Last night, the Mets choose not to tender contracts to starting pitcher John Maine, righthanded reliever Sean Green, and designated hitter Chris Carter. These not bringing back these three players shaved about $5 million dollars off the Mets’ payroll commitments for 2011, bringing the cost of their current 40 man roster down to around $122 million ($132.5 million if you include deferred salaries). Even with these new savings, anything the team spends from this point on likely represents an increase in payroll from 2010. The new front office has spent most of the young offseason trimming the roster fat, and they still somehow find themselves maxed out. It really makes one wonder what Omar Minaya’s plan was for the future, or if he even had one.
In other words: These non-tenders might wind up among the biggest moves of the Mets’ offseason.
It would be beneficial to the public health if every Mets fan paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and reminded themselves that 2011 is a bridge year. It took two seasons for the Knicks to shed enough payroll to recover from the Isiah Thomas era; it’s going to take the Mets at least one to recover from the Omar Minaya era. The laws of contract inertia state that no one expensive is going anywhere, and no one expensive will be coming in. To put it another way: If you are aware that Player X is a free agent, the Mets probably can’t afford Player X. That means no Cliff Lee, no Orlando Hudson, and even no Pedro Feliciano. It’s going to be backup catchers and broken pitchers you didn’t know were free agents. The team you see right now is essentially going to be the team you see taking the field on Opening Day of 2011. This is going to be an offseason of silence.
And that’s okay. These things take time. The Mets will be paying $19.75 million dollars to Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, and Ryota Igarashi in 2011, and another $1 million to Gary Matthews Jr, a player who isn’t even on the roster. Carlos Beltran makes $18.5 million, and Jose Reyes is making $11 million. Those contracts all come off the books after this season, so it’s going to take a while to find some breathing room. Manager Terry Collins had it right at his introductory press conference, when he said you don’t rebuild in New York — you move forward. The Mets are moving forward. The old machine needs to be dismantled so a new one can be installed, and tearing some things down and letting others rust away represents progress just as much building new stuff up does.
That doesn’t mean the 2011 group will be non-competitive. There will be baseball in the spring, and it will be middling, which is at least better than awful. The team’s lineup is its biggest (and really only) strength: Reyes, Beltran, David Wright and Jason Bay are all coming off various sorts of down years, and it’s not unrealistic to expect some sort of bounce back from a couple of them. Angel Pagan has emerged as a multi-talented force in the outfield, and Ike Davis seemed to figure out that the secret to hitting major league pitching was a lot of chaw. Josh Thole has his Jason Kendell impersonation down tight. Someone will play second base poorly, but hey — being average or better at seven out of eight positions ain’t half bad. (It’s one-eighth bad.) And everyone can sort of field. Well, you know, except for whoever they let play second base. This team shouldn’t have too much of a problem scoring runs or playing defense.
The front three of the rotation is also decent. Mike Pelfrey should eat up innings in his usual up and down fashion; the numbers suggest Jon Niese pitched better than the 4.20 ERA he posted; and only Roy Halladay threw more innings than the 235 knuckleball poet Robert Allen Dickey racked up between Triple-A and the major leagues last season. Pelfrey, Dickey, and Niese — in any order — wouldn’t be bad number #2-#4 starters for any team. And anything the Mets get out of Johan Santana is gravy, though shoulder injuries are always tricky. There is some talent here.
The problem, though, is every other part of the roster. The remainder of the pitching staff is dismal. Dillon Gee and Pat Misch presently fill out the starting rotation, and both of their optimistic upsides are “serviceable.” The team’s top (only?) pitching prospect, Jenrry Mejia, only threw 84.2 innings last season and should be nowhere near the major leagues next season. Bobby Parnell, Francisco Rodriguez, and maybe Manny Acosta represent the remainder of the useful arms. Seriously. That’s it. Here are the other six pitchers on the forty man roster:
- Manuel Alvarez
- Ryota Igarashi
- Oliver Perez
- Armando Rodriguez
- Josh Stinson
- Tobi Stoner
At best, the Mets have half of a bullpen, a rotation with moderate amounts of assembly required, and no lefthanded relievers outside of Triple-A’s Mike O’Connor. No help, or very little, is on the immediate horizon from the minor leagues. Sandy Alderson’s big task for 2012 is to rebuild this team’s pitching, as they currently have almost none. For the time being, if the 2011 Mets want to win games, they might want to consider scoring lots and lots of runs.
The bench is similarly uninspiring. When you move past the starters, all that’s left is a bunch of hitters who can’t field — Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans — some fielders who can’t hit — Ruben Tejada, Jason Pridie — and an outfielder who can do neither because he’s always hurt — Fernando Martinez. The second string catcher is currently Mike Nickeas, the owner of a .680 minor league OPS. Bonus points to anyone who can figure out who the current third string catcher is. Utility infielder Justin Turner might be the most useful bench player on the roster, and he’s only played 21 games in the major leagues. The margins of the roster are so ghastly that no one good can get hurt, or else the team is screwed.
That said, as currently constructed, the lineup is good enough for this to comes out to an 81-82 win team, provided the health of the important position players and the remainder of the rotation. A few cheap tweaks — say, Jeff Francis in the rotation, Gregg Zaun to be an Obi-Wan Kenobi to Thole, and throw in second baseman/outfielder Joe Ignlett — and they could get bumped up to 84 or 85 wins for another $5-6 million dollars.
Of course, how the Mets afford those tweaks is another question. They have more needs than they have resources: backup catchers, starting pitchers, a couple of bullpen arms, someone who can backup right field, and second base help. They don’t have much money and almost nothing of value to trade — we don’t want Luis Castillo or Oliver Perez, and why would anyone else? Don’t expect anything big to happen, because it’s not. The reliever acquired in the rule five draft is going to be the most exciting part of the winter meetings.
But that’s a good thing. A minimalist offseason should be comforting. Omar Minaya would have gone out, blown $7 million dollars on Orlando Hudson, and then called it a day. A season spent twiddling thumbs and waiting for the roster to clear itself out is what the Mets need. It’s always easier to make messes than it is to clean them up. Be prepared: This is going to take a while. So forget about Cliff Lee, Orlando Hudson, and Pedro Feliciano, and even forget about Aaron Harang, Russell Martin, and Brad Penny. The only thing Mets fans need right now is patience. Well, that and a backup catcher.