Luis Castillo and the Mets’ love of veterans

The Mets went into this offseason believing that they needed to make changes from the 2007 roster to the 2008 roster.  Last year’s roster failed to live up to the team’s lofty expectations of making the playoffs, and in fact collapsed in memorable fashion by blowing a 7 game lead with 17 to play.  The team’s starting catcher, second baseman, and right fielder were all free agents to be, as well as their de-facto ace.  Clearly, some or all of these players would not be welcomed back, and new players would be required to take their place.

The one player that they did bring back from among those free agents was starting second baseman Luis Castillo.  Castillo turned 32 during the collapse, now past his prime, and was facing knee surgery during the off-season.  This would not seemingly bode well for a player known primarily for his speed, his ability to beat out ground balls and bunts for infield hits.  Castillo has just 24 career home runs, including one during the 2007 season.  With knee surgery on the horizon, one could easily see a future where Castillo would no longer be able to beat out these infield hits, which drive both his batting average and his on-base percentage, and since Castillo has never been known as a player who could drive the ball even in his prime, it is easy to see a day, perhaps only a year or two in the future, where Luis Castillo would no longer hit well enough to remain a major league regular.

The Mets chose to ignore this information, signing Castillo to a four-year, $24 million contract in the off-season, out-bidding, among others, the Houston Astros for his services (the Astros would instead turn to former Met Kaz Matsui to play second base, an option that Omar Minaya, understandly, was not eager to investigate).  The big problem with the Castillo signing, though, is that the team had a player who was arguably even better than Castillo already under contract at the major-league minimum, and a player who certainly figures to still hit well enough to remain a major league regular four years from now.  That player is Ruben Gotay, who is now a member of the Atlanta Braves, because the Mets did not feel Gotay was good enough to equal the production of Luis Castillo.  It is that mentality which may ultimately doom a franchise with four legitimate stars to remain also-rans in the National League.

The Castillo signing was not an aberration; since Omar Minaya took over the reigns in late 2004, the Mets have shown a reluctance to trust young players to hold major league jobs, turning instead to “name brands” at their expense.  The problem with these name brands is that they tend to be old; usually in their early to mid 30’s, these players do not figure to age well, considering that a player’s prime is usually from ages 27-30.  This would not be a problem if the Mets did not have internal options who could fill these roles as ably as the free agents and trade acquisitions they have brought in, but a closer look shows that they have had players who could at least be expected to equal this production, if not surpass it, but at a much lower cost.  Consider:

  • After the 2005 season, the Mets traded Mike Jacobs, Grant Psomas, and Yusmeiro Petit to the Florida Marlins for Carlos Delgado.  In two seasons in Florida, Jacobs has hit .264/.321/.466/.787.  Delgado has hit .262/.347/.497/.844 in that same time frame.  Has Delgado been better?  Yes, no question.  Has he been $27 million better than Jacobs (the difference in the two’s salaries over that time span)?  Well, that’s harder to say.  Will he be $20 million better this year?  Even harder to say.  I’d suspect no.  Jacobs isn’t a star, but Delgado hasn’t been either, and he’s being paid like one.
  • Also after the 2005 season, the Mets needed a catcher to replace Mike Piazza.  Ramon Castro, who received a good chunk of time behind the plate, looked like an intriguing option, between his good receiver skills and his ability to mash at the plate (8 home runs in 209 at-bats in 2005).  However, Castro was never considered a real candidate for the starting job, which went to Paul Lo Duca after another Mets’ trade with the Marlins.  In two years on the Mets, Castro arguably out-performed Lo Duca at the plate (he actually had one more home run in 655 fewer plate appearances), and was better defensively too.  Yet, when the time came to replace Lo Duca after the collapse, Castro again was not considered for the starter’s job, which ultimately went to Brian Schneider.
  • Continuing the catcher theme, Jesus Flores was left unprotected in the 2006 Rule V draft and taken by the Washington Nationals.  At the time, he was the only thing resembling a catching prospect in the system, and acquitted himself nicely at the major league level last year.  He could have been a real solution to the catching problem that will await them in either 2009 or 2010, but instead he will be a Washington National.
  • Schneider was acquired in part because the Mets felt Lastings Milledge was unable to acquit himself in right field.  Over two seasons, Milledge had shown steady improvement with the bat over two seasons, particularly against left handed pitchers.  By the time 2007 ended, it looked like he was ready to assume an everyday role in right field, but the team had become suspicious of his antics and instead cut bait, getting older in the process.

Then there is the Castillo signing.  As mentioned, Castillo has never shown much pop at the plate.  Gotay hit 4 home runs in 190 at-bats last year, or 1/6 of Castillo’s career total in 5300 fewer at-bats.  Gotay also hit .295 last year, 6 points lower than Castillo’s .301, with a .352 OBP, 9 points lower than Castillo’s .361.  Throw in the added power, and Gotay could easily out-perform that over a full season, right?  Especially after you factor in Castillo’s loss of speed.  The other problem with Gotay was his defense, but his biggest defensive issue was Gotay has issues turning the double play; his range at second is fine.  Surely the team could have addressed this issue in spring training, with repeated double play drills to improve Gotay’s handling of the double play to at least average; plus, on this Mets team, which allows a lot of fly balls, turning the double play isn’t as big of an issue as it would be on some teams.

The problem is, Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya simply are not into giving young players a shot.  For all of the issues the media has raised about the Latino influence Minaya has brought to the Mets, the real issue to me is his over-reliance on older veterans.  Last year’s team was the oldest in the National League.  The team did get younger this off-season when Tom Glavine, Paul Lo Duca, and Shawn Green were allowed to leave, but this is still a very old team.  Thirty-eight year old Damion Easley is the team’s utility infielder.  Retreads and major league washouts like Brady Clark and Fernando Tatis were considered ahead of Gotay for the team’s last spot on the bench.  Hell, Julio Franco was only finally released last year when it became painfully obvious that he could no longer hit at the major league level, and the man is so old, carbon dating wouldn’t be able to determine his real age.

We can’t even give this administration credit for Reyes and Wright; they were promoted to the majors in 2004, before Minaya and Randolph were hired, and had established themselves for better or for worse as major leaguers before they took over the reigns.  The only young players who have been promoted to the majors and stuck since Minaya and Randolph have taken over are Aaron Heilman (who found his niche in the bullpen, much to his chagrin) and John Maine.  Time and time again, good young players have established that they deserve at least a shot at an everyday job, only to be rebuffed by Minaya and Randolph in favor of veterans; essentially, we are rooting for the 1999-2006 Yankees right now, whether we want to admit it or not.

Look, I understand the importance of spending money.  I should feel grateful; the team I root for is willing to spend the extra dollar to make whatever improvements need to be made to put this team ahead.  The problem becomes when the team is spending money for marginal upgrades, at best.  A little creativity here and a little creativity there would open up money to be spent on good young players entering their prime when they enter their free agent years.  Look at the Red Sox, who have augmented a high payroll by scouring the waiver wire for good cheap pickups, and by trusting their youngsters to come in and play over established major league veterans.  If we want to end our admittedly less lamentable drought of 22 years without a World Series championship, at some point we will have to learn to trust our kids.  A high payroll for itself does not win a World Series; management needs to find smarter ways to spend the Wilpon’s money.

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