Championship Puzzles: Transactional Leadership

I’m twisting the definition of “Transactional Leadership” for the purpose of a clever headline. For “part two” of what differentiates the Mets from championship teams, what we’re going to do here is briefly look at what the front offices of the current playoff teams have done in the past year, as opposed to what the New York Mets have used as a strategy in terms of acquiring ballplayers.

Around or after the July 31st trade deadline, the small-market Cardinals added Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, Julio Lugo, and John Smoltz to fill various holes that appeared during the season. Similarly, the Dodgers picked up Ron Belliard, Jim Thome, George Sherrill, Jon Garland, and Vicente Padilla (and last year it was Casey Blake and Manny Ramirez). The Phillies grabbed Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, and Ben Francisco (last year it was Joe Blanton and Matt Stairs). The Red Sox got Victor Martinez, Adam LaRoche (before flipping him), Casey Kotchman, Billy Wagner, and Alex Gonzalez. The Angels picked up Scott Kazmir.

The biggest deadline deals done by the Mets under Omar Minaya? Luis Castillo is the best acquisition of a lot that includes Roberto Hernandez, Oliver Perez, Shawn Green, Jeff Conine, Guillermo Mota, and Luis Ayala. Compare that group — over four seasons — to what the above clubs pulled off just this year.

While the Mets bemoaned their “awful luck” with injuries to star players and “backups to the backups” (Jerry Manuel’s favorite phrase), they didn’t do much to combat the problem. Rather than make in-season changes, they chose to feel sorry for themselves and blame the disabled list for their woes.

Contrast that to the Cardinals, who lost their starting shortstop to a mental problem, didn’t get the same production from Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, and Kyle Lohse as they did in 2008, and lost slugger Troy Glaus for most of the year. Those issues weren’t all related to injuries, but added up they were comparable to the Mets’ woes in terms of individual performances. The Cardinals could have easily pointed to any of those problems and “mailed it in” as early as June 9th, when they were in the middle of a tailspin and fell to fourth place with a 31-28 record. Instead, they made moves — some small, some bold — and a month later were back atop the NL Central.

The Mets were 31-25 on June 9th, in second place and two games out of first. They were starting to feel the effects of the injured players around then, and over the next five weeks had fits and starts that saw them drop to fourth, rise back to within two games of first, then plummet back to the bottom of the division for good. Holes were opening all over the roster from that point through the end of July, and while the Cards were picking up the likes of Mark DeRosa and Matt Holliday, the Mets made “big” acquisitions such as Wilson Valdez, Fernando Nieve, and Pat Misch. Their biggest in-season trade all season was getting Jeff Francoeur for Ryan Church — when what they needed to do was get Francoeur and KEEP Church.

There’s another major contrast in style; St. Louis acquired Holliday, Lugo, DeRosa, and Smoltz and in the process gave up one MLBer — middle reliever Chris Perez. When the Mets made their one big move, it wasn’t even to fill a hole — it was merely a swap of similar starting rightfielders, and did little to address the absences of players on the DL.

From a front office perspective, the one thing that separates the Mets from championship teams is that the Mets “add the final pieces” over the winter, while championship teams do it in-season — when holes in the puzzle emerge. This strategy was made famous seven years ago in Moneyball, so it’s no secret or “cutting edge” philosophy anymore — it’s a formula for success.

While it’s true that the Mets didn’t have much for trade bait in their thin farm system to make those in-season moves, that’s been the story EVERY YEAR going back to … geez … 2002? Could the fact that the Mets annually trade those pieces in the winter (i.e., JJ Putz, Johan Santana) and routinely lose #1 and #2 picks due to Type A free agent signings (i.e., Moises Alou, Billy Wagner, Pedro Martinez, etc.) be somehow related?

It’s easy to understand why the Mets work this way: because season tickets are sold in the winter, not in July. So the Mets’ “formula” is to make the big splash in the winter, sell the season tickets, then cross their fingers that the assembled club can make it through to September without major changes. Not unlike the tried-and-true formula for dimestore novel writing: introduce the characters, prolong the agony, and keep the pages turning. Except the Mets fail to deliver on the happy ending.

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. Golfbone October 10, 2009 at 8:37 am
    The reason the Mets can’t aquire talent is because they have no prospects to trade. Their minor league talent is dreadful and that is why they had little to trade and little to bring up to major league level when they needed it. Omar has decimated this organization from the ground up. They have nothing to trade and nothing to put on the field but spend more than any other team in baseball but the Yanks.

    The worst move the Wilpons made was locking up this to a 3 year extension before his old contract was even over. Who were they afraid was going to steal him? General Motors?

  2. mic October 10, 2009 at 11:07 am
    Or: We have seen several deadline deals rumored. Huston street, Raul Ibanez, for example…could it be WILPON refused to authorized additional payroll…Just the same as jettisoning Billy Wagner to dump payroll and get NOTHING back.

    Prior to this yr the Mets could have ICED the division by giving up Bobby Parnel or Jon Niese but refusal to add payroll (Manny, Street, Belliard) has cost the franchise. But for a gutsy solo performance by CC last yr with Milwaukee and an amazin run in 2007 by the Rocks the mets make the playoffs’

    Conspiracy theory: This was intended to be a rebuilding year. The Mets need to rebuild too. They DO need a new OF, a new 2ndbaseman and a new rotation.

    I actually think Omar has done OK, given the fact he CANT do what cashman can and just splash 500M on the best FA in a given FA class.

    As it is:
    1. I think there is going to be gambling; (Sheets/Beddard/Harden)
    2. Sure things: Garland, Wolf, Doug Davis
    3. Swaps of bad contracts; Ollie/Castillo

    4. I think Maine, Francouer, Pelfrey are also bait.

    5. My opinion (today) is that Wright, Beltran and santana are the sure things for next yr…beyond that its guess work.

  3. Mike October 10, 2009 at 12:03 pm
    Golfbone you are wrong about the MEts minor league system. It is middle of the pack overall. Not nearly “dreadful” as you say. The problem was Omar was told not to add payroll or trade any top prospects. Hard to make trades exclusively from the 40 man roster.

    Thing is that the Mets lack depth at the top. Guys who can fill in immediately and contribute. Those are the most attractive pieces to trade but also the types to help a team through a few injuries. Either way it would have helped the Mets. It absolutely is a symptom of the overall problem the team has that Joe is pointing out here. This is why making any trades from the farm is a bad idea this winter. Most of the talent that is there is at least a year away (Davis, Mejia, Havens, Martinez, Holt). I’ll say this again if the FO was smart they would sit on this this winter and focus only on type B FAs and smaller trades. In mid 2010 some prospects will either be closer or ready to help. This means more likely to help via trade (more valuable and thus better return on trades) or actually contribute to the team. 2011 and beyond with the current minor league system will be a good year for home grown talent.

  4. Joe October 10, 2009 at 12:34 pm
    The Mets are are in the trouble they are in because of the Wilpons. They are involved in every decision. Wilpon might know real estate not baseball. He pushed the Mets into getting Bobby Bonilla & Kevin McReynolds and other players that haven’t panned out. They have 6 stars and the rest of the team is AAA. The farm system is baron because they are too cheap to pay above slot for prospects. Next year the only players that the Mets can expect are Niese, FMart if he doesnt get hurt again, and Thole.
    The one thing not mentioned in the article is it Omar or Wilpon who hems and haws about signing a free agent just to have another team swoop in and sign him. Last year they were talking about signing Lowe and the negotiations are going and this and the Braves just signed Lowe. I seen them do this a couple of times the last couple of years.
    The Mets have to stop getting these 5-6 inning pitchers. It taxes the bullpins and fatigues them at the end of the season when you need them the most.
  5. Joe October 10, 2009 at 1:28 pm
    Yeah, for real. Who did you want the Mets to trade for all these players? Let’s be realistic, the Mets couldn’t have made any significant moves.
  6. Ceetar October 10, 2009 at 3:01 pm
    For every ‘great’ trade these teams make, there are others that fail.

    Maine and Perez actually helped the Mets get as far as they did in 2006. The Mets collapsed in 2007, but it wasn’t because they traded for Castillo. He actually helped the club.

    I actually think the biggest failure in ’07 and ’08 was not what they signed, but who they called up.

    In ’07 they stuck with the same guys in the bullpen who were sucking.

    In ’08 it was mainly Wagner going down, but they brought up too many guys that roles never got assigned and Manuel wore out the guys that did have some success.

    This year everyone knew they weren’t one move away from making a difference if the injuries persisted. Victor Martinez would’ve helped, but he was in high demand. But it wouldn’t have been enough. Francoeur for Church was a pretty lateral move, actually Church may be a little better as a player, but Manuel didn’t like him. The trade was more about getting guys in here that Manuel liked and would work with. Maybe they should’ve been more aggressive and given it a shot. I agree that they sent the wrong message that they couldn’t compete, straight from Manuel’s mouth. If they instead mimicked Cora and Beltran “It can get done with what’s here.” and supported that by adding a guy like Holliday…who knows.

  7. Jeff October 11, 2009 at 9:44 am
    Ceetar, I’m with you. The team was not one move away. The original post mentions the record on June 6th; by July, the season didn’t look nearly as promising.

    Additionally, the Cardinals’ injuries and disappointments hardly compare to what happened to the Mets. Khalil Greene does not equal Jose Reyes. Lohse has a down year, but nothing close to what happened to Perez. Ludwick was disappointing but he gave them something close to league-average production, unlike what the Mets got from their 1st basemen after Delgado got hurt.

    And look how far the Cardinals’ moves have gotten them. They traded a solid middle reliever/potential closer and a third base prospect who everyone is drooling over. I can’t blame them for making those moves–you take a shot when it makes sense to take a shot, and the postseason is a crapshoot–but you don’t do a move for its own sake.

    I also have to contest the prospect that most championship teams make in-season moves. Gagne was a disaster for the ’07 Red Sox, they still win; the Rays didn’t get anybody and made it to the Series last year, same with the Rockies the year before; the ’06 Cardinals picked up Weaver off the scrap heap–hardly a significant addition–and the ’05 White Sox didn’t make a move at all.

    I understand the frustration–this was the hardest season to watch in a long, long time–but it was just a bad year. On paper, this was a 92 win team according to just about any predictive model. The team was in contention three years running prior to that, and who knows what happens if Wagner doesn’t get hurt last year? Yes, the Mets could draft better, and after all the criticism they’ve taken this season, I bet you’ll start seeing that. Let’s not forget the directionlessness of the team prior to Omar.

    And wouldn’t we want Scott Kazmir back? Those moves were made when a team that wasn’t close thought it should take its shot. If the Mets gave up any of their top prospects this season, it’d be the same thing over again (though just about anybody would be better than Zambrano).

    Before we complain about the Wilpons, let’s remember what it would be like to be a Pittsburgh or Kansas City fan. The Mets get mentioned in the conversation when any major player approaches free agency. They’ve signed or procured major players in each of Omar’s offseasons. Yes, New York has something to do with this, but so do the Wilpons. Are they perfect? No. But they’re not the problem. Omar’s got to adjust and I’m hopeful he will–time will tell.

  8. joejanish October 11, 2009 at 12:12 pm
    Ceetar – I believe I stated “Castillo was the best of the lot”, so no argument on that one. But Perez had very little to do with the Mets’ success in 2006. The Mets had more than a 16-game lead when Ollie won his first game as a Met on Sept. 6, 2006. He won one game in the NLCS. A big one, yes. But he was never acquired to be in that position — in fact many were surprised he made the playoff roster.

    What does Maine have to do with anything? He was acquired in January of that year.

    Jeff – the Mets were only two games behind the Phillies on July 3rd. For many teams, that’s promising. It was the negativity of Jerry Manuel and the front office’s refusal to bring in better players that made things less promising.

    Also you are taking the Cardinals comparison too literally. The point is not that they lost Khalil Greene and the Mets lost Reyes, etc. The point is that the Cardinals ADDRESSED their in-season issues while the Mets stood pat, crossed their fingers, and waited for things to get better. They had plenty of money and opportunities to plug the holes with legit MLBers, but they chose the “hopes and dreams, wait and see” approach. That same approach that caused them to fail in ’07 and ’08.

  9. mo reese October 12, 2009 at 8:26 am
    That was very On Point,Well written,and Right on the Money.The Mets could have saved their season but they just sat back and let This disaster of a season unfold and they did nothing to address their needs.I was saying this all season Long and I’m glad somebody else finally realized It,Well done!
  10. Jeff October 12, 2009 at 12:17 pm
    Again, I understand the frustration, but let’s try to remember what June looked like for this team. They went 9-18–the worst month since before Omar/Willy–and had everyone in the world go on the DL (Reyes, Delgado, and Perez were already there; Maine, Beltran, and Putz would join them during the month). By the end of the month, they were down three of their four best position players, 2/5 of their starting staff, and their key set-up man.
    If you were Omar and Jerry, could you realistically look at this picture and say “go for it”? Could you guess that the Phillies would continue to play as badly as they had during the month (they didn’t)–the only reason the Mets had stayed close?
    But let’s say they had decided to try to save the season. What would they have needed, and what would it take to get them?

    You would’ve needed two quality starting pitchers to put behind Santana (if he had been able to pitch the whole season). The Mets starters this season had a 4.77 ERA, 12th in the NL, and that’s with half the starts in Citifield. You can maybe live with the bullpen without Putz, but you need at least 200 of the innings with a 5.00 ERA to be a 4.00 if you expect to contend.
    You also needed big-time offensive upgrades at three of the four positions where the Mets were subpar offensively–catcher, shortstop, left field, and first base.

    Say the Mets picked up guys who were realistic gets and who actually got moved–Washburn (who cost two left-handed starters under 23) and Garland or Padilla (who weren’t available yet, but whatever). Say they got Nick Johnson or Adam LaRoche, Julio Lugo, and Matt Holliday or Victor Martinez as the really big get.
    That’s the MINIMUM the Mets would’ve had to do to keep up with the Phillies or catch the Rockies in the wildcard, and that’s still a lineup with big holes & not a lot of power, and a starting pitching staff that wouldn’t scare anybody.

    I really don’t think any team could bring in five impact starters or offensive players (relievers are a different story) without sacrificing their entire minor-league depth. Let’s also remember that by the time trades really started happening Fernando Martinez was hurt & hadn’t played well in the big leagues. If you sell low on him, you waste your best prospect. Who were you going to package to get Holliday or Martinez? What second-tier guys would you give up to get a guy who’s going to be a free agent (Washburn, Johnson, or Garland), especially considering you can sign those guys after the season?

    Of course, a couple teams did pick up five players. But The Cardinals made their move in 1st place with Pujols & 2 Cy Young candidates in their starting rotation. The Dodgers, also in 1st, had the major leagues’ best outfield, a solid bullpen, and a couple of studs in the rotation (before Billingsley flamed out). And they both got lucky with the moves they did make–nobody really wanted Lugo, Smoltz wanted to go to them (and wasn’t that good); LA picked Padilla off the scrap heap and it worked out, Belliard’s not going to change a season.

    We all talk about how bad the farm system is–if you make these moves, you set the system back even further than it is. Omar took the long view and saw that a season that, on paper, looked like a lost cause (by July 15th, the team was 6 1/2 out in the division, and 6 out in the wildcard….further back than they were when they made the Zambrano/Kazmir trade) because he had a triple A team on the field.

    The failure this seasons stems from a massive amount of injuries. If the team was healthy & close in July, I have no doubt they would’ve gone hard after Halladay, Holliday, Lee, or Martinez. After all, Omar has brought in big-time talent when he could. Some years just don’t go the right way. We all want a scapegoat, but sometimes there isn’t one.

  11. joejanish October 12, 2009 at 1:08 pm
    Jeff – it isn’t about just this year. This is an annual issue because the Mets address needs in the winter only. Perhaps they should have held on to the 25 guys they traded for Putz, and they would have had been either better prepared for the injuries and / or had the means to make in-season deals.

    The point is you can’t make all plans in the winter because stuff happens after opening day.