Monday, May 23, 2011

Fred Wilpon: Steinbrenner Without the Success

I am not a fan of George Steinbrenner, but he did resurrect the Yankee brand and bring multiple titles to the Bronx. However, Fred Wilpon's Steinbrenner-type comments on several of his stars in the New Yorker betray a mindset that won't result in any titles and could further damage the Mets' image.

The most successful big-market teams use their payroll advantage to overpay some players. The Yankees, with their $200 million payroll, can land a CC Sabathia by giving him tens of millions of dollars more than any other team. A.J. Burnett got a contract that seemed crazy at the time and seems crazier now. But the signings of Sabathia and Burnett, along with Mark Teixeira (who appears to have gotten market value), produced a World Series title for the Yankees in their first season.

The Red Sox and the Phillies have had plenty of questionable signings- John Lackey and Raul Ibanez, just to name two recent ones. Cliff Lee is 32 with a five-year contract. What are the odds that he will be great all five years?

But the willingness of the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies to spend big on several players, knowing that not all of them will justify their investment, that most if not all will offer diminishing returns over the life of their long contracts, results in these teams being perennial contenders.

The Mets have shown all too often that simply spending lots of money is no guarantee of success. But they have also shown that overpaying for stars can quickly bring a team to the brink of the World Series.

The Mets won 71 games in 2004. Over the next two offseasons, they signed Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran and Billy Wagner and traded for Carlos Delgado. In 2006, the Mets won 97 games.

Beltran finished fourth in MVP voting that season and Delgado finished twelfth. Wagner was sixth in Cy Young voting. Pedro made the All-Star team in 2006 before he got hurt.

Combining these expensive pieces with another acquisition, Paul Lo Duca, and homegrown stars Wright and Reyes (who both were top 10 in MVP voting in 2006) got the Mets to Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.

Many Met fans probably agree with Wilpon that the Beltran signing didn't pay off in the long run. As much as I like Pedro, his signing was not a success - he was only healthy for a year and a half out of four. Both Wagner and Delgado saw their Met tenures cut short by injuries.

One could argue that all four of these players failed to return full value on their contracts. But thanks to this combination of players, the Mets were a top contender for three seasons - 2006-8.

Say what you will about Beltran, but the Mets would not have been a contender in those years without him.

And Fred Wilpon regrets signing him.

Beltran is a Scott Boras client who probably wanted to leave the Mets even before the latest mess. The Mets are unlikely to retain him at anything approaching a reasonable value.

But Reyes is a much different case. The Mets may well have to overpay for him, but what the Mets consistently fail to realize is that it's better to overpay for a great player than try to save money by signing a lesser light to a still-big contract.

Two years ago, there were a couple of power-hitting left fielders on the free agent market. The Mets got Jason Bay for $66 million while the Cardinals got Matt Holliday for $120 million. Holliday didn't seem to be twice as good as Bay, so it looked like the Mets got a good deal. But as of now, Bay is almost worthless, while Holliday is a perennial MVP candidate on a pennant contender.

After the 2008 season, the Mets might have signed Derek Lowe for $60 million. Instead, they signed Oliver Perez for $36 million. Lowe has not been that great with the Braves and this year he has been charged with a DUI. But Lowe won 31 games with the Braves in 2009-10. During those years, Perez won three.

If the Mets had spent more money on Lowe instead of less on Perez, things could have been a lot different the last two seasons.

Yes, the 2011 Mets show the perils of overpaying too many players. But if you're going to overpay anyone, Reyes and Wright, two regular All-Stars when healthy who are still under 30, are a good place to start. And think of the potential alternatives:

The Phillies may be in a market for a shortstop next year, with the declining Jimmy Rollins also in his contract year this season.

What if Derek Jeter hits .240 and the Yankees miss the playoffs? Does the Yankees signing Reyes still seem so unlikely?

What if David Wright decides to become a free agent right around the time the Yankees are ready to shift A-Rod to DH? Oh, and Wright also would be a big upgrade at third for the Phillies.

Think the Yankees and Phillies wouldn't love to stick it to the Mets and pilfer their biggest names? The Phillies are so eager to show up the Mets that they even signed Luis Castillo after the Mets cut him. The Yankees turned all-time Mets Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden into important Yankees as well.

Reyes is no Tom Seaver, but at least M. Donald Grant didn't send The Franchise to the Yankees.

Last year, the Twins signed Joe Mauer to a huge contract. Now Mauer is hurt and his catching days may be numbered. It's unclear whether Mauer will justify his contract.

But the Twins realized they had no choice but to retain the face of their franchise. Now, even though the Twins have the worst record in baseball, per-game attendance is barely down from last year, when the Twins debuted their new ballpark. Twins fans know that the previously cheap team can now hold on to their stars.

Meanwhile, Rays' attendance and TV ratings are plummeting, even though the team is percentage points out of first place. But the Rays said goodbye to Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and Rafael Soriano. And they refused to give Carl Crawford money to Carl Crawford. Rays fans know that whatever success the team has will be short-lived because they can't hold on to their good players.

Fred Wilpon wanted to bring back the era of the 1950s by modeling Citi Field after Ebbets Field. Instead, he may end up bringing back the era of the late 1970s, when Grant's unwillingness to pay his stars turned Shea Stadium into "Grant's Tomb."

1 comment:

Dan Berman said...

I don't think Wilpon's comments are anything like Steinbrenner's. I think he was driven to speak because of all the money the team has lost.

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