Sandy Alderson and the Mets' bag-of-balls team-building strategy

Sandy Alderson. (Photo via mlb.com.)
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As the New York Mets spiral in 2012 continued Wednesday with a 5-2 loss to the Rockies following a strong first half, it is up to general manager Sandy Alderson to try and drum up interest in the team for the 38 games left in this year, and naturally, for the 2013 season.

Accordingly, he spent a half-hour talking with Mike Francesa Wednesday afternoon on WFAN. Apparently the language, and far more important, the inaction of last month—no trades, with the emphasis on the future—is no longer operative.

Alderson claimed once again that he hadn't spoken to Fred Wilpon, Jeff Wilpon or Saul Katz about payroll. Instead, he'd come up with various plans, he said, based on different payroll scenarios.

But he didn't espouse a vision based on spending new money this offseason. He's counting on Johan Santana, who was shut down for the season Wednesday due to injury after throwing a total of 117 innings at an E.R.A.+ of 79, to be part of the rotation. He hasn't given up on Lucas Duda, the idea being the worst everyday defensive player in right field will mysteriously develop the ability to cover ground in a major league outfield if he's in left.

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"If you look at our success in the first half of the season, it was because of guys like Lucas Duda," Alderson said.

(By the way, it wasn't.)

And Jason Bay is in the plans, too.

Still, Alderson expressed something obvious, considering that the Mets went out Wednesday night and lost, 5-2, to fall 10 games under .500 for the first time since the end of the 2009 season.

"We need to get better," Alderson said. "And not incrementally."

So if the high-priced players are sticking around, and payroll isn't increasing, exactly where will the new excitement in Flushing come from?

According to Alderson, it will come from a baseball tradition that's been around for as long as there have been unwanted players and bags of balls: the trade.

The problem with a team with significant holes in its talent base making trades to improve is that other teams need to agree to provide more value than they are receiving, something other teams aren't usually willing to do. In addition, the Mets are in a remarkably weak position to utilize trades to their advantage.

When asked about possible specific trades, Alderson naturally couldn't speak about the players he would receive, as that would be tampering, nor would it make much sense to point out specific players of his he wanted to be rid of, for reasons of leverage.

But listen to Alderson's accurate discussion of the going rate for power on the free agent market, and the reason it isn't a realistic prospect for the Mets becomes obvious.

"So we need an infusion of players, productive players, players who are going to hit for power," he said. "There are only two or three ways to acquire those. I'd say the more likely avenue for us would be trades. Let's be honest: So if we're going to get a right-handed power hitter or a left-handed power hitter, what's it going to cost us? Maybe $10 million to $12 million a year. If you look at [Michael] Cuddyer and [Jason] Kubel and guys like that, [Josh] Willingham, those are not five-tool players, but they're very productive players. Is that a possibility for next year? I wouldn't rule it out at this point. Again, I don't think we know what our budget is going to be. I haven't had those conversations."

But as Adam Rubin reported last week, somebody has had those conversations, and payroll isn't going anywhere but possibly down. Alderson had an alternate path to acquiring power hitting.

"The positive aspect of our player-development system is we have a lot of pitching. We have a lot of pitching at Triple-A. We have pitching up and down the system. We have four or five guys at Brooklyn that have been lights out all season. So we definitely have trade chips. We have players that we can trade if we decided that is the way to go. So I think we have assets. I don't know what kind of cash assets we'll have. That's to be determined. But I think our system is in a much better position today to make trades than it was two years ago, even a year ago."

Here's the problem with that strategy. The upper-level pitching is what the Mets will be relying on for starting pitching in 2013, absent new money spent on free agent pitching. The starting five right now includes the shut down Santana, Dillon Gee, whose blood clot ended his season in July and makes him prone to a recurrence, along with Matt Harvey, Jonathon Niese and R.A. Dickey. So there are two huge question marks, physically, in the rotation, with pitchers Collin McHugh and Jenrry Mejia, neither of whom has a significant track record or, in Mejia's case, even a full season of starting, to bank on. Add Zack Wheeler to that mix if you like, but he has three starts in his career above Double-A, and his E.R.A. in them is 4.60.

Wheeler would bring back power hitting, but that would be the Mets punting a significant part of their perceived future. McHugh and Mejia might as well, but they are the team's entirety of starting pitching depth, something every team needs, even without huge medical question marks next to 40 percent of their projected rotation.

As for the pitchers below Double-A and Triple-A, not only is their distance from the major leagues unlikely to provide the Mets much in the way of trade return, but that distance is exactly why a rebuilding team needs to have so many of them.

So if the Mets trade from what is absolutely a surplus of low-level arms because ownership can't afford to add even a bit of free agent talent to make the Mets competitive in 2013, it will simply allow ownership's financial woes to corrode the talent base for future seasons, without providing a decisive advantage for the 2013 team.

And if the Mets aren't trading from that one area cited by Alderson, who exactly are they trading? Not Duda, who is apparently the future in left field, somehow. And Alderson spoke about wanting to retain David Wright and R.A. Dickey beyond their option years in 2013, though that will require both cash and a willingness on the players' parts. And trading either one, when they make up a lion's share of the total 2012 value, wouldn't be likely to positively affect 2013. So who does that leave?

Jonathon Niese is obviously valuable, but he's also someone they are counting on next season to start. Ruben Tejada is young, valuable and cost-controlled, something of value to other teams, but therefore a necessity to the Mets. They can trade Daniel Murphy for power, but that leaves them without a second baseman, unless they think they can trade Murphy for a power hitter who also plays second base. And they aren't getting Robinson Cano for Daniel Murphy.

Ike Davis, though he's hit well since June, has an O.P.S.+ below league average for any position, let alone a premium offensive position like first base. Josh Thole has been well below a .600 O.P.S. at catcher since returning from a concussion. Exactly what team is trading the Mets a premium power hitter for either one? And then who plays first base if Davis goes? Or catcher if Thole goes?

As Alderson knows, the Mets have a base of talent in dire need of addition, not a simple shuffling of the group on hand. And that generally doesn't happen via trade, but via free agency in the short-term, and through player development that simply isn't ready to provide enough of those impact players in 2013, especially on the everyday side.

As he described the very inexpensive players he's been limited to adding, with no change in sight, "If we continue to acquire players at the low end, we'll continue to have to accept a 50 percent success rate."

That 50 percent success rate doesn't look like it is translating to even a .500 record, let alone contention. The Mets' plans may not be clear, but the result of them has been, perfectly. 

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Ivan Nova has shoulder tightness, and the disabled list is a possibility.

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