The Mets had done everything well up until this point. They handled the bullpen situation as smartly as one could hope, bringing in the best available free agent closer, and then trading for another closer without giving up anything of real value. The bullpen was one of their biggest problems last season, and in two nicely done moves, they solved both of them. Nobody can take that away from them. This was an excellent way to kick off the offseason, and Mets fans were suitably pumped up, as the team seemed intent on paving a road to a championship caliber ballclub.
But to think that addressing the bullpen alone would bring this team a championship is foolish. The starting rotation last year was thin outside of Johan Santana, and to a lesser degree Mike Pelfrey. John Maine is coming off of an injury, and was not particularly effective before the injury. Pedro Martinez was pretty bad last year, although he is a free agent. And Oliver Perez was maddeningly inconsistent, going from looking like a worldbeater one game to getting destroyed in another without any rhyme or reason. He was also a free agent, and a Type A free agent at that, a free agent that will bring the Mets back a first round pick should he sign with another club.
There is also a problem with the offense. Carlos Delgado probably isn’t going to repeat his 2008 again; he is more likely to resemble first half Delgado than second half Delgado. Luis Castillo and Brian Schneider were two of the worst everyday players in the majors last year, combining terrible offense and lousy defense. Between Ryan Church’s recovery from a serious head injury and the planned Fernando Tatis/Daniel Murphy platoon (which should be good, but it is likely neither will be close to as good as they were last year), the corner outfield spots are far from certain. While the team should rely on continued good seasons out of players like David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran, every other position has at least a question mark, and some have both a question mark and an exclamation point. And the bench stinks.
So what have the Mets done to improve in these other areas since solving the bullpen problem? Well…um…nothing. Absolutely nothing. This team remains as flawed as it was after the J.J. Putz trade, where they were improved but certainly no lock to play October baseball, and with Derek Lowe signing with the Braves today, it appears unlikely that the team will make those necessary moves towards a World Series. Add this to the Wilpons’ refusal to even consider bidding on Manny Ramirez, an impact bat that would instantly make the Mets’ lineup the best in the National League, and it appears as though the team the Mets take to war next year will once again fall short of expectations.
The move to make was sign Derek Lowe. I have gotten over the fact that the Mets simply will not sign Manny; that’s fine. Twenty million dollars for a late 30’s slugger probably wouldn’t be the best investment by year 3 anyway. But Lowe was different. The Mets simply needed to sign one of the three best starters on the market. CC Sabathia was always a pipe dream, since the Mets are already paying Johan Santana the kind of money Sabathia would want, and Santana is better. AJ Burnett was the next best starter available, and considering the years he would want, he probably wasn’t the best investment for the Mets.
That leaves Lowe. As I discussed last week, he’s good at getting ground balls, and above average at striking batters out. He avoids walks. He’s fairly unspectacular, but that is exactly what the Mets needed in their rotation! They didn’t need somebody who was going to wow you with his power; they needed a guy who avoids mistakes, pitches 200 above average innings a season, and gives the fanbase little to worry about. That’s what you get out of Lowe. There is a real value in what he gives his teams. For the Mets, he fills out their rotation perfectly. Even being a Type A, which would require giving up a first round pick to the Dodgers, the Mets could recoup that pick by letting Perez sign with another team, giving the Mets two picks in the top 50.
The problem is, the Mets tried to dictate the pitcher’s market to Scott Boras. You can dictate the market to an agent like Paul Kinzer; you can’t dictate the market to Scott Boras. The moment John Smoltz signed with Boston, Boras saw an opportunity to get the Braves involved for Lowe and pounced. By sitting back and letting Boras work the market, the Mets allowed the opportunity for another team to get involved in the starting pitcher’s market. By doing so, it cost them the best starter still looking for work after the winter meetings, a guy who would have slotted in perfectly.
Where does this leave the Mets? It leads them back to…Oliver Perez. Think about this; isn’t this EXACTLY what Scott Boras would want? The last thing Boras wanted was for the Mets to sign Lowe; they were his biggest suitor for Perez as well. Lowe signing with the Mets for $12 million a season (Carlos Silva money, by the way) hurts his market for Perez too. The smart money was to get the Mets involved, but not too involved, on Lowe, use them to drive the market up for another team, and then have the Mets sign Ollie at an inflated rate. Boras played the Mets like patsies.
The thing is, this could have been avoided. The Mets needed to make a stronger initial offer to Lowe; they knew as well as anybody that three years and $36 million was not getting this deal done. Three years, $42 million with a vesting option for a fourth year…that is at least in the ballpark of where Lowe and Boras were looking. By lowballing Boras, they allowed the opportunity for another team to get involved. They have nobody to blame but themselves for letting Lowe not only slip out of their own grasp, but to go to a division rival no less. But hey…at least they have Tim Redding to round out the rotation!
So now the Mets are going into 2009, at best with a rotation that will see an upgrade from Pedro Martinez to Tim Redding in the 5th spot (and that disgusts me to write that we now live in a world where Tim Redding is a better pitcher than Pedro Martinez), and is otherwise unchanged from last season. John Maine’s health is a question mark, and even before his injury, he didn’t look particularly great on the mound. Mike Pelfrey will be back, and it could be a mistake to assume he will be as good as he was last season; he needs to start striking more batters out before we can assume he’s going to use his tools to their fullest.
And Oliver Perez, in the best case scenario, will now be back for another four years. Four more years of maddening inconsistency…four more years of walks and fly balls…and to be fair, four more years of high strikeout numbers, but still…four more years of Good Ollie/Bad Ollie drama…and that’s the best-case scenario. That assumes Boras doesn’t figure out a way for Ollie to wind up on another team, with the Mets forced to explore the Ben Sheets/Randy Wolf “severe injury problem” market. The Mets’ best case scenario as of right now involves four years of never knowing which Oliver Perez Mets fans will see on the mound. Does this get anybody else excited?
The Mets blew it. We all know they aren’t going to make the big addition to their lineup that could give them the help they need. This is a team in need of a big righty bat, that they aren’t going to sign. They are stuck with their current unsatisfying solutions at second base and catcher. The bullpen is better, and should blow fewer games, but that was merely a nice step in the right direction. There was more work to be done, and the team does not seem intent on doing what they need to do to put them conclusively over the hump for 2009. Mets fans today should feel disgusted that their team could have made the big move to put them into the playoffs for 2009, but instead chose to play hardball with the toughest agent in baseball, and then acting surprised when everything blew up in their face.