No other team in Major League Baseball has suffered more disappointment over the past three seasons than the New York Mets. Just think back to how those years have ended and it’s easy to understand the urgency facing this organization as they head into the off-season.
In 2006 they were one hit away from the World Series before ultimately falling to St. Louis in game seven of the NLCS. That was followed by the greatest collapse in the history of baseball, as they blew a seven-and-a-half game lead, with 17 to play at the end of the 2007 season.
This past September was a repeat of last year. This time it saw them build a three-and-a-half game lead after five-and-a-half months of baseball—before collapsing again.
Both years they were officially eliminated from playoff contention on the season’s final day.
What’s at stake as they move forward is bigger than simple wins and losses—it’s this group’s legacy. How will they be remembered? As chokers and underachievers who failed to get over the hump? Or will they finally prove their naysayers wrong and realize their World Series expectations?
To say that the New York Mets stand at a crossroads would be an understatement. They sit directly on the brink of being considered a success or a failure.
Staring down the barrel of the most important off-season in club history, Omar Minaya, fresh off a four-year contract extension, with the full support of ownership, has been given opportunity to finish the job he started.
With so much on the line, Met fans can only hope that the off season wish list sitting on Minaya’s desk looks something like this:
Sign K-Rod – With Billy Wagner’s Tommy John surgery expected to keep him out until at least August, the first priority for New York is to find a new closer. Lucky enough for them, the best one in the business just happens to be a free agent.
Francisco Rodriguez seems like the perfect fit, assuming K-Rod is OK with leaving southern California for the pressure cooker of New York. An offer in the range of five to six years and $75-$100 million will probably be necessary, but at 26-years-old this kid is worth every penny and Omar Minaya knows it.
If Rodriguez is gun shy about coming to New York, or if the Mets view his demands as too lucrative of an option, then they will immediately turn to Brian Fuentes. With three 30-save seasons on his resume, Fuentes enters free agency off a career-best 2.73 ERA season.
As is normally the case, money will be the biggest deciding factor on who will ultimately jog out of Citi Field’s new bullpen door, with the Mets ahead in the ninth, in 2009 and beyond.
Get Relief Pitching! – The Mets bullpen was atrocious last season, especially during the pennant race. Of course they lost Billy Wagner from early August on, so a new closer will help, but it’s not enough. The Mets are also in dire need of an eighth-inning specialist. After pouring over the list of free-agent options, you’ll quickly realize why this is the hardest part of the roster for a general manager to overhaul. Great bullpen arms are extraordinarily difficult to find.
There are 46 players considered free-agent middle relievers this offseason, and very few jump off the page. The good pitchers are all starters, and the teams lucky enough to have good relievers keep them.
One scenario that looks plausible would be signing Chad Cordero. He has ties with Minaya that date back to their Expos days, and the Mets have reportedly already expressed their interest. It will be impossible for Minaya to completely overhaul the entire pen, but adding a strong 1-2 punch at the back end would be an early holiday gift Met fans would love to unwrap.
Who’s In Left?– I should preface this section by reviewing the state of the outfield. Mainstay Carlos Beltran will again patrol center, while Ryan Church will enter his second year on the job in right. When healthy, Church has proven to be a solid middle-of-the-order bat and a fine fielder with an above-average throwing arm. So two thirds of the outfield is set.
So what do they do in left? Daniel Murphy appears to be a pure hitter who could always start the season, maybe in a platoon with Fernando Tatis and Endy Chavez. With farm-sensation Fernando Martinez marinating in the minors, the best move may be to simply stand pat.
The big pink elephant in the room is Minaya’s interest in Manny Ramirez, which is well documented. However his price tag appears way too high, as the Mets have yet to publicly throw their hat in the ring.
If a need to upgrade is desired, and Ramirez is out of reach, the Mets should turn their attention toward landing Raul Ibanez. Ibanez’s leadership and bat would be great additions to a club that certainly can use a little of both. A reasonable three-year deal would perfectly bridge the gap before Martinez is ready to take over the reins full time.
The Rotation– With Pedro Martinez not expected back and Oliver Perez entering free agency, the Mets should be in the market for a pair of starting pitchers. One strategy would be to simply resign Perez, leaving only one hole in the rotation.
The problem: Perez’s agent is the infamous Scott Boras. With conversations likely to start at $15 million annually, the Mets may opt to look elsewhere, and early indications have them interested in landing former Red Sox and Dodger Derek Lowe.
This would leave the Mets with top four of Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine and either Perez or Lowe (assuming they land one of the two).
The best value on the market is clearly Ben Sheets. An injury-plagued second half will give a team the opportunity to acquire him way below his true value. With all of the dollars that New York is likely to shell out, this could be a great low-investment, high-reward addition to their rotation.
Orlando Hudson – I think it’s fair to conclude that the Luis Castillo experiment has been a complete disaster for New York. His injuries and underproduction have the Mets in quite a bind at second base heading into 2009.
Orlando Hudson would be the perfect way to solve this problem. However this would surely require that the Mets move Castillo’s albatross of a contract. Though costly, considering the Mets would still be paying some of Castillo’s contract and all of Hudson’s, this would bring the 2005, 2006 and 2007 gold glover, with a career .282 batting average to New York. The Mets will have serious competition, as teams are already lining up for Hudson’s services, but we can’t under estimate Omar Minaya when he wants a player. And all signs point towards Omar wanting Orlando Hudson.
Guts– All the Mets have to do is peer 100 miles down I-95 towards Philadelphia to see what a gutsy team looks like. The Mets, on the other hand, seem to be mired in an ongoing, two-year identity crisis. Unfortunately for Omar Minaya, you can’t buy guts for $15 million a year on the open market—if it were only that simple. With all of the magic and momentum from the 2006 season completely evaporated, the Mets, more than anything else, need to find themselves some guts. Adding the right type of new blood to the mix will help, but ultimately the task will fall on the core already in place. Somebody, at some point, will need to step up and say enough is enough, not with their words but in the way they play.
The outline above may seem like a lot. But before you go saying “Why don’t they just sign Sabathia and Teixeira and call it a day,” think about it. They definitely need a closer. They definitely need at least one starter. They will definitely be looking to bolster the bullpen. And, like most big-market clubs, they will exercise their due diligence with anyone else who can help.
Money will be spent with caution, but make no mistake, money will be spent. Unlike Willy Randolph, Omar Minaya survived the team’s recent struggles, to put things mildly. He’s armed with over $26 million that just fell off the Mets books. His relationship with ownership remains strong and this time of year their checkbook is always a phone call away.
What are the Mets restrictions?
Well, C.C. Sabathia and Mark Texiera will not be discussed. Even the Mets, who just made Johan Santana the highest paid pitcher in history last off-season, will refrain from playing at the high-stakes table two years in a row. Aside from those two, Omar will be a shark in the water over the next few weeks, preying on every other free agent fish in the pond. When it’s all said and done, Omar is hoping that a change of scenery, some new players, and a dash of guts will be final ingredients needed to complete his championship stew. Only time will tell.