After another demoralizing Mets loss last night, I was reading Google Reader for some Mets game recaps before calling it a night, when something caught my eye. A writer in the Boston market (well, Providence, but close enough) thinks that Theo Epstein has been overrated, thanks to a high payroll. After quickly checking to make sure the Red Sox were still in first (actually, they had just fallen into second, but lead the wild card by 3.5 games over the Rays and Rangers), I wondered what legnths journalists go to these days in order to create a story.
When I see the Boston Red Sox, I see a team that is the model franchise for all high-payroll teams to follow in the major leagues. What sets the Red Sox apart isn’t their payroll, though it is quite high (at $121,745,999, it is 4th in the major leagues and 2nd in the American League), but it’s that they have so many team friendly contracts, it allows them to take a gamble on guys like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Julio Lugo, and JD Drew (although since an aberration in 2007, Drew has been worth his salary to the Sox).
The list of team-friendly salaries includes most of today’s Red Sox stars such as Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Bay, and Jonathan Papelbon. Most of those guys are legit stars, or helpful building blocks making below market value salaries. Even a guy like Wakefield, a pitcher who will give the Sox a good 180 or so league average or better innings per season in perpetuity for $4 million a season, is a good bargain for them.
That’s not all the Red Sox have, though. The Red Sox have assets in the minor league system as well. Thanks to aggressive work in the MLB Draft, they have helped cultivate a strong farm system. They have done that by ignoring slot (which most teams appear to be doing) and signing the best available players at their pick regardless of cost. After all, the Red Sox are one of the strongest revenue-producing teams in baseball; why shouldn’t they use that advantage in the draft?
Since 2003, the Red Sox have only twice picked outside the first round. For all of the talk about their high payroll, it sure seems like they have avoided targeting Type A free agents, usually the most expensive on the market, with the exceptions of Keith Foulke in 2003 and JD Drew in 2007. They have acquired high salary players via trade, and have spent to keep their own players, but they rarely sacrifice draft picks to acquire free agents, many of whom are already outside their prime.
What Theo Epstein has done is acquired real assets for the Red Sox, at both the major league and minor league level. Frankly, I’m not sure how anybody can complain; only once since 2003 have the Sox failed to win 95 games or more in a season, despite playing in the toughest division in baseball over that time period. Their minor league system is strong enough to where they are a perennial top ten farm system in the game, giving them trade options should they need to acquire a piece before the trade deadline, or the ability to fill holes at the major league level cheaply. This is the sort of team that all high payroll teams in baseball should be emulating.
How does this relate to the Mets? Well, it doesn’t appear the Mets are really interested in following the model set forth by the Red Sox, which has only led to them being one of the most successful teams in professional sports. The Mets have sacrificed their first round draft picks in 2006 (Billy Wagner), 2007 (Moises Alou), and 2009 (Frankie Rodriguez). The only seasons they haven’t sacrificed draft picks during the Omar Minaya regime were 2005 (where they couldn’t lose their first round pick since they picked too high) and 2008.
Think about this: the Mets have had three first round draft picks the past five years. Just for fun, the 2006 pick was used by the Phillies for Kyle Drabek, who is considered untouchable in negotiations for Roy Halladay (which is silly, but it shows that he has value to the Phillies), and the 2007 pick was used on Tim Alderson, the #4 prospect in the Giants system as per Baseball America.
Not that this regime values the draft as highly as the Red Sox. Thanks to the Wilpons’ relationship with Bud Selig, the Mets have not broken the bank on the prospects they do target. Selig tries to insist that teams adhere to a “slotting” system, in which teams would not exceed a max salary depending on where they pick. In theory, this would drive down the price for draft picks.
In practice, it doesn’t work because all of the smart teams in baseball ignore slot and sign players to whatever they can afford to pay them; if a team can’t afford a certain player at their pick, they simply will not select them (unless they are the Washington Nationals). The Mets, however, are one of the last teams adhering to slot, which hinders their ability to acquire high ceiling talent. Instead, they settle for low ceiling/high probabilty guys like Ike Davis in the draft, who are easy to develop but lack star potential.
The Mets do have some talented players signed to team-friendly deals. David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Mike Pelfrey are examples of three good-to-excellent players under team control at reasonable salaries. However, that’s pretty much the entire list of “good players signed to team-friendly contracts.” While I love Beltran and Johan Santana, their deals are closer to actual market value then they are team-friendly, even if the Mets have more than gotten their money’s worth with Beltran over his four and a half seasons in New York.
Then there are the player-friendly contracts on the Mets roster, players who make salaries that are much more beneficial to them than they are the New York Mets. Oliver Perez and his $36 million is an example of a bad contract on this year’s Mets team. Another example is Billy Wagner, who has yet to pitch in 2009 but is making $10 million for the priviledge of rehabbing. Frankie Rodriguez is another one; $12 million a season is too much for a player who will pitch a small fraction of the team’s total innings in 2009.
Back to the Red Sox for a second; after the 2003 season, the Red Sox signed Keith Foulke to a three year contract. After giving the Sox an excellent year in 2004, a year where the Sox won the World Series, Foulke spent much of the next two seasons hurt and within 3 years, was all but out of baseball (you can currently see Foulke on the Newark Bears). The Red Sox learned their lesson on Foulke, promoting Jonathan Papelbon from within to be their closer for six team-controlled seasons where his yearly salary will not cripple the ballclub.
What did the Mets do under a similar situation with Billy Wagner? They spent $37 million over three seasons for Francisco Rodriguez, which threatens to become $54.5 million over four years if he hits his vesting option incentives for 2012. That’s right, in 2012, the Mets may be paying their closer $17.5 million! There hasn’t been a pitcher in the history of baseball worth close to $17.5 million a season, not even Mariano Rivera. That is a clear example of this Mets team not learning remotely from their mistakes, and that is what sets the Mets apart from the Red Sox. The Sox learn from their mistakes, the Mets are doomed to repeat them.
Which leaves me with a final question: Don’t the Wilpons care about their investment in this team? Do they even care about the successes of other franchises? Do they pay attention to teams like the Red Sox, who with roughly the same payroll and the same resources as the Mets, put a consistent winner on the field year after year? Do they pay attention to teams like the A’s and Rays, who put together streaks of winning seasons with payrolls much lower than the Mets? Would ANY of those teams trade for a player like Jeff Francoeur?
If the Wilpons truly cared about their own damn team, then why aren’t they comparing their team to other, more successful teams? Because if they compared the Mets to the Red Sox, they would see that they are coming up laughably short, and should want to do something about that. I’m not saying they should copy the Red Sox, but they should hire a smart guy with a plan. There is no reason this team can’t be a perennial winner, but it won’t be as long as clowns like Omar Minaya, Tony Bernazard, and John Ricco are running the operations.