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.