Commentary

Mets in impossible spot going forward

Trading Jose Reyes could be a huge step toward jump-starting moribund franchise

Originally Published: September 3, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Their season hasn't just been a disappointment. It's been a Freddy Krueger movie.

But at least there's one good thing those fast-sinking New York Mets can say about their 2009 horror show:

It's almost over.

Jose Reyes
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJose Reyes batted .279 in 36 games this season before being sidelined with a hamstring injury.

The trouble with that, though, is this: As soon as this lost season is over, it will be time to contemplate a question almost equally scary:

Then what?

Well, fortunately for the Mets, Rumblings and Grumblings is here to help them answer that question. Unfortunately for them, Rumblings is not here to paint a real attractive picture.

But before we get into what officials of other clubs think the Mets should do about this mess they're in, we want to give Mets GM Omar Minaya his take. And we'll say this about Minaya: For a man who has spent the past six months finding out what it feels like to be a human pinata, he's remarkably upbeat.

"I think it's a challenge," he said. "But I've dealt with challenges before. I had to build the Montreal Expos situation from scratch [after MLB took over the club]. That was a challenge. When I came here to New York in 2004, that was a challenge. So I've dealt with challenges before, and we'll work very hard to deal with this challenge."

When pressed about the specifics of that challenge, Minaya wasn't anxious to go into a whole lot of details. Matter of fact, he wasn't anxious to go into any details. About as far as he was willing to go was an acknowledgement that "we have to be very creative and very open-minded about how we put this team together for next year." And he's sure right about that.

Somehow, Minaya -- whose own job security is far from assured -- remains relentlessly positive in his assessment of where his club can go from here. So we almost hate to break this news to him:

"Positive" wouldn't be the word we'd use to describe the reviews we got from a half-dozen baseball men we surveyed about the Mets' future. Here's a sampling:

• "You look at their team and think, 'What does the next three or four years hold?' and it's not real pretty," said one American League executive.

• "There's no quick fix out there for them," said a National League executive. "They've got to rebuild half the team on the field and the whole damn [starting] pitching staff."

• "They've got no choice but to rebuild," said an official of an AL team. "It's hard to do in New York, but they've got to bite the bullet for a couple of years and redevelop their system. I don't see that team as being a free agent or two away. I know that."

• "They should probably get rid of the general manager and a lot of the people who have been there, and go in another direction completely," said a longtime NL scout. "Just blow it up. But I'm not sure how. They've got a lot of players that people don't want, guys who are making a lot of money, and they're overpaid. And there's not a whole lot in their system. So unless they outspend their mistakes, they've put themselves in a hole for maybe the next six to eight years."

OK, so not all the folks we spoke with were quite that bleak. This was, after all, a team that watched 19 players head for the disabled list this season. So we did hear one comparison of this Mets team to the 2008 Mariners, another underachieving debacle of a club that got healthier, consciously set out to upgrade team chemistry and at least bounced back to respectability this year.

But after a season like this -- and the two painful finishes that preceded it -- can these Mets really take the approach that if they just tweak the roster a little and get everyone healthy, they'll be OK?

"No," said one NL scout, "because they won't be. They can't compete with Philadelphia, Florida or Atlanta next year even if they're all healthy -- not for me. If that's the approach, they'll finish behind all those teams next year."

So what should the Mets do? Let's examine some of their big issues:

The Manager/GM/Coaching Staff

Any time a team's season goes this wrong, you're going to hear talk that it needs to fire everybody but the grounds crew. And we heard all of that. Interestingly, there were as many suggestions that the Mets ought to try changing pitching coaches as suggestions that they need a new front office.

Jerry Manuel

Manuel

Omar Minaya

Minaya

Dave Duncan's name came up. Former Seattle and Arizona pitching coach Bryan Price's name came up. Even the name of the Mets' old pitching coach, Rick Peterson, came up -- all in the spirit of giving this group a chance to hear a different voice. As one NL exec put it, "The best addition might not be who's doing the flinging, but the guy doing the teaching."

But pitching coach Dan Warthen's fate is probably tied to the fate of manager Jerry Manuel, whose future is no doubt tied to the fate of Minaya. And while Minaya was given a recent he'll-be-back reprieve by owner Fred Wilpon, not everyone is convinced that reprieve was so iron-clad.

"If they have an embarrassing September, I can see them cleaning house," said one baseball man. "If they play respectably, I'd bet both [Minaya and Manuel] keep their jobs. But if they don't -- if they don't even compete and it's embarrassing -- I'd bet they'll both be gone."

The Rest of the System

As big a nightmare as the big league season may have been, life wasn't exactly nirvana down below, either. The Mets' Triple-A and Double-A teams are a combined 60 games under .500. Not one full-season Mets affiliate has a winning record. And we haven't even gotten into the whole Tony Bernazard affair.

"That system is a mess," said one NL executive. "They're going to have to have a complete organizational, philosophical direction change."

"That's not a good system," said an AL exec. "The good prospects they do have are a long ways away. They don't have depth in their system or on their roster."

And when a team is just about completely devoid of impact players in its farm system to call up and infuse into its big league mix, "the obvious approach is to trade off players," said the same AL executive. "But in that team's case, I'm not even sure that will get them where they need to go."

And why is that? We're about to tell you.

Fixing the Holes

Before we get into which player(s) this team might need to subtract, we first need to assess all the players it needs to add. It's not a short list.

Mike Pelfrey

Pelfrey

Bobby Parnell

Parnell

"What are they going to do for a rotation behind Johan [Santana]?" asked one scout. "Oliver Perez has turned into their Adam Eaton. [John] Maine has reverted back to a Triple-A pitcher. [Jonathon] Niese is a rookie. Bobby Parnell is Aaron Heilman all over again. [Mike] Pelfrey is just a [No.] 4 or 5 [starter]. So they have to go out and get at least two, and probably three, starters.

"Now let's go around the field. They've got to get a catcher, a first baseman, a left fielder and maybe a right fielder, depending on what you think about [Jeff] Francoeur. They also need a left-handed reliever to go with [Pedro] Feliciano. So needless to say, they've got lots of needs."

Now let's remind you again: The Mets also have just about nobody in their system to call up to fill those needs. So even though this is a team with five certifiable superstars (Santana, Francisco Rodriguez, David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran), the talent drop-off to the rest of the Mets' roster is downright precipitous.

And how do they address that drop-off? With dollars alone? Tough to do. Fortunately, they have about $30 million in contracts coming off their books. But do the Wilpons have the financial wherewithal to buy everything this team needs? Pivotal question. And even if they do, they'll be dealing with such a pedestrian free-agent class, there aren't enough upgrades to be bought.

So the obvious answer is: They should just trade to fill those needs. But that leads to the most challenging question of all: Trade whom?

What's the Deal?

Here's where this gets complicated. This is a team that doesn't just need to make a trade to patch a hole or two. It's a team many baseball people think needs a massive chemistry transplant.

"They need to think character, and bring in high-character players," said one baseball man we surveyed. "The single greatest difference between the Phillies and the Mets is that the Phillies have guys in their clubhouse who care about each other and they're all about winning. The Mets don't have nearly enough guys like that."

[The Mets have] no choice but to rebuild. It's hard to do in New York, but they've got to bite the bullet for a couple of years and redevelop their system. I don't see that team as being a free agent or two away. I know that.

-- An official of an American League team

What do the Mets need? We heard terms like "gamers" and "blue-collar players" over and over. To be a truly great team, said one scout, "you need grinders, not stars. And the Mets have been All-Stars and no grinders."

So the logical solution is: Trade one or two of those stars. Re-stir the mix. And help heal the scars left by three straight seasons that turned out all wrong.

OK, that sounds logical. But now figure out which of those stars to trade. Good luck.

Santana? No way. K-Rod? They just signed him. Luis Castillo? Untradeable.

All right, they're out. Now ask yourself this: Any chance they could even think about trading David Wright?

"None. Can't do it," said one exec. "Face of the franchise."

So now we're down to two: Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes.

"If you conclude that's the solution -- that you have to make a change to your core group -- then you have to trade one of the two of them," said one baseball man. "And it has to be Reyes."

So why is that? Because Beltran has a complete no-trade clause. And because he has $37 million left on his contract for the next two years. And because his 2½ months on the disabled list, with what is still being described as a "bruised knee," haven't exactly made him the most attractive trade candidate alive.

That brings us to Reyes, just by process of elimination. But he isn't quite the healthiest man on the planet, either. And even if he was, ask yourself this: Could the Mets really convince themselves to trade a player like this -- who is this talented, who's still only 26 years old and who is signed at highly affordable dollars for the next two years?

Well, three of the executives we polled said the Mets have to suck it up and do exactly that. But it was far from unanimous.

"They'd better think twice before they move that guy," said an official of one team. "Guys like that are hard to find. The reputation he's got now is, he doesn't want to play. But look at the games played before this year -- 159 last year, 160 in '07, 153 in '06, 161 in '05. So this guy plays. Sorry. No way I'm trading him if I'm them. Absolutely no way."

But if the Mets don't trade him, does that mean they don't trade anybody? And if they don't make some kind of significant change to a mix of players their fans have lost faith in, can they possibly sell the 2010 Mets to a town where Yankees caps now seem to outnumber Mets caps by about 1,000 to 1?

This, friends, just about sums up the impossible plight of the New York Mets. The guys they could trade, they can't bring themselves to trade. The guys they'd be happy to trade are guys nobody wants. And there aren't nearly enough dollars in the old Wilpon checking account to solve this conundrum with money alone.

"So which way do they go?" asked one exec. "They don't have any real good options. And that's trouble."

So you thought the past five months felt like a ride on the Titanic for this team? Uh, stay tuned. The GM says he likes challenges, right? Well, we hope so -- because, if he hangs onto his job, the biggest challenge of his career hasn't even begun.

Ready to rumble

lastname
Eckstein
lastname
Franklin
Sign of the times: Ryan Franklin's way-below-market contract extension in St. Louis and David Eckstein's modest one-year extension in San Diego might not have seemed like historic developments. But here's what made them more significant than you'd think:

They're the first (i.e., only) two prospective free agents who have been extended, and kept off the open market, all season.

"It's a little strange, isn't it," wondered one agent, "that outside of those two, not one guy has signed? I mean, not one?"

Well, it's eye-opening, anyway. Owners clearly have decided in recent years that a flooded free-agent market translates to a buyer's market. And what's also hard to miss is that until lately, an increasing number of clubs were locking up players before they hit free agency. Now, though, we've seen an abrupt reversal of that trend.

"I don't blame teams if they want to get through the season and wait," said an executive of one club with several prominent impending free agents. "You get an exclusive negotiating window in October, and free agency doesn't start until mid-November. So you've really got six weeks to get these deals done."

Of course, they're also six weeks when no other teams are bidding. So it's only a one-team market. And there's nothing clubs enjoy more than a good one-team negotiation. So no wonder, when we ask teams about players heading for free agency these days, so many of them talk about resuming contract talks during that exclusive negotiating period.

"It's not really a great free-agent crop to begin with," said the same exec. "There's [Matt] Holliday, who you knew wouldn't sign in-season because of [Scott] Boras. And then there are a lot of guys that just don't fit the mold of players that clubs would lock up. It's just not a heavy, multi-All-Star-type free-agent class."

And that's true, although one prospective free agent who fit that description -- Chipper Jones -- did sign an extension in spring training. But the counterpoint is: It's not as if only "multi-All-Star-types" got extended in the past. Why haven't clubs moved to sign players who just seem like they're good fits for their club -- say, John Lackey, Randy Wolf, Mark DeRosa, Johnny Damon et al? Where are their extensions?

We're not saying this is some kind of conspiracy. But it sure is interesting.

John Lackey
Lackey
Scott Kazmir
Kazmir
What's Lack-ing: Speaking of impending free agents, there has been rampant speculation that the Angels' trade for Scott Kazmir spells the end for ace John Lackey in Los Angeles of Anaheim. But one source familiar with the Angels' thinking says those two situations are "not connected."

The Angels' philosophy on dealing for Kazmir is actually very similar to their thinking a year ago when they dealt for Mark Teixeira, who was two months away from free agency at the time. Their hope was to re-sign Teixeira -- but not at any price. And if they didn't, they were fine with handing the position to Kendry Morales.

In this situation, there's actually a little role reversal at work, because the new guy (Kazmir) isn't going anywhere, while Lackey's fate remains uncertain. But the parallel is that the Angels haven't given up on re-signing Lackey. If he isn't interested in doing it at the terms they're interested in, however, then Kazmir gets bumped up in the rotation, and that opens a competition among the likes of Dustin Moseley, Trevor Bell and Sean O'Sullivan for the last rotation spot.

The Angels plan to reopen contract discussions with Lackey after the season. But what are the odds they can keep him? Not real good, unless Lackey lowers his price tag from the Sabathia-esque level where it was sitting when the two sides last talked during spring training.

Because Lackey spent time on the disabled list for the second straight year, the buzz is that he's now willing to reduce that price tag slightly. But an official of one potentially interested team said he's heard Lackey now wants "A.J. Burnett-type money" (five years, $82.5 million). And that still might be too pricey for the Angels' appetite.

Ex-Ray lab: What is just as fascinating as Lackey's future are the forces that drove the Rays to pull the plug on Kazmir, at age 25, while they were still in the thick of the wild-card race.

Clubs that kicked the tires on Kazmir in July concluded that the Rays felt that:

A. Kazmir's stuff was declining.

B. A team with their financial limitations couldn't afford to gamble that he'd rebound and make the $22.5 million they owed him money well-spent.

C. They had to trade him when there was a taker because they had no assurance he would attract much interest in the offseason (considering they'd had just about none before the trading deadline).

Carl Crawford
Crawford
Carlos Pena
Pena
So the Rays pulled this trigger. And now they clearly would like to use the money they saved to help them hang onto Carlos Pena and/or Carl Crawford, both of whom will be a year away from free agency after this season.

The Rays still might not be able to afford either. But as much as anything, this trade was a commentary on (1) the sad failure of a World Series appearance to measurably improve this franchise's financial picture and (2) the ability of the people who run this club to be realistic enough about both their present and future to make a gutsy move they can't possibly have enjoyed making.

Derek Jeter
Jeter
Pride of the Yankees: Another fellow who will be a year away from free agency this winter is a guy named Derek Jeter. Yet you'll notice you don't hear a peep out of either the Yankees or Jeter's agent, Casey Close, about Jeter's contract situation.

When my distinguished colleague Jerry Crasnick asked Jeter about his contract this week, Jeter replied: "I'm not thinking about that. I don't think about where I'm going to be in 2011. It would be kind of unfair and selfish for me to think about where I'm going to be then, when we're trying to win this year."

But we suspect that isn't the only reason he isn't stressing over it. From what we're gathering, Jeter and Close have been all but assured by the Yankees that the club will make sure Jeter is taken care of when the time comes. But don't expect that time to come this winter.

The Yankees have let all their potential free agents, including Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, play out their entire contracts before negotiating new deals. So if that was the policy for Mariano Rivera, they'll need to apply the same policy to Jeter. Which means those talks won't rev up till the fall of 2010.

Brad Penny
Penny
Deals That Never Happened, Chapter 1: How come the Rockies backed off on Brad Penny before he signed with the Giants? We're hearing that Jim Tracy, who managed Penny in L.A., wasn't what you'd call gung-ho about that idea.

Deals That Never Happened, Chapter 2: We're hearing the Marlins were one of several clubs that made a run at Mike Cameron before the Aug. 31 deadline, only to have the Brewers back off on dealing Cameron or anyone else. The rumblings some clubs got were that Brewers owner Mark Attanasio decided that while they might not be able to catch the Cardinals in the next month, it was worth hanging onto guys like Cameron and Trevor Hoffman if they could just pass the Cubs.

Jon Garland
Garland
Deals That Never Happened, Chapter 3: Before the Dodgers dealt for Jon Garland, the Yankees were also in on him -- but decided Garland wasn't a big enough difference-maker in a division as ferocious as the AL East.

Deals That Never Happened, Chapter 4: While the White Sox included Jermaine Dye in the list of names on Kenny Williams' I'll-trade-all-these-bums e-mail Monday, clubs that checked in on Dye came away with the impression the White Sox were significantly less interested in dealing him than they were in moving some of their other names. "The pieces they moved didn't affect them," said an official of one club. "But they wanted something good for Dye."

Bigger than a Brett box: The Phillies still aren't exactly sure how they'll use Brett Myers down the stretch. But a scout who watched him in a recent rehab outing came away convinced he'll be an important late-inning bullpen option for the Phillies.

"He's going to give them a nice lift," the scout said. "His fastball was real good. He got it up to 93 [mph]. And what I really like is how he throws when he just keeps it simple. He just throws his fastball and his curveball, goes at the hitters and stays aggressive. When he's got that approach, that's when he's at his best, I think."

Pap talk: Two baseball men familiar with the Red Sox's thinking say reports that the Sox are getting ready to shop Jonathan Papelbon this winter are overblown. Oh, it's true this team sees smokeballer Daniel Bard as a future closer. And the club's reluctance to lock up Papelbon long-term is an indication they might let him move on as a free agent after 2011. But while he might not have been quite as good as in the past, there isn't a single closer in the big leagues with both an ERA and strikeout rate as good as Papelbon's (1.87 ERA, 10.3 whiffs per 9 IP). So why, exactly, would this team be looking to replace a guy like that any time soon?

Jimmy Rollins
Rollins
On a J-Roll: When a player is in the midst of a historic offensive season, the world catches on to it by now. But how come, when a guy is chasing a historic defensive season, it's a bigger secret than Dick Cheney's cholesterol count?

So let us alert you to the potentially unprecedented season by Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, a fellow who had committed exactly three errors in 494 chances through Wednesday -- none of those errors in his past 79 games, by the way.

If Rollins maintains that errorless streak through the end of the season, he is on pace to become the first shortstop in National League history to handle more than 600 chances while making no more than three errors. Only Omar Vizquel (three errors in 650 chances in 2000) and Cal Ripken Jr. (three in 660 chances in 1990) have done it in the American League.

"Jimmy Rollins is having a lockdown Gold Glove season," said one scout. "And what's really impressive about it is that he didn't hit for a long time, and he never let his offensive problems affect his defense all season. I think Troy Tulowitzki has better range than Rollins, but he gets a little stylistic and throws balls away at times. Jimmy Rollins is as fundamentally sound as any shortstop who's ever played the game."

Another unsigned free agent: A lot of things in baseball make no sense. But right at the top of our list is the ongoing mystery of why the McCourt family would allow Dodgers GM Ned Colletti to get within a few weeks of the end of his contract without getting a new deal done.

Then again, all this man has done is get to the postseason twice in his first three seasons, put his team in position to get there again this season while cutting $20 million off the payroll and convince four teams he's dealt with over the past two years to pay the Dodgers $20 million to take players like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Jon Garland and Casey Blake off their hands.

Hard to believe that three esteemed NL West GMs -- Colletti, the Rockies' Dan O'Dowd and the Giants' Brian Sabean -- all are unsigned beyond this year.

Changing Jobas: Here's yet one more suggestion for how the Yankees can limit Joba Chamberlain's innings between now and October but actually do it in more constructive fashion. It comes from a longtime baseball executive who has no problem with the Yankees' desire to be cautious with Chamberlain. He just doesn't see the value in starting this guy if he's going to be out there for only 35 pitches.

So this exec's idea is this: Pitch Chamberlain out of the bullpen, ideally in a tight situation, every five days. At least that way "you make sure it's meaningful."

"You've got to give these games some meaning," the exec said. "The way he looked [Sunday], it looked like a rehab outing. And that does no good for anybody."

Jim Thome
Thome
The Thominator: He's 39 years old. He had a complete no-trade clause. He didn't have to approve a deal to a team that couldn't give him any playing time whatsoever. But Jim Thome just added to his reputation as one of baseball's finest human beings when he agreed to the trade that sent him from the White Sox to the Dodgers last week.

It meant sacrificing living at home and playing for a team where his father could still see him play in person. It meant giving up regular playing time, which in turn could hurt his chances of hitting the 36 more home runs he needs to join the 600-Homer Club. But after personally phoning the Dodgers to make sure they knew he wasn't physically up to playing the field, Thome told them, "If you still want me, I'm all-in."

So off he went. Thome might wind up having zero impact on the Dodgers' fate these next two months. But don't be so sure.

"All I know," said one NL scout, "is that's a pretty potent left-handed bat that nobody would want to face late in a game."

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again this week, we check in with America's finest scouting minds.

• On Jarrod Washburn: "The stuff's not even close to what it was with Seattle. The fastball was 86-88 [mph] for three innings. Then it went, quick, to 84-86. The breaking ball is soft. He didn't have a pitch to get big league hitters out, to be honest. I'm not sure what happened."

• On Ronnie Belliard: "Ronnie Belliard can come off the bench and hit a fastball. He'll give you a tough at-bat, and if you make a mistake, he can do some damage. You can't hide him defensively. But he can hit a fastball."

• On Neftali Feliz: "This guy looks like he doesn't even know he's in a pennant race. He's poised, and he's in control. A lot of power pitchers overthrow in big spots. This guy throws a lot of strikes."

Headliner of the week

This just in, from the brilliant parody-headline site, IronicTimes.com:

Phils' Infielder Pulls Off 15th Unassisted Triple Play in Baseball History Simultaneously spits, scratches, picks nose with no help from teammates.

Late-Nighter of the Week

From David Letterman:

"Congratulations to the United States Little League team. They defeated Taiwan 6-3 to win the Little League World Series. The winning pitcher is now dating Kate Hudson."

Tweet of the Week

Finally, we head back to Twitter land this week. Saturday Night Live's hilarious Seth Meyers (@sethmeyers21) tweeted away on Red Sox infielder Nick Green's stupendous pitching appearance last week:

"Here's how that Victor Martinez visit to the mound went. 'What's the problem?' 'I'm a shortstop.'"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com