Tuesday, December 15, 2009

State of the Union

Here's what I think about the pile that Mets fans found in their Christmas stockings on Monday afternoon – it’s brown and smells funny, but it ain't fruitcake.

As the pitching-starved Mets watched from the sidelines yesterday, the Red Sox signed John Lackey, the cream of the free agent pitching crop, to a five-year contract worth an estimated $85 million. Meanwhile, the division-rival Phillies struck a deal in principle to acquire Toronto ace Roy Halladay.

Halladay is huge for the Phillies when you consider that the guaranteed portion of his contract extension is approximately three years/$60M. They no longer have to make a no-win decision on Cliff Lee, who has already made up his mind to enter free agency at season's end. Two days ago, Philadelphia was faced with the decision of having their lame-duck ace walk out the door after the season OR committing a ridiculous amount of years/money to keep him. Instead, they get four years of the prime of Halladay's career, and they get the option to drop him before his skills are too far gone. I don't get it - Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia get seven-year committments, AJ Burnett and John Lackey get five-year committments, and somehow the Phillies score Roy Halladay with a three-year extension? G.M. Ruben Amaro is doing quite a job in Philly. In the end he was forced to part ways with Kyle Drabek, but he was able to keep J.A. Happ and Domonic Brown, and recoup prospects from Seattle for Lee to avoid decimating the farm system. Amaro knows that no guts means no glory, and seems to have a good feel for when to roll the dice. He appears to be the anti-Minaya.

Speaking of Lackey, I wonder if Boston was able to insure his contract. If not, $85 million is quite a gamble on a starting pitcher with elbow issues.

I think the Mets needed Lackey or Halladay to compete this season, and frankly I’m not sure how much it matters now if they sign Jason Bay or Matt Holliday to play left field. There's really no reason to overpay for either of them anymore, although in my gut I feel like it's something the Mets will do. There's also no need for Mets brass to give Joel Piniero a four-year deal because they think it will placate the fans. It won't. Not even a little bit.

Moving forward, here are four directions the Mets could go...

1) The Offensive Explosion... The Mets trade for Adrian Gonzalez. They sign Holliday or Bay. They add free agent catcher Bengie Molina, as many believe they will. They field an Opening Day lineup that looks like this:

1. Reyes
2. Wright
3. Beltran
4. Gonzalez
5. Holliday/Bay
6. Francoeur
7. Molina
8. Castillo
9. Santana

Maybe they score enough runs to stay relevant for a while and provide a much-needed jump in ticket sales.

2) The Bullpen Route... Since getting their starter through six innings might be a tall order whenever Santana isn't on the mound, the Mets basically take out an insurance policy on Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Ollie Perez, and whoever claims the #5 slot in the rotation. Mike MacDougal, Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, and Matt Capps are on the market. So is long man Darren Oliver, whose return to Flushing makes plenty of sense as things stand. Unfortunately, for this strategy to be effective, the team may need to get a legit mid-rotation starter and I think it would be unwise to overcommit to Piniero or Jason Marquis.

3) The Hybrid... If I were the Mets G.M., this would be my plan of attack. It starts with coveted Padres 1B Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez is due a total of about $10M over the next two seasons. According to sources cited by the Boston Globe, San Diego has asked Boston for Clay Buchholz and either Casey Kelly or Ryan Westmoreland in return for the left-handed slugger. The Mets don't have an MLB-ready Buchholz-like prospect (Bobby Parnell isn't in Buchholz's class), so they would have to make up the difference in quantity. As a starting point, the Padres would undoubtedly ask the Mets for 1B Ike Davis as a potential replacement for Gonzalez. In addition, the Mets would probably have to fork over Jenrry Mejia or Brad Holt, in addition to another key prospect - a steep price to be sure. In return, however, they would receive a bona fide elite-level 1B to anchor the lineup - at a minimal cost, and with a two-year window to negotiate a long-term deal.

Step two: Sign a high-risk/high-reward starter, specifically Erik Bedard or Ben Sheets. Here's why: I have to believe Sheets or Bedard would be open to signing a one or two-year deal, maybe with the second year coming as an option, at a reasonable base-rate with lots of incentives. Again, I think committing four years to Piniero or Marquis would be short-sighted and, at this point, panic-driven. If the Mets take a shot on Sheets or Bedard, the best-case scenario is that they end up with a legitimate #2 starter behind Santana. The worst case scenario is that they end up with a bust, but an inexpensive bust, and one that cannot hurt the team beyond 2011. Unfortunately, Ken Rosenthal has reported that Yankees have shown serious interest in Sheets, and what the Yankees want, they generally get.

The Hybrid Plan continues... The Mets sign Molina to catch. They sign Oliver to eat innings when Perez gets yanked in the 1st or Maine throws 110 pitches through the 4th. They sign Donnelly, Dotel, or MacDougal to help set up for Frankie Rodriguez. Angel Pagan starts in left - it's obviously not ideal, but (a) it's cheap, (b) it leaves left field open, in case Fernando Martinez comes alive or (c) the team decides to sign a high-profile outfielder next year. The Mets shouldn't be opposed to signing Bay if a reasonable deal can be made, but after adding Gonzalez, Molina, Sheets/Bedard, Oliver, and a setup man, they probably won't have the money.

Reyes - Wright - Beltran - Gonzalez - Francoeur - Molina - Pagan - Castillo is a lineup that, if healthy, should be competitive... and more importantly, it leaves the team with flexibility for 2011, or even the 2010 trade deadline if they are lucky enough to be in the playoff hunt.

4) The Panic-Button Plan... If I had to guess, I’d say this is is what the Mets will actually do: Overpay for Holliday or Bay because they think it will appease potential season ticket-holders (It won't). Overpay for Marquis or Piniero and try to convince the fan base that the dollar-for-dollar value is better than what they would have had with Lackey (It's not). The 2010 Mets end up mired in mediocrity, and the franchise winds up being haunted by bad contracts until at least 2013. Call me a pessimist, but the Panic-Button Plan just has Mets written all over it.

Other loose ends...

5) I wonder if the Mets will jump into the bidding for Cuban southpaw Aroldis Chapman. You know Mets G.M. Omar Minaya feels the pressure to make a big splash, and this would definitely give fans something to be excited about. Chapman held a workout session for major league scouts today in Houston, where he reportedly topped out at around 96 mph. I am supremely disappointed (but not surprised) that the Mets didn't even send a scout... I mean, that's just due diligence, isn’t it? If the Marlins, Athletics, and Pirates can afford to have scouts there, shouldn’t the Mets? According to ESPN, Chapman was originally looking for a $50M deal, but would likely sign for $20M. The problem is, many believe he isn't major league ready just yet, and may start the year in AA. He could find his way into a big-league rotation a few months into the season, but Minaya may not have that kind of time. Still, with Lackey and Halladay gone, it's an interesting possibility.

6) Should the Mets just put Minaya out of his misery? I mean, is there really any chance at all that he'll still have his job in 2011? If the Tony Bernazard fiasco was the proverbial nail in his coffin, then yesterday's events were Minaya’s swan song. I know they won't fire him now, but aside from wasting time that the next regime could use to find some direction, what exactly is Minaya doing? Furthermore, is he even making the final decisions anymore? It’s the worst kept secret in New York that Mets C.O.O. Jeff Wilpon has undercut Minaya’s authority on matters of personnel, which leads me to...

7) My Conspiracy Theory Du Jour... Assume for argument’s sake that Jeff Wilpon didn't allow Minaya the resources to get Lackey or Halladay. Then the undermanned Mets stumble out of the gate in 2010. Wilpon fires Minaya and Manager Jerry Manuel - they become the fall guys for the recent failures. Manuel is replaced from within by someone with an interim tag (Wally Backman or maybe even Bob Melvin?). Minaya is replaced for the interim by none other than... Jeff Wilpon. All of a sudden, Mets owner (and Jeff's daddy) Fred Wilpon opens his wallet for junior. The Mets make moves and improve in 2011, or maybe even at the 2010 trade deadline if they're lucky enough to be in playoff contention. Ladies and gentlemen, your new full-time Mets GM... Jeff Wilpon. OK, so maybe my imagination is getting the best of me with this one. But with this organization, nothing would surprise me anymore.