Turning the Mets into Continual Winners

The Mets are in disarray. Everybody knows it, from Fred Wilpon all the way down to the guys selling peanuts in the stands. Some of them wouldn't acknowledge it if his life depended on it, but admitting and knowing are two different things. The question now facing the Mets is how to get on track into a continual winner.

To find a good example of continual winners, you need look no further than the Mets' biggest rivals - the Braves and the Yankees. The Yankees have had 7 consecutive winning seasons, leading their division 6 times, winning the pennant 5 times, and claiming the World Series trophy 4 times. The Braves, while not as successful in the postseason, have still managed to string together 11 consecutive division titles.

What's the secret to their success? Most would say pitching, and that's certainly a large part of it. However, it's not everything. The Braves and Yankees both recognize the value of a strong farm system, and they are more than willing to use their prospects on their major league team.

Building a continual winner is dependent on maintaining good talent in the minor leagues. Teams need young, inexpensive players to help fill out the roster. This includes both superstar-type prospects, like Jose Reyes, and "fill-in-the-holes" type talent, such as Ty Wigginton or Jaime Cerda. One of the key areas that prospects should be used is the bullpen. Steve Phillips has made it a habit to acquire middle-aged middle relievers, and the Mets usually overpay for them: Turk Wendell, David Weathers, John Franco, and now Mark Guthrie (rumored to be in negotiations with the Mets for a multi-year deal).

What the Mets need to realize is that the bullpen is not the area to spend money on. At most, they should have an expensive closer, but the rest should be filled in with cheap players. Year in and year out, the Braves take journeymen pitchers like Kevin Gryboski and Darren Holmes and turn them into good relievers. There are plenty of pitchers in AAA that can put together a decent season as a reliever for the major league minimum. The Mets should target these pitchers to sign as minor league free agents, then bring them up and use them out of the bullpen.

The key to this is to realize that relief pitching is eminently replaceable. When a reliever has a good year (Mark Guthrie), that doesn't mean the Mets should offer him a lucrative contract. It's just as likely that next year, the pitcher will be lousy. A relief pitcher's performance is more volatile, in terms of consistency, than anything else in baseball. There's just no reason to commit millions of dollars betting that a player will buck that trend.

That covers the bullpen. For position players, the Mets should aggressively pursue the top end free agents, but not settle for their second choice. Usually, all this does is saddle a team with poor contracts (Kevin Appier). The best way to build a team is to use most of the budget on the star players, then fill in the rest with inexpensive solutions. This is where a strong farm system comes in. The Mets need to be able to develop average major league players/prospects, along with star-type prospects.

Starting pitching should not be overpaid for, either. A major league average innings eater (Steve Trachsel) is a valuable asset, but he should never block the progress of a prospect (Aaron Heilman, Pat Strange). Again, shell out the big bucks for the star players, but not the average ones. Fill in the remaining spots with prospects and inexpensive players.

So what does all this mean for the Mets in 2003? Basically, I've already pretty much conceded that they won't be competitive this coming year. Yes, everything could go right - Alomar, Cedeno, Burnitz, etc. could all have strong bounceback years - but the odds aren't great. Mid to high 30s players are normally a much better bet to decline, not improve (Barry Bonds notwithstanding). The problem with thinking the Mets have a shot in 2003 is that it could lead to more shortsighted transactions designed to marginally help now, while massively hurting the future. That tradeoff simply isn't worth it.

Edgardo Alfonzo should be resigned, but only if the Mets can do so at a reasonable cost. I would offer him either 2 years, $19M or 3 years, $26M. Anything longer than that is a major risk, considering his back injury. A team option for a 4th year for $11 would be a wise addition, however.

Let Jose Reyes play out most of the year, at least, in AAA. He still needs time to refine his game, especially his plate discipline and on cutting down on the errors. If he was brought up in 2003, he'd most likely be a better player than Ordonez, but it starts the clock ticking on his free agency. Reyes in 2004 after a year in AAA will play better than Reyes in 2003 with no AAA, and this allows the Mets to keep his rights for one more year in his prime.

Steve Trachsel should not be resigned. Let him go to another team in need of an average pitcher, and enjoy the draft pick the Mets will get for him. Aaron Heilman can take his place in the rotation, and probably will put up very similar numbers in 2003.

Pat Strange, Tyler Walker, Jason Middlebrook, and John Thompson should all battle it out for the remaining 2 rotation spots (Leiter and Astacio filling the first two), with the others going to the bullpen, for this year at least.

The Mets should aggressively pursue trade opportunities to get rid of Rey Ordonez, Jeromy Burnitz, Mo Vaughn, and Roger Cedeno. It will be especially difficult because there's no way they should take back worse contracts. In other words, no Ordonez and Burnitz for Preston Wilson trade. The Mets should have no problem with paying some of the player's salary, since they'll be paying it fully if the player can't be traded. But if the Mets are saddled with these players, then it's not a big deal, since 2003 is a lost cause in the first place. Let all these bad contracts the Mets have right now run out, then make a commitment to not getting saddled with any again. That is the first big step in building a winner.

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