During this offseason, there was a flood of action. Big name free agents were available. Big names were traded. The face of some franchises was completely changed. Several teams made moves that could push them into playoff contention (both Chicago teams, Boston, San Diego, Miami, etc.). Some teams made less appealing moves (I’m looking at you, Billy Beane), but we’ll have to wait and see how they work out. But, today’s article is the first of six in which I hope to highlight some of the recent history with a handful of teams. We’re going to begin with the teams that simply don’t seem to understand how to build a championship caliber team.
As soon as you read that sentence, I imagine a team or two popped into your head. Most teams in the league go through ups and downs – good years and bad. But, these teams fail repeatedly. They’re the teams that can’t seem to get out of their own way. They’re the Oakland Raiders of MLB. They’re the teams that you almost feel bad for a guy when he’s traded there (unless, of course, you happen to be a fan of that team). And, for a litany of reasons, they will continue to fail unless they stumble by sheer luck into a great player, or some drastic changes are made in the front office.
Chicago Cubs: Until they prove that they can actually win – and win consistently – all the impressive talent in their minor league system is just that: the minor leagues. Prior to the signing of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, et al., by new ownership, I would have absolutely included the Cubs in one of these posts (the previous front office spent money in all the wrong places). But, while they have finished in last place each of the last 5 seasons, the new regime has used their advantageous draft position (as well as timely trades) to turn one of the leagues most dilapidated farm systems into one of (if not the) best in the game. Additionally, with the acquisitions of Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero, they have added key pieces to a team that is likely to see that young talent start producing. It all remains to be seen whether or not it will work – but, for now, we will avoid accusing them of simply “not getting it.”
Now, for today’s team that just doesn’t get it…
New York Mets
Over the last 26 years, the Mets have made 3 playoff appearances. And, they haven’t even sniffed the playoffs since 2008. But, what will drive Mets fans crazy is the fact that they have only finished in last place three times, in that same stretch of time. They consistently field a . . . mediocre team. They aren’t the laughing stock of the league, like the franchise was when it first got its start in 1962. But, they aren’t ever able to really put it all together. Why? There are a plethora of reasons. Let’s start with the farm system. The Mets currently have a respectable farm system (generally considered to be one of the top 10 in the game at the moment). But, they can’t seem to translate minor league potential into major league talent. Even when guys make it into the major leagues and do well (Jason Isringhausen), they immediately plummet back to earth, and are soon traded away – in Isringhausen’s case, he went on to great success as a closer, after the Mets gave up on him as a starter, and traded him away. But, think about some of the big-time talent over the last several years that didn’t pan out from the Mets’ farm system: Lastings Milledge (their #1 draft pick in ’03), Jason Tyner (#1 draft pick in ’98), Paul Wilson (#1 overall pick in ’94), Bill Pulsipher (2nd round pick in ’91 – one of the supposed “Generation K” group of pitching prospects in the Mets farm system, which included Wilson and Isringhausen). Then there’s prospects they’ve picked up in trades. Alex Ochoa was the prospect that the Mets were waiting for, in order to pull the trigger on a trade that sent Bobby Bonilla to Baltimore. And, while the jury’s still out on him, wasn’t Travis d’Arnaud supposed to be the key piece of the R.A. Dickey trade with Toronto? Yet, despite destroying AAA pitching for two years, in his 139 games at the major league level, he has a whopping .233/.299/.384 stat line. All of these, at various times, were considered top-quality prospects.
Some might suggest that it’s unfair to judge a team or front office by their drafting abilities, because it’s so difficult to get from the minors to the majors. And, while I do think that better scouting and better minor league coaching is going to have a significant impact on your major league team, I can see why some would defend these moves by the Mets as something they couldn’t have necessarily seen coming. But, that doesn’t excuse the moves they should have seen coming.
One thing the Mets seem to be interested in doing is waiting to see a player blossom into a great talent, spend his prime years with another team, and then overpay him when he’s past his prime (but still a recognizable name in the league, so their fans will think they’re getting someone great). The list is long. And sad. And, it begins with Bobby Bonilla. Five years and $29 million is a quality second baseman’s contract these days (see Howie Kendrick). But, in 1991, it made Bonilla the richest player in the game. But, the richest player in the game was far from the best player in the game. Before being traded in the midst of his 4th year of the contract (see above discussion of Ochoa), he made 2 All-Star game appearances (never as a starter), and never received a single MVP vote. Bonilla wasn’t a bad player – but, richest contract in baseball? Not even close.
But, the saddest part about all this is – that’s not even the worst decision the Mets made regarding a Bonilla contract. When they re-signed him before the ’99 season (at the age of 36), it was for two years at nearly the same salary, after having played just 100 games the previous season due to injury. The ’99 season was a disaster – only 60 games, batting .160, and creating all kinds of havoc in the clubhouse. It made perfect sense that the Mets wanted to buy out Bonilla’s contract for 2000. What didn’t make sense, was the way they bought him out. Instead of doing the logical thing, and paying him his $5.9 million, they decided to defer the payment until 2011. Why would Bonilla agree to this? Because that $5.9 million would turn into $30 million. From 2011 through 2035, the Mets will owe Bobby Bonilla about $1.2 million per year. Only the Mets…
Want more bad contracts from the Mets? How about a 4-year, $66 million contract for a 31-year-old Jason Bay in 2010? That one was so bad that after his pitiful 2012 season, they were willing to pay him $21 million to go play somewhere else. What about the “power-hitting” and “can’t miss defender” that was Kaz Matsui? Three years and $20 million later, the Mets realized he was actually a singles hitter at best (.256/.308/.363 stat line in NY), and an average defender. Six years, $137-million for a 29-year-old Johan Santana doesn’t sound ridiculous. That is, until you realize he was coming off the worst season of his career. And, when he wasn’t injured, and could actually play for the Mets, he only won 46 games. That’s about $3 million per win. Pedro Martinez is a Hall of Fame pitcher. But, signing him at the age of 33, for 4 years and $54 million in 2004?? He only reached double-digit wins once in NY. For more bad ideas, see the Mets’ signings of Oliver Perez in 2009, Luis Castillo in 2008, Vince Coleman in ’91, Roger Cedeno in 2002, and so on.
There’s a reason the Mets have just 7 playoff appearances in their 53-year history. And, unless they get some legitimate batting talent, all this talk of their vaunted pitching prospects isn’t going to matter, and they will continue to view the postseason from their couch at home.