The U Files # 72: Bench Presses

The Mets entered Spring Training with Timo Perez and Roger Cedeno fighting for a roster spot. It appeared that the Mets would need one, since the Mets had no other left-handed bat off the bench. In a surprising twist, the Mets have now traded both Perez and Cedeno, and will by necessity go with a less proven lefty benchie. These are not the only conspicuous names left off the Opening Day roster; Jae Seo has lost his roster spot.

Roger Cedeno had established himself as the most hated Met. He was, in a questionable move, signed to a four year/ $18 million deal in June of 2000. Since then he has had no value with his bat, and negative value with his glove. The most he provided the Mets was choir practice for the boo-birds.

Recently, the Mets had come to realize that he was not an asset, and that the money paid him was (umm…) misappropriated. It had seemed unlikely that the Mets would be able to trade Cedeno, and the Mets had restrained from releasing him (which would have entailed a $10 million hit). When the trade of Perez for utility infielder Ricky Gutierrez was announced, it had seemed that Cedeno was certain to take up his spot on the bench.

The trade of Perez had made a certain sense at the time; the Mets had too many outfielders and needed a middle infielder to back up Jose Reyes and Kazuo Matsui in case of injury. Gutierrez, by virtue of his .340 career on base percentage, is a better offensive player than incumbent Joe McEwing.

It was announced on Saturday, April 3 that the Mets had found a taker for Cedeno. The St. Louis Cardinals took on Cedeno in exchange for infielder Wilson Delgado and catcher Chris Widger. Neither Delgado (a worse offensive player than McEwing, unbelievably) nor Widger would make the Mets roster as things currently stand. The Widger acquisition, if anything, reinforces the Mets depth at catcher, in case a catcher is included in future manipulations by the team. He is a better hitter than current backup catcher Vance Wilson; his .299 career OBP is nevertheless no worse than what Wilson may provide and his .403 SLG in 1592 AB is a step above what pop Wilson can provide.

With Perez and Cedeno gone, the Mets must give the contested spot to the little mentioned dark horse candidate, Eric Valent; there being no other body to bat from the south side of the plate off the bench. A former first round pick in the Amateur Player Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, Valent's stock has fallen, though he still projected as no worse than a good fourth outfielder. He has not had the success in MLB that he had aspired to; his career statistics at the highest level are reminiscent of a pitcher's batting line.

Valent, 27 in 2004, has displayed credible offensive skills in the minor leagues. Particularly notable is his batting eye; he has drawn 316 walks in 2647 AB in the professional baseball underground. His career slugging percentage in this place is .452.

The Mets have announced their starting rotation to start the 2004 campaign, and the bottom part of the order comes as a surprise.

The starters will be:

Tom Glavine
Al Leiter
Steve Trachsel
Tyler Yates
Scott Erickson

The first three are a core of veteran starters that, though on a rebuilding team, have their roster spots locked securely. Yates was considered a candidate for the fifth spot coming into spring training. Erickson was signed to a minor league contract and invited to spring training, and considered a long shot to make the team.

For better or worse, it was a given that Glavine, Leiter, and Trachsel would start in the rotation when the Mets came into the spring having made no major changes to the pitching staff. It was assumed coming into spring that Jae Seo would take the fourth spot coming off a successful rookie season. That the Mets have chosen the stated rotation to start the season displays a serious flaw in the thinking of the Mets.

It is not logically defensible that Scott Gavin Erickson (as his mother could call him) at this point in his career should take a spot on a rebuilding team.

One could argue that Erickson's recent career supports the notion that he should be playing golf, and not professional baseball right now. He is 36 years old, and not a healthy 36. He has missed most of the last three years due to injury, and when he has pitched, he has not done so effectively in recent years. The last time Erickson posted an ERA as low as average was 1999, and the last time he pitched good baseball was 1998; six years ago.

Certainly one could make the argument that, regardless of his qualifications, pitching this man is not in the best interests of the Mets organization. The team is not currently a competitive team, and it is certain that Erickson will not be a part of the next Mets team that is taken seriously. The Mets do have pitchers, most notably Seo, that could be a part of that team. Pitching Erickson does nothing to further the good of the organization, while holding back a part of the future.

It is not an acceptable argument that Erickson "won", or that Seo "lost" a job in spring training. Simply put, spring training is not a useful tool for determining roster makeup. Putting aside even the level of play in the preseason, this tradition is incompatible with the most basic law of statistics: the meaningfulness of a data set is proportional to the size of the set. The limited nature of spring performance simply allows far too much noise to make its results credible.

Having said this, it is clear that Erickson, given his career to date, should not be considered the best candidate to pitch effectively. It is clear that the Mets have not learned from the recent past, including the David Cone signing that this latest move could be a repeat of.

There has been speculation that the Mets may seek to trade Erickson. This is the only thing that could justify keeping him; as if Erickson were not placed on the roster he would be lost for nothing. There was (amazingly) interest in Erickson from teams other than the Mets before he was signed. If there is some team so willing to abandon reason and that is not shrewd enough to find a better solution than Erickson, nothing should stop the Mets from making a deal now that Erickson is on the team. It is uncertain how much the Mets would be able to get back, and the Mets are taking the chance that Erickson won't be welcomed by major league hitting as he seems to be due to be – ruining his value.

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