Lost In Vegas: The Mets Recent Struggles With AAA Affiliates

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High hopes immediately turned to deflation, bewilderment, and dismay.  The Mets failed to deliver anything remotely close to the caliber of baseball the Indians previously provided Buffalo.  In fact, they failed miserably to provide Buffalo any winning at all.  Largely due to injuries on the big club, a lack of existing top prospects throughout the organization, and not given any trade feed at the deadline, the suddenly impoverished Bisons finished their inaugural 2009 season with the Mets with a pitiful 56-87 mark.  The following is but a small  glimpse into what the 2009 experience might have been like:

 ….While Oberkfell looks to be a strong and husky guy who could take care of  himself in a fight, the prospect of having one’s unstable boss show up and start  acting crazy and belligerent doesn’t exactly inspire an environment where one  can speak freely. That climate of fear and intimidation is probably at the heart  of everything that is wrong with the Buffalo Bisons this season. – from, Bernazard Firing Offers a Peek To Bisons’ Woes – artvoice.com

A 76-68 record in 2010 was a considerable improvement, if not promising.  A twenty game turnaround encouraged Buffalo to extend their PDC for another two seasons.  They turned out to be two more seasons, and an era, Buffalo would regret.  Buffalo’s optimism over 2010 quickly turned to open and public dissatisfaction with the Mets.  They ended the 2011 season with a 61-82 record, and followed with another sub-par 67-76 record in 2012.  An overall 260-313 record ranked Buffalo twenty-eighth out of thirty International League teams during the four year affiliation.  Writer Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News perhaps best summed up the overwhelming sentiments felt among Bisons fans when he authored Thoughts On The Mets And Bisons’ Disastrous Finale:

It doesn’t take much to run out groundballs hard. It doesn’t take much to think about hitting situationally at the plate. Doesn’t even take much to do little things like line up for the national anthem and look like a team like Rochester did (and so many MLB teams do), or even have a coach at first base when an inning is starting. Umpires have been waving guys out there for a while now.

Even Backman seemed worn by the end of this trainwreck……”    [sic]

Mike Harrington emphatically, and justifiably so, continued:

September 26, 2011; Flushing, NY, USA; New York Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada (11) talks with first base coach Wally Backman (86) after hitting a single during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been pretty clear for 14 months that this Mets-Bisons marriage was not going to last. Fans in New York keep crushing me with “it doesn’t matter if you win in the minors” comments and that’s bunk…..   The Tribe got here two years after winning a Triple-A title in Charlotte with Jim  Thome and Manny  Ramirez on the roster. Two years later they were in the World Series. They put 21 postseason all-stars in Buffalo in those 14 years. The Mets put exactly none. Their players don’t win in the minors and they certainly won’t win in New York.

For the moment, those words ring prophetic.  But while we’re at it, Buffalo hosted the 2012 International League All-Star Game.  No Bisons player participated.  In fact, there was no Bisons all-star in the entire four years of affiliation.  Following what now had become a motif, Buffalo held Omar Minaya largely responsible for their lack of early success.  In that light, I contend Steve Phillips and Jim Duquette deserve their fair share of culpability, as Omar didn’t effectively become GM until the 2005 season.  The PDC with Buffalo started just four years later.  Even Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta failed to inspire Buffalo’s confidence and patience, or sway their intentions to seek alternative affiliation.  Bisons’ general manager, Mike Buczkowski, employed a rather blunt tactic in trying to defend the high expectations greater-Buffalo has for their baseball team:

People say we have to have a winning team but I say to be competitive.  There were a lot of times the last four years we were not competitive. We get a bad rap that we’re demanding a championship team. That’s not what we’re saying. We need a competitive team. Win more than you lose. Play some games in August that mean something. We haven’t done that…Bisons fans are tired of rooting for a loser. 

That pretty much says it all.  However, it doesn’t end there.  Beyond the field and standings, Buffalo’s number one dilemma naturally manifested itself in a fading gate.  As with any baseball enterprise, dwindling attendance invariably means compromised revenue.  Enter owners Bob and Mindy Rich, and their eighteen thousand seat ballpark that remained less that half full four years standing.  Last year, while celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary season of Coca Cola Field, the Bisons suffered through their lowest attendance ever.  The Bisons averaged 8,800 fans per game in their final season affiliated with Cleveland.  While International League attendance was going up, Buffalo’s was falling off.  In their first troubled season under the Mets umbrella, attendance dropped to 7,700 fans per game.  By the end of 2012, attendance was down to 7,300 fans per game, which translated to 515,000 for the season.

Ultimately, Mr. Rich was forced to make an obvious business decision.  The Toronto Blue Jays ended a thirty year affiliation with Syracuse in upstate New York.  They traveled west and spent the last four seasons in a PDC with Las Vegas.  When Toronto let it be known that they wanted to come back east again, Buffalo jumped at the opportunity.  Geographically speaking, affiliating with the Blue Jays made even more sense for Buffalo than did the Mets.  There is also something to be said for a common/shared fan base in the immediate upstate New York. and Ontario region.  As for the Mets’ optimal situation in Buffalo, like their two prior relationships, this marked yet another affiliate choosing to jump into the arms of another organization rather than continue with them.

This presented an immediate problem.  Last season, Buffalo wound up being the only International League team to change affiliations.  All other potential International League clubs extended with their existing MLB teams.  For a fleeting moment, scuttlebutt circulated a possible deal for 2013 could be struck with Rochester.  But those rumors were largely unfounded, as Rochester renewed with the Twins, ending any further speculation.  With nowhere to turn, the Mets were effectively forced back into the Pacific Coast League, and into a PDC with the team Toronto left behind – the Las Vegas 51′s.

While I can’t speak for returning manager Wally  Backman, the Mets seem better prepared for the  Pacific Coast League this time around than perhaps they were under Omar Minaya.  Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta are both old hats of the west coast.  They’ll have a better sense of how to decipher the somewhat skewed numbers the PCL can create.  In a nutshell, it will be a good circuit if you’re Travis d’Arnaud or Matt den Dekker, but not so much if you’re Zack Wheeler.  The current Mets manager is also a PCL veteran.  Terry  Collins, via writer Adam Rubin, shared what he learned over five seasons managing in the Pacific Coast League.  One of the most widely heard criticisms I’m aware of pertains to the rock hard, sun baked infield in Las Vegas.  On pitching in the Pacific Coast League, Rubin noted:

…Among the issues are high altitude and dry conditions that cause balls to fly. Dryness also can make it more difficult to snap off breaking pitches.

Matters such as variations in climate conditions and obscene travel requirements merely begin the conversation regarding baseball in Las Vegas.  An even greater issue for Mets prospects to contend with will be Cashman Field.  Built in 1983, the Los Angeles Dodgers broke off their affiliation, leaving after the 2008 season supposedly for lack of a weight room and no indoor batting cages.  Owned by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Cashman Field is considered a borderline AAA standard facility.

Oh Norfolk!  Why did we forsake thee?  No one said that.  But someone in the Mets organization should be thinking it.  If Bourbon Street is considered a precarious environment for minor league prospects, what does that make Sin City?

Afterthoughts:

Due to evolving (or devolving) circumstances, there may have been little Omar Minaya could have done to prevent Norfolk from switching to Baltimore.  What is a fact, however, is that Omar Minaya was a substantive contributing factor that precipitated the Tides’ desire to end a thirty-eight year relationship.  At the time, it was the second longest affiliation agreement, behind only Atlanta’s relationship with Richmond.  Displeasure with Omar’s administration resurfaced again in New Orleans, and most famously in Buffalo.  The fact that he was a common thread throughout is duly noted.

If we go back even further in time, we’ll find how Omar Minaya directly contributed to all of that success Buffalo bragged that Cleveland provided them with.  In 2002 as general manager of the Montreal Expos, Minaya shipped minor league prospects Grady  Sizemore, Brandon  Phillips, and Cliff  Lee to Cleveland in the infamous trade to acquire Bartolo  Colon.  Those players in turn helped Buffalo win a championship.

Buffalo did not act in haste.  They were justified in their desire to seek a switch, but the joke may be on them.  The Bisons think highly of Toronto’s farm system, which was ironically built up by current Mets executive J.P. Ricciardi and his in-house successor, general manager Alex Anthopoulos.  In the Blue Jays’ great off-season push to capture this season’s division flag, they traded two former first round draft picks, Travis d’Arnaud and Noah  Syndergaard, to the Mets.  Two other prospects, Jake  Marisnick and Justin  Nicolino, were shipped to Miami.  That’s four pre-2013 top 100 rated prospects.  Meanwhile, in two short years, Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta have put together a handsome collection of pitchers in New York’s lower minors, and have used their recent first round draft picks to select an outfielder (Brandon Nimmo) and shortstop (Gavin Cecchini).  With recent promotions, the Mets stand to field an entertaining team in Sin City this season.  That’s if they can stay out of trouble.

Two years from now, I suppose the Mets will be looking to get back into the International League.  Las Vegas is just not a feasible long term option.  Furthermore, now that the Blue Jays have  returned to upstate New York, the Mets affiliate in Binghamton could be under siege by Toronto as well.  Prior to effectively being saved by the Mets via extending their PDC through 2014, rumors had it that the Binghamton B’s would be sold and relocated to Ottawa under the Blue Jays banner.  Fred Wilpon and the Mets have flirted with bringing a AA team to Long Island before.  In 2011, Adam Rubin highlighted a theoretical plan for the Mets to purchase Binghamton outright, and move them to a new faclity in Nassau County.  Unfortunately, the plan never really had a chance of succeeding.

Many argue that the Boston Red Sox were the ones who restarted the growing trend towards concentrating affiliates within one geographical region.  From Pawtucket, Rhode Island to Portland, Maine, the Red Sox and their affiliates dominate New England baseball.  The logistical benefits are obvious when travel, costs, expediency, and scouting (and a number of other factors) are all taken into account.  I suppose how feasible those locations are in relation to the rest of their respective circuits is another matter.

The Mets were closer to that objective last season than they are at the present.  Meanwhile, Mets fans who never adopted the Orioles still wander Norfolk aimlessly.

 

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