The U Files # 78: Black Friday

The New York Mets were only in contention for much of this season owing to the weakness of their division rivals. Their near-future prospects bleak, they were supposedly building toward a bright future, as they had some highly touted gems polishing in the farm. Despite the fact they had fallen out of contention, the Mets have just done something that could dynamite the entire foundation of their future. <b>(Free Preview of Premium Content)</b>

On Friday, July 30, 2004 the Mets dealt infielder Ty Wigginton, minor league pitcher Matt Peterson, and gem Justin Huber in a three way trade that netted the Mets pitcher Kris Benson. They also, mystifyingly, traded uber prospect Scott Kazmir and minor league reliever Jose Diaz for pitcher Victor Zambrano.

These trades were intended to bolster the rotation for a playoff drive now, as well as for the next few years. Even with these moves, the Mets status in the playoff picture is dicey at best. Not only are they now seven games behind the division leading Atlanta Braves after Friday's loss, but they are trailing not just the Braves, but the Philadelphia Phillies and the Florida Marlins. If all four teams had the same chances of winning the division, the Mets would have only a chance in four. The fact the Mets are seven games out, plus the fact the Mets are also behind two other teams closer to winning the division, makes their actual odds significantly worse.

These trades were bad news for manifold reasons. To start with, the Mets did not get close to equal value in return for their prospects. For another, the economics of the trades work against the Mets. Also, for other baseball reasons the moves are damaging to the Mets hopes.

The inclusion of Huber in the Benson deal is strange.

Though in the eyes of some reporters Huber had lost some value, the merits of these claims are questionable. Huber is not a hulking six-feet-five-inches tall as some erroneously believe but 6-2, a size which would permit him to remain behind the plate where his value is greatest. The offensive numbers Huber puts up are noteworthy coming from a catcher. At class AA Binhamton, Huber hit .271, but his peripherals are the meat of his game. He posted an on base percentage at an Olerudian .414 and slugged .487.

The details of Huber's part in the trade are peculiar. Huber was traded to the Kansas City Royals for minor league infielder Jose Bautista, who was then turned around with Wigginton and Peterson for Benson. It is odd that the Pittsburgh Pirates would require Bautista, an underwhelming prospect, in the trade and odder that it required the likes of Huber to pry Bautista from the Royals. Bautista was a rule V draft pick, which alone indicates how low his status was. He was also passed through waivers twice, unclaimed.

Matt Peterson was a prospect who had lost some status this season, but still ranked among the Mets better prospects, and was one of the more advanced Mets pitching prospects in terms of level. Pitching at Class AA Binghamton, Peterson was 6-4 with a 3.30 ERA, which overstates how effectively he had pitched. Peterson went though one stretch where he gave up home runs at an alarming rate and overall has allowed 11 HR in 103 AA innings. He has failed to recreate the gains in his command he displayed last year, walking a shade under 4 batters per nine innings. Nevertheless he had a chance to become a dependable ML starter.

Kris Benson was a first round draft pick and was showing signs of reaching his potential before a devastating injury struck him. He missed all of the 2001 season after surgery and since returning in 2002 had not displayed any hints of recreating the form that was so highly regarded, until this year. This year he is allowing few walks, he has reduced the number of hits he allows as a percentage of balls in play though he still allows a lot of balls in play, and most notably he has cut his HR allowed dramatically. In fact he has not allowed a home run in his last 73.1 IP. On the season he has allowed 7 HR in 132.1 IP. If he retains the gains he has made this year he will be a worthy addition to the Mets staff.

The Zambrano trade was an astoundingly lopsided deal favoring the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A gem as well regarded as Kazmir could have pried loose just about any player in baseball. Getting a player named Zambrano back in a deal is not a bad thing, but getting Victor as opposed to Carlos (the remarkable young Chigaco pitcher) is. Getting Victor Zambrano when you had to give up the best prospect left in your system is an offense that would have a general manager fired in a more rational world.

Zambrano allegedly has incredible "stuff", however he knows less about using it than rappers know about singing. A converted catcher, the thing that jumps out of the page at you (that must have hurt) is the walks. Zambrano has somehow managed to walk nearly seven batters per nine innings. That is not a misprint. He has an ERA of 4.43. What would he be predicted to do if he cut his walks all the way down to 3.5 per game? He is allowing a .230 batting average on balls in play which is unlikely to continue. Bringing his hits back to the mean, his success will depend on his ability to limit HR. He strikes out a nice number but not enough to carry him, keeping his hits as low as they've been. Though he's done a nice job of limiting the HR this year, despite the fact he's known for a sinking ball he has been a fly ball pitcher and has had trouble with the gopher ball in the past. In short, he has a lot of work to do if he wants to get his ERA below 4, much less in the range Kazmir has the potential to post.

While Zambrano is still only making less than a million dollars a year (being a third-full-year player) the economics of these deals are unfavorable. Benson is a free agent at the end of this year and has the leverage to demand $10 million out of the Mets. Zambrano has three years left before he hits free agency. Though Zambrano is locked up and there's a good chance Benson will be, things are not that simple.

In young major league players lies the key to managing payroll for teams lacking the bottomless vault of the Yankees. Getting production on the cheap frees up significant moola to fill in the team with. A team can do this for six years before a player hits free agency. The first three will be the cheapest then the next three can still be below free agent market value depending on what a player gets in arbitration.

The Mets lost two players that would have allowed them this luxury, while adding payroll immediately in Benson and losing a total of nine player-years of service time before free agency. Moreover, the Mets are losing the additional benefit of having this value for above average production at a premium defensive position – a position where most teams have to settle for dregs because there's not much offensive cream to be had. Mike Piazza is aging, in his decline and won't be able to catch much in the future. With Huber gone and Jason Phillips completely losing all the mojo he was working in his rookie year, the Mets are now looking shaky at the catcher position.

The Mets will not be able to depend on Al Leiter and Tom Glavine for the kind of production they've been getting from them this year, at the very least because they will be retired soon. Both are 38 years old this season. The Mets lost what would have been a large part of the future of the rotation while replacing them with two pitchers of which one is as much of a project as any prospect and another who is due to make millions. The Mets, despite adding pitchers who are still just 29 this year, lose 15 years of pitcher-age. The Mets would have been just as well off waiting for the offseason where Matt Clement may be available, and is a better option than either Benson or Zambrano, and at the very least we may have had the option to sign Benson anyway. We could have had this young, productive pitcher to head the rotation now while having the products of the farm ready to slot in behind this pitcher. Plus for Kazmir, or at least a package of Kazmir and Huber, the Mets could have made the Brewers seriously think about giving up Ben Sheets.

As to the future of the Mets, the team is left with little choice but more of the tactics that got Steve Phillips fired: spending money to cover what the team couldn't produce economically. This is a consequence of losing youth, and leads to older teams, with more players more likely to disappoint than surprise, and expensive teams with little wiggle room. The potential downside of these deals is more years like the Mets have just been suffering through, years the likes of which the Mets had hopes of escaping from on the strength of a build-from-within regimen.

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