My computer's been on and working for nearly forty minutes now, and I believe this is some sort of record for this week. Not that I've been updating much of anything around here lately, but I'll be updating even less until this situation is resolved by the fine people at Dell sending me their cheapest, nicest computer. I will be pretty happy if my computer doesn't freeze before I'm done typing this post.
Mets 11, Brewers 6
I had planned to be busy this evening. About a week ago I still had it in my head that I'd head over to Trenton
to see the mini-Evil Empire get blown away by a certain starting pitcher on the visiting Binghamton Mets
. It was going to be the first time I saw this particular starting pitcher in action anywhere, let alone live and in person. I was, understandably, somewhat excited about the idea of it all. But then...well, yeah. So, given that my newfound free time coincided with the Mets debut of the guy the Mets received in exchange for that particular minor league pitcher, I figured I might as well take a look at how Victor Zambrano
did in his first start.
It wasn’t a Kris Benson
-level disaster, but it hardly gives one reason to believe that Zambrano is or will soon be the dominant starting pitcher that Rick Peterson and the Mets are claiming he can be. The starting rotation’s latest savior lasted just five and one-third innings and allowed six runs in the process. Now, only four of those were earned, but he did allow eight hits and three walks while striking out seven. The strikeouts are a good sign, and he actually lowered his walk rate for the season with this performance, but in the end the results weren’t much better than what you could expect from Jae Weong Seo
in an average start. I suppose I should give Zambrano credit for weathering several defensive mistakes without completely falling apart, but even with that being said, the man pitched like an inconsistent work in progress, which just leads one to question the timing of the trade.
The Mets’ excuse for rushing to get the Benson deal done rather than, say, waiting until the offseason when all they’d have had to give up would be cash and perhaps a draft pick, has been that they were afraid that if they didn’t snatch Benson up, the Braves
would have, which I suppose is a legitimate concern if you’re really desperate to build your starting rotation around Kris Benson in the years to come. But given that the Mets were, barring a miracle, out of the National League East race when they made these deals and that each of the pitchers they acquired is admittedly a project for Rick Peterson to work on rather than an instant difference maker, what exactly was the rush to get Zambrano? Turning him into the ace they allege he can become is obviously going to take more than the "ten minutes" Peterson has boasted. Given that there were apparently no other teams pursuing him, the Mets likely could have gotten him for less after the season, especially with the added leverage that they could just give up on him and go after someone who’s a more proven commodity, like free agent Matt Clement. Today’s start is just a reminder that the Mets badly misjudged either their place in the National League East or the power of Rick Peterson’s magic touch. If Peterson wants to take on a bunch of project without results to match their alleged "stuff", I guess that’s okay, but overpaying so that he can do it during a pennant race that’s already gotten away from the Mets is just foolish.
Of course, today’s game also illustrated that even after last week’s disaster, there are still reasons to pay attention to the Mets, as David Wright
continued to heat up and led the team’s offensive explosion, driving in six runs. Wright smacked a pair of doubles and his third major league home run and is now hitting .273/.298/.545 through fifty-five at bats. Jose Reyes
also had a hit and his fourteenth stolen. He’s still got a long way to go in his plate discipline, having drawn just three walks though 171 at bat. But with a few good moves in the offseason, this team could be fun to watch again next year, even with its starting rotation full of aging mercenaries.
The Next Great Mets Team
The years following the 2000 World Series were tough times for New York Mets fans. Oh sure, when the Series ended, you could believe the Mets would be back the next year. The team's core of guys like Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo and Al Leiter was still young enough to be back and productive next year or even beyond. Benny Agbayani still looked like a player and Timo Perez looked like he was going to turn into one. And they'd made it to the World Series despite their Gold Glove shortstop missing almost the entire season.
But then, things started to go very wrong. And not just a few things. Alfonzo got hurt and fell apart. Robin Ventura got old. Agbayani and Perez and Jay Payton showed themselves for what they really were, which was not good enough to be a starting outfield in the major leagues. Piazza and Leiter were still there and still getting the job done, but suddenly they were the only ones. And in typical Mets fashion, the team panicked.
In a desperate attempt to reclaim the success they felt slipping away, the Mets went crazy, acquiring the ever-important Guys You've Heard Of by any means necessary. Not that the team's farm system was exactly bubbling over with potential impact players, but the Mets exchanged whatever they could, in the form of cash or prospects, for scads of Proven Veterans. Mets fans found some reason to hope in the bushel of big-name talent the Mets had acquired to restock their faltering franchise. But, as we should have predicted, the Mets' desperate moves failed miserably. Even the ones that really seemed like a good idea at the time came back to bite the Mets.
Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeño, Jeromy Burnitz, Shawn Estes and Jeff D'Amico all failed spectacularly and Mets fans were left with a bad, old team and a farm system pretty much devoid of suitable reinforcements. 2003 seemed to bring more of the same, with a king-sized flop in Tom Glavine just adding to the misery and even Cliff Floyd, the closest thing to a Shakespearean moment for these monkeys and their typewriters, turning out to be the injury-prone guy everybody but the Mets already knew he was.
But things weren't quite the same as they had been the two previous years. Now there were serious rumblings that the Mets not only had some real prospects in their minor league system, but there was talk that they might actually make it to the major leagues as Mets. The arrival of Jae Weong Seo, Jason Phillips, Jose Reyes and even Aaron Heilman, coupled with the replacement of general manager Steve Phillips with Jim Duquette, seemed to kick off a new era for the New York Mets. Finally, the Mets were building from within and were going to start replacing high-priced veterans with young, exciting homegrown talent. And not only that, it looked like it was going to work!
Using the word "finally" in reference to the two to three year period between the Mets' World Series loss and the start of a serious "rebuilding" program in the organization might seem extreme but for two things. First, to find the last time the Mets had a team built around real homegrown stars, you have to go way beyond the 2000 season to the days of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry—the era when I first became a fan of baseball and the Mets. And second, for Mets fans who have to put up with the Yankees and their ubiquitous fans while their own team is bumbling its way to consecutive last place finishes, two or three years is more than long enough.
Anyway, the 2003 season brought hope that the Mets could build a team with some real staying power from within the ranks of its own farm system, and better yet that they were actually going to do it. Jim Duquette's deadline deals of 2003 didn't really dump much salary, or anyone who would've been back in 2004, and didn't get that much back in terms of significant minor league talent. But even so, it signaled that the Mets had finally sort of accepted the true state of their franchise and were going to begin taking steps to rebuild it. Not only was there young talent ready to make an impact at the major league level, but there was even more down in the minors with the potential to form the core of a very good team in the years to come. And the Mets were actually talking publicly about being patient and waiting for that team to arrive.
And building a team from the minor leagues up wasn't just a good idea because when it was done you'd have a winning team and one that would stay together for years. No, building a team of homegrown talent has value in and of itself. Such a team would reward the patience of the hardcore Mets fans who've had to put up with more than their share of embarrassment and disappointment. But it would also provide a contrast to the increasingly free-spending and annoyingly successful Yankees, and right there in the same city. Mets fans would have something to be proud of, and it would be more than just "my owner has more money that your owner."
Visions of a team of homegrown stars competing with the band of mercenaries from across town danced in the heads of Mets fans as the general manager and ownership preached patience and publicly pronounced their unwillingness to part with the team's great young prospects in exchange for fleeting tabloid headlines. Scott Kazmir and Jose Reyes were "untouchable". I know this because Fred Wilpon told me so. No matter how many clueless columnists and talk radio hosts shouted for the Mets to give up on these kids who hadn't done anything in the major leagues to get some proven star like Alfonso Soriano and steal the spotlight from George for a day or two, the Mets weren't backing down. We couldn't trade these guys. They were going to be the core of the next (first?) Mets dynasty. They were going to be Doc and Darryl for the new millennium. And we were going to keep them away from the drug dealers, don't worry.
Then something funny happened. This Mets team, the one with all the big name veterans in the spots where the kids would be in a couple of years, started winning. Well, that's not exactly right. They didn't start winning so much as they didn't start losing too much more often than the rest of the teams in the division. This awkward bridge between the old Mets and the new Mets somehow found itself in the thick of the National League East race, though mostly through no fault of its own. And suddenly those old guys were looking at their last chance to maybe win a World Series before they retired.
I don't know what exactly changed between the start of the season and the trading deadline, but somehow the Mets higher-ups got it into their head that they needed to go for broke this year and next to try to get Al Leiter and John Franco and Tom Glavine a ring. I don't know if this was all Fred Wilpon's call or if Jim Duquette was behind it all the way or if Rick Peterson engineered the whole thing, but somebody made the decision to abandon the blueprint for that great 2006 Mets team and try to, as quickly as possible, cobble together a 2004-2005 team that was good enough to make the playoffs.
So on Friday, July 30, 2004, the date which should live in infamy, but probably won’t, it was the Steve Phillips era all over again. It was the Mets trying to be the Yankees again. It was the Mets gutting their farm system to acquire a couple of mediocre pitchers who they thought could push them over the top in a National League East race they must have drastically misread. Out went Scott Kazmir, Matt Peterson and Justin Huber, who forward-looking Mets fans had penciled into their 2006 major league roster with glee. Out went Ty Wigginton, who, for all the things he was not, was at least an important part of the 2004 offense and perhaps a strong 2005 bench as well. And in came Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano, two pitchers nearing thirty, neither of whom had sniffed an ERA under 4.00 for a whole season in this millennium. Was this a bad dream? Is this a fucking joke?
Nope, it really happened. Kazmir, Peterson, Huber, Wigginton and Jose Diaz are gone, and they're not coming back. That exciting 2006 team has vanished into the realm of "what could have been" and been replaced by this depressing lot. The dreams of the ever-hopeful Mets fans have come crashing down again, years earlier that we ever could have expected. It's clear as day that Duquette and the Wilpons lied to us before the season and are lying to us now. Whether Duquette actually believes the things he's saying or is just covering for his bosses is unimportant. They've raped and pillaged the farm system they implored us to be patient with and they want to tell us that the future looks brighter than ever. That those untouchable prospects whose stats spoke even louder than the New York hype were never as good as we thought they were. That this team can compete for the division title next year, even though they're going to finish in fourth place this year and nearly everyone will be back to try it again. That this team isn't going to completely crash and burn when Leiter and Glavine and Piazza leave or cease to be effective.
I'm not going to quit being a Mets fan. I've been a Mets fan for about eighteen years and given that the last time they won a World Series I was six years old and thus incapable of understanding the significance of it all, I've gotten pretty well used to not getting what I want. Heartbreak is part of being a Mets fan, like Ralph Kiner and the apple in the top hat. The Mets have been a lot closer to a World Series Championship in my time as a serious fan than they were before last Friday. And when they fell short, it hurt. But there was always next year. It's not like that this time. Building the foundation of a homegrown winning team takes time even when you're trying your hardest. When you decide that you're not sure it's something you even want to do anymore, it takes a little longer.
But I’ll cheer for the Mets again anyway. Not this year, of course. Go Philadelphia and beat those Braves. Sorry we couldn’t help you out. Go Oakland or Boston or Minnesota and beat the Yankees. Next year, when basically this same Mets team comes back, I’ll try to rationalize why they have a shot, and I’ll root for them to win it all, though probably a little harder for Jose Reyes and David Wright than for Benson and Zambrano. And I’ll follow what Yusmeiro Petit and Lastings Milledge and Philip Humber are doing down in the minors. I’ll try to temper my excitement when they do well, but it’ll be hard when there aren’t any other prospects worth paying attention to.