Drink While You Can, 'Cause the Glass is 1/2 Empty

With word of a new transaction coming almost daily from Mets Central this past offseason, many diehard fans have joined with the media in raising a toast to the tireless Steve Phillips, the team's Trader in Chief. A more sober analysis of all that happened, though, yields as much cause for concern as optimism.

The building of a consistent winner doesn't happen by accident. It's the residue of careful planning. Wise drafting, good player development, and a thoughtful employment of the organization's financial resources are earmarks of a team that is likely to contend over many years. When considering a long-term deal, for example, a team should determine that the player represents a significant upgrade over existing personnel, that the player has enough value beyond the current year to justify the on-going contract expense, and whether or not this player's acquisition will block cheaper and/or better future alternatives. A team that ignores these considerations too often is destined for a troubled future filled with dubious one-year fixes.

Viewed in this light, this past offseason has been a terrible mistake.

The Mets entered the 2001 season as an old team lacking financial flexibility for one year, and will begin the 2002 season as an old team lacking financial flexibility for 2 or 3 years. Over that time period, it should be expected that many of the players relied upon to challenge for a playoff spot will experience significant declines in their performance levels.

While many of the team's offseason acquisitions would appear to present clear upgrades over the 2001 unit, there's no question that the Mets are fighting an uphill battle against Father Time. Given their ages, there's absolutely no reason to believe that players like Vaughn (34), Piazza (33), Leiter (36), Franco (43), Burnitz (32), Alomar (33), Weathers (32), and Guthrie (36) have their best years in front of them. Indeed, those guys have their best years behind them, as players 30 or older are far more susceptible to injury and sudden decline than are players in their 20s.

Vaughn is 34, has been plagued by injuries for the past 3 years, performed below expectations in '99 and '00, and failed to perform at all '01. He now belongs to the Mets for 3 years at a cost $40M. Is it any wonder the Angels were happy to trade a player whose last great season was 1998?

Jeromy Burnitz is a pretty good player, but at his age he's unlikely to earn the $18 million he's over the next two seasons. He posted an excellent OPS in 1999 (about .960), but has performed less impressively since then. For some perspective, in typical seasons, Matt Lawton has posted similar OPS figures as Jeromy's 2000 and 2001 output (low to mid .800s).

David Weathers pitched well in 2000 and 2001, but wasn't much good before that and will turn 33 next year. Why sign a middle reliever with an uneven track record to a 3-year deal with young alternatives like Grant Roberts, Dicky Gonzalez, and Jae Weong Seo around? What are the odds Weathers will be any good when he's 34 and 35? In the meantime, his presence will take innings and experience away from younger players, and his contract will hamper the team's ability to upgrade at other, more critical, positions over that time.

At age 27, Cedeno isn't old, but corner OFs are expected to be strong hitters, particularly when they're lousy defensive players. Why did a guy who can't outhit Agbayani merit a 4-year deal with a no-trade clause? His career SLG is a limp .380 - far below the levels that quality everyday corner OFs should produce. Additionally, the Cedeno and Weathers signings cost us 2nd and 3rd round picks in this year's draft - a significant blow to our ability to reload a thin farm system.

Other players, both the new and the familiar, also present some cause for concern. As great as Piazza is, very few catchers have been productive beyond his age, and it's a position that's traditionally susceptible to injury. Al Leiter is 36 and has shown a balky elbow in recent seasons (he spent a month on the DL just last season). Astacio is 32 and has a torn labrum. Edgardo Alfonzo has a bad back that caused his 2001 production to plummet from earlier levels.

I recognize that not all is doom and gloom. Astacio and Estes add some depth to the rotation. Alfonzo should rebound. Alomar is a future Hall of Famer. Vaughn is an improvement over Zeile, and the OF just has to play better than last year's somnambulists. There are many reasons to believe that this team has improved over the 2001 version. But have we improved enough to make the offseason worth the future cost? I'm not so sure.

An optimist might point to last season's 82 wins as our starting base. Surely we've improved by 10-15 wins, right? Perhaps.

What the optimist would overlook is how lucky we were to win even that many games. The 2001 team scored 642 runs and surrendered 713. Thanks to the Pythagorean won-lost prediction method (If this is new for you, see this Pythagorean analysis of the 2000 season for some explanation: we know this level of performance would normally predict a 73-win season. It is therefore likely that the true starting point for this team was far lower than 82 wins. We shouldn't count on such good fortune a second time.

Whether or not the 2002 Mets play well, though, we're stuck with them. The contracts of Vaughn, Burnitz, Cedeno, and Weathers put them in the untradeable category, where they join Rey Ordonez. The size of our 2002-03 commitments probably makes the signing of next year's star free agents, like Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu, impossible. Would you rather have Cedeno in 2002-05, or Abreu for 2003-06? I think the answer should be obvious.

This is a team pursuing a one-year strategy, but this one-year is fraught with incredible risk. The next 2 years are almost certain to be worse due to the ages of the players, who at this stage in their career can only decline. The Mets will not have the financial flexibility to slow this decline.

Meanwhile, great hitting prospects like Carlos Pena and Jack Cust (both of whom could probably outhit Vaughn in 2002 while playing for the major league minimum) get traded to other teams who chose to think beyond the needs of the current week. The Mets made a deal like this for Bruce Chen - who now is rumored to be on the trading block because the Mets have pushed his roster place aside to make way for the likes of Weathers and Komiyama.

The problem with a one-year strategy is that one year is usually all you'll get - and sometimes you won't even get that. Even barring catastrophic injuries, I think this team can win only 85-90 games this year, which probably gives us little chance to make the playoffs. And what are the odds that this team stays healthy enough to realize its potential? It is not hard to understand that we'll be worse in 2003. Will this offseason strategy have been worth it, then? Not in my eyes.

So drink up, fellow Met fans, but understand the glass is half empty.



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