Another year in shackles for the Mets general manager
The July 31, 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline for Major League Baseball came and went, with a familiar result for the Mets: the buzz about potentially adding talent yielded nothing at all.
This result will have an impact on the team's 2014 fortunes, and on the possibility that the astute front office team, led by Sandy Alderson, remains in place.
Way back on May 27, Alderson talked up the possibility that the Mets would add talent in the summer period of baseball activity, with a Mets source pointing out, rightly, that "it’s hard to build an entire outfield in one offseason.”
A few weeks later, on June 15, Alderson said this: "I do believe that over the next six months or so we will be in position to make some significant acquisitions, whether it's through free agency or trade. We're certainly looking forward to that possibility."
Taking Alderson at his word, that means most of those six months, June 15-December 15, are now up. The Mets didn't add anyone through July 31, and the difficulty of getting a high-performing player through waivers takes us through the end of the season, then the playoffs, which run until the end of October. It'll be November before activity can resume, and Alderson will have one offseason to build what the Mets had feared was impossible to build in that time, an outfield.
And that's something worth remembering: a talented front office, with a real, static budget at its disposal, can't just will a championship team into being. It's hard under the best of circumstances, when you don't have to fight internal battles just to make marginal upgrades.
The Mets, to add payroll this winter, need to not only outbid 29 other teams for their preferred players, but do so while ownership somehow convinces JPMorgan Chase to defer a $320 million loan due against the team, and at the same time, let new spending on the team jump ahead of it in the credit line. So it's no wonder Alderson and his crew are getting tired of this game.
The outfield isn't the only area in need of building. There's shortstop, where Ruben Tejada is marooned in Triple-A until, apparently, September. (Omar Quintanilla is not a long-term answer for them at the position.) Nor does it address first base, where Ike Davis, after returning from Las Vegas, is slugging a meager .322 in his first 73 plate appearances.
But about that outfield, which Alderson was only recently telling fatalistic jokes about.
"We've taken what seemed to be a fairly barren outfield at the beginning of the season and turned it over the last month into maybe the most productive outfield in baseball," Alderson said by way of explaining his inactivity on Wednesday. "So some positive things have happened. And we want to let that play out."
Now look: the outfield has been better. But "maybe the most productive outfield in baseball?" Primary left fielder Eric Young Jr. and now-primary center fielder Juan Lagares have clearly been much better than what they replaced, and have been vital to the team's recent respectable form, and are at even league average O.P.S. at their positions in the National League this season. But unless we are using Lake Wobegon math, that's not the most productive outfield in baseball.
Moreover, the concern isn't so much how they performed over the last month, but what it means heading into 2014. Alderson is much too smart to believe Eric Young, the 28-year-old with the 77 O.P.S.+ and below-average fielding, is as good as it gets. The approach-conscious Alderson and his staff will also be well aware that Lagares' solid output, more than sufficient given his elite fielding in center field, has come despite just five unintentional walks in his first 195 plate appearances, and a likely unsustainable .358 batting average on balls in play (.476 over these supposedly transformative last 28 days).
The backup plan, if and when they cool off, are the same outfield options as before.
Right field, meanwhile, was a major storyline of deadline day.
The Mets have come a long way from Alderson's January interview, when he struggled, with good reason, to name which if his castoffs would start at the position. Now, the Mets have Marlon Byrd in right, and Byrd has been terrific for the Mets, second only to David Wright with a 133 O.P.S.+, leading the team in home runs and R.B.I.
Still, Byrd is 35, and he's never before approached that level of production, even in what are typically a player's prime years. He's a free agent after the season, leaving the Mets with the unenviable options of offering him a qualifying offer expected to be more than $13 million for 2014, hoping he's found a new level of talent at this point in his career, or at least getting a draft pick as compensation if Byrd turned that offer down and signed elsewhere. (Reality: he almost certainly wouldn't.) Alternatively, they'll lose him for nothing.
Even if you accept that keeping Byrd will improve attendance or provide the Mets with slightly more 2013 revenue, it would seem to be precisely within the purview of Jeff Wilpon's declaration last month that ownership was "ready to invest" to take that minor revenue hit to add to the 2014 talent base.
But despite teams offering the Mets what Joel Sherman labeled interested teams' 10th-to-15th-best prospects, the Mets elected to hold on to Byrd, a player who gives them no on-field value after the next 57 games.
A cursory glance at some 2010 Baseball America prospect lists yielded players within that range like Nolan Arenado of the Rockies, who forced his way to the major leagues earlier this year and is starting at third base, and Jason Kipnis of the Indians, who the Mets recently saw at Citi Field, in the All-Star Game.
Sure, there were prospects in that range who missed, which is the nature of prospects. But when the best position player prospects the Mets have at or above Double-A are catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who missed much of the season with a broken foot, Wilmer Flores, a natural third baseman blocked by David Wright, and Cesar Puello, who looks likely to be suspended in the Biogenesis probe any minute now, adding some decent position prospects to come up with some answers at positions of need seems like more of an imperative than a luxury, cast aside for a slightly better 2013 finish. (At least it appears d'Arnaud, now back playing for Double-A Binghamton, may get the chance to play in New York, and show what he can do, as soon as John Buck's wife goes into labor.)
And naturally, had the Mets really been concerned about being competitive in 2013, they could have spent more than $5 million, total, on a pair of major league free agents at the very end of last offseason. That was a critical offseason, too, according to Alderson, who expressed the need last August to add "an infusion of players, productive players," and then, constrained by ownership's financial bind, did nothing of the sort.
The owners, of course, explained that that only happened because Alderson has chosen not to spend money to improve the team, which isn't something Mets decision-makers privately even pretend is true.
That moment when last offseason went from one about preaching patience to a missed opportunity happened in the blink of an eye, if you followed the official line. So did this summer window. And so more time goes by, the Mets hiding behind some plausible deniability (sure, had they been at liberty to add significantly to payroll, trades for productive hitters aren't so easy to negotiate anyhow), and some not-so-plausible ("maybe the most productive outfield in baseball," or Fred Wilpon saying, to the puzzlement and anger of Alderson's camp, that "we haven't turned him down on anything").
We're 16 months out from Wilpon and his partners settling the litigation against them brought by the trustee for the Bernie Madoff victims, a settlement brought because the trustee determined, after a full examination of Wilpon's finances, that he and his partners were circling the drain financially, and couldn't pay the trustee even the pre-trial award of $83.3 million.
That supposedly freeing moment has led to more of the same. Alderson has been steadily stockpiling pitching prospects and rebuilding the farm system, but without the ability to supplement by adding major league talent, his task of making the Mets into major-league contenders is an enormously difficult one.
Back in the heady days of June, when the public statements of Mets management made it sound like a big-ticket acquisition, or even, you know, an acquisition of any kind was imminent, Alderson, who is only signed through 2014, said this to Newsday's David Lennon:
"Was 2014 always a target year? Yeah," Alderson said. "It should be an important year for us."
He surely meant it.