Nobody probably reads this anymore, because I haven’t updated it in months, but I have something to say and a place to say it, so here we go.
What the hell man? Seriously, what the hell? How did this happen? On September 12th, the Mets had a 99.8% chance of making the playoffs. 99.8%! The odds of them not making the playoffs at that point were 500-1. Yet, their season essentially ended tonight, not with a bang, but with a whimper. What the hell?
I hate saying somebody deserves to be fired, but…Willie Randolph has failed this team. The Mets have the most talent in the National League. The best third baseman, maybe the best player. A stellar shortstop. A stellar center fielder. A 41 year old left fielder playing like a man literally half his age. A very good pitching staff with a real ace. A good closer. This team is a playoff team. There has to be a reason that they aren’t.
Don’t give me that it’s grit. This team has grit. Carlos Beltran bruised both of his knees in Florida, and sat out a few innings, was back the next night. Moises Alou is gimping along with a tender quad, and not only playing, but running up 30 game hitting streaks. Paul Lo Duca’s hand has been beaten into hamburger meat at this point, he’s not sitting out (even though he should; Ramon Castro is a better player at this point). Luis Castillo is limping along out there, can barely run, and still pounding out hits like he did tonight (3 for 5). The only players that aren’t hurt are David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Shawn Green, and don’t tell me that Wright doesn’t have grit, he’s playing his ass off and should be the MVP, but won’t be, because his team won’t be in the playoffs. That isn’t his fault. Jose Reyes is the only everyday player who you can say has really struggled in the month of September, and is looking like the player somebody wanted to trade two years ago again.
The problem is the bullpen stinks. This bullpen can’t get anybody out. Aaron Heilman and Scott Schoeneweis (huh?) are the only two pitchers in the month of September who have held up their end of the bargain (and even Heilman had a rough patch there, although it was because Willie became over-reliant on him and started throwing him out there almost every day; Uncle Charlie did the same thing in Philadelphia, and yet it didn’t come back to haunt them. Another reason, as if you needed any, to show how things haven’t broken for the Mets). Pedro Feliciano, after being so good the first five months, is blowing games left and right. Billy Wagner, perhaps bothered by back spasms, perhaps not, is not the same pitcher he was at the beginning of the year. Aaron Sele was never good, and continues not to be good. Joe Smith had a great first two months, fell off, and hasn’t been able to find what he had that made him so effective early on, and made Mets fans forget about Chad Bradford. Guillermo Mota is a mess; the moment he failed his steroid exam, he should not have even been considered for this year’s team.
During all of this, Willie Randolph showed a stunning willingness to keep trotting out the same tired pitchers in the same situations. Mota, in particular, kept being given chances in high leverage situations, and kept blowing games. Meanwhile, the Mets’ #1 pitching prospect, Philip Humber, was promoted in September when rosters expanded. Humber pitched 2 innings of mop-up in Cincinnati on September 5th, sat for almost a week, pitched another inning of mop-up against Atlanta on September 11th, and then sat for over two weeks. This wasn’t just another minor league reliever; this was the #3 overall draft pick in the 2004 draft, considered by many scouting guides to be ahead of Mike Pelfrey in the Mets’ pitching prospect hierarchy. But he wasn’t one of Willie’s boys, and he kept sitting and sitting. Finally, the team realized that they were going to need another starter this week to keep Pedro on schedule, and El Duque wasn’t going to be able to make it. Since Dave Williams flopped spectacularly in that role the previous week, they decided to use Humber. After throwing three innings of a simulated game in St. Lucie, the Mets put their season in his hands on Wednesday, and he came out rusty, and the Mets, once again, got blown out by the Washington Nationals (henceforth, to be called the Washington Fucking Nationals).
This isn’t the first time Willie has shown a stubbornness with his bullpen; two years ago, Heath Bell put up phenomenal numbers in Norfolk, was brought up in September, and pitched three innings in September. It’s simple; if you’re one of Willie’s guys, he’ll keep giving you chance after chance. If you’re not, he gives up on you and you sit in the bullpen until he’s ready to give you another shot. How many times did he trot out Jorge Julio until the Mets finally, mercifully, traded him to Arizona for El Duque? How many times has Scott Schoeneweis been given a chance to turn things around? Schoeneweis, Mota, and Sele have combined to pitch over 160 innings this season with an ERA over 5. Schoeneweis has finally started to pitch OK, but with Mota and Sele continuing to suck, combined with the implosion of the rest of the bullpen, the results have been disastrous.
But let’s go back to September ‘05. What about the Mets dropping 15 of 18 and falling out of wild card contention? That team had the 2nd fewest runs allowed in all of baseball, and the third best run-differential in the National League (with an offense that included a hobbled Carlos Beltran, Doug Mientkiewicz playing first most of the way, Jose Reyes batting leadoff with a .300 OBP and leading the NL in outs, Miguel Cairo batting 2nd for most of the year with a .296 OBP, and David Wright batting 6th and 7th most of the year despite being the 2nd best hitter on that team). That team should have been a playoff team, but was let off the hook because nobody had any expectations for the 2005 Mets. This team..it had expectations. Big ones. And they weren’t fulfilled, and if anything, came up even shorter than last year.
So what’s going to happen? I suspect heads are going to roll. If I were a coach on the Mets’ staff right now, I wouldn’t feel like I have any job security. From Willie Randolph all the way down…the bullpen implosion should cost Rick Peterson his job. HoJo might be safe, because he apparently is getting a lot of the credit for D-Wright’s second half surge, and Guy Conti is Pedro Martinez’s best friend on the team, but everybody else should be feeling butterflies right now. I don’t know who’s going to manage this team next year, because the only high-profile name who will be available is Tony La Russa, and for a number of reasons, I can’t see that one happening. All I want is somebody who can manage a bullpen, to be honest, and who can keep clubhouse problems from spiraling out of control. That’s all a good manager needs to be able to handle anyway.
Hell, Omar might not even be safe here, although I severely doubt they’re going to fire the GM. Still, in retrospect, he made two trades last December (Jason Vargas and Adam Bostick for Matt Lindstrom and Henry Owens; Heath Bell and Royce Ring for Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins). Owens got hurt, but pitched very well while healthy, Ring has spent most of the year in the minors, but has pitched well while in the majors, Lindstrom has been very good for the Marlins, and Bell has been excellent for the Padres. That’s four pitchers over two trades that could have helped the Mets this year, that could have pitched very well for the team, traded for garbage. Instead of Royce Ring being used against lefties, they paid Schoeneweis $12 million over three years. Instead of Heath Bell shutting down teams in the 7th or 8th innings for an entire season, they paid Mota to sit out for two months and then pitch poorly when coming back, on the hook for another year. Instead of Lindstrom, they brought in old ass Aaron Sele. Those are serious player evaluation flaws, and that falls on Omar (and to a lesser degree, Willie, since he was the guy who steadfastly refused to use Bell).
So what about next year? Paul Lo Duca is a free agent; he had a terrible year at the plate, and isn’t good enough defensively to justify bringing back. Ramon Castro is a free agent as well, and might be worth a shot at being the full-time catcher, but he may not be enough of a name for New York to be given the spot. The free agent market for catchers is mostly old guys; Lo Duca, Posada, Pudge. Jesus Flores could have been a solution here, but he wasn’t protected in the Rule V draft and contributed to the disaster the past two weeks against the Washington Fucking Nationals. Carlos Delgado is signed for another year; he looked like he was on the wrong side of his prime for most of this year, but there won’t be any takers on that contract, so he’ll be back unless the Mets can work out a “my problems for your problems” trade with a high payroll team, but the last time they did that, they wound up with Mo Vaughn, and I think Mets fans had quite enough of that, thank you.
Second base will probably be some hodge-podge of Damion Easley/Marlon Anderson/Ruben Gotay, as I suspect they will let Castillo walk (and they should; he’s a slap hitter who relies on his speed, only he’s losing his speed more and more every year). Gotay should become the Mets’ full-time 2B by the end of the year next year if he’s given a real shot at it. Alou will probably have his option picked up since he played well this year, although rolling the dice with a 42 year old gimpy outfielder is a big gamble. The other big question is in right. Lastings Milledge is a good hitter against lefties, but can’t hit righties. Do the Mets go after a lefty-hitting OF in free agency to platoon with Milledge, or do they try to make a splash and sign a big name right fielder? The pickings are slim; Bobby Abreu has an option that the Yankees may not pick up, and that’s pretty much it. Geoff Jenkins could be a platoon possibility; the Brewers probably won’t exercise his option and he bats lefty. There will be a Japanese import available, Kosuke Fukudome, but the Mets are probably shy about going to the Japanese well again.
Then there’s the bullpen, which is in such sorry shape, the state of New York recently classified it a Superfund site. They have to get rid of Schoeneweis and Mota. Sele will probably retire. That’s three spots they’ll have to fill right there. Joe Smith will probably take one of them. The internal options are limited; they recently took a college reliever in the first round of the draft that will probably get a shot to make the team out of spring training. That means they are going to have to turn to free agency and NRI’s to fill the pen, or be forced to keep some of these scrubs. Something has to be done, though. This bullpen deserves direct blame for the team’s failure to capture a playoff berth this year; the bullpen blew five of the Mets’ seven losses to the Phillies over the last month-plus of the year. If the bullpen holds even 2 of those leads, they lead the division right now. That’s what this season is going to come down to, two blown leads.
The rotation didn’t hold up down the stretch, either, but I wouldn’t classify it as a disaster. Pedro Martinez returned, and the returns were promising. John Maine faded badly over the second half, but he’s young, and he can bounce back. Oliver Perez was all over the board, but turned in a fine season, perhaps the best one by a Mets starter this year. Glavine turned in a very good year, but now that he has 300 wins, I’m not sure what he has left to play for. El Duque also pitched well this year, but he has shown that he’s not really capable of pitching a full season; a crazy idea the team might want to consider is bringing him back next year as a reliever. He can’t go 150+ innings anymore, so why not let him pitch out of the bullpen for 75-100 innings? The problem with that is that he’ll likely want to start, and some team desperate for rotation help will pay him to do so. Pelfrey and Humber, despite disappointing starts, will be given opportunities to nail down starting jobs in spring training.
Here’s where I think Omar is going to make his move, though – Johan Santana wants out of Minnesota, and the Twins are receptive to dealing him. The Mets are top-heavy with prospects, and a Santana trade might clear them out (as I suspect it would cost them at least one of their three outfielders and probably one of their pitchers) but should they make that trade? I think yes. Santana isn’t old, he doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear on him, and there’s no reason to believe he shouldn’t continue to dominate the majors for the next 3-4 years, injuries permitting. I’m not saying that the Mets need Santana, or that they should definitely get him, but he’s available, he’s really great, and it wouldn’t be dumb to at least investigate. The rotation, on paper, looks to be the area that needs shoring up the least, but Santana is a once-in-a-lifetime talent who you can’t turn down. Remember when the Red Sox went after Pedro in 1998, which set the wheels in motion for their eventual run of success? I’m not saying they absolutely have to do it, but it’s definitely worth pursuing. At the very least, Santana gives the Mets’ rotation a 200 inning pitcher, something they have traditionally lacked.
Then there’s Jose Reyes. I’m kind of biased here; I once wrote a column on this very website saying that the team should trade him. As time went on, and Reyes showed remarkable improvement, this column has begun to look really dumb. It’s probably the reason why I haven’t written Blinded By Speed II: The Carlos Gomez Story. But there’s no doubt about it – in the first three months of the season, Jose Reyes was an MVP candidate, and over the final three months, he’s looked like the 4th best SS in the NL East. The Jose Reyes in the second half is the same Jose Reyes I wrote about; not taking walks, not waiting for his pitch to drive, impatient. This time, it’s not quite as blinding, because Reyes has looked sullen at times, and doesn’t have the energy and smile people loved about him in ‘05, so people are less willing to overlook the .324 OBP over the second half. Most of the drop is batting, as it appears as though the league has caught up to him to a degree, and knows where they can and cannot pitch to him. This next adjustment is key for Reyes; it’s what will separate him from being an elite player and Juan Pierre.
Mets fans probably didn’t expect to start thinking about next year on September 29th, and there’s still a slight chance that they won’t have to be. But anybody who watched tonight’s game at Shea knows that most Mets fans are ready to check out on this season; despite a runner on with no outs in the 9th, despite that runner being Jose Reyes, the crowd didn’t get hot. They knew. By Sunday, this team will have completed the second-worst collapse in baseball history, and it’s going to result in some major changes to the team. It will be interesting to see what direction they go in, which players they target, and who takes the fall. But expect this; the 2008 New York Mets will look drastically different from the team that takes the field for the final time this Sunday. Mets fans may have thought that Game 7 of the NLCS last year was as painful as it got, but unfortunately, they were wrong. The question is, what’s next?