It ended far sooner and far more violently than any Mets fan could have wanted, but it’s over. The 2008 season, which opened with a lot of promise, caught an early roadblock, and then righted itself just long enough to crush Mets’ fans hopes again, is now over, and the Mets are dead. The cornoner has listed the cause of death as “lousy bullpen,” but has listed other contributing causes on the death certificate. As much as I might not want to go through the reasons of their demise today, I am going to do so just so we can learn from what happened this year and hope the same mistakes are not repeated for next year. In order:
Main Cause of Death: Lousy Bullpen (65%)
Make no mistake – the bullpen is the #1 main reason why this team failed to make the postseason in 2008. Time after time, the Mets bullpen failed to hold leads, putting pressure on the offense to make up for their inefficiencies late in games. A lot has been made of the numbers about how the Mets had the best run differential in the National League in the first three innings, and the worst run differential in the NL in the final three innings. Think about what those numbers tell you; the team’s rotation has mostly been pretty good, the team’s hitting helps get the team off to early leads…and the team’s bullpen promptly blows those leads.
If you read this blog, you know how much I love numbers, so here are some numbers for you: the Mets’ winning percentage after leading after 6 innings (.849), 7 innings (.843), and 8 innings (.918) are all well below league averages in those categories. They rank 19th in baseball when leading after 6, 28th in baseball when leading after 7 (ahead of only St. Louis and Detroit), and 29th in baseball when leading after 8 (ahead of only the lowly Seattle Mariners). Oh yeah, just for fun…if you hear some idiot pundit complaining about how the 2008 Mets lacked heart, remind them of this fun statistic: the Mets ranked 8th, 1st, and 6th in baseball when trailing after the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings. The problem wasn’t that this team couldn’t score runs late; it was that this team couldn’t prevent runs from scoring late. The Mets would have won the NL East by 7 games if baseball was an 8 inning game – think about that.
We all know what happened; Billy Wagner, their closer, was injured in August and will not be coming back. Aaron Heilman went from being a reliable setup guy to a pitcher who couldn’t pitch to lefties and became extremely homer-prone. Pedro Feliciano went from being a reliable 7th inning type, a lefty who could pitch to righties, to becoming a strict LOOGY with a tendency to put runners on. Scott Schoeneweis pitched as poorly in 2008 as he did in 2007, albeit with a lower ERA. Duaner Sanchez came back from injury a shell of his former self, and is unlikely to ever return to the brilliant form he showed in the first half of 2006. Luis Ayala was a woefully underprepared pitcher thrust into tough spots. Brian Stokes had showed an upside, and then a downside. Joe Smith wore down again in June and July before having a solid August and a good September, the only Met reliever who can say he had a good September.
There will be a lot written about how to fix the Mets bullpen, including here on this site. As of now, the only relievers I can advocate bringing back are Smith, Stokes (who has shown flashes of ability and could turn into something), and Heilman (who had a bad year but is capable of pitching better). The only reliever I would count on definitely returning is Smith. I am almost certain that Schoeneweis will not be back, if only for the way the season ended. Feliciano could stay or could go; his performance would indicate he needs to go, but they will need a lefty in the bullpen. The team might think they can rehab Duaner, but it’s probably a waste of time, and they should make that somebody else’s problem. Ayala is garbage and it would be insane for them to bring him back.
The bullpen must shoulder a huge burden of blame for the reason this team failed to make the postseason. But there were other contributing causes as well.
Contributing Cause: Injuries and Preparation For Injuries (25%)
No doubt injuries played a role this year as well. I won’t even include guys like Orlando Hernandez, Pedro Martinez, or Moises Alou in the equation, because nobody expected them to play a full season. Granted, I think this team expected some contribution out of Alou or El Duque, but the fact remains, they had to suspect that they would miss at least 50% of the season due to various ailments. The Alou injury hurt for a while, because it left the Mets without a reliable left fielder until the shocking revival of Fernando Tatis. The El Duque injury, coupled with the early Pedro injury, meant a lot of questionable starts this year by the likes of Nelson Figueroa and Tony Armas Jr, until Pedro returned and really didn’t give the Mets anything better in that spot. But let’s not even talk these guys, because nobody expected them to be healthy.
The injuries I’m talking about are the injuries to guys like John Maine, Billy Wagner, Ryan Church, and Fernando Tatis. The absence of Maine meant that, in addition to starting a borderline 5 starter like Johan Santana, that the team would be forced to rely on fringe starters like Brandon Knight, Jason Stokes, and prospects unready for the big leagues like Jon Niese. The Wagner injury compounded the bullpen issue; he hadn’t been as sharp as he had been in seasons past, but he was still the best of a bad lot. Church’s injury compounded the Mets’ corner outfield problems, forcing them to rely on Marlon Anderson and Endy Chavez as replacements until they found Tatis and Daniel Murphy. The Tatis injury meant the team was forced to use Nick Evans more in the last two weeks, and he really was the lesser of the Mets’ left field platoon.
Injuries by themselves cannot be blamed, of course. If the Mets had more bullpen depth, the loss of Wagner would not have been a problem. If the Mets had prepared for the inevitable Pedro/El Duque injuries, not only would they have been able to get through the initial Pedro injury in a better spot, they would have had a better replacement for Maine when he went down. If the Mets had aggressively pursued a better 4th outfielder option than Angel Pagan, they would have been able to survive the Alou, Church, and later Tatis injuries better (although they may not have found out that Tatis had something in the tank, either). This team was built as a house of cards; if any key players were to get injured, they didn’t have anything close to an adequate replacement. No bench, no bullpen depth, no rotation depth. These are issues that will need to be addressed in the postseason, and signing the best available 38 year old hitter on the market as a professional pinch hitter is not the answer.
Contributing Cause: Willie Randolph started the year as Mets manager (5%)
Never forget, Willie was a terrible manager. Never forget this. The fact that this team didn’t act swiftly to remove him after last season probably helped cause last year’s problems to linger into 2008. They would eventually overcome this with Jerry Manuel, who proved to be everything Willie was not; likable, thoughtful, engaging, upbeat, funny, and a wiser baseball tactician. It’s hard to say that the players definitely played better for Jerry Manuel, but this was a much better team without Willie Randolph.
Contributing Cause: No hitting in the last 3 games (4.999999%)
I only list this because despite the big two causes, this team still had a shot at making the playoffs going into the final weekend. In fact, for most of September, again, they had been a playoff team. Despite an up and down series against the Cubs, they were still tied for the wild card with three to play against a team they knew would not lay down for them; the Florida Marlins, a team who in fact didn’t lay down for them last year, and didn’t do so again this year. Johan Santana pitched one of the finest games a Mets fan will ever witness on Saturday on three days’ rest; that game is the only reason this team wasn’t swept this weekend and even had a shot going into Saturday. Over the three games, the team only scored 5 runs (fewer than the Marlins scored in the Friday game alone) and once again found themselves out of the postseason.
I am not going to kill the offense too much here. They played well for most of the season; they scored the second most runs in the National League this year despite playing in one of the hardest parks to hit in the National League. Wright, Beltran, Reyes, and Delgado all had great seasons (well, Delgado had a great half). They got surprising contributions from Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy. Second base and catcher were problems this year offensively, but generally speaking, you cannot blame the offense for the way the failures of this team. It was better than any Met fan could have anticipated.
That being said…in the biggest series of the year, this team needed to score more than 5 runs against the Florida Marlins. Scott Olson was a guy who struggled against the Mets all season; yesterday, he shut them down, his only mistake being a Beltran two run homer. The Mets couldn’t accomplish anything on Chris Volstad in a must-win Friday game, made more important by the Brewers’ win later that night. There was too much on the line for this team, and it picked the wrong weekend to drop off the face of the planet. I loved how well this offense played this year, but man…not the best weekend to drop off.
Contributing Cause: Perceived flaws of Mets superstars (0.000001%)
Whatever BS excuse you’re hearing about how Johan “wasn’t an ace in the first half,” or Jose Reyes’ attitude problem, or how Carlos Beltran doesn’t love the game, or my personal favorite, “David Wright wasn’t clutch.” Never mind the thousands of arguments one could produce that support this, or how these guys all had fantastic seasons. It’s easier to blame the stars, even when they play well, than it is to blame something unprovoking like the bullpen. It’s easier to generate discussion by throwing out suggestions to trade Wright or Reyes than it would be to think of smart bullpen moves, or ways to improve the bench.
Fact is, the superstars all held their end of the bargain; there were no major injuries, Wright, Reyes, and Beltran all started 159 or more games, Santana didn’t miss a start. They all performed; they didn’t “compile numbers,” the numbers simply reflect that these guys got the job done. The problem is, the team around them was poorly constructed, be it with weak replacements for when their injured teammates went down, or a bullpen that lacked a reliable reliever who could be trusted to pitch a complete inning. The superstars are the reason this team won 89 games; generally speaking, it was the players around them that were responsible for them failing to win any more, although it would have been nice if they scored a few more runs in the last series of the year. But hey, everybody has bad serieses; it’s just that this team picked a bad weekend to have one.
In the coming days, weeks, months, we’ll talk about what the Mets need to do this offseason, and once the offseason starts proper (believe it or not, that won’t be for another month or so), we will evaluate the Mets’ moves. The plan is to start making the site more active, with at least an update every day Monday through Friday, some long, some short, so you have a reason to check this site every day. This is the most important offseason in the Minaya regime; we’re coming off of two straight no-playoffs seasons with talent that should have made it both years. Factor in the new-found riches to be had from Citi Field, and the likely revenue stream that will come from it, and it is likely that this team will be active from November to January. Where does the future of this organization lie? We’ll find out soon enough.