-spend-spend to add free agents and go all-in.
Already, general manager Sandy Alderson has downplayed the idea of a teardown like the ones that succeeded for the Astros and Cubs with the somewhat justified assertion that they do not always work and the circumstances must be such that no other strategy makes sense. For the Mets to endure the short-term pain of trading away Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and anyone else of value, they need to accept that there is no potential avenue of success should they retain them.
It’s a tough sell to tell the fans that the team will lose 90+ games for the foreseeable future as youngsters in Single and Double-A develop and the club is relying on the vagaries of the draft, especially if they might pull the trigger on such a blueprint and then find themselves either making mistaken evaluations or ending up right back in the middle which is where they are right now.
Neither the Astros nor the Cubs are solely constituted of homegrown talent or players who were acquired in those gutting trades. What those teams had in common was that their farm systems were largely destitute when they embarked on those extreme reconstructions and they were losing 90 to 100 games anyway. The Mets are not in that position…yet. Once the Astros and Cubs had developed a solid core around which to build, they started spending big money.
The question with the Mets – and the Wilpons – is whether they will do what needs to be done to bolster that group with big-name talent not to fill in, but to take the pressure off those youngsters that they do not need to immediately vault into superstardom.
Mets history has been one in which cycles of contention were followed by extended lulls where it was obvious what was coming and the organization failed to act before bottoming out. Instead, they responded by forcing mismatched pieces into the structure and created an eyesore in the aesthetic and practical sense. The breakdown of the mid-to-late-1980s annual World Series favorite gave way to the Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla years; the late 1990s contenders devolved into the botched attempts to implement Moneyball strategies without actually understanding it by signing Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer instead of Vladimir Guerrero and sticking Jason Phillips at first base; the 2006-2008 teams that barely missed winning that elusive title and became the case study for dysfunction and collapse were undone by faulty patchwork and financial nightmare.
The 2006-2008 teams were only contenders because of what happened from 2002-2004.
The 2004 Mets had degenerated into a mess with their misplaced attempts at aggression and a lack of the necessary competence and “final say” authority in the baseball operations. This led to trading their best prospect, Scott Kazmir, for an injured journeyman Victor Zambrano, in a flawed attempt to make a playoff run when they were below .500, 7 games out of first place, and 7.5 games behind the Wild Card leader at the trade deadline.
There was no one to say, “No.” There was no plan. There was a committee with different fiefdoms trying to maintain their position and ingratiate themselves to a meddling ownership. The results were plain to see.
Once Zambrano got hurt and the club staggered to the finish line – again – ownership acted by hiring Omar Minaya to head up its baseball operations. Minaya was a member of the Mets “family” having worked in the organization during its previous heyday and sold the Wilpons on the need not just to be aggressive in pursuing upgrades, but to go for the crème de la crème of free agents.
Yes, they overpaid to get Pedro Martinez and, on the field, they didn’t get what they paid for by a longshot. Off the field, the Martinez signing was a bullhorn to other players and agents that the Mets were no longer messing around, satisfied with making an offer and coming in second as if that was somehow a noteworthy accomplishment.
The “at least they tried” template that was in place in 2004 is in place in 2018 and the results are looking eerily similar.
It was that humiliation and concession that their trades, bargain signings and faux attempts to be forward-thinking failed that served as the catalyst not just to hiring someone like Minaya who was under no illusions about how to get the team back into contention, but was willing to take the necessary steps to get it done and – most importantly – convinced ownership that it needed to be done.
Much has been made of the Mets having a relatively large payroll – perhaps not for the New York market, but large nonetheless – of around $157 million; that they spent money in the offseason to try and fill their holes by singing Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas and Anthony Swarzak; that they hired a new-age manager suited for today’s game in Mickey Callaway. But, like 2004, it’s all going wrong.
Any assertion that the Mets must go all-in for a Manny Machado or any other name free agent and try to win immediately with deGrom, Syndergaard, Conforto, Rosario, et, al. and shun the half-measures the club has become infamous for is predicated on the realization that hoping for a best-case scenario with no margin for error is not enough. If the Bernie Madoff-induced financial problems are truly in the rearview mirror as the Wilpons and Major League Baseball continue to attest, then there’s no viable explanation not to pry open the vault and spend some cash on legit players. Alderson is signed through 2019 and despite repeated accusations of him being cheap, he was perfectly willing to spend on players when the money was available to him during his days as the GM of the Athletics in their late-1980s-early 1990s dominance that overlapped with that of the Mets.
The only question is whether the club has reached the level of frustration and acceptance that they did in 2004 to force them to act.