Our story begins last July, when the Mets, after a promising start to the 2012 season have once again fallen out of contention. The July 31st trade deadline is looming and the hope among the Mets faithful is that General Manager Sandy Alderson can spin some of his veteran players into prospect gold.
One obvious candidate is outfielder Scott Hairston. Scott is enjoying perhaps a career season on his way to 20 homers while tattooing left-handed pitching at a 286/317/550 rate. So here come the Detroit Tigers with an interest in adding Scott for their pennant push. Alderson, who has built somewhat of a reputation as a shrewd trader, based on the Carlos Beltran for Zack Wheeler trade with the Giants the year before, holds out for a top five Tiger prospect. Dave Dombrowski, Alderson’s Detroit counterpart, nixes that idea. So the Mets keep Hairston and finish with 74 wins, “good” for another fourth place finish and the team’s lowest win total in eight seasons.
Fast-forward to the offseason and the formerly valuable Hairston apparently isn’t so valuable anymore. He is looking for a multi-year deal, but one isn’t coming from the Mets. But fear not: Sandy has a plan. The plan’s name is Justin Upton. And it’s a good plan, at least on paper. Upton is the right-handed power hitter the team needs. He is young enough to make you believe that his best years lay ahead of him and his past performance isn’t shabby at all. But there’s a problem: Arizona GM Kevin Towers is insisting on either Matt Harvey or Wheeler as part of the deal, a move Alderson is reluctant to make. Still, by all accounts (I read Metsblog too much) Upton remains the focus of the offseason master plan. Hairston is left to twist in the wind and other likely more attainable outfield candidates than Upton begin to switch teams.
Then a break: Upton is dealt to Seattle for a bushel of prospects including Seattle’s version of Wheeler or Harvey. However, Upton has a No-Trade Clause that includes the Mariners, which has got to be the first time the Mariners were on anybody’s NTC. Now optimistic, Sandy begins to woo Towers again. Suddenly, the Atlanta Braves, a team never afraid, it seems, to make a big move, swoop in with an offer that includes Martin Prado (whom I am glad to see out of the NL East) and a few intriguing pitching prospects and they steal Upton away from Alderson’s clutches.
All is not lost however. Like a Georgia tornado, the possibility of Michael Bourn playing for the Mets suddenly roars into view. Like Upton, Bourn would be a great fit. He is a speedy, defensively peerless centerfielder. The Mets desperately need a leadoff type who can be that defensive in whiz in center. His price is about right: he would eventually cost about half of what the Mets had been willing to offer Jose Reyes, their erstwhile leadoff man, at the end of the 2011 season. Concerns about his age are countered by the fact that relatively diminutive players like Bourn often stay useful longer, a la Juan Pierre or Kenny Lofton. No less of a presence than David Wright, who became a Met for life earlier this offseason, reaches out to Bourn about coming to Queens. Meanwhile Alderson, stirs from his long winter’s nap and makes a surprise signing of Shaun Marcum, probably the best starting pitcher left on the market and adds a few intriguing bullpen arms as well.
Suddenly, everything is starting to come up Mets. Wright is in the fold long-term. Marcum has come on board, while Wheeler and Travis d’Araund, Alderson’s big catch from Toronto, are listed among the top ten prospects in all of baseball. If the Mets can add Bourn they may actually find themselves in a vastly improved position at the start of Spring Training. Hope is a-borning, pun intended.
Meanwhile, the once only-for-a-top-prospect Hairston is offered a one year, one million-dollar deal. He says “see ya” and signs with the Chicago Cubs.
But wait, there’s a problem with Bourn also. The Mets entered the offseason with their top pick in the upcoming June amateur draft protected in the event they sign a player (like Bourn) who had received a qualifying offer his 2012 team. According to baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the teams with the ten worst records the previous year will not forfeit this draft pick if they sign one of these players. The Mets were the 10th-worst team. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates were unable to sign Mark Appel, their top draft pick from the previous year, so the Pirates are re-slotted with the #9 pick in the draft, bumping the Mets to #11 and out of the protective shield. This ruling, which apparently didn’t raise a peep from the Mets when it was first made, is now suddenly a show-stopper in their efforts to get Bourn. Good thing the Wilpons and Commissioner Bud Selig are tight. Fred’s ol’ Buddy will fix it. Proving that you should never trust a used car salesman, Selig punts the decision to an arbitrator. Maybe Selig is sick of the Wilpons too.
So earlier this week, the other shoe drops and Bourn signs the deal the Mets offered him, but with the Cleveland Indians. The whole draft pick issue is the sticking point and Bourn doesn’t want to wait several weeks to see if the arbitrator will rule in the Mets favor. It is hard to say no to $50 million dollars, I guess.
So instead of an outfield of Bourn in center, Upton in right and a Hairston/Lucas Duda platoon in left, the Mets opt to keep two players, one who has yet to play an inning in the major leagues (Wheeler) and the other (the draft pick) that isn’t even in professional baseball yet. I have seen Wheeler pitch and I would have traded him (but not Harvey) for Upton. They would have essentially traded an old Carlos Beltran for a young Carlos Beltran, if you can follow the logic.
I can remember mid-90’s Met GM Joe McIlvaine turning down offers from teams for then uber-prospects Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. In retrospect, Joe should have listened a little harder. For every Tom Seaver, there are a half dozen Randy Tates, Brent Gaffs or Phil Humbers, heralded prospects that didn’t pan out . Harvey, Wheeler and d’Araund could just as easily flame out as set the league on fire. For the sake of the long suffering fan base, I hope this isn’t the case, because we’re going to suffer enough this year anyway with a lineup that doesn’t hit for power or a high OBP and is also slow-footed and defensively challenged to boot. Not exactly an ideal incubator for young pitching talent. Alderson grinned like the cat that ate the canary most of the winter, all the while cracking wise about the outfield, but in the end he has let opportunities slip through his fingers.
Being an actual GM is a lot harder than being an armchair one, I get that, but what I don’t get is that these accomplished and experienced baseball brains can be so far off the mark so often. They hold on to an older player midway through a season that is going nowhere, only to essentially ignore him in the offseason and let him walk away for nothing. They then go elephant hunting in an attempt to get a lot better quickly, but lose their collective nerve at the price tag. They dumpster dive to fill 25-man roster spots and look moribund while expressing their dismay over exorbitant signings by teams in markets a fraction of the size of theirs. Losing a protected draft pick barely makes a ripple until an unforeseen opportunity arises, which a proactive rather reactive approach might have been able to salvage. Instead of an outfield with two all-stars and a platoon with a potential to hit a combined 40 homeruns, we get Marlon Byrd and Collin Cowgill added to an uninspiring cast of holdovers.
For me, this looks like a good summer to build that Garden Railway.