Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why the Mets should not pursue Cliff Lee

It was only six years ago that the Mets went for it at the trade deadline, acquiring Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson for some prospects. Even at the time, many people questioned the wisdom of dealing one of the prospects, Scott Kazmir. But Kazmir was only 20 - it would be years before he could contribute.

Maybe it's because Kazmir is struggling these days that so many people are clamoring for the Mets to trade their current 20-year-old pitching phenom, Jenrry Mejia, to rent Cliff Lee for two months. But let's not forget that Kazmir has already had a lot more success in the bigs than most of the pitchers that the Mets have acquired since they gave him away. From 2005-8, Kazmir won at least 10 games with an ERA under 3.50 in three of those years and 3.77 the other year. In 2007, Kazmir struck out 239 in 206 2/3 innings. And he did all these in the AL East.

Now with the Angels, Kazmir is struggling to match his early sucesses. But he is still only 26.

Cliff Lee is a drastically better pitcher than Zambrano or Benson and there is no assurance that Mejia will pan out. But with previous top pitching prospect Brad Holt struggling, it's not as if the Mets have a lot of prospects beyond Mejia. And now Mejia is hurt.

One would think that this year's contributions from Ike Davis, Jon Niese and Ruben Tejada would prove to Met watchers that the way to build a lasting contender is through a productive farm system. Instead, everyone except Davis appears to be potentially up for grabs.

Niese might be pitching over his head and Tejada may ultimately be a fill-in, but where would the Mets be without them this year? Let's say that Tejada was all that stood in the way of landing Lee. That could be a great deal for the Mets (which is why the Mariners won't do it) but if you're trying to win now, you've just given up the guy who became your second baseman around when the team got hot. Will the Mets play as well when Luis Castillo is back in the lineup?

The last time the Mets traded with the Mariners (for J.J. Putz) one of the seemingly minor pieces they gave up was Jason Vargas, who is 6-3 this year with a 2.80 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. Vargas is a 27-year-old lefty. If the Mets still had Vargas, maybe they wouldn't need to be looking for starting pitching now.

But let's say the Mets are able to get Lee without giving up too much. And Lee continues to pitch great. Then, at the end of the year, Lee becomes a free agent - and signs with the Yankees.

The Mets basically rented Mike Hampton for a year and he pitched them into the World Series. Yet Hampton barely registers on any list of popular ex-Mets. When he left, the worst thing he did was talk about the school system in Colorado. Lee, on the other hand, is determined to test free agency, and as a top lefty who proved himself in the World Series - against the Yankees - he will definitely be at the top of the Yankees' list in the offseason with Javier Vazquez and perhaps Andy Pettitte departing.

But if the Mets sign the 32-year-old Lee to a big contract, that could be worse. Do the Mets really want another veteran pitcher on a big contract now that Johan Santana is struggling? Not to mention Oliver Perez and how things turned out for Pedro Martinez.

I'd love to see Lee on the Mets with a three-year deal, but he'll want five and probably get it. And that will leave the Mets as the first team to pay two starters over $20M a year. Both over 30 with injury histories.

At least when the Mets signed Perez and Francisco Rodriguez to big contracts, they were only 27. Santana was not yet 30.

Sure, if Lee wanted to sign with the Mets for $100M over five years, my first instinct would be to be all for it. Just like I was for signing Pedro, Johan and Jason Bay. I haven't given up on Bay, and I still think Carlos Beltran was a good signing. But as of now, the Mets have a lot of big contracts dragging them down.

By constantly going for the short-term fix, the Mets keep entering boom-or-bust cycles. Why not seriously try to build a farm system for a change? That means spending more on the draft, which is still not happening as much as it should. It means not dumping Billy Wagner for Chris Carter, but holding on to him to collect two top draft choices as the Red Sox did.

If the Mets had gotten draft choices for Wagner, they would have a deeper farm system, and would be in a better position to deal for someone like Lee than by potentially sacrificing their top prospects.

And if they still had Kazmir and Vargas, they would be in an even better position.


urinalfresh23 said...

The Mets need to focus on the draft and build their farm system. Forget the quick fix, think about long-term development and sustained success. They should model themselves after the Twins, but with the caveat that they can also supplement their roster with a few free agents more easily than can the Twins. The Twins have a good system going up there in the north land. Go Mets, play hard, play smart!

paulsrandomstuff said...

I think that the Mets do need to make a run at the World Series this year since they have the chance.

I don't advocate signing Lee to a 5-year deal, but I think the Mets need to try to land him as a rental If Lee goes to the Yankees after the season, the Mets will get the draft picks and the Yankees will be stuck with the bad contract.

If you want a pitcher more than half a season, try to get Roy Oswalt. But don't give up a chance to win a championship just to hang onto some unproven players.

Two things to remember: Most prospects won't manage to stick in the majors. Winning makes it easier to sell tickets than rebuilding. Don't believe me? Just ask the Pirates.

Uncle Mike said...

Patterning your team after the Minnesota Twins is a good idea... if your aim is to excite the fans so that they'll call their state legislators, get them to build a new ballpark, and save baseball in your metro area.

But the Mets already have a new ballpark, they were never in danger of being moved elsewhere, there was still another major league team in the same city (and a better one, at that), and the Twins... haven't won a Pennant since the Bush Administration. The father's.

The Twins have been a good team, sometimes a very good team. If your aim is to present your fans with exciting baseball, they're a good model. But if your aim is to win Pennants, that's another story.

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