To: Fred Wilpon
Well, as you once hoped for, your Mets played plenty of “meaningful games” this past September. Even in the season’s final week, they were involved in seven vital contests at Shea Stadium.
Unfortunately, the Mets won just one of them.
Changes are undoubtedly needed. But it’s vital here that you resist calls from fans for a mass execution.
Paul Lo Duca, certainly, needs to go. His strong September catapulted his numbers all the way up to awful. His .273 batting average is respectable, but he seldom walks and he doesn’t hit for any power. His 690 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) puts him 21st among major league catchers with at least 350 plate appearances. Did I mention he has trouble throwing runners out?
Backup Ramon Castro should be made the starter. His .571 slugging from 2007 is probably too much to hope for, but if he puts up his career major league OPS of .725, he will be an improvement, and he is certainly a step up from Lo Duca defensively. And protect Castro, who had back issues this year, with a credible backup—free agent Yorvit Torrealba, another plus defensive catcher who also posted a higher OPS than Lo Duca, will come cheaper, and is considerably younger.
Leave first base alone. Carlos Delgado took about a month to recover from multiple surgeries last offseason. He was hitting .209 with 3 home runs on May 8. He then hit .281 the rest of the way, with 21 home runs in 374 at bats, or a pace for 39 over a full season. You’ll want him sitting against a lot of lefties, however—get a right-handed batter who can handle first base for 40-50 games. Ideally, trade for Pittsburgh’s Ryan Doumit. But signing down-on-his-luck slugger Craig Wilson, just a year removed from being an effective hitter, would also be a nice Plan B.
At second base, Luis Castillo still represents the best choice. Assuming you can bring him back for a one or two-year deal, he’ll give you good defense, a solid on-base percentage and the skills of a number-two hitter, but for only 110-120 games. Allow Ruben Gotay to play understudy, and see if his defense can continue to improve. This assumes a reasonable trade for the Orioles’ Brian Roberts is not possible, and takes into account that the next best free agent second baseman after Castillo is probably… Kaz Matsui.
At third base, batting third, number five: David Wright.
At shortstop, Jose Reyes was a young player in a slump. He was not the reason the team lost their lead, he will be entering his age-25 season, and his departure from the Mets would be tragedy on an unprecedented scale. He will recover.
Left field is a bit trickier. Moises Alou needs to return—his option for $8.5 million should do nicely. Assume 80 games, hope for 120. Spot him with a fourth outfielder like Shannon Stewart on a one-year deal, with the hope that Carlos Gomez conquers AAA in 2008 and becomes the starting left fielder in 2009. Endy Chavez remains as defensive replacement.
In 2007, four of the top five center fielders in OPS varied from the top five in 2006. The only constant? Carlos Beltran, who won a Gold Glove in 2006 to boot, and certainly should win in 2007. Other than an injury-plagued 2005, he’s been that same player since 2003. Pencil him in for 2008—he’s a reason you won 88 games, not a reason you lost 74. And his 8 home runs and 27 RBI in September should help lay to rest notions that he isn’t a clutch player.
Right field should belong to Lastings Milledge. He’s talented, he’s going to be 23, and he already managed a .272/.341/.446 line at age 22. His defense was solid, even as the natural center fielder learned the new position on the fly. And his flamboyance does not suggest a problem so much as it suggests a coming superstar. Leave him alone there, and you will not be disappointed.
The starting staff starts improved with Pedro Martinez atop it. His 2007 numbers, prorated over a full season, would have ranked him second in ERA and third in strikeouts per nine innings. In other words, he pitched like an ace. He’ll be six months further away from his surgery. He is your number one.
In addition, Oliver Perez and John Maine showed that they are ready to be solid rotation anchors. Even with his shaky finale, Perez finished in the National League’s top ten in wins, strikeouts and ERA. The same is true for Maine in wins and strikeouts—the ERA ranked 17th. Now each a year older, Perez will be in his second year of Rick Peterson Arm Slot School, while Maine, having gone through his first full season, has a better sense of how to avoid his second half slide.
Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez should also return. Glavine finished with 13 wins and a 4.45 ERA, skewed upwards by his last three starts. But he can return with a club option. A weak free agent class offers little in the way of replacements (Kenny Rogers? Kyle Lohse?), and as a result, these mediocrities will receive multiple year, very rich contracts. Glavine is a better bet. And El Duque should be good for 20 starts: spot him with Mike Pelfrey, who should get to build on his improvement in the second half of 2007 as long man and spot starter.
And the bullpen? Leave it largely intact. Billy Wagner was good for most of the season, as were Aaron Heilman (particularly in the second half, with a 2.27 ERA) and Pedro Feliciano. Adding free agent reliever David Riske, a righty who is not vulnerable to a lefty, is a must. Scott Schoeneweis returns as a specialist against lefties. If Jorge Sosa, if he’s brought back, provides a similar option against righties. Release Guillermo Mota.
Make sure you keep Omar Minaya around to make these moves. Anyone who wants to credit the Met turnaround to big-ticket signings should look at his trades that brought back El Duque, Maine, and Perez for the sum total of Xavier Nady and Kris Benson. His 2007 trades, such as Brian Bannister for Ambiorix Burgos, didn’t work out (though had Burgos stayed healthy, he’d have been the extra bullpen arm Randolph needed). But injuries, not poor judgment, were to blame for most of them.
And finally, Willie Randolph should not be made the scapegoat for the team’s late-season collapse. His bullpen management was questionable at times, but he has made it clear that he understands platoon splits at this point. He’s a New Yorker, he’s had his team in first place for the better part of two years, and he now has the managerial experience he could have used when you hired him.
Late slide notwithstanding, he’s ready for 2008. And, with some limited alterations, so are your New York Mets.