This may sound cliché, but don't sleep on the Mets.
The New York Metropolitans last tasted any semblance of success in 2008 when the club won 89 games, finishing in 2nd place behind the Phillies. In fact, between 2005 and 2008, the Mets had a combined winning percentage of .551, including 2006 when the club won 97 games, finished first in the NL East, only to lose to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals 4-3 in the NLCS.
Since Adam Wainwright threw that now infamous curveball for strike three to Carlos Beltran, Beltran and Wainwright have become teammates in St. Louis, the 2007 Mets famously lost a sizeable lead in the NL East to the Phillies, the franchise has a new manager, general manager, and the franchise has rattled off five consecutive losing seasons. Just to add insult to injury, the Mets have also had financial issues involving the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, as well as selling off minority stakes in the team in order to pay off loans due to both Major League Baseball and Bank of America.
To the casual observer, the Mets organization seems to have gone from high atop the mountain to plummeting below to the depths of the MLB food chain. While most Met fans remain inexorably skeptical of any signs of positive and progressive movement within the organization, much has been done in recent years to go from cellar dwellers to a team with a perennial chance to make the playoffs and win a title.
Recently, in discussing the Mets most recent move to trade outfielder Marlon Byrd to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Beyond the
Box Score's Ken Woolums wrote something simple yet telling. "The move is a reflection of how much the Pittsburgh Pirates want to win now and is also a reflection on how the Mets are becoming one of the best-run organizations in the league."
Ken's statement concerning the Mets organization rings true. Becoming a well-run and well-respected MLB franchise does not always imply wins at the major league level. For example, the Pirates, Astros, and Cubs have been lauded by many as three of the more progressive organizations that have and will continue to build towards promising futures. The Pirates have done so for the last few seasons, biding their team, not worrying about the number of losses, losing seasons, or distraught fans, instead putting faith in their plans for winning down the road. It's now been 6 years since the Buccos hired Neal Huntington as GM, and after lots of hard work and numerous changes, the organization, from the major league club to the entire minor league system has improved immensely.
While I won't go out on such a limb to predict that the Mets will become the next 2013 Pirates, the organization has taken steps towards that direction, and may have done so with few, including Mets fans themselves, noticing the changes. In order to understand these shifts, I'll break them down into a few categories, providing examples of each along the way.
Margerate Meade once famously said,
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
The Mets, most likely by coincidence, took this quote to heart, choosing to first make changes in their decision-making department before anything else. In 2010 the Mets fired then GM Omar Minaya dismissed then manager Jerry Manuel. Upon letting Minaya leave, Mets CEO Jeff Wilpon said,
"We're going to look for somebody that has some new ideas and a new leadership quality here to reinvigorate the franchise, to give our fans the hope that they deserve."
The candidates interviewed to replace Minaya represented some of the brighter, more forward thinking, and impressive baseball operations folk around. The list included current White Sox GM Rick Hahn, current Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, Rangers GM Jon Daniels, as well as Al Avila, John Hart, and Thad Levine. In the end, the Mets settled on an experienced and intelligent figure to spearhead the Mets "rebuilding" efforts. The Wilpon's and their search committee settled on Sandy Alderson, a former A's GM and Padres CEO. Alderson famously helped build the Oakland Athletics analytical juggernaut that his protégé Billy Beane has turned into one of the most impressive franchises in the league.
Alderson, a Dartmouth and Harvard educated former U.S. Marine, had been helping MLB clean up corruption in the Dominican Republic, but having made progress in that position, accepted the opportunity to become one of baseball's most interesting franchises. Alderson, never a complacent man, hit the ground running, immediately called one of his good friends and former colleagues, J.P. Riccardi. Riccardi had served as a special assistant to Sandy Alderson in Oakland, and has always had a distinct knack for player development, having previously been a national cross checker for the Yankees, and most recently served as the GM for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Along with Riccardi, Alderson also called upon former colleague Paul DePodesta to come aboard the Mets train. DePodesta, along with Alderson, Riccardi, Beane, and others, helped morph the Athletics into a cheap winning machine, embracing every aspect of Sabermetrics to accomplish their goals. DePodesta turned his tenure with the A's into a general management position with the LA Dodgers that most likely helped LA win the NL West in 2008. With Riccardi and DePodesta, both former GM's, close to the thrown, Alderson set out to shift the Mets organization back from fourth gear to first.
The Mets had previously been built around Minaya's seemingly endless stream of Dominican contacts that helped bring in such top tear Latin American talent as Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Pedro Martinez, and others. This made sense seeing as Minaya possessed connections in the Latin American world most GM's did not, and Minaya utilized that advantage well, building a number of winning squads. Once Alderson took over the helm, the organizational methods shifted, and in doing so Alderson and company began the long haul to create a winner once again.
One of the first moves Alderson made as far as MLB players was concerned involved sending star outfielder Carlos Beltran and $4 million to the San Francisco Giants in return for Giants stud young prospect Zack Wheeler. In referring to the trade, Alderson said,
"We were looking for big upside,"
If big upside was the driving force behind going after only one prospect when trading off the team's most valuable position player asset, then if has now become an organizational mantra. The Mets must have felt quite confident that Wheeler would become great because when trading veteran players at the trade deadline, GM's often look for multiple prospects, in the hope that at least one makes the deal worthwhile. Instead of going for quantity, the Mets front office decided on quality, a decision that has already begun to pay off, with Wheeler reaching the majors this season. The decision to go after only one prospect also denotes a sense of self-assurance amongst the Mets front office and a knowledge that a deal made under the guises of risk aversion probably wouldn't produce the desired outcome.
Playing in New York, under constant and extreme media and fan scrutiny, makes a front office's job even more difficult than usual. Alderson and company seem to have realized that in order to produce a winning club on the field, a team must organize a certain core of high-class individuals, both from a baseball perspective and an overall one, as the keystone of the franchise. Wheeler represented one of the parts to this building block.
Alderson, prior to dealing for Wheeler, made other important moves including shedding the contracts of Luis Castillo and Francisco Rodriguez, and hiring Terry Collins to succeed Jerry Manuel as manager. Collins has dealt with his position well since take over, giving off a no nonsense, intense, yet nurturing persona to his players as well as the public. Collins, like Alderson has a wealth of experience, coaching in the minors and majors for various clubs, and working with both veteran players as well as young inexperienced ones.
Since trading for Wheeler, Alderson has not made numerous trades in order to revamp the organization, instead choosing to make targeted trades involving big name players, who can reap quality players in return. In December of 2012 Alderson and the Mets traded recently named NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and catcher Josh Thole to the Toronto Blue Jays for Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, and John Buck.
Dickey came to the Mets by way of accepting a minor league deal and an invitation to spring training with the club in January of 2010. The Mets paid Dickey just under $10 million for three seasons in which Dickey put up 9.3 fWAR, which on the open market would be worth approximately $45 million today. The Mets, after gaining a lot of positive press, solid pitching, and the recognition of a Cy Young Award, then flipped Dickey for the top catching prospect in baseball as well as one of Toronto's highly touted young power arms. Like the Wheeler deal, the Mets did not receive a huge haul in return for their departed veteran, but instead received two high ceiling, and obviously highly valued future pieces to the puzzle. Since that time, d'Arnaud has been called up to the majors, and Syndergaard has put together some astounding numbers in the minors including a strikeout percentage in double-A of 32% and a walk percentage of only 5.6%.
The trade of note, occurred recently, and sparked the writing of this piece. The Mets dealt Marlon Byrd and John Buck to the Pirates in exchange for 19 year-old second base prospect Dilson Herrera and a player to be named later who has since become Vic Black. Herrera, a young infielder from Colombia, has been dubbed a sleeper and "prospect on the rise" by some scouts, having produced some solid power numbers in single-A this season. Herrera is smaller, so he doesn't profile as a major source of extra-base hits, but he has the capabilities to hold his own at the plate while providing some very above-average defense at a premium defensive position. Black is a bit further along in his development, but he profiles as a hard throwing back end of the bullpen type pitcher that the Pirates have done well in finding or developing in recent seasons (see Alex Wilson, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes as examples).
If I had mentioned the names Jeremy Hefner, Anthony Recker, Josh Satin, and Marlon Byrd to you two years ago, only Byrd's name would have been recognizable, and most would have scoffed at the notion that Byrd would become a major trade piece in 2013. Since becoming the Mets GM, Sandy Alderson and his crew have made these players part of the Mets MLB squad. In addition, the front office has given serious chances and playing time to the likes of Juan Lagares, Dillon Gee, Lucas Duda, Jordany Valdespin, and Andrew Brown. Most big market clubs use their significant funds to find players with better pedigrees than those listed above to at least fill in at the MLB level while the club builds their farm system for the future. Instead, the Mets, like the Marlins, Astros, and Cubs have done, have given these players ample opportunities to produce at the MLB level either as auditions for future roles on the team, or as trade bait.
This decision, to put time and effort into such players, has paid dividends for the Mets in numerous ways. The team has learned that Valdespin, while talented in many ways, most likely provides too cancerous an attitude to warrant a roster spot full-time, while players like Juan Lagares and Matt den Dekker could become worthwhile defensive outfield assets, and both Andrew Brown and Josh Satin could become solid platoon players or pinch-hitters against left-handed pitching in the future.
Every bit of information concerning these players constitutes useful for the present and the future, and allowing them to grow and sometimes flourish on a grand scale can provide the front office with useful knowledge. Front offices know more about their own players than other teams' players because they can see and interact with them at any moment, which implies that, when rebuilding, most of the process will be done internally. While the Mets continued to nurture and develop top talents like Wheeler, d'Arnaud, and Syndergaard, the organization put effort into better understanding and developing players from all talent tiers. This quality of the Mets organization has been a huge part of their philosophy that could one day lead them to becoming a winning team once again. Maybe Brown, Satin, and Hefner won't become everyday players, but knowing exactly what they can provide could help the Mets fill important positions in Triple-A, on the bench at the MLB level, and in the bullpen. Organizations are like living beings, every part matters, and the Mets seem to have taken on that as an internal attitude.
Speaking of attitude, the franchise has also worked hard to improve not only the specific farm system personnel, but also the teams themselves. Both the Binghamton Mets (AA) and the Las Vegas 51's (AAA) have put together winning seasons, Binghamton with the best record in the Eastern League, and Las Vegas tied for the best record in the Pacific Coast League. The idea of creating a winning mentality amongst players even at a young age, combined with the proper coaching staff to instill the desire for winning in their players has and will continue to be a major aspect to the rebuilding and building of the Mets.
Since taking over the wheel of the Mets spaceship, Sandy Alderson and his front office staff have made numerous impressive and improvement-oriented decisions that have already begun to pay off, but a few stand high above the others. I'm referring, of course, to making David Wright the new franchise cornerstone.
Since joining the Mets as a full-time player mid way through the 2004 season, Wright has produced 49.9 fWAR, which is the fourth most amongst position players since that time. Wright has produced offensively, defensively, on the bases, and made a name for himself as Captain America after his recent performance during the World Baseball Classic. Wright, a Virginia native, has reverse carpetbagged his way into the hearts and minds of New York fans, becoming the Met's equivalent of Yankees iconic shortstop Derek Jeter.
He did all this while only endearing himself to the NYC fans and the Mets front office, both old and new, by not complaining about organizational direction or priorities, and performing his duties admirably. Wright signed a fairly team friendly deal in 2007, that paid him far below his annual worth, but at a young age he continued to play without complaint. After 8+ seasons as a Met, Alderson and his cohort decided to make Wright a permanent fixture in Queens. Wright and the Mets agreed on an extension to keep the third baseman in NYC through the 2020 season, which will be his sixteenth as a baseball player, all with the Mets. The contract correctly compensates Wright not only for past seasons, but also for his current and future production. 8 years and 130+ million dollars may seem like a lot of money but the contract looks better and better everyday given the sore-spot contracts recently given to Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and others. More importantly, given the Mets recent history in giving out big contracts a la Jason Bay, Johan Santana, and Francisco Rodriguez, Wright's recent extension seems like the right fit and right time.
With Wright ostensibly installed as the Mets' captain of the future, the team also signed an extension with left-handed pitcher Jon Niese. Prior to youngster Matt Harvey's eruption onto the Mets and New York landscape, Niese quietly proved himself as a reliable and even at times high-quality starting pitcher. In return for his accomplishments, and future production, the Mets pulled a Rays, buying out Niese's arbitration years with a team-friendly yet player-lucrative contract. Taking more pages out of the Rays playbook, Alderson also tacked on two team options to the end of Niese's 5-year $25.5 million extension, giving the Mets the ability to bring him back at a reasonable cost in both 2017 and 2018. Niese continues to profile as a #4/#3 starter, producing on average more than 2.0 fWAR between 2010 and 2012. Niese may not become the ace of the Mets, but he and Dillon Gee expect to make up the back end of the Mets rotation for the next few seasons.
Finally we come to Matt Harvey. Harvey, as all baseball fans know by now, has been the fourth most valuable starting pitcher in the majors in the last 365 days, and the best in the NL over that time. Harvey is the rock star that most winning teams in major cities always have. He is young, immensely talented, charismatic, and has quickly become not only a Mets fan favorite, but also a favorite of most baseball fans. He pumps mid to high 90's fastballs for strikes to go along with simple and repeatable mechanics. Apart from the most recent news that he has a partial UCL tear and will most likely need Tommy John Surgery, Harvey still profiles as the Mets ace of the future. He is the Stephen Strasburg of New York City, the young flamethrower that will most likely determine if the Mets will be a good team or a great team of the future. Having already analyzed much of the operations decisions made by the Mets new front office, I can only imagine that at some point soon, the Mets will approach Harvey with an offer for an extension. He's currently under team control until 2019, but his arbitration years will begin in 2016, at which point he will most likely become very expensive from year to year. Still, no matter what the Mets front office decides, Harvey, along with Niese, Wright, and eventually Zack Wheeler, will make up the keystone of the Mets success in the near and distant future.
The 2013 Mets don't look like a winner. The team came into Friday's game against the Washington Nationals with only 60 wins, good enough for a .455 winning percentage. According to Fangraphs' projections for the rest of the season, the Mets should come in fourth place in the NL East, just behind the Phillies at 73-89. It will mark the fifth consecutive losing season for the team from Queens, which by most standards makes them a certifiable losing team. On a positive note, ESPN's Keith Law did rank them as the fourteenth best organization in baseball smack between the Orioles and the Diamondbacks.
Still, hope remains on the horizon for New York's NL squad, and it comes in the form of a recently and continually transforming organization. It began with the hiring of Sandy Aldeson, continued with getting rid of dead weight, replacing those members of the organization with new personnel, and eventually choosing to go after quality over quantity. The Mets are an organization with an open mind towards player development, player selection, and coaching philosophies. They utilize sabermetric analysis, progressive training techniques, and incredibly smart and well thought out decision-making processes to provide their fans a legitimate shot at winning in the near future. Are the Mets the next losing franchise to break out like the 2013 Pirates? They may be, but no matter, this is a changed organization from head to toe that has the ability to become as great as some of the great Mets teams of the past. For now, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference.
Ben Horrow is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and That Ball's Outta Here. You can follow him on Twitter at @Summerpastime.
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