Betty's No Good Clothes Shop And Pancake House
Prior to today, I thought the Mets had been having a decent offseason. They hadn't made a big splash, but they had said goodbye to their two worst everyday players, Paul Lo Duca and Shawn Green, making room for better, younger players. The starting rotation would be the same as the one that started 2007 except that Tom Glavine would be replaced by Pedro Martinez, quite a swap if Pedro stays healthy. The 2008 Mets weren't going to be a great team, but they were going to be good. And if they could have added a good starting pitcher, who knows?
They made a trade today, giving up one of their talented young players, but they didn't get that starting pitcher. Lastings Milledge was sent to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. The best thing I can say about this trade is that it's not the worst the Mets have made in the last three and a half years.
Ryan Church has hit .271/.348/.462 in 997 at bats over four years in his major league career. In 2007 he hit .272/.349/.464 in 144 games, slightly better than Milledge's .272/.341/.446 in 59 games. And Church was playing in a tougher hitting environment at RFK Stadium. So he may very well be a better hitter than Milledge right now. Church is also said to be the better defender of the two, but Milledge hadn't had much of a chance to adjust to playing right field in the majors after playing center for the majority of his minor league career. Most importantly, Church is twenty-nine years old, so he's about as good as he's going to get, whereas Milledge will turn twenty-three in April and is still improving. I am far from certain that Church will be a better hitter than Milledge in 2008, let alone four or five years down the line. If these two players had been traded for each other straight up it would be perplexing from the Mets' perspective.
The addition of Schneider doesn't make it any easier to understand. The thirty-one year old catcher hit .235/.326/.336 in 129 games this year and has a .252/.323/.377 line for his eight year career. He's an even worse hitter than Paul Lo Duca, though he is younger and better defensively. That defense is apparently what spelled the end of Ramon Castro's days as the Mets' primary catcher. It was a fun couple of weeks, but now Schneider will play every day, making outs as prolifically as his predecessor.
To consider this a good trade for the Mets, one has to believe that Milledge isn't going to get any better than he already is, that Castro can't be counted on to be more than a backup and that Schneider's defense will significantly improve the team. I don't believe any of these things and thus I'm quite upset. Lastings Milledge has a chance to be a star, but he never got that chance with the Mets. Yes, injuries cost him some opportunities in 2007, but even when he was healthy Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya always seemed to be looking for ways to give his at bats to a mediocre veteran with a reputation for being a "gamer." That the Mets would give him up in this trade, not notably improving the team in the short term, still lacking the starting pitcher they covet and likely hurting team in the long term, shows how little the team really thought of him.
This is probably the biggest trade the Mets will make this season as they can't really afford to part with any more young outfielders in search of a pitcher. They should sign Livan Hernandez any day now to fill out this 2004 Expos reunion tour. At least we'll get to see Milledge nineteen times a year. Maybe he'll have a nice battle or two with Scott Kazmir in an All-Star Game someday. I just hope Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez get good and quickly. I'd really like to get more than Ryan Church and Brian Schneider back when Omar trades them.
Okay, now get rid of Schoeneweis
It has been a whirlwind few days for the New York Mets. Or at least as whirlwind as you can get when you're not losing anyone better than Tom Glavine circa 2008 or getting anyone better than Luis Castillo. Regardless, things have happened.
First of all, Glavine returned to the Braves. This leaves the Mets with a hole to fill in their starting rotation, but it also leaves them with two first round draft picks in 2008, including the eighteenth pick that once belonged to Atlanta. This seems like a pretty good swap to me.
Even at forty-two, Glavine is likely to be durable. He'll go out every five days and likely give the Braves around 200 innings. The Mets could use a pitcher like that, given some of the question marks surrounding their rotation. But even putting aside Glavine's statements that he was either going back to Atlanta or retiring, I don't think he was likely to have been one of the top three or four starters on the 2008 Mets.
In 2007 he posted an ERA of 4.55 which was around league average and the third worst in a full season in his career. He struck out just 3.99 batters per nine innings, his worst rate since 1988 and a significant drop from the 6.21 he posted in 2006. Watching him struggle through September, in which he gave up 21 runs in 31 innings on 38 hits and nine walks, it looked to me like the consistent, reliable Tom Glavine of the past few years might be gone for good. His 2007 was actually quite similar to his first year with the Mets in 2003--4.52 ERA, 4.03 K/9--from which he did bounce back nicely. But I wouldn't want to bet too heavily on him rebounding again at forty-two. The Mets definitely need to find another starter somewhere, but I'd rather Omar Minaya be motivated to put together a big trade for someone good than feel like the job was done because he had Tom Glavine under contract.
Monday brought another transaction that will probably work out all right for the Mets. Luis Castillo signed a four-year deal for $25 million. I don't know that the Mets needed to make this deal, with Damion Easley and Ruben Gotay already on the roster. And I definitely worry about what shape Castillo's knees and his OBP will be in when he's thirty-five in 2011. But I do think he will be useful for at least a couple of years and $25 million over four years isn't a bad deal in a market where David Eckstein allegedly wants around $36 million over the same time period to provide roughly the same production.
Easley and Gotay might have together equaled or exceeded Castillo's offensive production. They very likely would have at least provided more power. But Easley just turned thirty-eight last week while Gotay is just a twenty-four year old who looked good in under two hundred at bats. Easley could break down (again) or Gotay's 2007 could turn out to be a fluke. Gotay's .295/.351/.421 line is solid, but it's also rather dependent on a batting average higher than anything he'd put up in the minors since he was eighteen. I also think he's pretty clearly a defensive downgrade from Castillo, even if Castillo is also pretty clearly not the defender he once was. Hopefully Gotay will get regular playing time as Castillo's backup and one of Willie Randolph's first pinch hitting options so that we can see if he really is as good as he looked at times in 2007. The Castillo deal pretty much guarantees Gotay will never be the Mets' starter, but he could turn into a very useful bench player or trading chip.
On Tuesday we were reminded that one need not be useful to be traded. The Mets sent Guillermo Mota to the Milwaukee Brewers and in exchange they received a package headlined by Not Having Guillermo Mota Anymore. The deal was made all the sweeter by the addition of Not Bringing Back Paul Lo Duca, personified by the Mets' new catcher, Johnny Estrada, who will likely split time with Ramon Castro. Estrada had a pretty Lo Ducan year with the bat in 2007 at .278/.296/.403, but he is four years younger than ol' Paulie. Estrada was also playing with a torn medial meniscus in his left knee and a bone spur in his right elbow. Both of these have been taken care of surgically since the season ended, so perhaps he will come back in 2008 more closely resembling the guy who hit .302/.328/.444 in 2006 and .314/.378/.450 in 2004. Even if he doesn't, the Mets won't need to offer him a multi-year deal to find out like they would with Lo Duca or Yorvit Torrealba. Estrada is arbitration-eligible, so if things don't work out, the Mets can be rid of him after the season.
Like the theoretical Torrealba deal before them, these moves don't greatly improve this team. But the Mets have now filled out their everyday eight while leaving all potential trade bait intact. Moises Alou, Carlos Beltran, Lastings Milledge, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Luis Castillo, Carlos Delgado and either Ramon Castro or Johnny Estrada should form a formidable lineup. Pedro Martinez, Orlando Hernandez, Oliver Perez and John Maine could use some help. The Kyle Lohses and Carlos Silvas of the world aren't going to cut it. Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber might be able to help someday, but I don't think either of them has proven he'll be a reliable starter in 2008. Now is the time for Omar to make a big splash with a trade. Hopefully he can get the Mets a good starter without leaving them short a right fielder.
The Mets' deal with Yorvit Torrealba fell through. But Ramon Castro is signed. So they are still in need of one catcher. Hopefully Paul Lo Duca is so insulted by the Mets' treatment of him this offseason that he refuses to negotiate with them.
The Mets are apparently about to sign a couple of catchers. According to various reports, Yorvit Torrealba will sign a three-year deal to be the starter and Ramon Castro will sign up for two years as his backup, though Castro is expected to start more often than he did in 2007. This is hardly ideal, but I'll take it.
The appeal of Torrealba eludes me. He's a career .251/.313/.391 hitter who's never played more than 113 games in a season and only once played more than 76. At this stage, he's basically a younger, slightly worse Paul Lo Duca with the bat and his defense doesn't seem to add much value. His much praised game-calling ability sounds about as likely to win games as Lo Duca's "clubhouse presence." I don't see how this adds up to a starting catcher.
It does make it a little easier to believe that Castro really will get more playing time that he has in the past. The idea that Willie Randolph would execute a strategy more complicated that naming one guy the starter and playing him five days a week doesn't jibe with his entire history as Mets manager. He's not shown much inclination to get creative when filling out the lineup card. And while Castro hasn't really proven he can hold up for a full season, he is clearly the superior hitter of these two. But perhaps if the inferior catcher isn't a fiery clubhouse leader from Brooklyn, Willie will have him take a seat a bit more often. These moves probably won't constitute a huge upgrade for the position, but if Castro plays about eighty games and Torrealba hits around his career averages, Mets catchers should be more productive in 2008 than they were in 2007. And if they're not, at least we won't have to hear how they're valuable anyway because of their intangibles and grit and whatnot.
In closing, I'd like to comment briefly on the big baseball-related legal story of the day. This has been a long time coming and I am glad to see the law-breaker in question finally held responsible for his actions. He's made a mockery of the laws of our nation for too long. Shame on you, Derek Jeter.
An easy catch
This has the potential to be a rather boring offseason. Collapse or no, the Mets are a good team without many obvious holes. At the moment they could use a catcher, a second baseman and a starting pitcher. But the weak free agent class and the paucity of tradeable commodities in the Mets' system makes it unlikely any of these spots will be addressed in headline-grabbing fashion. But even the smallest of moves could have a significant impact on the 2008 pennant race. Today I'm going to take a look behind the plate.
I would have called catcher an easy decision a few months ago. Ramon Castro was the best choice to catch for the Mets in 2007 and would have been the same in 2008. But the arthritic back that landed him on the disabled list in August is enough to dampen even my enthusiasm. Perhaps his back will be fine by the time he and the pitchers report to Port St. Lucie in February, but it does make me a little nervous. Castro in a back brace could still outhit Paul Lo Duca and I hope to see Ramon return and Paul disappear forever. But if the Mets bring back Castro as the starter, it is important that they find a halfway decent backup in case he goes down again or just needs a day off slightly more often than the average catcher. Neither Mike DiFelice nor Sandy Alomar Jr. qualifies as such.
The landscape of free agent backstops is quite barren beyond Castro and Jorge Posada, who isn't coming to the Mets for anything short of way too much money over too many years. But two names pique my interest. The first is Michael Barrett, recently of the San Diego Padres, who was an excellent offensive catcher for the Cubs from 2004-2006 before falling off a cliff this year to the tune of .244/.281/.372. Those numbers are awful. Sub-Lo Duca. But just two years ago he hit .307/.368/.517 and he's only 31. I think he's worth a shot as a backup to see if he's really done as a hitter or if last year was just a fluke.
The other catcher that interests me is Rod Barajas. The thirty-two year old was never the offensive force that Barrett was and his career .288 OBP is atrocious. But he does smack the occasional extra-base hit and posted a higher OPS+ than Lo Duca in two of the last three years. That's not the sort of endorsement likely to be inscribed on a plaque in Cooperstown, but we're not looking for a starter here. He could provide a decent bat for a backup. If something happened to the starter and he had to play every day, things could get ugly. But the same could be said of most teams that aren't the 2007 Mets. Signing Rod Barajas won't punch the Mets' ticket to October, but he'd be of more use than the Yorvit Torrealbas of the world.
The most important thing is for the Mets to say goodbye to Paul Lo Duca--his fire, his leadership, his temper tantrums, his teenaged paramours and his ground balls to second base--and embrace Ramon Castro as their catcher. A team can put together a good offense without getting much pop from behind the plate, as the 2007 Mets proved. But having an above average bat at the position would be especially helpful for a team with some uncertainty at traditional offensive positions like first base and right field. Catcher is the easiest spot on the diamond for the Mets to upgrade this offseason. Hopefully they take advantage of the opportunity.