Playing general manager is one of the greatest joys of being a sports fan. How else can you spend tens of millions of dollars that aren't yours, however you see fit, with no repercussions?
Wait, you mean that's what Omar Minaya does every year? Must be nice.
My g.m. hat is now securely on my head, so let's get cracking on the off-season plan for your New York Mets. Here's my top five priorities for the winter, with priorities 6-10 coming tomorrow.
Priority Number One: Find a player who is the unquestioned leader in the clubhouse. People often forget that when Derek Jeter was winning all those World Series titles, there were players like Paul O'Neil, Joe Girardi, and Scott Brosius there as well. They allowed Jeter to lead in his own way, and exhibited the fire and ball-to-the-wall style of play you expect from the leaders of your club.
The Mets do not have those type of players surrounding David Wright and Jose Reyes. Carlos Delgado has reluctantly taken on the roll of being a clubhouse voice, and Carlos Beltran is just not the type of guy to be an extremely vocal, in-your-face type of leader. Wright and Reyes are both only 25 years old. Was Derek Jeter ready to be the unquestioned leader of a veteran-laden clubhouse at 25 years of age? Maybe, but I doubt it.
The past two years have shown us that Wright, and especially Reyes, are not ready to be the leaders of the team, and the same can be said for Delgado, Beltran, and even Johan Santana. So a strong clubhouse voice must be found. And quickly.
The Move: Cut ties with Ramon Castro, and seriously pursue Jason Varitek. Yes, Varitek only hit .220 this season, the lowest average of his career. Yes, his skills have diminished a little. If that's your argument to this point, save it. In case you weren't watching, Mr. Castro wasn't too much better behind the plate this season.
Since I'm playing general manager, this is how I present this move: This guy walks into the clubhouse, and is immediately the unquestioned leader of the team without even saying a word. The intangibles he brings to the clubhouse and pitching staff far outweigh his offensive shortcomings. This team has been dieing for a definitive voice in the clubhouse, and there is no better player to do it than the best leader in the game not playing shortstop for the Yankees.
The culture of this team needs to be changed, and it can be done without trading a core player easily. Does Varitek want to leave Boston? Do they want to go in another direction? We'll have to wait and see, but I'll sacrifice offense at the catcher position in a heartbeat to have Brian Schneider and Jason Varitek - two of the best game-callers in the league - sharing the catching duties. Age is a concern for both, but a one-year deal with an option for a second would be well worth it.
Priority Number Two: Establish the closer before any other bullpen move is made. Much like the need for a definitive locker room voice, there is a similar need to have the last line of pitching defense established. Twenty-nine blown saves is just not going to get it done, and Billy Wagner's Mets career is over.
The Move: Acquire Brian Fuentes, or sign Francisco Rodriquez. This really depends on how you'd like to spend your money. Do you want to lock up a guy for the next five years, knowing he's already lost four miles an hour on his fastball since he's been in the league? Or do you want a guy who might not be as lights-out, but is a very solid option who will cost you less?
Either way, if you get one of these two guys, your closer situation is solved. Both can do the job. If you want your "statement move" of the off-season to come as a bullpen move, then you go with KRod. Personally, I'd look to acquire Fuentes, and use my money over several other positions.
Priority Number Three: Acquire a left fielder with pop. Since I've saved some money on the closer spot, I can splurge on signing a player who will provide a power bat at the left field spot. This player needs to be a right-handed bat, without question. There a few options, Phillies left fielder Pat Burrell being one of them. But as G.M., I'm using this as my "Statement Move" of the winter.
The Move: Seriously pursue Manny Ramirez. You can talk all you want about what he did to get out of Boston. You can talk all you want about how he's on his best behavior now because he's playing for a contract. He put the Dodgers on his back and took them to the playoffs, and the Mets are home once again in October. It's that simple.
This guy is one of the best hitters of his generation, and if it takes four years and $80 million to sign him, so be it. The Mets have enough money coming off the books to make this move, and address all their other needs easily. As G.M., I know the past three years have created a very impatient fan base, and have screamed for that one truly clutch bat.
I understand that in 2009, the Mets HAVE to make the postseason, and anything less can't even be a thought. Manny Ramirez has two or three good years left in him, and by signing Varitek, I've got a player who will keep him in line. I also think he'd have an outstanding relationship with Jerry Manuel.
Priority Number Four: Find "Crossover Relievers" to replace departed bullpen pieces. As G.M., Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano, Louis Ayala, Carlos Muniz, Matt Wise, Duaner Sanchez, Scott Schoeneweis and Ricardo Rincon will either be let go, or traded at all costs.
Assuming I can find suckers to take Heilman and Schoeneweis, I'm looking at Brian Stokes, and Joe Smith as my returning relievers.
The Moves: Acquire power arms for the bullpen by trading Nick Evans, Argenis Reyes, Heilman and Schoeneweis, and allow Eddie Kunz and Bobby Parnell to earn spots in spring training. The main problem with the Mets' bullpen this season was that it was too specialized, meaning there were too many guys that only get a certain type of hitter out. And even then, most of the time they didn't do the job. What I need to do as G.M. is find hard-throwing guys who can get both righties and lefties out on a consistent basis. Basically, I need to find three needles in a haystack, not just one.
Joe Smith had a very nice season, and Brian Stokes is a player I'm holding on to. It's time to give Kunz and Parnell every opportunity to earn a spot in the pen in spring training, so I've got four relievers and Fuentes as my closer.
I'd look to package some of the four players listed above to acquire a left-hander, for the matchups against the left-handed hitters within the division, and look at options such as Huston Street, as well as anything that looks even remotely appealing.
I know relying on two rookies is a risky move, but after watching overpaid relievers sabotage the 2008 season, I'm willing to let two low-priced younger players experience some growing pains, provided I've surrounded them with solid bullpen pieces. For a long man, I'll see who wins the spring training battle between Nelson Figueroa and Brandon Knight.
Priority Number 5: Acquire a veteran starter to replace Pedro Martinez, and possibly Oliver Perez as well. Pedro, thank you for making the Mets relevant again. But we simply cannot resign you. If Oliver Perez wants anything more than eight million dollars a year (which Mr. Boras will laugh at), I'm letting him walk. He is just too inconsistent to invest that much money in, especially when I can find more consistent alternatives.
So I'm looking for two starters. I'm not touching Ben Sheets or A.J. Burnett with a ten-foot pole. Way too many headaches for a long-term deal.
What I'm looking for is solid, durable starters who will fill out a rotation that consists of Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and John Maine.
The Moves: Sign either Derek Lowe, Jon Garland or Ryan Dempster and let Jon Niese go through growing pains as the number five, or sign one of them and go for a cheaper second option like Randy Wolf as your number five, and let Niese develop further in the minors. There's two schools of thought here. You can either let a youngster develop and take his lumps at the major league level (the way the Mets did with Pelfrey), or you can sign a veteran guy to be your number five.
Since I'm running this show, I want to develop Niese. He's at the bottom of the rotation, a good spot for him to develop. So that leaves out Wolf.
As for the three veteran starters, I'm going to assume Dempster resigns with Chicago, though I'll certainly make the call to see if he's interested. Garland would then be my second option to Derek Lowe.
All this guy does is start every time he's supposed to, post solid numbers, and win playoff games. He's a big-game pitcher, and he's the perfect addition to my staff. A three-year deal should get it done, and as a sinkerballer he can sill be effective in that third year.
So there you have it, my top five priorities for the winter as Mets G.M. Be sure to check in tomorrow for the second half of the series, as we tackle second base, the bench and who stays from the current position players.