Presenting ... Omar Minaya’s freakshow Mets of 2010

presenting-omar-minayas-freakshow-mets-2010
Omar Minaya, the man behind the Mets. ()
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This season, by consensus, was supposed to be a death watch for the once-fashionable wheeler-dealer general manager Omar Minaya, the man responsible for building every New York Mets team since 2005, a period of relatively lavish spending that has nevertheless coincided with multiple late-season collapses and an all-around lack of meaningful achievement. Minaya had arrived in New York, amid great fanfare and optimism, from the (now-defunct) Montreal Expos, where he had shown a knack for building competitive teams for very little money. Five years on, confidence that he could engineer a winner here was all but gone.

Sure enough, after a disspiriting an 18-20 start to the current campaign that left the Mets in last place in the National League East, and amid conspicuous signs that the team's owner-heir and "chief operating officer" Jeff Wilpon was taking a more hands-on role in personnel decisions, reporters didn't even bother asking Minaya if he still enjoyed the “full autonomy” he’d claimed he had in a preseason interview with SNY. Clearly, he didn't.

What has happened since then to Minaya's Mets—what they have done, and how—has been remarkable. They entered a series with the Washington Nationals last night at 44-34, just 1.5 games out of first place in the National League East, and the current NL Wild Card leaders. Since that 18-20 start, the Mets have gone 26-14. They are a team that is doing everything right—a well-oiled, structurally sound-looking machine.

It's seriously tempting to regard this as the culmination of a grand, painstakingly executed master plan first hatched when Minaya took over as G.M. in 2005—a plan so ingenious that we can only now see why it was the right one all along.

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But what has happened, in fact, is much more improbable than that.

Things are working out this year, for the moment at least, not because the team is holding up better than it has over the past few seasons. Good things are happening this season for two reasons: Plan A fell apart almost immediately, and Plan B has worked out better than anyone, including Omar Minaya, could possibly have imagined.

Among the stars of your 2010 New York Mets, ladies and gentlemen, are...Ike Davis at first base, Ruben Tejada at second base, and Angel Pagan in center field, with R.A. Dickey and underappreciated Japanese import Hisanori Takahashi pitching like aces in of the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation. In the bullpen, Bobby Parnell and Elmer Dessens have been dominant. (Never heard of most or all of them before this year? Don't feel bad!)

None of these players were part of the Mets' plans this winter, or even this spring—all of them received opportunities as a result of poor play or injuries to the players the Mets were actually counting on. Which is fine, actually, except for the fact that there's no Plan C—the Mets have no margin for error whatsoever in case of injury.

Any untimely new problem—and baseball seasons are wont to be full of them—could quickly restart the fire-Minaya countdown.

To get a sense of just how fortunate the Mets have been to see things go right, let’s take each of these decisions in turn.

Ike Davis actually qualifies as a Plan C. The Mets were determined to go with Daniel Murphy, the onetime golden-boy prospect at first base to begin the season, despite growing doubts about Murphy’s ability to hit. But when Murphy fell victim to a knee injury in the final days of spring training, the Mets turned to…veteran Mike Jacobs, fresh off of a 2009 season with an OPS+ of 83. (OPS+ is calculated by combining on-base percentage and slugging percentage—an average OPS is defined as 100, which each point above or below representing one percent above or below the league average. So 83 is not good.)

This was very much in keeping with how the Mets have filled injury-based holes before—turning to “proven major leaguers," no matter how poorly they had proven to be.

In discussing the Murphy situation with reporters, Minaya did not wait to be asked about the 23-year-old Davis, who had a standout spring in the minors, before dismissing the possibility of his starting the season in Flushing.

“Right now, our plan is to let Ike Davis develop in the minor leagues,” Minaya said. "Mets Murphy Will Miss Opener With Knee Injury" was the New York Times, headline on March 31, 2010.

The Mets cut bait on Jacobs after just 28 plate appearances.

Enter Davis, who hasn’t been spectacular at the plate so far but is far better than Jacobs at the plate, and has a tremendous glove as well. He’s more than acquitted himself, and at a salary more than a million dollars less than Jacobs stood to earn this season.

The same has been true at second base with Ruben Tejada. Following a superficially decent 2009, the Mets still found that they had no takers for Luis Castillo, a player who used to be good, and is now manifestly not. While Castillo could still hit decently, the combination of his terrible defending, age, injury problems and remaining two years and $12 million on his contract made trading him prohibitively difficult. But rather than solving second base with a better player and relegating Castillo to the bench, the Mets decided instead to begin the season with him.

"I do anticipate Luis Castillo being our second baseman." Omar Minaya, at a press conference to announce the four-year signing of (the so-far disappointing) outfielder Jason Bay for $66 million on January 5, 2010.

Fortunately for the Mets, Castillo, whose offense regressed while his defense failed to improve, broke down. Enter Tejada, just 20, whose defense helps to make his light hitting more palatable. And with hits in 12 of his last 14 games, there is increasing hope that Tejada has put the minors behind him for good.

Center field is the most egregious example of the Mets creating an unnecessary, ineffective Plan A. With star, stud centerfielder Carlos Beltran having undergone knee surgery in January—a planned procedure that somehow, reportedly, caught the Mets by surprise—the team had a perfectly good alternative at the position in Angel Pagan, a terrific defender who posted an OPS+ of 118 in 2009. But in a move that puzzled nearly everyone in baseball, the Mets sent reliever Brian Stokes to the Angels in late January for Gary Matthews Jr., who has achieved fine things elsewhere, in the past, even agreeing to assume $2 million of Matthews’ salary.

"He's a very versatile player. With Carlos or without Carlos, I just think he makes our team better." Omar Minaya about Gary Matthews Jr., on conference call following the trade.

The problem with this acquisition, simply, was that Matthews couldn’t play anymore. Anyone who’d seen him for three years could recognize this. His offensive productivity had fallen off a cliff, and he played some of the worst center field defense in the league. The Mets promptly made him the Opening Day starter, and he started eight of the team’s first 17 games in center field while entering games for, astoundingly, defense in another four. By the time Matthews was released in June, he’d given the Mets an OPS+ of 39 in 65 plate appearances for $2 million.

Pagan, meanwhile, has been so impressive—another OPS+ of 118, tremendous defense, and even 14 stolen bases in 19 attempts—that some have speculated he could be part of a deal to acquire Cliff Lee from the Seattle Mariners, should Carlos Beltran return healthy enough to play every day later this month.

The speculation about Lee grew louder this week, thanks to a pair of poor performances by R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi, whose pitching has been nothing short of spectacular since entering the rotation.

So, Dickey. No one knew him before this season. A knuckleball pitcher. He looks hilarious—scruffy and with an expression of what looks like unbearable pain when he delivers.

Before faltering in his last outing, Dickey had gone 6-0 with a 2.33 ERA, the first Met starter to ever win his first six decisions.

Meanwhile, Takahashi, a 172-pound Japanese finesse pitcher who relies on a changeup, pitched to a 2.13 ERA in his first 38 innings as a Met, a period that concluded with six shutout innings in back-to-back starts against the Phillies and Yankees.

Takahashi was slated to be the long-relief man this spring, and Dickey Triple-A filler, due to the presence in the rotation of John Maine and Oliver Perez. The Mets were also rumored at the time to be in the market for blue-chip free-agent pitchers like John Lackey, Joel Piniero and Jason Marquis, before ultimately deciding that Perez and Maine were preferable.

(“The Mets put the word out that they weren't going to overpay for pitchers that were no better than John Maine, Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez. How's that working out so far?” wrote the Daily News' Joel Pineiro.)

Maine and Perez, naturally, combined for 78 1/3 innings of 6.20 E.R.A. pitching. Both are currently on minor league rehab assignments of a dubious nature—Maine’s has started and stopped due to a weakness in the shoulder that has kept him from reaching his 2007 veolcity for three seasons now, while Perez’s began Wednesday night. He’d only gone on the disabled list after the team conducted a bizarre public campaign to convince Perez to go to the minor leagues in an attempt to regain effectiveness.

But this being 2010, the season that baffling personnel decisions always turn out great, the loss of 40 percent of the starting rotation hasn’t hurt so far. Not a bit. (In this case, Marquis and Lackey would have been as bad as Perez and Maine. Marquis is now injured, and Lackey has been a massive disappointment after signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.)

The problem is that the baseball season is long. And all these fill-in players have left the Mets vulnerable to any further injury. The backup for Davis at first base is Jacobs, now relegated to Triple-A. Tejada was insurance for Jose Reyes at shortstop as well; the fallback plan, should Reyes get hurt, is the veteran Alex Cora, who is earning $2 million this season to post an OPS+ of 56. And with Takahashi now, perhaps inevitably, struggling—in his past six starts, he has an unsightly E.R.A. of 6.75—the options for the rotation appear to be… John Maine and Oliver Perez.

There’s even talk from the Mets that once Luis Castillo returns, he’ll be given the starting second base job once again.

All of these potential solutions are grim reminders that for the Mets, who have seemingly solved so much so well, the problems they solved were all of their own making.

Still, on the strength of 40 games, the public bloodlust for Minaya has apparently been sated. And the team even seems willing to allow him to look as if he's running things again.

Back in January, the Mets didn’t feel comfortable enough with Minaya’s press relationships to let him speak about the Carlos Beltran decision to have surgery. But Minaya did announce, smiling, Beltran’s rehab stint when it began last week.

He has even been praised a little in the press, as the beat guys continue their seek to explain the inexplicable. (Even as they urge him to get down to business and go get a real, high-priced, completely non-flukey star like pitcher Cliff Lee.)

In 2009, injuries wrecked a season. In 2010, they appear to have saved it. So far, anyway.

And should this stretch run result in a high-profile collapse, like that of 2007 and 2008? Well then the Wilpons will be hard-pressed to keep Minaya around any longer. It's just hard to imagine that they'd be willing to wait long enough for a crazy, makeshift plan like this year's to come together again.