Thursday, December 11, 2008

Okay, now get Huston Street to pitch the seventh

There are a number of reasons to be less than ecstatic about the Mets’ acquisition of JJ Putz. Here are some of them. The Mets gave up seven players to get three players. They gave up perhaps the best defensive outfielder in the game and replaced him with a twenty-seven year old failed prospect who’s never hit at the major league level. They gave up a young reliever who owns right handed hitters in exchange for one who’s five years older and not quite as good against the righties. Putz missed time in early 2008 due to injuries including an elbow injury. And even if he’s healthy and great in 2009, the Mets will have to pay him $8.6 million in 2010 to be a setup man. This trade is far from a fleecing of the Mariners.

But the Mets did get the best player in the deal in Putz and I think this deal improves the team at least for 2009. If Putz is healthy, he is capable of being one of the best relievers in the league. Having such a pitcher who is not tied to the label of “closer” will be quite useful when a critical situation arises prior to the ninth inning. New closer Francisco Rodriguez was never going to be used in such a situation, but Putz could be leveraged to be the most valuable arm in the bullpen. But even if Putz is merely used to pitch the eighth as a bridge to Rodriguez, the two will give the Mets as dependable a game-ending duo as any in the game.

The most notable, if not the best, player the Mets gave up was Aaron Heilman, who had recently completed his worst season as a major leaguer and restated his desire to be used as a starter. He will probably bounce back somewhat and might even have been able to do so with the Mets, but he would have had to overcome a much more hostile environment than the one he’ll find in Seattle. The Mets could be criticized for selling low on a talented player. Perhaps if Heilman’s 2008 hadn’t been so disastrous, the Mets wouldn’t have had to load up this deal with prospects to get it done. But holding on to Heilman and trying to rehabilitate his reputation in 2009 would have been quite risky both in terms of the team’s fortunes and the chance that he might not rebound and thus become untradeable. Heilman may be a great reliever again, or even a good starter, but he wasn’t likely to be either with the Mets. Allowing them to acquire Putz was probably the most value he could provide to the team that drafted him in first round seven years ago.

No other player involved in the trade is likely to make a huge impact on his new team in 2009 or beyond, but the Mets did lose some nice complimentary players. In exchanging Joe Smith for Sean Green, the Mets get slightly worse at retiring right-handed hitters in the middle innings. If Green is used just as Smith was, this is a minor downgrade. But Green has been a bit better than Smith, though certainly not good, at retiring lefties in his career. This may make him a little more versatile than the young sidearmer.

The biggest loss in this trade is the great Endy Chavez. Endy is not much of a hitter, but he patrols the outfield like no other and probably spends his free time rescuing treed kittens and feeding nutritious meals to homeless orphans. He’ll be replaced in the role of fourth outfielder by Jeremy Reed, who used to be a highly touted prospect before it turned out he couldn’t hit. Reed has a good defensive reputation in some circles, but none of the advanced defensive stats seem to bear that out and in any case there’s no way he could be the equal of He Who Is Called Endy. This exchange won’t make or break the Mets season, particularly if they find a real left fielder in their foraging through the free agent forest (Raul IbaƱez DOES NOT COUNT). But I am sad to see Endy go.

The rest of the deal really, really won’t alter the course of the 2009 Mets’ season. First baseman Mike Carp might be a decent bench player or mediocre DH in the major leagues some day, but he is not a future star. I don’t think I’d ever heard of outfielder Ezequiel Carrera or right-handed pitcher Maikel Cleto before last night but it doesn’t seem either is anywhere close to becoming a significant presence in the major leagues. The Mets gave up a bunch of bodies to get this job done and I don’t like to see that, but I don’t expect any of these players to be missed.

The Mets lost a good bench player and a solid young middle reliever but acquired a reliever who has been great for two and a half of the last three years. Having two relievers of the quality of JJ Putz and Rodriguez who can get both righties and lefties out is a major upgrade. The bullpen as it stands right now looks very good and could be great with some luck and/or shrewd lower profile acquisitions. We’ll see if Omar Minaya could make similarly wise additions to other parts of his team but right now I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the 2009 Mets.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Rod We Trust

The Mets announced earlier today that they have come to an agreement with free agent Francisco Rodriguez. They will pay him $37 million to be their closer for the next three years. The bullpen was the most obvious hole in this team, both in the fantasy land where New York sportswriters and talk radio callers live and in the real world. So it didn't take a lot of imagination to guess what would happen when a young, obviously great reliever in possession of both the single season saves record and a catchy nickname became available. "K"-Rod will not be dramatically more useful to the Mets than Billy Wagner was at the beginning of this year or the end of last year. But he will be significantly more valuable to them than a one-armed Billy Wagner, so this move does a lot to improve the chances of the 2009 Mets. The fact that the deal is short and relatively reasonable in terms of dollars makes the decision even easier. Omar Minaya's job is far from over if he's going to get the Mets back to the playoffs, but this was a fine start to the offseason.

This move is trademark Minaya in that it involved finding a great player and giving him a lot of money. This strategy hasn't always worked out perfectly, as in the cases of Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner. And it took a good trade to get the process started in the case of Johan Santana. But, much like when Carlos Beltran hit the market in 2004, there was a guy out there who everyone agreed was great and the Yankees weren't bidding on him for one reason or another. Beltran's 7-year, $119 million deal seemed enormous at the time and has so far worked out great for the Mets. A closer like Rodriguez who pitches seventy innings a year can't have the sort of impact that Beltran has had on the Mets, but for this sort of contract, he doesn't need to.

Now that the easy part is over, Minaya needs to get a little more creative to fill some other holes in his roster. A common criticism of Minaya has been that he's much better at throwing Fred Wilpon's money around to attract stars than finding cheap but productive players to fill out his supporting cast. There have been a few good finds on the scrap heap like Jose Valentin in 2007 and Fernando Tatis in 2008. But Minaya's huge payroll teams have also given starts to the likes of Tony Armas Jr, Chan Ho Park and Jose Lima.

Minaya's tendency to err on the side of Guys You've Heard Of is especially dangerous when it comes to rebuilding a bullpen. The most predictable thing about great middle relievers is that they won't last very long. If you try to fill your bullpen with guys who have reputations for success at the big league level, you wind up giving the ball to Scott Schoeneweis 143 times in two years. Minaya could perhaps skirt this issue by getting Brian Fuentes or Huston Street to be his setup man. Those two aren't guaranteed to be great for years to come, but will probably be solid and able to get batters out from both sides of the plate. Even that would give the Mets a lot more certainty in the late innings than they have had in a while.

The Rodriguez signing in an excellent first step to rebuilding the Mets' pitching staff but there's a lot of work left to do. Maybe Minaya will throw more money at a closer to pitch his eighth innings. Maybe he'll give a few minor league veterans a chance to show what they can do at the major league level. Or maybe, just maybe, he'll find a starting pitcher or two who can pitch into the seventh inning once in a while.