The U Files Case Study #8: The Future of the Mets

Welcome to The U Files. I started this column on the old with several articles on the moves the Mets made in the offseason. Now I will continue the column at the new home of NYFansonly at I will leave my email address at the end of the article for comments or questions. I also post on the message board as TheUFactor. Hopefully I can keep this column fueled by email comments.

Rebuilding is said to be a dirty word in New York as it applies to local major sports teams. It is said that the fans in New York will not put up with rebuilding, even though they have dealt with many losing years without hope on the horizon. A rebuilding season would just be a losing season with hope for the future, a marked improvement. Anyway, there come times when rebuilding is the only logical option for a franchise. This looks like such a time for the New York Mets.

The Mets stand at 48-47 on July 19, 12.5 games behind the division leading Atlanta Braves and 6.5 games behind the wild card leading Los Angeles Dodgers. Three other teams stand in front of the Mets in the wild card hunt. As the Dodgers are on a pace for 94 wins, we'll assume the Mets need to win 95 games to take the wild card. The Mets need to go 47-21 over their remaining 68 games to achieve this record, for a winning percentage of .691 over that span. The Mets would need to jump ahead of four other teams, while it only takes one to jump up and take the wild card.

The Braves are on a pace for 102 wins. For the Mets to win the division with 95 wins, the Braves would need to stumble to a 34-33 record the rest of the way.

If by some miracle the Mets were able to make the postseason, they would have to get past the Diamondbacks fearsome rotation of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling for the right to lose the World Series to the New York Yankees. The odds of the Mets winning the World Series? That's what oddsmakers call a joke.

This Mets team was built for this year. The Mets would need to win the World Series this year for this team to pay off. This group of players will not win anything in the future (meaning going beyond the first round of the playoffs). Anyone pondering the Mets odds in the future needs to consider two factors.

First, the age factor: Roberto Alomar is 34. Pedro Astacio is 32. Jeromy Burnitz is 33. Mo Vaughn is 34. Mike Piazza is 33, and a catcher. Al Leiter is 36, should he resign. None of these players have their best years ahead of them, and they would be at the core of a 2003 Mets team.

Second, the payroll factor: The Mets have $75.25 million in 2003 payroll tied up in eleven players: Alomar (8M), Astacio (6M option), Armando Benitez (6.75M), Burnitz (11.5M), Cedeno (4.5M), John Franco (3.75M), Rey Ordonez (6.25M), Vaughn (10M*), David Weathers (3.3M), and Satoru Komiyama (player option, .7M**). Edgardo Alfonzo, Leiter, Shawn Estes, Jeff D'Amico, Steve Trachsel, and Mark Guthrie will be free agents. If the Mets have a 100M payroll, that leaves them with $24.75 million to sign three starting pitchers (assuming prospect Aaron Heilman takes the remaining spot), a third baseman, and a relief pitcher, not taking into account arbitration eligible players (Jay Payton, Scott Strickland, and Joe McEwing), and others.

The Mets have done a good job of resuscitating a weakened farm system with a series of good drafts in the years before 2002. However, most of the talent in the Mets farm is at the lower levels. The only impact prospects that can help in the short term are shortstop Jose Reyes and right-handed pitcher Aaron Heilman. Both are currently in double-A ball and should be ready to contribute some time in 2003. Reyes is a slick fielding gap hitter with decent plate discipline and excellent speed. Heilman with his current repertoire projects to a #3 starter. Once he improves an offspeed pitch (curveball, changeup or splitter) his ceiling raises to a #1/2 starter (a psuedo-ace in the Leiter mold). Heilman has a good build for a pitcher and should be a workhorse.

Any effort at a "win now" approach to next year must start with moving bad contracts. The Mets will not have the payroll flexibility to construct a winning team otherwise. This means moving virtually untradeable players such as Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz, and Rey Ordonez. The Mets were able to move the contracts of Robin Ventura, Todd Ziele, and Kevin Appier last offseason, but got saddled with the contracts of Vaughn and Burnitz in return. These players will put a damper on the Mets flexibility for years beyond 2003, while the Mets only had to wait until after this year to be rid of Ventura and Ziele. If the Mets continue to make such deals, they may never escape the cycle of bad contracts. The best option may be to stand pat and let the bad contracts expire.

A rumored trade of Mo Vaughn to the Boston Red Sox for Tony Clark, Jose Offerman, and Darren Oliver turned out to be nothing more than idle speculation by the New York Post. Both the Mets and Red Sox denied the rumor. The trade would work for the Mets, as Clark, Offerman, and Oliver are bad contracts that expire at the end of this year. It would be a bad deal for the BoSox, especially since there are numerous better options than Vaughn to fill in their first base hole.

If the Mets have no chance of winning next year, the Mets must build to win in future years. Continuing the win now approach will result in a never-ending sequence of mediocre borderline contenders with little chance of real winning. The rebuilding process must start with the dealing of marketable Mets for prospects. Al Leiter would be the best pitcher on the market, and could bring back a king's ransom in top tier prospects. The 2003 Mets will have no use for a 37-year-old ace. Roberto Alomar could also bring back a considerable package.

Last offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays got back third baseman Eric Hinske in a trade for closer Billy Koch with the Oakland Athletics. While Hinske is outperforming anyone's expectations by a wide margin this year, he was a legitimate prospect. Benitez is one of the best closers in baseball and could bring back a prospect more highly regarded than Hinske. In the short term, the Mets can use a closer by committee approach. The Mets have several prospects that project as possible closers.

Many teams could use a good setup man, so David Weathers and Mark Guthrie could net a decent return. Guthrie will be a free agent, but his past performance will not merit a high round compensation pick for the Mets if he leaves via free agency. The best return the Mets get for Guthrie would be by trade. Grant Roberts and Jaime Cerda could step into the roles vacated by Weathers and Guthrie.

Starting pitcher Shawn Estes is already the subject of a trade rumor, which has him going to the Cincinnati Reds for third base prospect Brandon Larson and either pitcher Ty Howington or pitcher Luke Hudson. Larson is tearing up triple A ball this year, and should be a fair stop gap at third base until prospect David Wright is ready, should the Mets fail to resign Alfonzo. Howington is a prospect at double A with good stuff but serious control problems. Should he find his control, he has the upside of a #2 starter. Hudson is a lefty double A prospect with mediocre stuff who relies on his control, in the mold of Mike Bacsik. Estes probably wouldn't bring back a better package than that from any team, so the Mets should select Howington and make the deal.

If the Mets abandon a win now approach which is leading them nowhere and rebuild, they should be able to begin a run of contending years in 2005. By then Reyes and Heilman should be established, and pitcher Patrick Strange, third baseman David Wright, touted catcher Justin Huber, highly regarded 2002 draft pick Scott Kazmir (should he sign), and Matt Peterson (the pitcher with the highest upside of any Mets pitching prospect) should be up, along with the returns from the trades. With bad contracts allowed to run out, the Mets will have the payroll flexibility to fill in whatever needs they have.

Unfortunately, Mets General Manager Steve Phillips has stated on the record that he will not rebuild. Owner Fred Wilpon is a businessman and likely will not want the lost revenues of a rebuilding cycle. If the Mets are to have a future, something has to change the attitude of Mets management. Otherwise, they will be the Knicks of Major League baseball.

· Vaughn is under contract for $15 million, with his $8 million signing bonus paid by the Anaheim Angels and $5 million deferred.

** Komiyama has a player option for 2003 for an unknown amount. I'm using 700K as a reasonable estimate.

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