Duquette in no-win situation

7/28/2004 - New York Mets

The person is an American League executive.

The subject is Mets general manager Jim Duquette.

The feeling is sympathy.

"We were just talking about Jim a minute ago," the official said. "He's not going to mortgage a piece of his future to grasp after something. But it's not that easy for him. If he wasn't in the New York market, that might be acceptable. He's the most interesting situation in baseball right now."

Sure enough, there's currently a lot of talk in baseball about the Mets, Jim Duquette and unenviable position he's in: Knowing what's best for the organization and yet having the weight of 10 million tri-state yahoos ready to tar and feather him for it.

From May through the All-Star break, the Mets played competently enough for the smell of contention to waft through Flushing. It didn't matter that the Mets were hovering only around .500. It didn't matter that they were in the hunt less because of their strength than because of the division's weakness. They were in it -- the magic phrase that sets talk-radio prattlers aflutter with trades the team just has to make for the stretch run.

Then reality crashed the talklines. The Mets have gone 4-8 since the break, all of them against division rivals, leaving the team in fourth place, five games back.

HOST: And now, Vinny from Queens. Vinny, you're on ...

VINNY: Yo, love da show, guys. Yuh know what Duquette's gotta do? Get Kris Benson, man. And get anudda bat for behind Piazza. Five games? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Well, five games is a lot -- a lot more than most people realize. Since 1969, there have been 112 teams between 4-6˝ games back on July 31, and just nine of them came back to win. That's 8 percent, or about a one in 12 shot. (Those clubs were far more likely to finish the season at least 10 games out than truly remain in the race.) Of the teams that did win, only the 1984 Royals jumped over three teams, which is what's facing the Mets.

While Duquette knows that, New York fans rarely let logic contaminate pure, unadulterated emotion. Many are clamoring for the Mets to acquire Kris Benson, or another arm or bat, to jump-start the roster. If it takes some unknown minor leaguers to get them, so be it. They want big names, and they want them now.

Bad, bad idea. Nothing would be worse for the Mets than to mistake the current standings for a legitimate shot at the playoffs. In fact, given the Mets' chances of coming back and winning the division, almost certainly the proper move would be exactly the opposite: to make Al Leiter and Tom Glavine available, instantly make them the most coveted non-Randy Johnson pitchers on the market, and watch legitimate contenders fall all over themselves offering packages that will help for 2005 and beyond, when the Mets could truly blossom. But unless Duquette digs being burned in effigy, he can't look like he's giving up on this season.

So he can't trade for next year. And trading for this year is a foolish risk. When you get right down to it, Duquette can't win. The only right move will probably be no move at all.

The reason Duquette shouldn't sacrifice the future is that he's actually got one -- one which other executives envy. The Mets' only existing deals past next year are to left fielder Cliff Floyd, center fielder Mike Cameron and shortstop Kazuo Matsui. They have two young, talented infielders (Jose Reyes and David Wright) who will be inexpensive contributors. They have a fine stable of pitching prospects (Scott Kazmir, Matt Peterson and several mid-level guys) from which one or two can join the rotation within a year or two. Given that the team can carry a top-five payroll, this club is about to have more wiggle room than Calista Flockhart in Tony Soprano's tux.

Duquette already has done the right thing by not trading Wright, a potential star at third base. Now he should keep hold of those pitchers, too. Giving one or two of them up to get two months of Kris Benson -- or another player the Mets either won't re-sign or can soon get on the free-agent market without sacrificing players -- would interrupt the ascent of this organization at the perfectly wrong stage of its time line.

After all, most moves made right up against the nonwaiver trading deadline are, almost by definition, not even in terms of talent. In all trades, clubs acquire two things: talent and timing, and usually one must be balanced against the other -- particularly at the deadline. In the urgency to acquire talent able to contribute today, a GM, depending on the contracts involved, often must sacrifice tomorrow's greater talent.

A perfect example came with the 1998 Astros, who gave up three lesser-known young players (Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama) for two months of Randy Johnson. So too is Boston's infamous 1990 deadline swap of Double-A slugger Jeff Bagwell to Houston for reliever Larry Andersen. Despite the derision that trade has received over the years, Andersen did help the Red Sox hold off the hard-charging Blue Jays that year, and the uncertainty of prospects leaves many executives willing to take their shot when they've got it.

The question right now is what Duquette's shot truly is. Given the history of clubs in his team's position, it's almost certain that no one or two players will lead the 48-51 Mets past the Marlins, Phillies and Braves into October. As much as fans want a deal to give it a try, it's Duquette's job to break from Flushing's win-now undertow and position the club for success over the next several years.

Imagine if he did deal Peterson, fellow prospect Lastings Milledge and another youngster for a rent-a-player who still leaves the Mets in third place at the end of the season, and those prospects turn out to be the quality, inexpensive players they need in 2006 or '07. That'll go over real well in Queens.


They never would.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.