Three weeks ago, the New York Mets were leaders in the National League Wild Card race and breathing down the necks of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. They were alive and kicking, playoff contenders by any stretch of the imagination set to return arguably their best player to the lineup after the All-Star Break. This was, of course, before the wheels fell off. Since the 4th of July, the Mets have the worst record in the entire National League, winning just four times in their last 17 tries. They are 7.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and 5 games out of the Wild Card with four teams between them and leaders San Francisco. Along the way, the Mets have lost 12 games on walk-off hits and seem poised to hold the dubious distinction of losing more games via walk-off in one season than any other baseball team ever (the current MLB record is 16). Though the starting pitching has been good, the Mets have not hit with runners in scoring position, they do not show a disciplined approach at the plate, they do not play their optimal lineup on a regular basis and they are run by a top-down organizational philosophy that values saving face far, far more than it does winning ballgames. It is with great regret that I admit that it is once again "that time of year," the time at which we accept that "they just don't have it this year". While Mets fans will continue to watch, because watching the Mets is what we do and because, against our better judgment, there is a small part of us that will always be waiting for another miracle, we know deep down that for the 24th consecutive year the Commissioner's Trophy will belong to someone else.
However, all is not lost. The Mets have a very strong core consisting of a group I like to call "Homegrown Mets Revolution" (HMR, pronounced "homer"). HMR consists of first baseman Ike Davis (a.k.a IDB for "Ike Davis, Bitch!" We are not calling Ike a bitch, but instead emasculating anyone who dares question his prodigious talents); dynamic, albeit injury-prone shortstop Jose Reyes; All-American, all-world, face-of-the franchise third baseman David Wright; impressive young catcher Josh Thole; prodigal son-turned-fourth outfielder-turned centerfielder of the future Angel Pagan. On the bump, HMR features emerging star and bearded beanstalk Mike "Big Pelf" Pelfrey, curveballer extraordinaire Jonathon Niese and flame-throwing reliever Bobby Parnell (a.k.a." Bobby Punch-out"). The point of all of this is to say that the Mets have a number of good, young players who are ours, all ours, for the foreseeable future and figure to be in the mix for a while. The Core will be complemented over the next several seasons by superstar lefty Johan Santana (affectionately known around these parts as "57") and free-agent flameout Jason Bay (who smart money says will find his stroke eventually. Remember Carlos Beltran's 2005, anybody?). Here is how the Mets can go about building a champion around their rock-solid foundation in the years to come.
- Learn the concept of the sunk cost, and act accordingly:
The sunk cost is an economic principle that states that once you have paid for something, the amount of time and money you have invested in it is unrecoverable. As a result, a rational actor should disregard the prior investment when making decisions about the future. The common example used in textbooks to illustrate this principle is a scenario in which a person has already paid for tickets to a concert he no longer wants to see and is trying to decide whether he should go to the concert and get his money's worth or go to the beach with his friends. According to the textbook, a rational actor should go to the beach because it is more optimal to have spent $30 and gone to the beach on the shores of Lake Any Pitcher Not Named Oliver Perez than to have spent $30 and sat through a truly miserable concert ("The Oliver Perez Experience" with supporting acts "The Sub-Replacement Level Second Basemen" and "Frenchy"). Though it sounds simple enough, this 101-level economics concept is one Mets General Manager Omar Minaya has struggled with mightily, giving precious playing time and roster spots to players like Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez who are not performing, simply because he has already paid them a lot of money. How the head of personnel for a multi-million dollar company can fail to grasp a concept understood by a 21-year-old who spent most of his one semester of economic training on Facebook is sort of mind-boggling. In any event, the Mets need to stop putting valuable time and development resources into these players and instead shift them to players who may prove to be of some worth in the future (Dillon Gee, Ruben Tejada, where you at?). The past two years have been like watching one of your friends continue to pursue a girl who's just not feeling him in hopes that his emotional investment will pay off and the girl will ultimately come around instead of turning his attention elsewhere. Oliver Perez isn't coming around, Omar. It's time to cut your losses and move on.
(Side note: Continuing this metaphor, a fun thing you can do after you've been relegated to the Friend Zone and have decided to cut ties with a girl is to send a text message out to all of your friends announcing something to the effect of "Jane Doe (Sophomore/Chemical Engineering) has been designated for assignment. No corresponding move yet announced". Your male friends will think it's hilarious and your female friends won't get it, so it's not even sexist!)
- Throw in the towel and rebuild
Too often, the Mets organization has undermined itself with the idea that if they just make it look like they're trying and the team is playing "meaningful games in September," fans will be satisfied enough to keep buying tickets. In addition, they also seem to act under the impression that "New Yorkers won't tolerate rebuilding". This notion is ridiculous. Mets fans--well, most of us--aren't stupid. We know that dynasties aren't built overnight and would be more than okay with a year or two of rebuilding if it meant a championship team down the line. Furthermore, the Mets have enough quality players already in place for the future that even if they do not actively add pieces in pursuit of a playoff run in 2011, the team is still going to play at or around .500 ball.
Since this season is essentially over from a competitive standpoint, the Mets should act accordingly. This means that if they have any players not part of the long-term plan that can be shipped away for useful parts, they should make those deals. For instance, Hisanori Takahashi has proved himself a decent reliever. Unfortunately, he's 35 years old and probably not a piece of the puzzle in the years to come. With relief pitching a valuable commodity in this year's trade market, why not try to see what the Mets can get back for a decent fifth starter/reliever? If the Mets could net even a league-average corner outfielder or utility infielder, this player would be an upgrade over the outgoing Jeff Francoeur or the garbage currently rotting on the Mets bench.
With Takahashi gone, the Mets will have a chance to give some of their Triple-A pitchers an opportunity to prove themselves at the Major-League level. If nothing else, the rest of 2010 can serve as an evaluation period for the team. Maybe they can get Nick Evans some at-bats. DFA'ing Rod Barajas so they're not carrying three catchers would open up another spot on the bench to get someone big-league at-bats.
- Make 2012 your go year and build toward that
As noted earlier, the Mets have plenty of pieces. Though they have shown an unwillingness to cut ties with bad contracts Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo and Alex Cora, these players come off the books after the 2011 season. Unfortunately, so does Carlos Beltran, and given his age and injury problems, I don't think it would be prudent to re-sign him. Still, the Mets will have plenty of roster space and payroll flexibility for 2012 if they can keep themselves from making any stupid, over-the-top free agent signings beforehand. Here is how the roster should look:
C: Josh Thole
2B: ? Possibly Minor-league Ruben Tejada, although I'm not totally sold on him as a big-leaguer just yet. If Daniel Murphy ever makes it back from injury, he could perhaps be taught to play second base and should be given a shot at this role.
3B: David Wright
SS: Jose Reyes
LF: Jason Bay
CF: Angel Pagan
RF: ? Perhaps a free-agent signing for the 2012 season, maybe prospect Fernando Martinez.
Basically, the team needs to work with this roster in mind, and slowly collect pieces to complement it. Finding a decent second baseman and rightfielder (JAYSON WERTH) seem to be a must. They don't have to be incredible because there are already enough good hitters in this lineup (especially if Bay starts hitting), but they need to be significantly better than Castillo and Francoeur. Under no circumstances should they mortgage the future for a chance to win in 2010 or 2011.
- Johan Santana (although it remains to be seen how good he will be in 2012)
- Mike Pelfrey
- Jonathon Niese
The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation will be contingent upon whether knuckleballer R.A. Dickey can continue to be effective and whether Jennry Mejia, a teenager with electric stuff, is ready to be a big-league starter. If both have proven themselves worthy, they should be in the rotation. If not, the Mets should have payroll flexibility to add a starter from the free agent market. The bullpen should be spearheaded by Bobby Parnell, Francisco Rodriguez and a re-signed Pedro Feliciano. Okayish middle relievers are pretty much a dime a dozen.
- Johan Santana (although it remains to be seen how good he will be in 2012)
I think this is a pretty solid plan. When you think about it, this team has a year and a half to acquire two to four pieces, with all of the major parts already in place. Being in a big market, the Mets should be able to spend money to get these players when the time is right. The main key is just to act rationally and remember that the goal should be winning championships instead of half-assing it in constant fear of an empty Citi Field. If the team builds a consistent winner, the tickets will sell themselves for years to come.