So what are the poor, pathetic, sidelined Mets to do as they approach roster decisions this winter?
At first glance, their options for building a team that can play consistently good baseball for an entire season are grim: A weak free agent class provides little in the way of help, either offensively or with starting pitching.
Fortunately for the Mets, though, these were both strengths in 2008, and figure to be again in 2009.
Instead, the only area where the free agent market has any particular depth is in relief pitchers. And the Mets need to go out and get the very best options from that class: Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes and Juan Cruz. Simply signing middle relievers to large deals won’t guarantee much of anything. (If you don’t believe me, ask Scott Schoeneweis and Guillermo Mota.)
But signing all three—Rodriguez, Fuentes and Cruz–would go a long way to tilting the balance in the NL East in the Mets’ favor. Conversely, failure to do so could leave the Mets in the exact same position in 2009—or worse.
Make no mistake about it, there are other areas in which the Mets can improve as a team. And in a world with limitless salaries, the Mets could take every step. Obviously, signing CC Sabathia would improve the starting rotation. Trading Carlos Delgado (as Branch Rickey said, better a year too soon than a year too late) and signing Mark Teixeira would provide the Mets with a first baseman in his prime to add to their current stable of 20-something stars. Signing second baseman Orlando Hudson would provide certainty at the position that has been missing.
But such moves would cost the Mets upward of $300 million dollars without addressing the team’s fatal flaw. Delgado should provide adequate production at first base, even though a repeat of 2008 is too much to ask as he enters his age-37 season. Signing Sabathia would mean an outlay equal to or greater than the long-term deal New York gave to Johan Santana, when far less is required to simply re-sign free agent Oliver Perez. And the talented young player Daniel Murphy is headed to the Arizona Fall League to learn how to play second base—a low-cost alternative to Hudson, who carries a far more potent potential bat. (Incumbent second baseman Luis Castillo will be sent to another team or the glue factory, depending on which will pick up more of his salary.)
But New York simply doesn’t have the solid internal alternatives in the bullpen to stand pat. As it currently stands, New York lacks a single option who can retire both left-handed and right-handed hitters. The team has no closer; the team has no setup men.
So the plan starts with Rodriguez, who will likely command five years and upwards of $75 million. For their money, the Mets get a closer who has dominated since coming into the league. Despite a difficult start, Rodriguez finished with a major-league record 62 saves in 2008. More importantly, his strikeout rate continued to stay above one per inning, while his control actually improved as the season went on.
His unorthodox motion does make signing him to a long-term deal somewhat concerning—and there are inherent risks to signing any pitcher long term. But Rodriguez’s upside is too enormous to pass up. He would give the Mets, who already possess a potent offense and solid rotation, the finest closer in baseball.
And in the spirit of the 1986 Mets tandem of righty Roger McDowell and lefty Jesse Orosco, New York also needs to go out and sign Brian Fuentes. He will likely command three to four years and $25-35 million. He will be the highest-paid setup man in the major leagues. But for a team devoid of decent bullpen options, Fuentes is not only a luxury, but a necessity.
He’s closed for the Colorado Rockies, and for three out of four years has posted a strikeout rate of better than one per inning, including 82 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings in 2008. His walks are always low, and amazingly, he allowed just three home runs all season—in other words, New York’s 2008 total for a single game.
Only his age—he’ll be 33—makes signing Fuentes a bit risky. But his late-career start and resulting light career workload, as well as his strong 2008, makes Fuentes a good bet to not only complement Rodriguez—he’s a lefty to balance Rodriguez’s right-handedness, though both are lights out against either side—but to step in should Rodriguez need a night off from closing.
While simply making each game a seven-inning affair should be enough, the Mets need to make certain that on nights when their starter struggles, they have other options, too. Juan Cruz, who spent 2008 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, is likely their best bet. Cruz is a strikeout machine—158 over 112 1/3 innings in 2007-2008—who can also pitch multiple innings if necessary. He will be 30 next year, and likely will command a three-year deal at approximately $18-20 million. Cruz can also step in to take care of the eighth inning should either Fuentes or Rodriguez fall victim to injury.
The rest of the bullpen then falls into place. Scott Schoeneweis is your lefty specialist—the role he should have been filling since coming to New York. Pedro Feliciano may be a second lefty out of the pen at worst—at best, he reverts to 2006-2007 form and retires righties again. The point is, the Mets wouldn’t need to rely on him either way. Joe Smith could also be kept on to retire the occasional righty.
The final spot in the bullpen could be a toss-up between Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman and Bobby Parnell. Parnell could probably use a year of seasoning at AAA, but he’d be a fine final man in the bullpen. And should either Sanchez or Heilman return to form, the Mets could give Parnell additional time. Alternatively, Heilman could even be stretched out and given a shot at the fifth starter spot. If he’s healthy, now that he has three pitches, he could be a better-than-average fifth starter. Either way, the Mets won’t need to rely on him either.
And it goes without saying that the team needs to bring in another dozen or so starting pitching and relief candidates, fringe pitchers who can either surprise and make the team as fifth starter/final reliever, provide depth at AAA, or be discarded. But this is a negligible cost. A similar strategy should be employed in left field, in case Fernando Tatis’ clock strikes midnight.
These improvements would call for addition payroll in 2009 of approximately $30 million. The Mets could largely pay for this with the exiting 2008 salaries of Moises Alou, at $7.5 million, Orlando Hernandez, $7 million and Pedro Martinez, about $12 million. Assuming the Mets re-sign Oliver Perez at around $13 million per season (up from $6.5 million), and let rookie Jonathon Niese take Pedro Martinez’s spot in the rotation, that leaves New York with a payroll increase of around $10 million, factoring in raises from arbitration-eligible players. Depending on Pedro’s salary demands, he’d be a good choice as fifth starter, should he perform as he did in 2008, with the chance to be far better.
But between the increased revenue from their new stadium and all the postseason tickets they won’t have to refund for a change, that’s money well spent.