Wagner: We Are Third

There is a great book by former NFL running back Gale Sayers titled “I Am Third”. Sayers means after God (first) and his family (second). However, Billy Wagner, in an interview with Kevin Burkhardt on SNY’s Mets Hot Stove, he states the Mets are third behind the Phillies and Braves. His exact quote, after being asked by Burkhardt if the Phillies should be considered the frontrunners in 2008:

“The Phillies are the top team, the Braves are second and we’re somewhere third.”

No doubt this comment will evoke all kinds of excitement in the tabloids and with rabid Mets fans. However, I like it, and agree.

First, though the Mets spent nearly all of 2007 in first place, they also spent 75% of that time as a .500 team — not exactly dominating. While the Phillies and Braves improved as the season wore on, the Mets got worse and worse. Yes, the “collapse” was ultimately what did the Mets in, but what did they do before that to truly earn the NL East? It was somewhat reminiscent of the 1973 season — another year where it appeared that no one wanted to win the division. Had the Mets not collapsed, their title would have been tainted — more a win by default than by dominance. Their lollygagging began as early as June, and their decision to put their game on cruise control was, in retrospect, a bigger disappointment than losing first place in the last few weeks of September.

As “Lorenzo” (Robert DeNiro) stated in A Bronx Tale, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Yeah, it was a movie, it was a little hokey, but I agree with it — if you have talent and don’t use it to the fullest, well, that’s a pretty sad thing. And there’s no doubt whatsoever that the Mets were the most talented team in the NL East in 2007, possibly the most talented in the entire National League from top to bottom. But they failed … which makes one wonder what needed to be done in the offseason. Certainly, some heads needed to roll.

So what happened? Lastings Milledge, Tom Glavine, Paul LoDuca, Shawn Green, and Aaron Sele left. Were those the bad guys on the team? The malaise? I’m not so sure. And the players who have come in — Brian Schneider, Ryan Church, Matt Wise — are they bad-ass attitude changers? Again, I’m not so sure. Probably not, on both counts.

Meanwhile, the Phillies brought in Geoff Jenkins to platoon with Jayson Werth. Good move, in that Jenkins will probably hit 25-30 homers in Citizens Bank Park (while also striking out 175 times). They signed third baseman Pedro Feliz, who will give them nearly Gold Glove caliber defense and another slugger ideal for CBP. I won’t be surprised if Feliz puts another 25-30 over the fence — remember he’s been playing in cavernous AT&T Park yet still slugging 20+ homers per year. They also picked up Brad Lidge to close, moving Brett Myers to the rotation. And they brought in Chad Durbin, who has to be better than Adam Eaton. Oh, and they also bolstered their bench with So Taguchi and Chris Snelling. Remember, the Phillies won the NL East last season, and they made all these moves to improve themselves. So … what was it the Mets did?

Similarly, the Braves made a bunch of moves, though many of them seemingly inconsequential. Starting shortstop Edgar Renteria was sent to Detroit, but brought back a young pitcher (Jair Jurrjens) who might step into their rotation and a hot outfield prospect (Gorkys Hernandez) who compares to Carlos Gomez. Atlanta also quietly bolstered their bullpen with a few under the radar deals — they picked up pitcher Chris Resop on waivers (who I’m convinced will be an effective middle reliever), traded for Will Ohman, and most recently acquired LHP Jeff Ridgway. None of those guys will scare you, but all will help their bullpen woes — their weakest link in 2007. They also signed a certain 300-game winner, who will step in as their #3 starter. Again, not earth shattering, until you consider that same pitcher was the Mets’ #1 last year. Further, while the pundits claim the Braves are hurt by the exits of Andruw Jones and Renteria, one must look at those two guys and realize that neither had much of an impact on Atlanta’s third-place finish. Jones batted .222 and played less than superhuman defense, so Mark Kotsay could very well be a step up — at least, offensively. Renteria missed almost 40 games — just enough time for Cuban defector Yunel Escobar to prove he’s ready for prime time. Like the Phils, the Braves have made an effort to improve themselves, while the Mets …

Of course, there is the argument that the Met didn’t need to improve themselves — that they were the most talented team, remain the most talented team, and all they need to do is come out give their best effort in 2008. That’s tough to believe — particularly when, effectively, the same roster returns. Why would these same individuals play any differently than they did in ’07? What reason do we have to believe that, for example, Oliver Perez and John Maine will continue to develop — despite marked drops in performance during the second half of the season? How are we convinced that Carlos Delgado will return to his dominant hitting, when the last year and a half has shown him to be in decline? Why should we believe that the defensive upgrades of Schneider over LoDuca and Church over Green will really result in more wins? Where is the evidence to suggest that Willie Randolph will do a better job of managing the bullpen in 2008?

Even if the Mets succeed in bringing Johan Santana to Flushing, it’s no guarantee that the Mets will win the NL East. There are a lot of question marks, and when you compare the Mets to the Braves and the Phillies, there isn’t anything that significantly separates the three teams. Both the Phils and the Braves have better 1-2 punches at the beginning of the starting rotation, and both teams’ lineups look stronger from top to bottom. The Mets might have an advantage with their bench, though the Phillies could be close. The Mets may be better than the Phils when it comes to starting pitchers three and four, but they may or may not be better than the Braves one through five. Defense is comparable among all three teams, though one would think a Bobby Cox team would be the strongest fundamentally. All things even, which team wants to win the most, and knows how to win? Looking at last year, you can’t say it’s the Mets.

I’m not purposely being negative — rather, I’m looking at the NL East through Billy Wagner’s eyes, and I can see why he would say what he did. He’s not wrong — the Mets DO look like the third-best team right now. That doesn’t mean the Mets will finish third, but it does mean that they better have a completely different attitude this season. They’re no longer the most talented, and not the favorites. The Mets will have to work hard, and execute, from game one through 162, if they want to win the NL East in 2008 — with or without Johan.

It’s not a bad place to be. In fact, for a Mets fan, it’s quite comfortable — the position of underdog. We don’t do well in the “Yankee” position of expecting to dominate everyone else; it isn’t in our mindset nor our character. That said, I’m with Billy the Kid when it comes to managing preseason expectations — we are third. This way, when the Mets win the 2008 NL East title, it will feel … oh … magical.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. isuzudude January 29, 2008 at 9:32 am
    Joe, I want to thank you for bringing this quote and your perspective to the table. I saw Billy’s comment over on Metsblog last night, and crossed my fingers you’d spark a discussion on the matter over here.

    I have to tell you though, I could not possibly disagree anymore with your opinion. The timing and subject matter are completely reminiscent of comments made by a certain Phillie named Jimmy Rollins last year. However, instead of reeking of depression and despair, Rollins lit a fire underneath his team and fired a message towards the direction of the Mets: WE ARE THE TEAM TO BEAT. And he made this comment after the Phillies finished 12 games in back of the Mets for the NL East crown in 2006, and after the team did nothing to replace Bobby Abreu in RF, David Bell at 3B, and attempted to resurrect a pitching staff by bringing in bums like Adam Eaton and Freddy Garcia. Yet, Rollins made his bold prediction, perhaps instilling in his teammates the will to win and the attitude of, “Hey, if he thinks we can bring the Mighty Mets down, maybe we actually can!” And it worked.

    And I think that’s the part of the equation you’re not catching, Joe. CONFIDENCE. For a team leader like Jimmy Rollins to say that the Phillies were the team to beat and not the Mets, it’s almost as though the rest of the team had to believe it. And if a group of people believe in something strong enough, they can make it true. But here we hear Billy Wagner, arguably one of the top-5 leaders on the Mets, sounding like it’s a re-building year and that all hope has already been lost in January. “We’re somewhere third.” Where’s the fire? Where’s the confidence? Where’s the never say die attitude a team leader should have? I don’t give a shit if what he is saying might be true. As a member of his team, he should be OBLIGATED to say his team is the best in the division. That 2007 was a fluke. That in 2008 the Mets will rise back to the top. That we are the team to beat and we’ll show those Phuckin’ Phillies that we mean business! But instead, Billy opens mouth and inserts foot, and sends a message to Mets fans everywhere that it’s okay to give up and not to expect much from us anytime in the near future.

    Joe, from frequenting this website often, I’ve been able to pick up that you are a coach, or at least have been a coach sometime in your past. Now imagine one of your players talking to the local media telling them, “ya know, I know we’re a good team and all, but I just don’t see how we can beat these other guys in our division. I think they’re first and second, and we’re somewhere down around third.” Would you appreciate his realism and ability to tell the truth? Or would you pull him into your office the next day and tell him, “Either be with us or be against us. Believe in this team and tell everyone we can win anything we put our minds to. And if you don’t, there’s the door.”???? I don’t see how you can accept a player of Billy Wagner’s status to come out and tell the world that he doesn’t think the Mets are the best in the division. If he thinks that way, fine. But for God Sake, keep it to your damn self. Do the fans and the rest of the team need to know that Billy is a self-doubter and pessimist?

    This even goes back to the comments Billy made at the end of last season about how Willie doesn’t know how to manage a bullpen and that it’s his fault the team failed so miserably in 2007. Again, do we need to be hearing this from Billy? He’s part of the team. Aren’t you supposed to stick up for your teammates and not point fingers of blame at individual sources? Isn’t that one of the requirements of a good teammate? Again, Joe, if you were on that team, is that something you’d like to hear from a fellow teammate? Or would you want him to keep his trap shut and leave it to the media and fans to criticize the teams’ flaws?

    In summation, I’ll say again that Billy is just speaking his mind and echoing a lot of what some of us already believe. But my problem is that he should be focused on beating the Phillies, not giving them another reason to believe in themselves. He can be as honest as he wants to be about politics, religion, and global warming…but as far as baseball is concerned, all I want to hear from Billy is that he thinks the Mets will compete for the World Series and that he thinks we’re the best team in the league. Lie if you have to. At this point, after what happened last year, we need more confidence in the doldrums of Shea Stadium than truth.

  2. whatdatmean January 29, 2008 at 9:47 am
    2 ways of looking at this one.
    1. wags hasnt learned from the tongue lashing he took the last time he opened his mouth, and is either a. an idiot who cant keep his mouth shut, or b. wants to get out of NY in a hurry
    2.maybe its redneck strategy. there is an expression, “those who beat their chests the loudest, inspire the most fear, but arent always the most great”. rather than giving rollins the chance to say they are the best, or let the brave’s thrive on being the underdog, he takes both their thunder, and gives credit to his opponents.
    However, that to me, is backwards. he has now told the Mets that he doesnt believe in the team and their talent, and that the season will be an uphill climb in futility. Also, the Braves were still slighted by being placed 2nd, and are still underdogs to the phils. not sure where he is going with this. we saw controlled chaos last year, where the inmates ran the ship. Willy needs to be the voice taunting the mets, NOT BILLY. Someone needs to shut this guy up, before he lowers his stock anymore.
    BTW Billy….this wont be forgotten the 1st time you screw up, especially in division, fans will be giving it to you harder than ever. Not quite Benitez style, but close.
    Cant we trade this guy, just out of principle?
    [example, G-men are better sans tiki & shockey bc there is unity…GO GIANTS!!!!!!!!!]
    Just throwing it out there…
  3. Walnutz15 January 29, 2008 at 10:33 am
    “The bigger the game, the smaller the Wagner” — my motto.

    Congrats to Billy Wagner for speaking his mind……again. Although I agree with the comment, to an extent (if the Mets land Johan, then things change quite a bit headed into ‘08 camp) — you don’t say this publicly.

    It just reeks of a guy who says things for the sake of saying it.

    Wagner really needs to just shut up and show up when it matters. The act’s getting old……with every organization he represents.

    After watching the interview, I’m more or less convinced that Billy Wagner never has a good thing to say about a team toward the end of his stay in an organization — especially if things haven’t worked out ideally as planned for him along the way.

    He had a falling out with the Astros — and criticized management/ownership in his final year in Houston. He ripped his owner and was ultimately traded.

    He’s ripped Philly, before and after his departure from the organization. (“24 vs. 1” — painting Burrell as “rat-boy”)

    Now, even though he didn’t appear to say it in such a manner where you’d immediately look at him like an arsehole…..he’s again outwardly criticizing his team’s off-season, and annointing 2 other teams within his own division as “better” off-the-bat.

    True? Definitely not clearly.

    And there’s really no coincidence here….that every organization he’s ripped in the past/present, has suffered in the standings (or advancement in the playoffs) because of big-time meltdowns from Mr. Wagner.

    ‘Stros — playoff meltdowns, 1998 and 2001 (crucial bombs by Jimmy Leyritz, Chipper Jones)

    Philly — big-time 3-run homerun given up down the stretch to Biggio….’Stros finish 1-game ahead of Wagner’s Phils in the 2005 Wild Card Standings.

    Mets — seemingly anytime a save situation’s not ideal, he comes in and makes things interesting. We don’t need to go any further than So Taguchi, but we can turn the page on the 2006 NLCS debacle, and look at any big game down the stretch in 2007. He was as much to blame as anyone else in pissing a lead atop the standings away.

    It’s time for him to put up, or shut-up. Keep padding those stats vs. the dregs of the league — those stats and ERA look pretty when it’s a save-situation, and you pitch 1 inning with no one on base.

    Show us you can step it up when the game/season’s on the line….then maybe we can start to take you seriously.

    Take away that Picasso-painted picture-perfect save situation for Wagner — and you have yourself a paler version of Armando Benitez.

    Walk the walk for once, Hill Billy.

    (Part of me agrees with him: In that it’d be refreshing to see this “3rd best” team step it up and play some ball this season. And I sincerely hope that Willie actually challenges them in 2008…..as it wasn’t done the entire way in 2007. However, save this kind of talk for the locker room — not shout it from the mountain-tops on your organization’s own network. And really…give it the entire winter, since you have no idea what’s capable of happening over the next week or so. Dummy.)

  4. joe January 29, 2008 at 11:43 am
    Wow … did Billy hit a nerve?

    Yes, Billy talks too much — no doubt. However I’m not convinced it was a bad thing for him to say, and I don’t think it reeks of a lack of confidence.

    Rather, my interpretation is that Wagner acknowledges what we’ve been feeling as fans since about June of last year — the Mets cannot EXPECT to win the NL East simply by showing up. They were too full of themselves last year, and took the Braves and Phillies too lightly. I’m sure the Mets are confident in their ability, but they can’t be over-confident.

    Yes, I’ve coached for many years and in fact I think it’s OK if my team feels they might not be most talented — because it forces them to work that much harder to win. As we saw in 2007, talent doesn’t win games.

  5. Micalpalyn January 29, 2008 at 11:53 am

    This is too juicy to pass up:

    A. Isuzu & Joe: You guys have known since last all star break about my distaste of on Billy Wagner. So much so that you all know that I have advocated trading him.

    Its not so much his play on the field: http://www.attytood.com/2007/08/go_crazy_folksgo_crazy_1.html

    …As his clubhouse persona. I am refering to media speculation of a divided clubhouse in 2007. LoDuca and Wagner being the more outspoken. I remember a similar incident/time when we had these ‘sentiments’ it was being spoken in the media in Spring tng (03-04?) and it was Leiter and Franco making comments about a young pitcher named Kazmir.

    I agree with ALL of you. Billy has not been a big game pitcher. Certainly not for the Mets. But if he cant save a close game in clutch situations why is he here? Why does he get $10M (see Papelbon, Huston street).

    I agree on the Rollins comment too. It has been lauded (reference his MVP award) that he is so charismatic he willed his team to win…

    But at the same time, I think we have one such guy, Not delgado, not CB, but DAVID WRIGHT. As such I am not concerned. DW will put that quote in the correct context (by Spr Tng).

  6. baseball » Wagner: We Are Third January 29, 2008 at 12:05 pm
    […] joe wrote a fantastic post today on “Wagner: We Are Third”Here’s ONLY a quick extractFurther, while the pundits claim the Braves are hurt by the exits of Andruw Jones and Renteria, one must look at those two guys and realize that neither had much of an impact on Atlanta’s third-place finish. Jones batted .222 and played … […]
  7. isuzudude January 29, 2008 at 12:20 pm
    I think, to be fair, Billy’s ENTIRE quote should be mentioned to put everything in proper context:

    “I think the Phillies are probably the top team, I think the Braves are second and I think we’re probably somewhere like third. We have to play the season. But, that’s just basing it off how we played last year. But, this should be a motivating year. We really have to step up and quit talking about doing some things and just do it.”

    The full quote doesn’t paint Billy out to be as bad as first thought. And although he doesn’t come out and say (which probably would have been for the better), Billy does imply that the Mets can finish in 1st place again. I think the key words are “motivating,” “step up,” and “just do it.” Not 100% confident, but certainly better than just “probably somewhere like third.” Still, I wish Billy would stop being the Negative Nellie of the group and just say something like, “I know we can win this year and I’m confident in our players and abilities.” Period. Stop talking.

  8. joe January 29, 2008 at 12:49 pm
    Good point … the entire quote sounds a lot better. But it wouldn’t have sparked nearly as much debate, right?

    Blogs moving the way of tabloids ….


  9. Micalpalyn January 29, 2008 at 1:38 pm
    Again: that’s the problem with athletes in the spotlight. “They” must be more conscious of their words. we at this sites have often lauded DW for always having the write quote.

    As Isuzu points out there are alot of other things Billy could have said.

  10. Walnutz15 January 29, 2008 at 1:50 pm
    I don’t like Billy Wagner. Never have.

    When given options like John Franco, Armando Benitez, and Braden Looper — of course he looks the most polished. His track record in big games, however….more of the same.

    I’ve watched the interview, and don’t think he said it in as much of an incriminating fashion as most of us have painted him in — but the idea that he feels this team is 3rd best in the division is garbage. You don’t give the NY media quotes to run with for the sake of it.

    If Wagner thinks what he went through in Philly was bad — imagine he’s in the middle of what’s making us “3rd best” in 2008?

    He ain’t seen nuthin’ yet — many fans are just coming to the realization that he’s not (and has never been) a big game pitcher.

    He’d better not let them find out.

  11. joe January 29, 2008 at 1:57 pm
    Here’s an idea … how about if the Mets actually DO something of significance … such as trade for Johan Santana? That would be the ideal lifesaver for Billy’s comments — the quote would be forgotten completely.
  12. Walnutz15 January 29, 2008 at 2:08 pm
    Point being, he shouldn’t need to point to the completion of a trade to be his “lifesaver” — just go out, do your job, and shut your mouth.

    Want to issue challenges to your teammates behind closed doors? Do it.

    Want to post immature signs in the public view of the media…..and caused all sorts of media turmoil……like he always does?

    Then back it up on the field 100%.

    I hope the Mets trade for Johan, it would just give further credence to the fact that Wagner can’t just go with the flow. Motivate, and step up as a leader — don’t just say things to the media because you feel compelled to give a “State of The Mets” address.

  13. Micalpalyn January 29, 2008 at 2:35 pm
    Remember Pedro’s (brilliant) debut 3 yrs ago………Remember that other closer Braden Looper?
  14. sincekindergarten January 29, 2008 at 5:37 pm
    I guess that Billy’s going to have to revisit that little comment, eh? 😉 🙂
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