Friday, October 20, 2006

The 2006 Mets: It Was an Above-Average and Disappointing Run

If you had told me in June that the Mets would play in the National League Championship Series and that four of the seven games would be started by two guys name John Maine and Oliver Perez, my first question would have been: “Who?”

Then, I would have asked: “And, it went seven games?”

Fred Wilpon and Son’s Lamborghini
Over the past two years, the Wilpons—majority owners of the New York Mets—bought an expensive Lamborghini to race around Shea Stadium. They bought a shiny piece of precision engineering and power to show off to their fans. They collected a ton of money from their fans to let them look at it—from ticket and concession sales and from advertising sales from the television station that they own which broadcasts Mets games. Then, after looking at the sticker price of this race car, they thought it would be a good idea to fill it with low-octane gas to save a few bucks. And, of course, the expensive machine sputtered.

I have few problems with the way Willie Randolph managed this series. I heard the WFAN callers over the past two weeks and I thought some had good criticism and others were ridiculous, but Willie didn’t lose the series for the Mets; Fred Wilpon and Son did, and they have no excuses. After buying the Lamborghini, they spit the bit. They could have had Kris Benson to pitch in two of these games. They could have had Mike Cameron tracking down all of those RBI hits that were just out of reach for Shawn Green. But, they went with low-octane fuel to save chump change.

There should be no doubt that Mike Cameron would have caught Spiezio’s triple that drove in the Cardinals’ go ahead runs in the seventh inning of game two. If Green got there in plenty of time to make the catch, Cameron would have been standing under it and waiting for it to come down. It hit off of the back of Green’s glove because he over-extended for it and the game was lost.

There should be no doubt that Cameron would have caught Spiezio’s pop fly to right that scored the first two runs of game three. The ball bounced off of Green’s chest after he got a bad jump, looped around, and dove for it. Had Cameron been there, Trachsel’s day probably would have ended a lot differently. The Mets still didn’t hit that day against Suppan, but the game would have been close enough to steal.

And, despite how well the two rookies pitched in games six and seven, there should be no doubt that the team would have been much better off with Kris Benson pitching in two of these games. It is almost unfair of the Mets to have asked these two rookies to win this series for them. It's like getting your teenage sons drunk and tossing them the keys to the sports car.

Finally, I have to dispel one thing that I have repeatedly heard about the Benson trade. Talk show hosts and others keep saying that the trade brought in two guys who eventually made the Mets rotation. That is absurd. Although John Maine came directly in the trade, the fact that Jorge Julio, who also came in the trade, was eventually traded for Orlando Hernandez should not be factored in to the evaluation of the Benson trade. Hernandez could have been had for a box of chocolates, that’s how desperate the Diamondbacks were to get rid of him and his salary. At their next board meeting, the Diamondbacks would have passed around that box and snickered with caramel on their teeth at how they had just taken the Mets to the cleaners.

And, we could play this six-degrees-of-separation game all day. Why don’t we trace back how the Marv Throneberry deal eventually led to the Delgado trade?

Willie Randolph
Back to Willie: The only thing I would fault Randolph for were his underutilization of Steve Trachsel and one pitching decision that actually worked.

I’ll start with the latter. In game five, Tony LaRussa brought in Chris Duncan, a left handed batter to pinch hit against Pedro Feliciano, a left handed pitcher. All of the statistics said that LaRussa made a dumb move. Duncan was horrible against lefties this year and great against righthanders. Duncan hit twenty of his twenty-two home runs against righties. He hit 0.315 against righties in the regular season and only 0.158 against lefties. And, Feliciano has a nasty sweeping curve ball that is very tough on left handed hitters. Of course, LaRussa looked like a genius because Duncan hit a home run off of Feliciano. The next day, Willie had the opportunity to bring in Feliciano to pitch to Duncan, who was pinch hitting. You have to play the percentages there and bring in the lefty, but Willie stuck with the righty, Guillermo Mota. Of course, Willie looked like a genius because Duncan hit into a double play. But, Willie got lucky. Duncan crushed the ball. Willie was lucky that Duncan hit it right at the second baseman.

It is anathema among Mets fans to defend Steve Trachsel after he was hurt in his only appearance in the NLCS, but he deserves defending. Mike Francesca and Chris Russo, Yankee and Giants fans, respectively, love to rip Trachsel because he took himself out. They think he was a deer in headlights. But, if he didn’t get hurt he would have competed. You don’t win as many games as he did in five years with some lean teams without having the ability to compete. He joined the Mets in 2001 and led the Mets in wins in 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2006. That’s 2006, Mets fans, THIS YEAR. In 2002, he was third on the Mets in wins, just two wins shy of the team leader. In 2005 he was hurt and missed most of the season.

Do I love Trachsel? Do I think he was the best pitcher on the team? Do I want them to resign Trachsel? Absolutely not. But, he was their most effective pitcher in five years. You have to dance with the date you brought. Willie let his dislike for Trachsel get in the way of the best baseball decision.

Now, I’ll briefly list some things Willies did right, but I will omit many because there are a lot. WFAN callers are second-guessing him right now, but Willie didn’t lose this series. Sticking with Heilman in the ninth was the right call. Who knew how many innings this game was going to go. He needed to keep Heilman in not just to burn innings, but to compete, which he did very well all year. Dance with the date you brought. With a lead, he would have brought in Wagner to shut the door.

Not bunting in the ninth with runners on first and second and no outs was the right thing to do. I was nervous that Floyd was up because he couldn’t run and a ground ball was a sure double play, but I didn’t want to see them give up an out there. Reyes’s line drive after Floyd’s at bat was too shallow to score Valentin from third base anyway. There is no way Manny Acta would have sent Valentin home with two outs and LoDuca and Beltran coming up next. So, the Floyd strikeout was the next best outcome besides a hit or walk, and the pitch that Wainwright threw to strikeout Floyd was downright nasty. There isn’t a hitter in baseball that could do anything with that pitch.

Short of getting the win, the Mets gave us all we could have asked for in the bottom of the ninth inning. We had our best hitter at the plate with three quick runners on the bases. A single would have tied the game. An extra base hit would have won it. The only disappointing thing about that at bat was Beltran let the first pitch, a fastball that caught a lot of the plate, go by without swinging. If he saw the hook that Wainwright threw to Floyd, he should have looked for a fastball to hit because that curve was unhittable. After he got two strikes on him, Wainwright threw the hook and Beltran could only watch it.

Omar Minaya
Omar Minaya did a pretty good job putting this team together. His best moves were dichotomous: They were the super-sized ones and the moves that went unnoticed when he made them. Super-sized moves were signing Beltran and Martinez and trading for Delgado. The unnoticed moves include bringing in Endy Chavez and Jose Valentin to bolster the bench—but who won starting jobs—and stocking the bullpen with Chad Bradford, Pedro Feliciano, Darren Oliver, and Guillermo Mota.

The Catch
Speaking of Endy Chavez, I cannot say enough about the catch that he made last night. As I write this, Mike and the Mad Dog are playing the St. Louis radio announcer’s call of that play. The announcer said exactly what I said at the time: That was one of the greatest plays ever made in Major League Baseball post season history. I don't know how they lost after that.

The 2007 Mets and Beyond
The best things about the Mets right now are the young and talented Beltran, Reyes and Wright. Minaya did a good job signing them to long term contracts. Next is their terrific bullpen, especially their middle relief and setup men, which they have to keep together. Then, they have excellent young, but unproven starters in Pelfry, Maine, Bannister, Perez, and Humber. It is highly likely that one or two of them will develop into high-quality back of the rotation starters next year, but Mets fans shouldn’t expect much more than that.

Endy Chavez and Jose Valentin are terrific defensive players. They are terrific pinch hitters and Endy is a terrific pinch runner. They are terrific spot starters. But, the Mets cannot expect to win a championship if they are everyday players. Shawn Green is a great guy in the clubhouse. He can still hit and would make a great DH in the American League. But the Mets cannot expect to win a championship if he is roaming rightfield every day. If he caught that ball in game two, the Mets would be going to Detroit right now. They had their foot on the Cardinals’ necks and let them go.

Pedro Martinez is done. And so the Mets are missing a very important piece that all championship teams need: A true number one starter that can shut down an offensive powerhouse in two starts in a seven game series plus potentially pitch a few innings in a third game. Tom Glavine will likely want to finish his career and get his 300th win in Atlanta. I’d like him back, but he probably won’t come back because the Mets have to pay him $5 million no matter what and his family is in Atlanta where the Braves are likely to give him another $7 million. Orlando Hernandez turns 62 next year. Willie is ready to kick Trachsel to the curb. So, next year’s starting rotation is almost completely unknown right now.

Cliff Floyd is done. He’s a great guy and David Wright is going to miss him, but he only gave the Mets one healthy year. Paul LoDuca is a fiery competitor. If Piazza had LoDuca’s fire, Piazza would have taken the jagged edge of the bat that Clemens threw at him in the 2000 World Series, jammed it in Clemens’s chest, and the Mets would have won the 2000 World Series. But, Fire is not enough. LoDuca is old for a catcher. It didn’t show this year, but it is bound to catch up to him soon.

So, if pitching wins championships, barring a miracle, the Mets will be in trouble next year too. And, besides pitching, which every team wants, the Mets have holes. They need two starting corner outfielders, a starting second baseman and maybe another quality catcher. Fred Wilpon and Son are going to have to go out and almost completely overhaul the Lamborghini. Are they going to pay top-dollar for Schmidt and Zito? Are they going to pay top-dollar for Soriano for second base, and someone like Gary Matthews Jr. and move him to right? Will they trade some of their young starters for Dontrelle Willis? Given what they did this year, spitting the bit on Cameron and Benson’s pay when the team was built to win this year, it is unlikely. Yet, almost all of those moves would have to be made to ensure a championship, something that has eluded the Wilpons for over twenty years. Pathetic.

The Mets were incorporated the year I was born. I was born within sight of where Shea is currently located. I have been a Mets fan since I was a sports fan and it pains me to see this year’s opportunity slip away. They had the Lamborghini and it was ready to win this year, but Wilpon and Son filled it with 85-octane and blew it.


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