As the New York Mets’ worst season since 2009 reaches its slow and painful conclusion, there are easy practical and atmospheric comparisons to make to the previous contending club under former general manager Omar Minaya from 2005 to 2010. One can link those Mets to the 2017 Mets and predict a similar slide to the one that took five years to reverse. There hasn’t been this sense of organizational unknowing since then, when the Minaya regime was dismissed and the current front office led by Sandy Alderson took command.
Baseball is certainly cyclical, but is it cyclical to the degree that history will repeat itself almost identically? Are the Mets doomed to the same fate of a full rebuild? Or is 2017 vastly different from 2009-2010 in personnel, strategy and finances?
Cynics will say the one thing that remains in place — and will not change — is the main reason that the club has had so many valleys and so few peaks: ownership. The Wilpons are a stationary target. Rather than waste time with undefinable matters such as the levels of ownership meddling and money, let’s look at the actual in-the-trenches reality of now versus then and see if the situation is as dire… or if it is salvageable without a full teardown.
- The tenor
Despite the same level of anger, disappointment and bewilderment in the media and fan base that a club with the talent to contend fell flat on its face in 2009 and 2017, there are drastic differences in the tenor of the 2009 club and this one.
The 2009 Mets still had the talent to compete for a championship. Circumstances sabotaged them from the start. Citi Field opened that year — its lofty dimensions significantly damaged David Wright’s power production by making the vast expanses of right and left-center too massive for his long drives that easily cleared the wall at Shea Stadium. Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes – who all had tremendous starts to their seasons – got hurt.
John Maine and Oliver Perez – keys in 2007 and 2008 – took major steps back. Johan Santana was solid but also got injured late in the season. J.J. Putz needed elbow surgery. There were not sufficient reinforcements in the minors — that and the medical woes doomed the club.
The entire 2009 season had the cloud of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme hovering over it. At the time, it was not known how completely it engulfed the owners, but it eventually called into question whether they had the money and the commitment to fill those holes as they grew larger.
In 2017, the injury woes are oddly reminiscent in number of those suffered by the 2009 Mets. Wright has missed the entire season. Yoenis Cespedes, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Jeurys Familia, Neil Walker, Asdrubal Cabrera, Zack Wheeler and Michael Conforto were all injured for long periods with their production diminished.
The 2009 players were older, calling into question their ability to heal and rebound. While there are players in that category for 2017, most either have age on their side for a quick recovery or are motivated to have at least one healthy season in advance of pending free agency. This is a major difference between the two situations.
The looming sense of doom around the club was magnified in 2009 and 2010 not just because of the rumored financial problems, but because of the figurative window having slammed shut — the team was three-quarters through it from 2006 to 2008. That is not the case for the current Mets, regardless of perceptions to the contrary. They’re much younger, have starting pitching under team control, have a significant amount of money coming off the books, and there’s an extra playoff spot that was not there in 2007 and 2008… and would have given them the opportunity to still make a playoff run despite their then-historic collapses.
How much of the Mets’ lack of spending is still related to the Wilpons’ financial limits, self-imposed or not? No one seems to know. They claim there are no financial parameters placed on Alderson and his staff, but there are cryptic comments to the contrary followed by parsed statements and whispers.
Where do the philosophical and financial intersect? Only Alderson truly knows whether he is being restricted from making deals because the owners are nixing them. For context, it should be remembered that Alderson is uncomfortable with doling out seven- and eight-year contracts to any player. This is independent of whether he has the money and the freedom to do so. History of player performance for the duration of those massive contracts has proven him to be mostly right about them. He does not want to have a $200 million payroll comprised of a roster of immovable players whose best years are well behind them. That might not be sexy when competing for the hot stove championship, but it is logical.
Under the bulk of the Minaya regime, the Wilpon checkbook was open. By 2010, Minaya was constrained by several factors including money and did not have the capacity or time to overcome them. The farm system was so dilapidated — with most legitimate prospects in the low minors — that help had to come from outside. Money woes and a lack of marketable youngsters to keep or trade prevented the Mets from making the necessary acquisitions to be competitive.
When a team worries about the big league product in lieu of development, there is an endpoint where the veterans are no longer performing and are being paid for what they did in the past rather than what they’re doing in the present. A club that maintains a minimum of respectability in this case will at least have some contributions from young players. The last days of the Minaya Mets did not. Without the money to buy more veterans and its current veterans hurt or declining, they came apart and were forced to rebuild.
Even if the 2018 Mets are not allowed to spend as a New York-based team is expected to, they still have a starting rotation that is cost-controlled and is nowhere near as expensive as a rotation with their level of talent would be if paid commensurately with its market value. Two youngsters – Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario – will be paid close to the major league minimum. Conforto is not yet making big money. With so many pieces in place before they begin to build for 2018, the Mets can spend relatively frugally, improve the roster, have a payroll at around $150 million or less, and maintain a flexibility that Minaya never had.
- The style, strategy and system
Minaya is universally considered a gentleman. He’s well-liked throughout the game and is respected as an astute judge of talent. He has the guts to make risky deals. All that is useful. At the point the Mets reached at the end of his tenure, that was not enough. They still needed someone with his attributes, but they had a greater need for someone who had better organizational skills, could be ruthless when necessary, could express himself and fend off allegations and accusations with lawyerly terminology, was adept at crisis control, and could say something while saying nothing.
These are not Minaya’s strengths. Back then, the Mets needed a new GM. Now, they don’t. Alderson’s contract is up at the end of the 2017 season and the expectation is that he will return. Even if he doesn’t or takes a background role, his likely replacement will be John Ricco, who is of the same school as Alderson and will leave the front office structure largely in place. After 2010, the entire front office was remade as it needed to be. That continuity allows the faster implementation of a blueprint.
To a degree, Alderson has managed to keep his options relatively open by keeping the top-level youngsters, Rosario and Smith; clearing veterans for young arms; paring payroll; and retaining the foundation while bolstering it with the likes of A.J. Ramos. There are more pathways to success for the 2018 Mets than for the 2010 Mets. That club was reliant on health and the comebacks of its veterans. This one has more room to operate.
Minaya’s business model was never designed with the long run in mind while Alderson has straddled that line. Minaya’s was a deep-strike philosophy: If the club won in the immediate future, then the long-term success would follow. It almost worked. Unfortunately for them, it was sabotaged by two major developments: that they lost in their best chance to win a championship in 2006, and the club’s financial underpinnings collapsed with the Wilpon losses in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.
By nature, Alderson takes a more deliberate approach that does not provide the immediate gratification to the fans or quell the media stoking of fan rage; but it is wiser for long-term organizational health and can avoid just the downward spiral that befell the club in 2010 and would likely have happened independent of Bernie Madoff.
The way the Minaya Mets were build begat the rampant overspending and desperation maneuvers that made matters worse. Throwing money at the problem might have lulled a few fans into renewing their season ticket packages, buying memorabilia, and believing that the team was still a legitimate contender based on name-recognition, but the reality was that the team should have accepted its situation a year earlier than it did — due in part to the financial problems that were only just beginning.
This will not happen with Alderson. The structure in place has a stronger foundation, dodging the same extended wait that kept the Mets in the wilderness due to circumstances within and beyond their control.
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