Mets' idle deadline: Years in the making
Exorbitant salaries, thin farm system limit options as team languishes in standings
NEW YORK -- The trading deadline passed Saturday at 4 p.m. with the New York Mets having done nothing, unless sending Triple-A first baseman Mike Jacobs to Toronto for a player to be named qualifies as a maneuver.
The positive spin: At least they didn't do something that would further set back the organization.
The reality is the Mets are not legitimately in a race right now. They entered Saturday trailing the division-leading Atlanta Braves by 7½ games and trailing the wild card-leading San Francisco Giants by 6½ games. Fifty-nine games remain on the schedule. Four teams, including the hard-charging Philadelphia Phillies, who acquired Roy Oswalt this week, are between the Mets and Giants.
Could the Mets have packaged rookie left-hander Jon Niese and prospects to the Houston Astros for Oswalt, as the Phillies did by sending J.A. Happ and minor leaguers? You would imagine so, especially considering the Phillies will receive $11 million from Houston.
But the Mets have put themselves in an untenable position where even that was not an option.
You can clumsily cite principal owner Fred Wilpon and his family supposedly being stingy for such a deal not materializing, but that would be misguided -- even if ownership isn't blameless. The bottom line is the payroll is still hovering around $130 million this season.
The better answer: If GM Omar Minaya had shown restraint in his other salary commitments -- say, not giving Luis Castillo four years and $25 million or Oliver Perez three years and $36 million or guaranteeing seven years to Carlos Beltran -- he likely would have had the flexibility to pull off an Oswalt-type trade now.
It's far more about no discipline than no money.
That does not absolve the Wilpons.
The Mets have to hold on to their limited upper-level prospects -- and players such as rookie first baseman Ike Davis and Niese who already have made their major league debuts -- because you need players making the $400,000 minimum or thereabouts to offset high-priced free-agent pieces such as Jason Bay.
Had the Mets had the judgment to hold on to Heath Bell rather than trade the future San Diego Padres closer in November 2006 for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson, they would not have needed to invest three years and $37 million in Francisco Rodriguez. And payroll flexibility would have existed.
Let's be honest, too: The farm system isn't exactly deep with top-notch prospects, no matter how Minaya spins it. Ownership actually bears significant responsibility for that.
Fernando Martinez recently endured a 3-for-33 slump at Triple-A Buffalo, is hitting .250 for the season and may have been leapfrogged by Kirk Nieuwenhuis as far as being the organization's top outfield prospect. Beyond 18-year-old shortstop Wilmer Flores and right-hander Jenrry Mejia, there's little buzz from scouts about Mets farmhands, at least as elite prospects.
So why is ownership at fault?
Minaya's stated plan when he took over as GM in September 2004 was to offset the draft picks forfeited for signing free agents by owning the international market. It sounded good, too. After all, how could a Dominican-born GM walk into any household in that country, throw around dollars and fail to persuade the teenager to sign with the Mets?
The problem? Ownership never threw around the money. After signing Martinez for $1.3 million in 2005, Minaya's first full season as Mets GM, the organization did not have another seven-figure signing bonus for an international teenager until signing 16-year-old pitcher Juan Urbina, Ugueth's son, last year.
The Mets knew Venezuelan Jesus Montero, who was coveted in trade proposals involving the Yankees in recent days, was a superior catching prospect to Francisco Peña, Tony's son. Yet the Mets signed Peña in 2006 because he cost $750,000. The Yankees paid $2 million for Montero.
The Mets have not been blame-free in their draft conduct from an ownership perspective, either. With apologies to Chris Carter, the Mets essentially gave Billy Wagner to the Red Sox last season for nothing, in essence to save $3.3 million (Wagner's $2.3 million remaining salary and a $1 million buyout). As a result, when Wagner signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Braves last offseason, the Red Sox -- not the Mets -- got two first-round picks as compensation for losing Wagner, which they used on Ball State's Kolbrin Vitek and Middle Tennessee State's Bryce Brentz. (Remember those names a few years from now.)
The Mets, it's worth noting, received the draft picks they used to select David Wright and Davis by offering arbitration to and then losing Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine, respectively, as free agents.
Had the Mets had the discipline to spend on amateur signings through the international market and draft and been more responsible in years and dollars of contracts for the likes of Castillo and Perez, they might have found the organization flush with prospects now. That would have allowed the organization to meet the asking price for the likes of Cliff Lee, Dan Haren or Oswalt.
Still, the ownership money issue cannot be totally dismissed, even if Minaya maintained that "finance was not a factor at all" in the team's inaction.
Wilpon was sued Friday by the widow of a former employee of Wilpon-owned Sterling Equities. The federal suit alleges Wilpon bears fiduciary responsibility for investing his employees' 401(k) funds in Bernard Madoff-operated funds. Sterling Equities called the suit baseless, but the potential liability -- coupled with the Wilpon family's own losses in the Ponzi scheme -- has to create some hesitance to freely spend.
Yet even if the Madoff ordeal never occurred, it would be perfectly reasonable to expect the Mets to act conservatively from a financial perspective. Attendance is likely to plummet at Citi Field the rest of the season. A further erosion in the season-ticket base is expected heading into 2011.
So how do the Mets get out of the predicament?
They start by holding on to Niese, Davis, rookie catcher Josh Thole, etc., and hope they blossom into some productive low-cost players to offset the high-ticket items. They bide time until the contracts of Beltran, K-Rod, Perez and Castillo expire after next season while having the discipline not to backload deals to free agents this offseason that only create more commitments.
Upon finally emerging two hours after the trade deadline passed Saturday, Minaya correctly noted that July 31 isn't really a hard deadline at all. Any player with a big enough contract would clear waivers, so a deal could be consummated during August where the player would still be eligible for the postseason roster. The Mets could go that route and obtain a fifth starter, which would allow left-hander Hisanori Takahashi to be reassigned to the bullpen.
Of course, notable waiver-trade acquisitions by the Mets under Minaya include Shawn Green -- the outfielder, not the reliever.
After next week's road trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia, talking about postseason rosters might be moot anyway. Atlanta acquired reliever Kyle Farnsworth and outfielder Rick Ankiel from the Kansas City Royals on Saturday. The Phillies added Oswalt. Even the Florida Marlins got left-handed relief help with Will Ohman.
The Mets moved backward relative to the competition just by treading water. That is, if you can label how the Mets have performed since the All-Star break treading water.
"First of all, let's just remember we can still make trades tomorrow. We can still make trades after the trading deadline," Minaya said. "I do believe we will continue to have dialogue with teams. I do believe the opportunities will be there after the trading deadline. The fact that other teams made moves in the division, that's fine. But I still believe we have a good team and I still believe with this team that we have here, we're still going to continue to win some games.
"Some of our moves were guys coming back -- like a Beltran coming back, like a Castillo coming back. Those are some of the moves that we upgraded on the position-player front."
Manager Jerry Manuel, asked if the inaction was a signal the front office was content with the team as presently constituted or if it was an indication the team is not really in the race, wisely did not want to touch the issue.
"That's a tricky question," Manuel said. "Trying to catch me, huh?"
Minaya did acknowledge the standings were a factor.
"That played something into it," the GM said. "When you look at the standings, you just have to be careful."