Loserball: From World Series to National Punchline

Creating a $120 million losing ballclub doesn't happen overnight. It takes years of lousy drafting, mismanagement of free agency, and a dangerous willingness to paper over short-term holes with long-term disasters.

It also helps to have a cynical view of your fan base: To believe that they haven't the loyalty or patience to endure a rebuilding process but are gullible enough to think that the acquisition of a few aging big names will whitewash over the unbearable mediocrity of the most recent season.

Lousy, mismanaged, desperate, cynical, unbearable: Presenting your 2003 New York Mets.

The seeds of this disaster were not planted with the loss of the 2000 World Series to the despised cross-town rivals, or with the departure of the steady John Olerud. This disaster began with a barren farm system. A system that could produce next to nothing useful in the 1990s beyond Edgardo Alfonzo and Bobby Jones left us to rely heavily on the one advantage we have over most teams: money.

Money can be both an asset and a curse. Money can allow an organization to fill holes in an inflated market by outspending other bidders, and then make you regret you did so a year or two later. How wisely did we utilize our assets? In too many instances we overpaid for talent that was either declining, replaceable, or both. Two cases in point were the signings of SS Rey Ordonez and 1B Todd Zeile.

If any player could be deemed replaceable, it was Rey Ordonez. His flashy, though inconsistent, defense seemed to blind the Mets to the fact that his awful hitting made his overall value indistinguishable to probably dozens of players freely available on the market (Jorge Velandia, anyone?). The cost? $19 million over 4 years.

When John Olerud chose the Space Needle over the Empire State Building, the Mets turned to the well-traveled Todd Zeile. Zeile, who was 34 and had already played for 7 major league teams, was signed to a 3-year $18 million contract to play 1B. It seemed almost as if the Mets crossed the name "John Olerud" off the contract offered for their departing free agent and replaced it with "Todd Zeile" to save on the printing costs. Zeile was a moderately good bat at 3B, but represented no more than an average or below average hitter at 1B. What made Steve Phillips believe that Todd Zeile would be anything special as a 1B for his age 34 through 36 years? Losing Olerud was a short-term problem that, by signing Zeile, was turned into a long-term problem. His acquisition was simply an act of desperation.

Contracts such as these did more than violate our perceptions of common sense. Together with the large contracts given out to aging run-of-the-mill starting pitchers like Kevin Appier and Rick Reed, these contracts made it impossible to offer true stars their market value. While the Mets publicly vilified Alex Rodriguez - at 25, then, already charting a career path as possibly the best shortstop since Honus Wagner - as a "24 and 1" player, they were paying top dollar for mediocre talent.

In all likelihood, the real reason Arod isn't a Met today is because the team had too little room to afford him in a bloated budget and was unwilling to pay the untradeable Ordonez millions to sit on the bench. Simply put, instead of paying a legitimately great player his true worth, we burnt millions of dollars on non-impact players like Appier, Ordonez and Zeile.

Inevitably, when these overpaid aging players began to play like overpaid aging players, we tried to shuffle the deck. Unfortunately, the only way to get rid of bad long-term contracts is to take on other bad long-term contracts. How do you get rid of Appier? You trade him for Mo Vaughn. How do you get rid of Todd Zeile? You trade him as part of a package for Jeromy Burnitz. Last year's villains are merely swapped for today's (and tomorrow's) villains. Where we were able to scrounge up a few dollars, we threw them at players like Roger Cedeno - a corner OF with a career SLG of well under .400 - hoping his recent poor play was just a fluke. It wasn't. We'll be paying for his unsightly miscues through 2005.

What's worse is that the team's mismanagement of the free agent market has not only compromised the team in the present, it's impaired our ability to build for the future. The team forfeited high draft picks by refusing to offer arbitration to players like Edgardo Alfonzo. The signings of David Weathers and Roger Cedeno costs us our 2nd and 3rd round draft picks in 2002 amateur draft. Similarly, the signings of Tom Glavine and Cliff Floyd have also cost us 2nd and 3rd picks in 2003.

While it might be reasonably argued that the latter two acquisitions are likely to be better than anyone we'd draft in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, strong counterarguments are that, at age 36, we're likely paying for the worst of Tom Glavine rather than his best, and that the roster supporting these two was not competitive enough to make this team a true contender over the next few years, anyway.

Given that, a wiser choice may have been to focus on the future rather than to throw good money after bad just to make the present seem more tolerable. One can't help but wonder if the signing of big names like Glavine is simply a publicity stunt to generate season ticket renewals and make fans forget - in the interim between the displays of on-field ineptitude - the disappointment of the previous year.

In his new book, Moneyball, Michael Lewis details how a cash-strapped organization used innovative performance measures to exploit inefficiencies in the major league baseball market place and build a consistent winner at roughly half the cost of the industry's biggest spenders. Over the last few years, the Mets have represented the very antithesis of this approach. We bought high, sold low, plugged short-term holes with long-term problems, and exacerbated our situation by throwing good money after bad. Just as the Oakland A's have shown that you don't necessarily need to big money to win big, the Mets have shown that big money is no substitute for sound management.

Dan Troy is a Met fan currently residing in Davis, CA. He can be contacted at dantroy@hotmail.com.

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