Fred Wilpon, The Mets, “The” Truth And “A” Truth

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I’m waiting for the inevitable conspiracy theories to morph into absurd leaps of logic. How about something fictional to the tune of, “Jenrry Mejia’s actual identity is Jose Luis Madoff Alvarado and is the product of a love affair between Bernie Madoff and the daughter of a shady business associate in the Dominican Republic 28 years ago,”?

A great fake story can be crafted from Mejia’s current situation to link the ancillary and unconnected drama surrounding the Mets. Reality doesn’t enter into the equation. It’s the story that’s important. Here’s a good plotline: There’s a holdup with Mejia getting his visa to report to spring training. Other players have used fake names to get signed. The Mets were involved heavily with Bernie Madoff. Fred Wilpon is a pathological liar and/or a delusional elderly man—the pieces fit!!!

Except they don’t.

With Wilpon’s press session yesterday inviting agenda-laden questioning of his personal finances in relation to the Mets, the story has legs for a few days. Bolstered by the club’s continued lack of spending, Wilpon’s statement that the financial problems are subsiding and GM Sandy Alderson is free to spend money if he deems it appropriate is inviting eyebrow-raised glances and “yeah, buts”—NY Times Story.

Is the decision to again stay out of the free agent market linked to financial limitations or are they adhering to a plan to clear the decks of dead contracts, rebuild through the draft to put in place a strong foundation, and buy pieces to fill needs rather than create splashy headlines? Does it matter? Do we need answers?

Regardless of the “why,” this is what they’re doing. The strategy is highlighted in the aftermath of the Mets deciding not to give Michael Bourn a fifth year option while simultaneously surrendering the 11th pick in the draft to get a pretty good player and placate an angry fanbase, possibly severely hindering the future—sort of what the Mets did for years under Steve Phillips, Jim Duquette and Omar Minaya—and wallowing in the mess they were in for most of the previous decade-plus.

Signing Bourn would have been a mirror image of mortgaging the future for the present and doing so in a manner that would reverberate for years to come. Bourn was not worth the 11th pick in the draft. If Bourn were in the draft now, he wouldn’t be picked that high. When he was drafted by the Phillies in 2003, it wasn’t until the fourth round, so the Mets were supposed to willingly give up that high a pick in a spot where Andrew McCutchen and Max Scherzer were selected?

The Mets could use Bourn, but not at that price especially with Jacoby Ellsbury set to be a free agent after the 2013 season and Shin-Soo Choo also to be available.

I’m not a defender of the Wilpons. I don’t see how it’s possible that they didn’t realize there was something fishy with the Madoff returns. If the money kept rolling in, why ask questions you don’t want the answer to? Did they suspect? They must have. Did they want to know the answer if they asked? Definitely not. But these half-baked predictions of the Wilpon demise—presented by self-styled soothsayers using partial truths hidden under the pretense of research, extrapolations and an end in mind to foresee a cloudy future—have been consistently wrong.

There wasn’t supposed to be a settlement in the Picard lawsuit. There was.

They weren’t supposed to maintain control of the team. They did.

They would be forced into bankruptcy. They weren’t.

They couldn’t afford to keep David Wright. He’s a Met for the next decade.

How many times are we going to have ironclad statements of what “will” happen be wrong before stepping back and accepting that regardless of intentional ambiguity in what’s said, the Wilpons are going nowhere and the Mets’ finances do indicate that they’ll be able to spend on players in the coming year.

This constant digging for evidence against the Wilpons is similar to rehashing the O.J. Simpson murder trial or the Kennedy assassination. It’s over. No one’s going to be prosecuted; no crime will be proved; and the investigation has ended. Independent to irrelevant facts or fiction, the Mets will have money to spend on better free agents than Bourn after this season; they’ve accumulated young pitching talent they haven’t had since the 1980s; and they’ve done precisely what Alderson set out to do in the first three years of the rebuild.

Wilpon’s meeting with the media presents an opportunity to revive a meaningless past and allows the aforementioned investigative reporters and analysts to twist what he says into a new attempt to be retrospectively “right.” But “right” is in the eye of the beholder.

Are the Mets not spending or are they not spending stupidly? There’s a fine but important line between the two. No matter how they got to this point, it was for the best. Had they stuck to the road they were on, there would be more bloated contracts for aging players, fewer prospects, and a longer and increasingly difficult path to getting younger and better—if they ever decided to do that at all. The “why” deserves a shrug as a response. Much like the media experts can subtly alter their facts to suit a designed narrative, so can Wilpon. It’s all a matter of point-of-view.

“The” truth will never be fully known. “A” truth is what we have and it varies based on who’s listening.

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The 2012 Athletics Are A Great Story That Has Nothing To Do With Moneyball

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Going to Michael Lewis for a quote about the 2012 Oakland Athletics because he wrote Moneyball as the author does in this NY Times article is like going to Stephen King for a quote on time travel and the Kennedy assassination because he wrote a novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. Lewis’s book was technically non-fiction and King’s is decidedly fiction, but the “facts” in Lewis’s book were designed to take everything Billy Beane was doing to take advantage of market inefficiencies and magnify them into an infallibility and new template that only a fool wouldn’t follow.

Lewis had an end in mind and crafted his story about the 2002 Athletics and baseball sabermetrics to meet that end. It’s not journalism, it’s creative non-fiction. Beane went along with it, became famous, and very rich. None of that validates the genesis of the puffery.

The intervening years from Moneyball’s publication to today were not kind to Beane or to the story…until 2012. The movie’s success notwithstanding, it was rife with inaccuracies, omissions, and outright fabrications such as:

  • Art Howe’s casual dismissal of Beane’s demands as if it was Howe who was in charge and not Beane
  • The portrayal of Jeremy Brown not as a chunky catcher, but an individual so close to morbidly obese that he needed to visit Richard Simmons, pronto
  • The failure to mention the three pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito
  • That Scott Hatteberg’s playing time was a point of contention and Beane traded Carlos Pena to force Howe’s hand to play Hatteberg—Hatteberg was still learning first base and wasn’t playing defense, but he was in the lineup almost every day as the DH from day one

There are other examples and it wasn’t a mistake. The book was absurd, the movie was exponentially absurd, and there are still people who refuse to look at the facts before replacing the genius hat on Beane’s head as “proof” of the veracity of Lewis’s tale.

This 2012 version of the Athletics is Beane’s rebuild/retool number five (by my count) since 2003. The Moneyball club was blown apart and quickly returned to contention by 2006 when they lost in the ALCS. That team too was ripped to shreds and the A’s traded for youngsters, signed veterans, traded veterans, signed veterans, traded for youngsters and finished far out of the money in the American League from 2007-2011.

Then they cleared out the house again and are now in the playoffs. It has no connection with Moneyball nor the concept of Beane finding undervalued talent. It has to do with the young players succeeding, as the article linked above says, and winning “in a hurry”.

Let’s look at the facts and assertions from the book/movie followed by the truth:

The A’s, under Beane, were “card-counters” in the draft

The only players on this Athletics’ team that were acquired via the draft and have helped the club are Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, Sean Doolittle (drafted as a first baseman and converted to the mound), Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s drafts since Moneyball have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst, so bad that Grady Fuson—along with Howe, one of the old-school “villains” in Moneyball—was brought back to the organization as special assistant to the GM.

The hidden truth about the draft is that the boss of the organization probably pays attention to the first 8-10 rounds at most. After that, it’s the scouts and cross-checkers who make the decisions and any player taken past the 10th round who becomes a success is a matter of being lucky with late development, a position switch, a quirky pitch, or some other unquantifiable factor. Beane’s “new age” picks like Brown, Steve Stanley, and Ben Fritz, didn’t make it. The conventional selections Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton did make it, were paid normal bonuses of over $1 million, in line with what other players drafted in their slot area received. Brown received $350,000 as the 35th pick in the first round and his signing was contingent on accepting it.

Beane “fleeced” other clubs in trades

In retrospect, he took advantage of the Red Sox desperation to have a “proven” closer, Andrew Bailey, to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Bailey got hurt and, last night, showed why it wasn’t his injury that ruined the Red Sox season. He’s not particularly good. Josh Reddick has 32 homers—power and inexpensive youthful exuberance the Red Sox could have used in 2012.

The other deals he made last winter? They were of mutual benefit. The A’s were looking to restart their rebuild and slash salary waiting out the decision on whether they’re going to get permission to build a new park in San Jose. They sent their erstwhile ace Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for a large package of young talent with Collin Cowgill, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. They also traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for even more young talent including Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. The Diamondbacks got 200 innings and good work (that hasn’t shown up in his 13-12 record) from Cahill and are also-rans; the Nationals got brilliance from Gonzalez and won their division. The A’s slashed payroll and their young players, as the article says, developed rapidly.

Sometimes it works as it did with this series of trades, sometimes it doesn’t as with the failed return on the Hudson trade to the Braves in 2004.

They found undervalued talent

Yes. We know that Moneyball wasn’t strictly about on-base percentage. It was about “undervalued talent” and opportunity due to holes in the market. That argument has come and gone. Was Yoenis Cespedes “undervalued”? He was paid like a free agent and joined the A’s because they offered the most money and the longest contract. He was a supremely gifted risk whose raw skills have helped the A’s greatly and bode well for a bright future. The other signings/trades—Jonny Gomes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss—were prayerful maneuvers based on what was available for money the A’s could afford. They contributed to this club on and off the field.

Grant Balfour was signed before 2011 because the A’s again thought they were ready to contend and all they needed was to bolster the bullpen. They’d also signed Brian Fuentes to close. Fuentes was an expensive disaster whom they released earlier this year; Balfour was inconsistent, lost his closer’s job, wanted to be traded, regained the job, and is pitching well.

The manager is an irrelevant figurehead

Howe was slandered in Moneyball the book as an incompetent buffoon along for the ride and slaughtered in the movie as an arrogant, insubordinate jerk. What’s ironic is that the manager hired at mid-season 2011, Bob Melvin, is essentially the same personality as Howe!!! An experienced manager who’d had success in his past, Melvin replaced the overmatched Bob Geren, who just so happened to be one of Beane’s closest friends and was fired, according to Beane, not because of poor results, managing and communication skills, but because speculation about his job security had become a distraction.

Melvin and Howe share the common trait of a laid back, easygoing personality that won’t scare young players into making mistakes. Melvin’s calm demeanor and solid skills of handling players and game situations was exactly what the A’s needed and precisely what Moneyball said was meaningless.

The 2012 Athletics are a great story; Moneyball was an interesting story, but they only intersect when Beane’s “genius” from the book and movie melds with this season’s confluence of events and produces another convenient storyline that, in fact, has nothing at all to do with reality.

The A’s are going to the playoffs and might win the division over the Rangers and Angels, two teams that spent a combined $170 million more in player salaries than the A’s did. It’s a terrific life-lesson that it’s not always about money, but it has zero to do with Moneyball and Michael Lewis is an unwanted interloper as the Beane chronicler since he knows nothing about baseball and is a callous opportunist who took advantage of a situation for his own benefit.

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