Archive: October 24th, 2008

Roster Remake of 2001-2002

This offseason is eerily similar to the one between 2001 and 2002 — when the Mets also were intent on “remaking” the roster, and “addition by subtraction”.

The Mets went to the postseason — the World Series, in fact — in 2000, then took a step back in 2001. There were big contracts to dump, aging veterans to clear out, a bullpen to restructure, and room to be made for up-and-coming prospects. (Any of this sound familiar?)

For example, they were looking toward youngsters Grant Roberts, Jerrod Riggan, Bruce Chen, and possibly Billy Traber making contributions to the pitching staff. Roberts and Chen had shown some promise in short stints in 2001, and Riggan had established himself as a strong righty out of the bullpen. Though their farm system had been criticized, they did have a potential star in Alex Escobar, a can’t-miss lefty in Traber, and some good-looking talent at the lower levels, such as Juan Lebron, Jason Phillips, Mike Kinkade, Ty Wigginton, Dicky Gonzalez, Jason Roach, Earl Snyder, Robert Stratton, Pat Strange, Heath Bell, Jeremy Griffiths, Jae Seo, and Prentice Redman.

However, they were smarting from a third-place finish, and fans were eager to see underperforming stars such as Todd Zeile, Kevin Appier, and Al Leiter get the heave-ho. The bullpen would need an overhaul, with the absence of John Franco (elbow), the exits of Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook, and the subpar work of Rick White and Donne Wall, among others. Riggan, in fact, was seen at the time as the best returning middle reliever — a possible setup man to Armando Benitez. The thought was that if they could make a few moves to expel the excess baggage, and find solid players to surround Edgardo Alfonzo, Mike Piazza, Rey Ordonez, and Benitez, they could get back to the postseason. Don’t laugh — Benitez was coming off a 43-save season, and Ordonez, in addition to being the best defensive shortstop in the NL, was starting to look better with the bat, with career highs in doubles, triples, and homeruns. If they could add a few sluggers and shore up the bullpen issues, they’d be on their way.

Toward that end, following are the trades GM Steve Phillips made.

Robin Ventura to the Yankees for David Justice
David Justice to the As for Mark Guthrie and Tyler Yates

Ventura had underperformed and was having back issues, so they sent him (selling low) to the Yankees for David Justice, who also was coming off a terrible year. It seemed like a decent gamble, since the Mets had no power hitting outfielders — until they flipped Justice to Oakland for 36-year-old LOOGY Mark Guthrie and hard-throwing Hawaiian Tyler Yates. The Justice part of the deal turned out OK, in hindsight — Guthrie had a career year and Yates looked promising, while Justice had a so-so final season (.266, 11 HR) — but neither player had much of an impact on the 2002 season. Ventura, meanwhile, hit 27 HR and 93 RBI for the Yankees in his last season as an effective Major Leaguer. You could say that the Mets were better off trading Ventura a year too early than a year too late, but they didn’t get much in return. Yates showed flashes of potential before being released, and Guthrie left via free agency after the 2002 season. In the end, the Mets would have been better off holding on to Ventura, because removing him meant Edgardo Alfonzo would move to the hot corner, setting up this deal:

Matt Lawton, Alex Escobar, Jerrod Riggan, Earl Snyder and Billy Traber to the Indians for Roberto Alomar, Mike Bacsik, and Danny Peoples.

Talk about buying high! In the end, none of those prospects did anything, so it didn’t hurt the Mets in that respect. But people forget that Traber was a brighter prospect than Jon Niese is now, Escobar was more toolsy than Fernando Martinez and closer to the bigs, Riggan at that time would compare to Joe Smith, and Snyder was a power-hitting first baseman coming off a strong season in AA — in other words, he was Nick Evans. Lawton was a pretty good all-around player with a strong bat and gap power, but who had trouble hitting lefties. Can you say Ryan Church?

Considering that the Mets could do better at second base, would you trade Church, Niese, F-Mart, Joe Smith, and Nick Evans for, say, Brian Roberts? Or, for Chase Utley? For Ian Kinsler or Michael Young?

After the Alomar deal, the Mets sent Justice to Oakland for Guthrie and Yates. Both would be candidates for the bullpen, but the Mets were going to need starting pitching depth, because they were looking to unload Appier’s enormous contract. San Francisco was listening.

Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Desi Relaford to the Giants for Shawn Estes.
This was a situation where the Mets appeared to be selling high and buying low — both Relaford and Shinjo were coming off the best seasons of their career — and Estes was coming off a disappointing season. Estes was also due a big raise in arbitration, which combined with his poor 2001 were the reasons he was available. Still, the Mets traded two men who were borderline everyday starters, under 30, and with cheap contracts. In return they received a fourth or fifth starter with a salary more befitting a #2. I would liken it to trading Endy Chavez or Nick Evans and Dan Murphy for someone like Chris Young of the Padres.

Estes’ arrival made the next trade easy.

Kevin Appier to the Angels for Mo Vaughn
For those who want to dump Luis Castillo’s bad contract, try to remember this deal. The Mets signed Appier to an extraordinary deal (at the time) — four years at $42M — and he proceeded to go 11-10. Not a great year, but the worst of his career. There were whispers he was injured, or simply done (sound familiar?). The Mets, embarrassed with the contract, and desperate to remove this albatross, send Appier to the Left Coast in return for Vaughn, who had missed the entire previous season and had ballooned to around 300 pounds. Again, a sell-low situation where the Mets were desperate. They did get rid of Appier’s bad contract, but took on Vaughn’s, which was worse. Appier won 14 games the next season for the Angels.

I can’t think of a good comparison to this year’s team. Maybe it would be like if the Mets had Barry Zito and were trading him for Moises Alou, and Alou had a three-year contract.

But these deals had further-reaching effect. To fill Appier’s spot in the rotation, and make room for Vaughn, the Mets first signed Pedro Astacio to a 1-year, $5M deal with incentives, and then made this deal:

Lenny Harris and Glendon Rusch to the Brewers and Benny Agbayani, Todd Zeile, and cash to the Rockies, for Craig House and Ross Gload from the Rockies and Jeff D’Amico, Jeromy Burnitz, Lou Collier, Mark Sweeney, and cash from the Brewers.

D’Amico, who had been injury prone but had a decent 2001, was a typical “buy high” acquisition — the Mets gave up starting first baseman Todd Zeile, left fielder Benny Agbayani, and young lefty Glendon Rusch (among others). Now, it could be argued that the Mets actually sold high on Agbayani and Rusch — I’d be with you on Benny, but not Rusch, who threw 210 innings the next season and might have continued his upward rise if not for injuries. It’s hard to draw a comparison with current Mets, but I’ll say it’s like sending Ryan Church and Jon Niese for Ricky Nolasco and Luis Gonzalez. Actually, that’s probably not a great comparison, but the best I can come up with right now.

When spring training broke, the Mets still had questions on their pitching staff, particularly in the bullpen. As a result they made this trade:

Bruce Chen, Dicky Gonzalez, Saul Rivera and Luis Figueroa to the Expos for Scott Strickland, Phil Seibel, and Matt Watson.

They sold high on Gonzalez, who was coming off a strong minor league season, but low on Chen. Eventually, Chen got his act together — though it took a while and was fairly brief. It turned out to be a great trade when Strickland had a strong year as the setup man, and began pushing Armando Benitez for the closer role.

As the 2002 season went along, it was clear that the offseason makeover wasn’t working. The Mets still needed pitching, and, still within striking distance of a wild card berth, made two last-ditch efforts on July 31st, the trade deadline.

Jay Payton, Robert Stratton, and Mark Corey to the Rockies for John Thomson and Mark Little

Frustrated with waiting for the oft-injured Jay Payton to blossom, the Mets shipped him off to the thin air of Colorado, where his career took off. Thomson had shown some promise before tearing his labrum and missing all of 2000, but his 7-8 record with the Rockies at the time had suggested that he was on the way back. The 24-year-old Robert Stratton was a former first-round pick who had hit 20 homers in his first 256 at-bats with Norfolk. Corey was a 27-year-old righty who had posted a 1.04 ERA out of Norfolk’s bullpen. Thomson was a bust, and they let him walk after the year. Corey and Stratton never did much at the big league level. Payton didn’t win any batting titles, but the Mets would have been happy to have an outfielder like him every year since.

Bobby M. Jones, Josh Reynolds, and Jason Bay to the Padres for Steve Reed and Jason Middlebrook

Jones was having a tough year (selling low), but Middlebrook was just as bad and the Padres had no need for the 37-year-old Reed, who was in the middle of the best season of his career and would be a free agent at the end of the year. San Diego liked the lefty Jones for reasons unknown, and Reynolds was more suspect than prospect. Padres scouts were high on Bay, who had hit .362 in A ball the previous season and was showing gap power, discipline at the plate, and surprising speed in his first year of AA.

In the end, the makeover for 2002 didn’t work out so well, and in fact sent the organization into a quick spiral downward for the next two seasons. You can say that Steve Phillips was to blame, but again, there is an eerie similarity to the present situation. Phillips was only a year removed from being heralded as the savior of the franchise, making great deals picking players off the scrap heap in leading the Mets to their first World Series in 15 years. Under Phillips, the Mets became perennial postseason contenders, and were breaking records in ticket sales. Then it all got ugly quickly — and it was sparked by the need to move the Appier contract.

Is this to suggest that Omar Minaya will make the same terrible moves? Of course not. What we need to point out here is that dumping one bad contract, and/or trading players at their lowest value, can have far-reaching, long-term effects. It’s not as easy as “getting rid of a guy” and then being done with it. The Appier-Vaughn deal was the first domino that felled the franchise, because it led to several other bad trades.

You can argue that trading Luis Castillo won’t cause the same effect. But there are people who believe that not only Castillo should go, but also Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis, and perhaps Duaner Sanchez and Pedro Feliciano. Add in that Pedro Martinez, Oliver Perez, and Luis Ayala may leave via free agency, and now you’re looking at SEVEN holes to fill on the pitching staff (not to mention second base and left field). The 2002 Mets were crippled after sending away one key starter — which led to the trade of a second key starter. Before thinking it makes sense to “get rid of” all these players coming off bad years — and at a time when they have little value — try to be realistic in figuring out how the Mets will replace all those innings and appearances. Look at the deals above and note how much the Mets overpaid in nearly every deal in an attempt to change their situation.

Further, even though most of the youngsters traded away turned out to be trash, it did weaken the organization to a point where they’re still trying to recover. At the same time, before you go counting on Niese, Parnell, Evans, and Murphy to save the franchise, remember guys like Traber, Escobar, Griffiths, Snyder, Gonzalez, Riggan, Redman, and countless others who were tabbed as “can’t miss” prospects at similar points in their career. For every Jason Bay there are ten Robert Strattons. If history is any indicator, the Mets, in order to dump some of these bad contracts, they’ll likely have to include prospects — if they want anything of value in return.

Bottom line? Be careful what you wish for. The Mets may find new addresses for Heilman, Castillo, Schoeneweis, etc., but at what cost?

(BTW, I want to give credit where credit is due: see Mike Steffanos’ excellent piece from two years ago for a great synopsis of Mets deals going back to 1981 — it was a main piece of my research for this long-winded post. Mike and his staff continue to do a great job blogging at Mike’s Mets.)


Goodbye Conti Equals Goodbye Pedro?

The Mets announced that Howard Johnson would remain their batting coach for 2009, Dan Warthen will continue as the pitching coach, both Sandy Alomars would return to the staff, Razor Shines will take over as the third base coach, and Randy Niemann will replace Guy Conti as bullpen coach. The lucrative and vital position of first base coach is still open — and it’s no wonder, as the organization should take their time to make sure the absolute correct candidate is chosen for such a key role.

It was also announced that Conti and Luis Aguayo would be reassigned within the organization.

What could be interpreted by the demotion of Guy Conti — and it IS a demotion, no matter which way you slice it — is that Pedro Martinez also will not be returning. Conti had been originally promoted from the Mets’ farm system at the request of Pedro, who had worked with the coach as a member of the Dodgers.

Of course, it could just be a signal that if Pedro returns, he won’t wield the same influence in the organization as before. Based on Pedro’s performance the last few years, it’s understandable. At the same time, Conti’s presence was nothing but positive during his tenure, with several pitchers going to him for advice and guidance. He, like Warthen, was the “anti-Jacket”, a coach who had a somewhat opposite philosophy from Rick Peterson. Pitchers who didn’t buy in to Peterson’s approach could go to Conti (and Pedro) for support.

That said, it’s probably redundant to have Warthen and Conti at the big-league level — and I’m hoping he’ll accept a reassignment and work with the Mets’ young prospects.

As for Luis Aguayo, no one’s sure how or why he was handed the third base coaching job in the first place — he won’t be missed. Tony Bernazard will likely make sure his countryman is placed in a position in the lower ranks where he can succeed.

Randy Niemann‘s return to the big club is not a shocker, but intriguing. One of his main jobs was rehabilitating pitchers after injuries — and has been given high marks for his work in that role. I’m curious to know if Niemann will be working with John Maine over the winter. Maybe part of Niemann being promoted has to do with keeping an eye on Maine — who I maintain MUST correct his mechanics to avoid another injury.

Razor Shines should be a fun addition to the coaching squad. Besides having a great baseball name, he was a legend in the minors — a real-life Crash Davis in AAA during the 1980s. From all reports, he’s a great guy who has earned this promotion to the bigs. Though he’s won over 500 games as a minor league manager, he has never been seriously considered for a big-league job.

The return of the Alomars is fine with me — they seem to be good guys and they know baseball. Sandy Jr. in particular appeared to have a positive effect on the catching corps. In addition, they’re both harmless, and non-threatening.

There’s an interesting detail regarding the staff thus far — not one of the coaches would be seriously considered as a replacement to Manuel anytime soon. The one guy who might be considered would be Ken Oberkfell, who, if he remains in the Mets organization, will be back in AAA. Don’t be surprised if Obie takes a big league job with someone such as St. Louis, where he could be groomed as an eventual replacement to Tony LaRussa.

I’m not sure what to think about the 2009 coaching staff. On the one hand, I love Hojo, like the Alomars, Warthen, and Niemann, and believe I’ll like Shines (how can you NOT like a guy named Razor Shines?). On the other hand, most of this staff has witnessed one or two collapses, and only Hojo has a World Series ring. The playing roster is devoid of Champions — except for Luis Castillo, the one guy everyone wants to jettison — and the coaching staff (including the manager) also has not tasted the Champagne. Maybe that means nothing, or maybe it means everything. Willie Randolph had a few rings, and he had four coaches on his staff with World Series rings. That staff did lead the Mets to their last postseason appearance, but perhaps it was just a coincidence.

Bottom line is this: key leaders of the last two collapses have been retained, which suggests that the blame is put squarely on the shoulders of the players. If that suggestion holds true, we should expect to see a significant roster turnover, as hinted at by COO Jeff Wilpon earlier in the week.