- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK -- The drumbeat of a front-office coup is growing louder, day by day. In last place in the NL East and with the league's worst offense, the Mets are on the verge of firing GM Steve Phillips.
This won't be simple, cosmetic surgery, either: The club is preparing to rid itself of its aging assets and begin a rebuilding project that could take two to three years.
That's how deep the disappointment runs among the Wilpon family, which has invested almost $120 million into a team that was designed to hit and pitch its way back to the World Series. Instead, the Mets have turned into a corporate nightmare -- underachieving on the field and overloaded with contracts so prohibitive, one of the most realistic options is to simply absorb the slings and arrows of embarrassment and begin anew in 2004.
As one rival general manager said the other day, "For the next year or two, the (Mets') situation is basically hopeless."
If the Mets family can accept such a bleak, short-term future, there is hope: the club's Double-A and Triple-A teams are flourishing, and by 2005, should become the nucleus of a younger, more reasonably priced product.
So what can the Mets do in the meantime? Here are five suggestions to salvage the summer:
Find a new general manager
Those close to the Wilpons -- both Fred and his son Jeff -- say a change will be made no later than June 1. Actually, the urgency to fire Phillips in the tabloids and talk-radio programs has bordered on hysteria, but ownership is intent on waiting a few more weeks before seeking regime-change.
By then, the Mets will have taken on the Giants, and played 12 consecutive games against the Phillies and the Braves. Phillips could save his job in the unlikely event that the Mets win 75 percent of their games this month. But even Phillips recognizes what a long shot that is; he's told colleagues he expects to be dismissed.
In such a scenario, assistant GM Jim Duquette will be given the interim job. The Mets will take a hard look at whether Duquette -- knowledgeable and well-liked -- can be the architect of the future. If not, the offseason search could include the A's Billy Beane, the Giants' Brian Sabean and Yankees special assistant Gene Michael.
In retrospect, history will remember Phillips for building a club that, along with former manager Bobby Valentine, took the Mets to the World Series in 2000, but ultimately saddled the Mets with failed gambles on Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeno and Roberto Alomar.
Trade Mo Vaughn
That's easier said than done, considering Vaughn is now on the disabled list with knee problems. But the greatest obstacle is Vaughn's contract, which will pay him $30 million through 2004. Obviously, no other team will touch Vaughn at that price -- not even an American League club -- which is why the Mets are deciding internally how much money they're willing to swallow, just to open up first base for Mike Piazza.
The Mets are already taking an enormous financial hit for the 2003 season, so reports that the Wilpons are ready to eat every penny of Vaughn's deal -- literally give him away -- are, in the words of one senior official, "totally false. We still haven't made up our minds about the money."
Trade Armando Benitez and Roberto Alomar
This will be a simpler task than moving Vaughn, because Benitez still has marketable assets -- primarily his 90-plus mph fastball. And despite the fog that's enveloped Alomar this season, he still has a legacy for playing well on contending teams.
In a perfect world, the Mets would trade Benitez and Alomar both to the Red Sox for, say, Shea Hillenbrand and Trot Nixon. The Sox could sure use a closer. But there are legitimate doubts about Benitez's self-confidence, despite his still formidable fastball.
That's why the Mets are torn between peddling Benitez now -- before his market value deteriorates any further -- or trying to rehabilitate his season. One option would be to let Benitez get hot, accumulate 15 or so saves by the All-Star break, then trade him before the July 31 deadline, when the Mets could get more in return.
Move Piazza to first base ... then trade him
Piazza will shift positions as soon as Vaughn is traded, and may even begin the metamorphosis in the next two weeks, while Mo is on the DL. That will allow Vance Wilson to catch every day, not to mention keep Piazza focused on hitting. He threw out only 17 percent of base stealers last year, the worst percentage in the National League, and is beyond the point of significant improvement behind the plate.
But if the Mets are serious about rebuilding, no other asset could bring as much in return as Piazza -- who is undeniably their best player and a future Hall of Famer. So far, ownership is opposed to the idea of trading Piazza, simply because of his marketability and the fact that he could be the first Hall of Famer to go in as a Met since Tom Seaver.
But if the Mets intend to load up the roster with prospects for a post 2004 surge, just how motivated will Piazza be in the next two dreary summers? It's also fair to point out that at 34, and with more than 10,000 innings behind the plate, Piazza's best offensive days may be behind him, at least while he's being forced to play the field.
If anyone could afford him at $13 million a year, Piazza would make a perfect designated hitter.
Cut ticket prices
All it would take is a mere 10 percent reduction, and the public-relations dividend would be enormous. The Mets need to be honest with their fans about the mistakes that've been made so far. They have to be equally truthful about how long it'll take to reconstruct a winner -- two years or more.
That's a long time to admit you're not going to win anything in New York. It means continuing to live in the Yankees' shadow. So what better way to generate goodwill than to put some money back in the fans' pockets? Of course, it means further bleeding the Wilpons' coffers, but then again, will it hurt any more than issuing Vaughn's paycheck?
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.
With another season already gone bad, the Mets must make changes, drastic as they might be.