11:24 am Jan. 17, 20131
For the better part of a calendar year now, Scott Hairston has perfectly encapsulated the limitations of the New York Mets.
The 32-year-old outfielder has a career O.P.S.+ of exactly 100, or league average. His hitting comes primarily against left-handed pitching. He can handle all three outfield spots defensively, but doesn't excel at any of them.
And since the middle of last season, he's been at the center of any significant discussions the Mets have had about making deals not including last season's two best players, David Wright (since retained) and R.A. Dickey (since traded).
Last July, when the Mets fell out of the pennant race, there was lots of talk about whether to keep Hairston, who was about to become a free agent, or trade him by the non-waiver trading deadline. Hairston wasn't likely to bring back a piece akin to Zack Wheeler, the return for Carlos Beltran in 2011, who is now the team's best pitching prospect.
But far lesser players than Hairston have earned useful prospects in return, and plenty of contenders needed a righty bat for the stretch run.
They kept him. The two reasons cited by general manager Sandy Alderson were to maximize competitiveness in 2012, and to give the Mets a leg up on retaining Hairston in 2013.
"Holding on to Scott, in some sense, was a nod toward 2012, but with 2013 in mind," Alderson said in a post-deadline conference call on July 31. Alderson further elaborated that two or three teams pursued Hairston, but no one offered a "top-three prospect."
The Mets went 24-34 from August 1 on. But at least they would get to keep Hairston, the best outfielder the team had in 2012, as part of whatever they were building in 2013.
Or maybe not, as it turned out. While the Dickey and Wright dramas played out, the Mets didn't retain Hairston, nor sign a single other major league free agent. The Mets also pursued some additional financial relief by borrowing against ownership's majority stake in S.N.Y.
The Wright and Dickey deals were completed weeks ago. The Mets managed to defer $23 million in expected 2013 obligations, between Wright's restructuring and a buyout of Jason Bay. The S.N.Y. loan is complete, with roughly $160 million in new cash.
The Mets still haven't signed anyone.
Now, there is no shortage of outfielders who are better than Scott Hairston. It's just that none of them are employed by the New York Mets. And most of them, by now, have been signed by other teams.
So when Hairston's people reached out to the Mets with a proposal of two years, $8 million for Hairston, the fit sure made sense. Hairston wasn't going to get regular playing time anywhere else; the Yankees want him, as most contenders would, for spot duty against lefty pitchers.
But if the goal is to find ways to improve the 2013 Mets without sacrificing the future, adding Hairston for a third as much guaranteed money, and fewer years, than comparable outfielder Cody Ross received from the Arizona Diamondbacks, would seem to be an obvious move.
The team's outfield doesn't consist of a single candidate to play well against both lefties and righties. Most of their returning outfielders hit from the left side. And their expected starting left fielder, Lucas Duda, is coming off of wrist surgery, and simply cannot play the outfield at even a minimally competent level.
But the Mets reportedly "balked" at Hairston's offer. With spring training drawing ever closer, a team Alderson described late last August as needing "to get better, and not incrementally" hasn't done anything to improve, other than dealing the 2012 Cy Young Award winner.
The Mets had a chance to sign Hairston at below-market rate, but walked away from it, as they did with R.A. Dickey this winter. The first team who offers Hairston a two-year deal will almost certainly get him.
And the Mets have an outfield that was the subject of their own general manager's joke back in November, after which they added pieces like Collin Cowgill and Andrew Brown who make more sense as Triple-A depth than as viable options to start.
A bullpen that ranked 29th in baseball in E.R.A. last season hasn't added anyone beyond Greg Burke, another player who makes sense as Triple-A depth, while losing several of even that suspect group's best-performing members.
The Mets looked into finding some help on that front, too, holding a private workout for Brian Wilson, once a star with the San Francisco Giants, but who is recovering from elbow surgery. Alderson, reportedly, was unimpressed. Accordingly, the major league deal that would bring Wilson to the Mets is not forthcoming.
The early-80s Mets under Frank Cashen worked to build from within, albeit more as a discretionary strategy than a mandatory strategy due to management's financial woes. And obviously that strategy paid off.
Still, those '80s Mets made plenty of moves for major league players, starting way before they brought in the likes of Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter. They added utility man Bob Bailor prior to 1981 and reliever Carlos Diaz after the 1982 season, both in trade. The two were traded following the 1983 season for a prospect no one would consider among the Los Angeles Dodgers' top three at the time: Sid Fernandez.
There's no such consistency or logic in what the current Mets are doing. (Jose Reyes set free for nothing, Wright kept, Dickey traded.)
We know that Alderson shines when given the chance to act like a general manager, as when he earned massive returns in trades for Dickey and Beltran, signing Dickey to a team-friendly extension after his breakout 2010, and extending Jon Niese to a long-term deal. But those chances are few and far between thanks to the money woes of his bosses. And in a sport awash with television money and plenty of other smart general managers, Alderson's intelligence doesn't seem to be nearly enough to overcome the team's financial handicap.
There's no shortage of evidence that the Mets are trapped in mediocrity. Their dealings with Scott Hairston are as useful an illustration as any.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
It's not just the sports world talking about this amazing investigative piece from Deadspin about Notre Dame linebacker Manti T'eo and his fictional dead girlfriend.
Here's Deadspin editor and Capital friend Tom Scocca talking about the piece on "Morning Joe" today.
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