Saturday, November 26, 2005

Big Bopper - Check

In my last entry I established my wish list for the beloved Metropolitans. Certainly it took no great insight to diagnose the Met needs:

  1. A closer
  2. A bopper

Before the Thanksgiving turkey was stuffed, Omar completed half of the off-season "things to do" list. And as he is an avid reader of this blog, he did the best he could to make me happy. Noting that Carlos Delgado was actually #2 on my bopper, I still find it hard to be disappointed. My primary target, the vastly under appreciated Brian Giles, has the unfortunate benefit of free will on his side. And it seems that Mr. Giles has no great desire to make Flushing, NY his place of primary employment for the next several years. Now typically I make no attempts at divining the inner thoughts of other human beings. I leave that to the mainstream sportswriters because they are so good at it. You know the litany of their successes. Mark McGwire would never sign with St. Louis because his son lives on the West Coast and he wants to be near him. Mike Piazza is not a New York "kind of guy". Carl Pavano will return to his New England roots and sign with the BoSox (oh, how the Yankees wish that one was dead on).

So why do I despair of the Mets chances of signing the offensive juggernaut - did I mention that he is vastly underappreciated - that is Brian Giles? Because Omar covets free agents like Mike Francesa covets doughnuts. Hell, he publicly acknowledges having offers out to two free agent catchers as I write this. But nothing on Giles. Nada. Zilch. Nary a word or the wisp of a rumor. Let's do the math. Omar must know that Giles is completely cold to the Mets.

Now that leaves us to Delgado. Like Giles, an OBP monster. Like Giles, a slugger. Unlike Giles, he cost more than money - the very reason he was 2nd on my list. But now he is a Met, and that is a glorious thing. Many lament the loss of Jacobs and Petit. They were interesting players, and I wish them well. Few baseball arguments are more tiresome or futile than the debate over what a prospect will or will not become. For this reason I'll pass on such projections, except to say that most prospects disappoint.

So what have we here with Mr. Delgado? Well, according to my favorite gage of offensive production, OPS+, the 5th most productive player in baseball last year. That's right, 5th, after Derek Lee, Albert Pujols, Travis Hafner, and Alex Rodriguez. And ahead of guys like Manny Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera, and David Ortiz. And by the same measure of OPS+ Delgado is coming off his 2nd best season at age 33. In short, then, we have a devastating slugger who has not shown sign of any decline.

This acquisition also gives the Met lineup the anchor it had been lacking. Lineups do funny things to players. Placed properly, a decent hitter can look very good - think Kevin Millar in 2004. Placed properly, a pretty good hitter can look prodigious - think Hideki Matsui over the last 2 season. Of course, the opposite is also true. Consider the Mets of recent vintage. Mike Cameron is a decent offensive player. Forced into lineup spots that ill-suited him, he languished. Cliff Floyd is as good a hitter as Hideki Matsui, and probably better. Plug him in the proper lineup slot, in the 5 or 6 spot, and think about his 3o plus homers and around 100 RBI's. So the rest of the Met lineup will assuredly benefit from Delgado's presence. The other Carlos, Beltran, should hit in the 2 hole, a spot in which he has flourished in the past. David Wright will bat cleanup, mostly because of Willie Randolph's obsession with the right/left pattern. In this case Willie will stumble into the right configuration because Delgado is the Mets' best hitter, and although Willie doesn't know it, the best hitter should bat 3rd. It's a guarantee that either Benjie Molina or Ramon Hernandez will be the Met backstop in 2006, so here's a pretty fair guess at the opening day lineup:

  1. Reyes
  2. Beltran
  3. Delgado
  4. Wright
  5. Floyd
  6. Hernandez/Molina
  7. Nady/Diaz
  8. A. Hernandez/Matsui/Keppinger

Referring back to my original wish list, it also called for a closer. It seems a pretty fair bet that Omar will lock up Billy Wagner sometime soon. BWag and his agent are practically donning orange and blue pom poms already. Some might cynically argue that this is an attempt to drive up his asking price, but if that were true he would be doing the opposite. Instead of lauding the Mets' organization and their pursuit of his services he would be playing it closer to the vest. I haven't been so sure that the Mets would sign a free agent since Delgado last year. Or maybe Vlad? Or was it ARod? Anyway, it seems that the fireballing lefty will be a Metropolitan. With Aaron Heilman to set up Wagner, the Met end game will be solid in '06. Of course this won't stop the, ahem, cough, cough, experts from claiming that the Mets will be done in by their middle relief because Omar did nothing to address this pressing need.

This is actually my litmus test for baseball fans. If I'm having a casual baseball conversation with an acquaintance and the person says something like, "Boy, the Mets really need to get some reliable middle relievers", in my head I'm saying "OK, you have a very shallow understanding of major league baseball". To me, that's kind of like saying "Boy, I need to find me a nuclear physicist who looks like Pam Anderson." Think about what the term "middle reliever" means: You aren't good enough to start and we can't trust you when the game is on the line. By very definition they are not good pitchers. My saying is simple - There's no such thing as a good middle reliever, only middle relievers having good years.

Alright, I think we're set. The aforementioned catchers, Molina and Hernandez, don't thrill me but one of them is coming anyway. My preference is Hernandez, younger, slimmer, and a slightly better offensive player. My feeling is that of the three guys competing at 2nd base, a decent option will arise, even if it's a season long rotation. Each has their strengths. Hernandez is a good glove. Keppinger is a solid offensive player. With Matsui there's still that hope that his career in Japan was not an illusion. Maybe he too benefits from the Delgado factor. As a number 8 hitter he's better than most.

Assuming that Wagner and one of Molina/Hernandez is coming, the Mets will be one of the 2 or 3 best teams in the National League. I like their starting pitching. Pedro, Glavine, Benson, Trachsel, Seo is a serviceable starting core. But figure Omar to upgrade it in some way. The conventional wisdom is that AJ Burnett is the best free agent option on the market. I want no part of him. I'd prefer Matt Morris as free agents go. What would it take for Omar to pop Barry Zito? I doubt if any package not involving Lastings Milledge would do it. If that's the case, I pass. And in passing, I make a play for a pitcher that I have longed to see in a Met uniform for years. Livan Hernandez. A horse, a stud, an innings eater, a throwback to the days when pitchers finished what they started and treated at bats as if they were actual baseball players. A few winters ago I advocated the Mets trading a 20 year old prospect named David Wright for Livan. Thankfully, I had not nearly the influence on Jim Duquette (or was it Steve Philips?) that I have on Omar. This time I'll temper my ardor for Livan and offer something like Nady/Diaz, Matsui, Bannister, and cash. If that ain't enough, so be it.

This is where a GM does the real heavy lifting. Pulling the trigger for Carlos Delgado is a no-brainer. Omar needs to find that guy about to break out and get him on the cheap. A list of possibles include Brett Tomko, Jeff Weaver, Jarrod Washburn, and Jaimey Wright. If none of these names grab you, that's really the point. One of these pitchers, or someone like him, might be well suited for Shea. Omar, put some geeky intern at a computer and have him find us this year's Chris Carpenter. If somehow the Mets can get a guy who either is a bona fide number 2 or number 3 starter - Zito or Livan - or someone who ends up pitching like one, they will be the best team in the National League next year.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

What Is To Be Done?

Ahh, the sweet signs of the nascent baseball season. The leaves are turning orangey yellow, ready for their death spiral towards the ashen earth. The days are shortening. The creatures of the wilds are readying their winter stores in anticipation of the coming frosts. Crisp days and frigid nights will soon be our constant companions. All of these signs portend one thing and one thing only. The true baseball season is upon us. Yes, you’ve read correctly. The true Met fan knows that nature’s death throe of autumn commences our season, a season of eternal hope and optimism. For the Mets of recent vintage are Winter Warriors, Checkbook Champions, Sultans of Speculation. The dance of free agent courtship is their stock and trade.

This winter, though, looms larger than others. You see, the Mets are close, oh so close to summers charged with the heady sensations of real championship aspirations. The Metropolitans are much closer to the top of the National League than they are to the bottom. A 100 win season in 2006 is much more likely than a 100 loss season. Many pieces are in place. But the next few steps will make all of the difference.

For this reason, this winter is the key, the linchpin, for the fortunes of the next several summers.

So, what is to be done? In 1902 the notorious revolutionary V. I. Lenin posed this question to the Russian people in a polemic with the same title. I don’t think that Lenin would have been a Met fan. Probably the Devil Rays, maybe the Royals, certainly a small market team that suffers under the yoke of capitalist injustice. No loss there. Lenin was as bleak and humorless as he was murderous. If he were a baseball player he would be Randy Johnson – brilliant but joyless, devoid of all human charm, possessing the ability to amaze but never to endear. The anti-Ali, if you will. But what, you ask impatiently, does this have to do with the Mets? Nothing, of course, so let’s move on.

Last winter I postulated that the Mets best strategy would be a double free agent assault on Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Delgado. Omar Minaya agreed with the first part of this attack, but as to the latter he chose the duo of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. By now we are all aware that the Martinez signing was a master stroke, as Pedro dazzled us with his brilliance and élan. Beltran not so much. But Carlos is still a young man and a rebound season in 2006 would surprise no one. All in all, then, Omar’s first season was a success as the Flushing Nine improved by 12 games and stayed in Wild Card contention until early September. Even more importantly, a core of young players established themselves as cornerstones for the franchise.

Foremost among these was David Wright. The 22 year old Met fan from Virginia blossomed into stardom while we watched. He became an offensive force, leading the team in doubles, runs batted in, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. He should be the best 3rd baseman in the National League for years to come. Standing about 50 feet to Wright’s left was another 22 year old named Jose Reyes. This superior athlete led the National League in stolen bases and triples. His season was far from the resounding success that Wright’s was, but Met fans were ecstatic that he remained healthy, played a strong defensive shortstop, and displayed improvement throughout the season. These two youngsters, along with Beltran, should provide stability and excellence for years to come.

Other players proved valuable in 2005. Cliff Floyd stayed healthy and gave the lineup a left handed slugger. Mike Jacobs came up in late August and hit 10 homeruns in less than 100 at bats. His sweet lefty swing could be a staple in the Met lineup through the decade. Tom Glavine was as good as any pitcher in the league in the second half of the season. Aaron Heilman showed versatility as both a starter and reliever. Kris Benson and Jae Seo were effective during large segments of the season.

But the team has weaknesses, although not nearly as many as in previous winters. And in each case several attractive options are available. In order of priority, let’s take a look see:

A Closer – These are nice to have. I’m not one to dog Braden Looper. He pitched well enough in 2004 and certainly some part of his ’05 travails can be attributed to a bum shoulder. But this team needs a more reliable end game. Luckily, one of the top 3 closers in captivity is available. Billy Wagner won’t come cheap, but lefties who throw 100 mph can name their price. Omar knows this is the guy to get. BWag knows that Omar knows it. And for that the Mets will pay, and possibly overpay. This is the first priority. If Wagner falls through, BJ Ryan also provides lefty heat and will do so with a lighter price tag. And Trevor Hoffman, the long time Padre, might be tempted to bring his changeup, 436 saves, and his kick ass theme song (Hell’s Bells) to Shea Stadium. If one of these 3 is not jogging out of the Met bullpen next spring, this will have been a dismal winter.

Wish List
1) Billy Wagner
2) BJ Ryan
3) Trevor Hoffman

A Bopper – This lineup needs a true bopper, a feared bat to round it out. But this guy can’t be a one dimensional slugger. He needs to provide a high on base percentage to augment the Mets weakness in this critical area. Preferably he will be a right fielder or 2nd baseman, two positions in need of offensive upgrade. Brian Giles, a very fine right fielder, is a free agent. He also posts astonishingly high on base percentages. In other words, he is the perfect fit. But this one won’t be easy. There will be plenty of competition for Giles. Another option is Manny Ramirez, the greatest right handed hitter of the last 10 years. Manny as a Met, however, would be a complicated situation. If he is acquired and Cliff Floyd stays, then the Mets have two left fielders and a weak outfield defense. If Floyd goes in a Ramirez deal than they have lost a good hitter, still leaving the lineup a hitter short. For these reasons, I would prefer the Mets pass on Manny. Alfonso Soriano is another name mentioned in trade rumors. A defensively challenged 2nd baseman, Soriano can slug but does not get on base enough. The dark horse in this affair is an object of desire from last winter, Carlos Delgado. His back loaded contract might render him available if the Marlins are feeling cash strapped. He is still an elite hitter who would provide the juice that the Met lineup sorely needs. The drawback here is that Delgado’s presence would block young slugger Mike Jacobs.

Wish List
1) Brian Giles
2) Carlos Delgado
3) Alfonso Soriano
4) Manny Ramirez

If the winter goes the way I dream it might, the opening day Met lineup will look like this:
1) Reyes SS
2) Beltran CF
3) Giles RF
4) Wright 3b
5) Floyd LF
6) Jacobs 1b
7) Keppinger/Woodward/Hernandez 2b
8) Castro C

The starting rotation will look like this:

And the bullpen will have Heilman setting up Wagner.

You are probably looking at that lineup and wondering why 2nd base and catcher look as they do. It’s simple. I just don’t think that the potential upgrades at these spots are significant enough to warrant trading assets or tying up money. Will Mark Lorreta outperform one of the Mets’ in house options enough to warrant the loss of a Heilman or Seo? I doubt it. Will Benji Molina or Ramon Hernandez outperform Ramon Castro by such a margin as to justify the difference in salary? Again, I’m not so sure either of them will.

Looking at this team as imagined here, it occurs to me that its greatest need is a young, left handed starter. “Hello, Billy Beane please. Tell him it’s Omar Minaya calling. Yes, I’ll wait.”

Next entry – Springing Barry Zito.