7th Inning Stretch: Mets' Plans For 2nd Half?

Welcome Mets fans to the first edition of "The 7th Inning Stretch"; a periodic column devoted to a variety of topics relating to the Mets organization. We'll discuss the status of the major league club, the development of the farm system, the current rivalry between the owners and, most importantly, your emails. That's right! Feel free to drop me an email with your thoughts or questions and I may even use them in this column. Well, enough of the intros - LET'S GET TO THE 7TH INNING STRETCH!

Time For a Good Housecleaning?

We all do it at some point during the year; some of us wait more than a year, but inevitably we rescind to the fact that the clutter that we have amassed throughout the previous months has created an unbearable living situation and, hence, must be cleaned up. Ah, a good housecleaning. Well, in baseball, the time comes for each organization to do a bit of housecleaning; usually every 4-5 years - sometimes sooner for struggling franchises.

The New York Mets and their $100 million payroll entered into the All-Star break being 12 ½ games out of first place, with fans being disgruntled and team officials trying to still see the glass as half full. Well, perhaps it is time to throw out the entire glass, complete with water.

The fact is that this edition of the New York Mets was built for a post-season run; anything less would be and is, currently, a disappointment. The truth is that the experiment that is the 2002 New York Mets has failed. Even the biggest optimist cannot look at themselves in the mirror and believe that this current edition of the Mets will be any better next year when players like Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Mike Piazza and company are a year older.

So what is the solution to the current state of the New York Mets? Well, before one can prescribe a solution, the problem must be properly diagnosed. When examining the condition of a building that has experienced some damage one often begins with the bottom or the foundation of the building; however, in baseball and, especially in the Mets case, one should begin not at the bottom, but at the top, and, I mean, the very top. No, not just the manager, or the GM, but the ownership. That's right - before the Mets can clear up the problems on the field, they must first clear up the problems they have in their boardroom.

Wilpon vs. Doubleday

It is a well-established fact that co-owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday do not like each other. Heck, one could say that they have about the same love for each other as John McEnroe and Tatum O'Neil. Doubleday, who was to sell his half of the team to Wilpon, has, recently, threatened to sue after an arbiter established the value of the team at $400 million as opposed to the $700 million that Doubleday expected. Doubleday intends to sue because he feels he is being low-balled by the arbiter. The fact that the Wilpon-Doubleday feud has become big news is just an example of what is wrong with this franchise. Say what you want about George Steinbrenner and the Yankees, but for the past 6-7 years they have been the epitome of class and business from the ownership to the minors. Steinbrenner throws his tantrums, but he doesn't let them disrupt the team as he did earlier in his tenure. Since then the Yankees have done nothing but win. The Mets need to first settle this squabble between its owners, so that the team can begin to have a single identity under a single owner. As it stands, the Mets are schizophrenic. They have two owners with two differing opinions on how to the team is to be run. What happens if the Steve Phillips decides to sign a free agent like Scott Rolen in the offseason? Who does he have to ask for permission? Fred Wilpon? Nelson Doubleday? Both? What if one says "yes" and the other says "no"?

The fact is that this team needs to begin its housecleaning at the ownership level. The time has come for this team to have just one owner and one identity. My guess is that Fred Wilpon will eventually become the 100% owner of the Mets - probably at sometime near the end of 2002. I think this threat from Doubleday to sue is a ploy in order to get Wilpon to raise his offer to Doubleday.

Personally, deep-down all Mets fans should hope that Doubleday could pull off a coup and win 100% of the ballclub. Fact is that the Mets would benefit more with Doubleday than with Wilpon. It was Wilpon who was, originally, against trading for Mike Piazza, since they already had Todd Hundley. Thankfully, Doubleday stepped in and gave the go ahead to the trade that redefined the Mets organization for the rest of the decade. Wilpon also nixed the contract negotiations with Alex Rodriguez because he did not want to pay him $25 million a year; instead opting to use that money to pay Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz this year. Fact is that Nelson Doubleday would be the better option of the two, but, in the end, however, I think Doubleday will get anywhere between $250-$300 for his half of the team and Fred Wilpon will become the sole owner.

Time To End The Phillips/Valentine Marriage?

Next, we must take a look at the team management, in particular the GM and the Manager. Does the team need a divorce of the Steve Phillips-Bobby Valentine marriage? If so, then who goes? If both, then who replaces them? (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

It's hard to pass judgment on a duo that just two years ago took the team to the World Series, but even Davey Johnson, who guided the Mets to the World Series title in 1986, was fired a few years later. Often in this business, it is a notion of "what have you done for me lately."

First, let us take a look at Bobby Valentine. The fact is that for the past two years his teams have been disappointments. Both the 2001 and 2002 teams have started out slowly, giving the Braves a chance to accumulate a big enough lead in the division to make it impossible for the Mets to come back. That happened in 2001 and the trend seems like it will continue in 2002. Sure, you can point out that if it had not been for Armando Benitez blowing two crucial saves against the Braves that the Mets may have been able to overtake them, but the point is that had the team not played so poorly for 1/3 of the season then those two blown saves may not have meant the end of the season.

But for argument's sake, let us forgive Valentine for the 2001 season and look at it as a fluke. That said, how do we forgive him for the 2002 season. The 2002 Mets have played without any fire, since the first week of the season. This team makes too many mental mistakes; be it on the basepaths or on defense. This is all a reflection on the manager. However, what is unforgiveable is that this team just looks like it has quit and it's looked that way since the beginning of June. As much as I like Bobby Valentine, I think the time has come for the Mets to make a change on the bench and let Valentine go.

As for Steve Phillips, well an argument can be made that his job should be saved if only because no one could have predicted that the majority of his highly touted moves would not pan out thus far. However, is that true? I must admit that the biggest surprise in baseball other than the great play of the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins has to be the poor play of Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. Everyone in baseball praised Phillips for his ability to steal Alomar away from the Clevelnad Indians. Thus far that move has not panned out, but who would have predicted that he would be hitting around .260 and playing subpar defense? However, some of his other moves can be questioned.

For starters, signing Roger Cedeno to be your leadoff hitter when Johnny Damon was still available can be questioned. Sure Cedeno averaged more steals that Damon over the past three years, but Damon is a more-rounded player that Cedeno. Cedeno is a liability on defense, while Damon can play Gold Glove-caliber defense in all three outfield positions. Damon also offers more power and has hit for a higher average in his career than Cedeno. I know the connection that Cedeno has with the Mets and how Bobby Valentine likes him, but Damon was the better move; considering they are making about the same amount of money as well.

Much has been said about the trade for Mo Vaughn and the disaster it has been so far, but, upon closer inspection, the move was still a bad trade, but for different reasons. This trade was not a bad trade because of what the Mets gave up to get him. Kevin Appier, the player the Mets gave up, started the season pitching well, but has faded in the last month and has not gotten out of the 6th inning in any of his starts. A player like Appier was not a huge price to pay because he was overrated and overpaid as it was. A look at the contracts show that both make about the same amount of money, for the same amount of years so money is not a problem. The problem is what the trade did to this team, maybe not this year, but next year and until 2005. The problem is that Mo Vaughn's contract makes him unmoveable until after the 2004 season and that means that Mike Piazza is stuck behind the plate for, at least 2 more years. Piazza has become a liability behind the plate as many singles turn into doubles after players steal second off of him. Piazza should be moved to first base, not only because his defense hurts the club, but because the abuse he takes behind the plate, eventually, affects his hitting towards the end of the season. The Vaughn trade now prevents the Mets from moving Piazza and that more than anything makes the move questionable.

We can get into how the trade that brought Jeromy Burnitz was also bad, but let us move on to the other side of the argument by taking a look at the positives in the Phillips Era. Steve Phillips was also the architect that engineered the moves that brought players like Mike Piazza, Al Leiter, Armando Benitez, Mike Hampton, Scott Stickland and Roberto Alomar. All with the exception of Alomar have made significant contribution to the Mets. Much has been said about how Phillips has traded away the farm system in order to help the major league team, but let's take a look at the prospects he traded away. Out of all the prospects and major league players he traded for the above mentioned players only Preston Wilson, A.J. Burnett, Octacio Dotel, Todd Hundley, and Bruce Chen have contributed much to its new teams. The jury is still out on Billy Traber and Alex Escobar, who were trade for Alomar. To be honest, none of the prospects traded away would have been better than the players Phillips received in return. Personally, I wouldn't mind if Steve Phillips stayed on as GM if only because he is the hardest working man in baseball. No GM works harder than Phillips. He is constantly on the phones trying to find ways to make his team better and in most cases succeeds. What is transpiring on the field is more an indictment on the manager than the GM. However, perhaps what this team needs is a philosophical change of direction. Perhaps, like Valentine, Phillips should also go; if only to give the organization a fresh start.

So who would be the candidates to fill both Phillips and Valentine's positions. As for the GM position, two names come to mind - Brian Sabean from the San Francisco Giants and Omar Minaya from the Montreal Expos. Sabean is a very well-respected GM and has done wonders with the Giants throughout his tenure by constantly fielding a playoff-caliber team while on a limited budget. Sabean is a free agent after this season and Owner Peter McGowen may not be willing to pay him the amount of money he will be seeking. Although Sabean would be a solid choice for the Mets, Minaya may be the best choice. Minaya was Phillips' right hand man before going to the Expos as their GM. Should the Expos not exist after the season then he may become available. Minaya would be a perfect fit because he is extremely familiar with organization. Also, Minaya is responsible for signing many of the Mets top prospects, while in his role as International Scouting Director. Minaya is responsible for the signing of such players as Jose Reyes and Justin Huber, who are two of the Mets blue-chip prospects. Minaya is big on player-development and international scouting and would probably expand both areas in an attempt to replenish the depleted farm system.

As for a new manager, perhaps the reason why Valentine has not been fired and will not be fired is because there are no exceptional candidates available. One option would be to fire Valentine and hire Mookie Wilson. Wilson has been a coach on the major league team for a few years now and would be able to handle the media even if he is a little reserved and soft-spoken. However, he has never managed on any level, so handing him control of the team may be too much of a gamble. Some people will bring up the name Felipe Alou. Alou was once one of the best managers in the game, but towards the end of his days as Montreal Expos manager he seemed to have given up on that team. I'm not sure he is the right answer. Perhaps the best candidate available is Buck Sholwater. Sholwater, former Yankees and Diamondbacks manager, is a stickler for fundamentals and is more of a disciplinarian than the more laid back Valentine, which is perhaps what this team needs. However, the negative on Sholwater has always been that he is too much of a control freak, which may put him at constant odds with his GM.

In the end, however, I think that Fred Wilpon's statement that both Phillips and Valentine would live out the life of their contracts will ring true and that both Phillips and Valentine will survive.

If I Were Steve Phillips…..

Say what you want about the owners, the GM, the manager, but in the end the biggest culprits of the state of the Mets are the players that are playing the games. Every player on the Mets team has to some degree been a disappointment. A major factor when it comes to a good housecleaning is knowing what to keep and what to get rid off - the same holds true when figuring who to keep, trade or sign on a major league team.

The Mets team is full of underachievers, bloated unmoveable contracts, and free agents to-be. So what to do? With each of their starters and Edgardo Alfonzo as potential free agents, the Mets have to decide who they will keep and who they may trade.

As stated before, all the Mets starters can become free agents at the end of the year. Pedro Astacio has a club option that in all likelihood will be picked up by the Mets. That leaves Al Leiter, Shawn Estes, Steve Trachsel, and Jeff D'Amico. It seems unlikely or unwise for the Mets to resign either Estes, Trachsel or D'Amico to multiple years and multiple dollars. D'Amico has never shown he can stay healthy for an entire season and does not throw hard enough to dominate and the major league level. Trachsel is having an enigmatic year and like D'Amico always manages to get hurt at some point during the season. Both are more back-end of the rotation types and those are not the type of pitchers you sign to long-term contracts. As for Estes, he has the stuff to be an ace, but cannot put it together and never has. Is it wise to give this guy $8-9 million per year to go 3-6 the first half of the season next year? Perhaps the wisest thing for the Mets to do is to see what they can get for either Estes, Trachsel and D'Amico because the odds are they won't be on this team next year; not while the Mets have pitching prospects Pat Strange, Aaron Heilman and Jae Seo waiting in the minors. With teams like the Cardinals, Red Sox, Reds and Mariners looking for starting pitching, the Mets would be wise to see if they could pry a good prospect from any of these teams for any of the three.

As for Leiter, I think in order for the Mets to contend in 2003 they need Al Leiter and Pedro Astacio at the top of their rotation. However, Leiter is a free agent at the end of the year. He has broken off negotiations with the Mets and there is no guarantee he won't sign with a team like the Yankees if the give him a better offer. Regardless, you have to keep Leiter. Without him, the Mets do not contend in 2003. The Mets need Leiter and Astacio (and a third starter that they should try and acquire via trade) in their rotation to make a legitimate run next year. All this talk about Leiter, potentially, signing with the Yankees may have some validity, but if he does sign then the Mets get 2 draft picks for him, which would help restock the farm system anyway. Leiter is from the New York area and he would like to stay here. He's starting to think of life after baseball and knows that he may have two or three years left in him. Realistically, he would only play for either the Mets or the Yankees.

What about Edgardo Alfonzo? Alfonzo was not happy about moving from second base and I wouldn't be surprised if he left via free agency to a team that needs a second basemen. A team like the San Francisco Giants will be looking for a second basemen in the offseason, since it seems that they are prepared to sever ties with Jeff Kent. The Mets may have to make a decision, if not before the trading deadline then during the offseason, as to whether to resign Alfonzo and return him to second then trading Alomar or keeping Alomar and finding a new third basemen. There are not that many premier third basemen in baseball period. Scott Rolen is a free agent this offseason and I wouldn't be surprised if some in the Mets organization would like to see Alomar stay and then resign Rolen to play third with Alfonzo moving on. However, Rolen is a career .280 hitter who is batting below .250 this year and has never averaged over 25 homers a year. He turned down a ten year, $140 million contract. Should the Mets try to sign him? In my opinion yes, but not for the kind of money he turned down. If Rolen was an outfielder hitting .280 and smacking 25 homers would you give him $14 million per year for ten years? No. The simple fact is that he is going to get more money because that is how depleted the pool of quality third basemen is. Regardless, he is arguably the best all-around third basemen in the game and he is only 27. Perhaps the best scenario would have the Mets sign Rolen to a seven-year, $90 million deal, then resigning Alfonzo to a 4 year, $32 million deal and then moving him back to second. Rolen and Alfonzo would remake the Mets infield. It would make it younger, yet talented. With Mets minor-league stud Jose Reyes set to join the Mets infield in 2004, the Mets would be planting the seeds of what can be one of baseball's best hitting, fielding infields (excluding Vaughn) in baseball.

What to do with Roberto Alomar? Alomar may be the biggest disappointment of 2002. One has to believe that Alomar will, eventually, return to his Hall of Fame form, but it does not appear as it will happen in New York. Alomar with be 35 years old in 2003 and the Mets have to start looking towards getting a little younger. Alfonzo is younger than Alomar by 5 years and has played better than Alomar this year. A team like the San Francisco Giants will be in need of a second basemen this offseason, since all signs point to Jeff Kent not resigning. Alomar should bring back two or three good prospects if not from the Giants then another team. The Mets would be wise to see if they good pry a few of the Giants top prospects like minor-league outfielder Todd Linden, Boof Bonser and/or pitchers Jerome Williams; any one of which can join the big league club in 2003.

One of the Mets biggest problems the past two seasons has been the lack of production of their outfield, which was to end with the acquisitions of Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz, which have been complete busts. The Mets need to clear up the mess they created in the outfield. First, they need to get creative and find a way to rid themselves of Jeromy Burnitz. If the Blue Jays can rid themselves of Raul Mondesi's $12 million contract for 2003, then the Mets should find a way to do the same. The only way that would seem possible is if the Mets ate half of Burnitz's contract, but it's a small price to pay to rid themselves of a player who, although he is a class act, has looked awful at the plate. Perhaps by paying half his salary for 2003, the Mets can entice a team to take a chance on him.

Next, the Mets need to, finally, win one of the Japanese sweepstakes. They have come in second in both the Ichiro and Ishii bidding wars. 2003's prime Japanese import will be rightfielder Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui. Next to Ichiro, Matsui is the next best hitter from Japan. He has averaged over a .300 batting average and about 35 homeruns the past few seasons in Japan and has expressed his intention to come to the United States to play baseball in the 2003 season. At 28, he is just starting to reach his prime. The Mets should make a huge push for Matsui. All signs favor the Mets - 1) Matsui is familiar with Bobby Valentine from his managing days in Japan, 2) New York has a huge Asian community and 3) the Mets can afford to pay the $8-10 million per year contract it'll take to sign him. Is it a risk to sign an unknown commodity to such a contract? Sure, but no more than signing Ichiro or Ishii was. Besides, the Mets would make back so much more in increased merchandising and ticket sales, as Matsui becomes a hero to the large Queens Asian population.

With Matsui in right, the Mets should keep Cedeno in left, if only because they will need a leadoff hitter and perhaps Cedeno can regain the form he had from 1999-2000. As for centerfield, the Mets should sever ties with Jay Payton and hand the job to Timo Perez. Payton has never been able to live up to the potential many thought he had as a 1st Round Pick out of Georgia Tech, while Perez has been nothing but solid all year. The time has come for Perez to be given the shot he has earned. Payton should go.

The rotation. Pitching wins championships and so, if the Mets intend to win one in 2003, they will need a solid rotation. The first priority is to resign Al Leiter. Earlier in the year he wanted a 3 year, $36 million contract. Perhaps a hometown discount at 3 years and $30 million would get it done. With Leiter and Astacio as the Number 1 and 2 in the rotation, the Mets must look to filling the gap made by the departures of Estes, Trachsel and D'Amico. The first move, after resigning Leiter, should be for the Mets to move Grant Roberts to the rotation. Roberts has always had the stuff to be an ace, but his problem was always between his ears. All that has changed since he came up to the big league club to stay in 2002. Roberts was moved into the bullpen because the Mets did not have an opening in the rotation. He was also moved there because the Mets wanted to build up his confidence, which he has now. He knows he can pitch in the majors and has held an E.R.A. under two for most of the first half. Roberts would fit nicely in the Number 4 slot in the rotation. The Mets will have to make a move to acquire another starter via trade. Someone, preferably young, who the Mets can eventually build a rotation around once Leiter and Astacio move on. It so happens that those types of pitchers can be had in Florida as the Marlins look to trade their players for prospects and rebuild yet again. Pitchers like Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny are available. The Mets should act fast and try to orchestrate a trade that would bring one of them in to fill the Number 3 spot in the rotation. A package including minor-leaguers Pat Strange, David Wright and another player may do it. It may seem like a huge price to pay, but fact is that if one can get a young established major-league starter with ace stuff then it is worth the price of a few prospects, even if they are good.

Rounding Third

Some closing thoughts. The Mets organization has to come together this offseason and redefine the way it does business. They need not go any farther than the Bronx to see a perfect example of how to run a franchise. For all that is said about the Yankees buying players, what is sometimes overlooked is that the core of their team was homegrown; player like Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Alfonzo Soriano. The Yankees do this by hiring the best scouts and not being afraid to spend top dollar to sign prospects.

It all begins with the farm system and at the time the only true studs the Mets have in the minors are Jose Reyes, Justin Huber and Aaron Heilman (Scott Kazmir will join the list once he signs). The Mets need to not only expand their scouting department, but also invest more dollars into signing players. The Mets have finished second the past two years in their attempts to sign players like Ichiro, Ishii and others. There is no reason why a team, other than the Yankees, should be outbidding the Mets. To maintain a consistent winning ballclub, an organization needs to keep producing talent and the only way to do that is to spend more money signing the best prospects available. A good start would be by signing Scott Kazmir (their 2002 1st round pick) and Hideki Matsui (a free agent from Japan this offseason). Until the Mets do, they are doomed to have to overpay for mediocre player in the free agent market in order to fill the holes that their farm system was not able to.

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