As we look at 2009, it's essential to look as far back as right after the 2008 season.
I remember, as I walked back to my car from the last game at Shea Stadium (I didn't stay for the post-game festivities, by the way) feeling a sense of despair that the Mets season came to an end when it did, because I hadn't had enough baseball. They had been the hottest team in the sport from when after Willie Randolph got fired up until they built the division lead to 3.5 games. I was convinced, and told people, that this team was different from the year before, that they would get it done. Alas, the bullpen failed them.
That was the major point of this offseason-addressing the bullpen. Unfortunately, the legacy of the 2008 bullpen had the lasting affect of being so amplified that it made all the other problems on the Mets invisible. The Mets did not make a major transaction unrelated to the bullpen, and this is part of what doomed them for 2009. Let's look at all the transactions during the offseason.
October 2008: Picked up first basemen Carlos Delgado's 2009 option. Resigned Fernando Tatis.
December 2008: Traded Joe Smith to Cleveland Indians. Traded Mike Carp, Endy Chavez, Aaron Heilman, and three other minor leaguers to Seattle Mariners. Received J.J. Putz and Jeremy Reed in return. Signed Francisco Rodriguez. Resigned Adam Bostick, Nelson Figueroa, and Andy Green to minor-league deals.
January 2009: Signed a variety of minor league/bench type players, including Omir Santos (Orioles), Alex Cora, Rob Mackowiak, Tim Redding, Freddy Garcia, Casey Fossum, Tony Armas. I'm going to disregard most of the others that had no consequence through the season.
February 2009: Resigned Oliver Perez, Ramon Martinez, Jose Valentin. Signed Livan Hernandez, Elmer Dessens, Ron Villone to minor league deals w/ Spring Training Invites.
March 2009: Minor league reshuffling, signed Cory Sullivan, Ken Takahashi. Cut Duaner Sanchez.
April 2009: Signed Gary Sheffield.
So, let's start specific and move out to general. Looking at these transactions, the only ones of consequence, the Mets picked up, in total, FOUR position players who weren't with the team in 2008, and who ended up making and staying on the 2009 25-man roster.
The Mets addressed their main need, the bullpen, in relatively effective fashion. They signed the best closer on the market, and made a move for an All-Star closer who they would turn to a set-up man. I remember driving to school and hearing about the J.J. Putz trade. It surprised me very much that the Mets, just after signing K-Rod, made another move. I was somewhat sad to see Endy Chavez go, but at the time, the Mets seemed to be getting the good end of the bargain, replacing Chavez with Jeremy Reed, and completely scrapping the bullpen.
Enough has been said about the Oliver Perez signing. I said in July of 2008, to my dad, that Oliver Perez is just the type who would suck after getting paid. I was right. There were a multitude of better moves, but then again, other than arguing the money, it's hard to argue against signing Perez, as he has a history of pitching well in big games: Game Seven in 2006, the final game of 2008, consistent dominance of the Yankees. And if you look at the numbers in 2007 and 2008, they weren't bad: we just know the tale of two Ollies.
The real key here is to step back and look at Omar's moves. And his strategy as a GM is very easy to discern. Omar is great at throwing money at the big free agents who he/ownership/the team deems it needs: Beltran, Pedro, Frankie, etc. He is a win-now type of GM who has faith in his current cast, and doesn't give himself good insurance policies. He's pretty good at picking up spare parts off the scrap heap-Sheffield, Tatis, Damion Easley, Alex Cora, Livan Hernandez. But he misses everything in between. Omar has never been good at adding it all up and finding solid guys who can platoon, or solid backups, guys who can step in and get the job done. He will find lightning in a bottle once in a while (Tatis) and be lauded for it. This is wrong.
Looking back on the offseason, we didn't have a suitable backup first baseman. We had good infield depth, good catching depth, and we were about four deep in the outfield. This is probably below average in terms of the rest of the majors. Now, take away all the players who were injured this year, and you don't have enough guys to fill the gaps. Omar and the Mets don't seem to constantly look to upgrade outside of the glaring areas. Yes, they traded for Santana, and got Frankie, addressing the biggest need two offseasons in a row. But they never did anything else to improve. Look at the Phillies. They win the World Series, and go ahead and sign Raul Ibanez in an aggressive move. He ends up having a career year. I don't think the current management is capable of seeing the team from a holistic view and looking to upgrade where it can every year.
Going into Spring Training, I think things looked pretty good for the Mets. We were blind to their lack of depth because we were still looking at a lineup that was capable of getting to the playoffs two years in a row, along with a rotation that had the potential to be one of the best 5-deep rotations in baseball. And we had fixed the main problem.
But here's the thing. The novelty of the team, now certainly all but gone, was very low at the start of Spring Training. Fans knew this team had taken them an extra-base hit from the World Series (and probably a World Series win, looking at what St. Louis did to the Tigers) but the failures of the two previous years had certainly decreased fan support. This is why the "break up the core" rumors surfaced.
We had it all wrong. It wasn't the core, people, it was everything else. Jose Reyes, David Wright, Johan Santana, and Carlos Beltran are top five players at their respective positions in baseball. But you need a whole team. And the supporting cast this team was given, just as important as the big stars themselves, has been inadequate for three years in a row now. We got fooled three years in a row.
I want to look at a few of the key points in Spring Training. First, the World Baseball Classic. The Mets had the most players out of any team go to the WBC. This may have been a problem. They were unable to keep track of several players' offseason training regiments. This is what led to Oliver Perez's lost season, Johan Santana's early arm troubles, and maybe the problems with the Carloses and Jose. Coming into the year, our players had already been playing baseball for six weeks. That's a problem. Many Mets were tired to the point of about a third of the way to the All-Star break going into the year.
Second, does everybody remember Jerry's 80 curveball drill? If you don't, during Spring Training, the hot word one week on Jerry's super-awesome-good-job Spring Training workload was a drill where hitters had to hit 80 breaking balls to the opposite field. In a row.
Listen to me. I don't care who you are, or how strong you are. This drill is exhausting and does more harm than good. As a former high school baseball player (and aspiring college player), when I go to the cage, I hit about 160 balls tops from a pitching machine at about 80 miles per hour, with breaks in between each 20-ball interval. This is a legitimate workout. It's just like going to the gym for a solid hour when you might only end up hitting for 20-30 minutes. Doing 80 straight is murder, especially when you're being forced to go the other way with breaking balls.
I think I can give a credible explanation of what happens here. When you get tired, you start to compensate with poor swing mechanics. After mechanically sound swings, your arms and hands will get tired. You'll start using your body, and if you do this over and over, you'll start to mess up your mechanics because your muscle memory will gear towards improper mechanics. I am of the opinion that this is what threw off David Wright's swing this entire season. He could not catch up to anything. I watched him, multiple times through the season, take BP, AND FOUL BALLS OFF. Go back and watch any game, and you'll see in 90% of his at bats, he fouls off pitches right down the middle into the first base dugout seats. He couldn't hit a high or inside pitch all year, and couldn't hit anything over 92 miles per hour. His bat looked slow all year and he looked to be TRYING to hit opposite-field singles. When you're a great hitter like Wright is, you don't look to do that. You look to hit the ball where it's pitched, no matter where it's pitched. That means pulling inside pitches, which Wright couldn't do all year because his bat was "trained" to try to go the other way.
On mlb.com, you can view hitters' spray charts. Looking at Wright's, you see several telling things. He pulled, either for a double, home run, or medium-to-deep fly out, around 35 balls. 35 balls pulled, in the air, with authority. That's unbelievable. I do believe that Wright got a little unlucky this year, and his power numbers should be better. Citi Field probably took away seven or eight home runs. He hit a ball about 425 feet onto the Hill in Minute Maid Park. But as a result of "the drill," Wright lost his power to pull the ball.
It's been said that after the 2006 Home Run Derby, Wright started to look to pull more. I agree. However, Wright's numbers never suffered until now, when he started painstakingly tried to go to right. He ended up behind the whole year.
A final thing I want to look at, that ended up being foreshadowing, was the utter lack of focus on fundamentals in Spring Training. We never heard a word about it...and time and time again it ended up costing the Mets this past year, with base running, not knowing how many outs, not knowing where to throw the ball, screwing up defensively...etc. Essentially, the conclusions from the offseason and Spring Training are that the Mets were not prepared for any hardships this year. Hardships hit, indeed.
To be continued...