Early in the new millennium, the Mets farm system came to a grinding halt after almost forty years of effective output. Once the Mets stopped dabbling in familiar but aged stars, and began to develop talent in earnest during the mid to late 1960’s, the Mets minor league system remained vibrant and productive all the way through, and right up until Steve Phillips’ days as general manager.
Our backdrop for reference is ten years ago. Fred Wilpon was fresh off cutting Nelson Doubleday a check for his half of the team. He fired Steve Phillips, and had no interest in drafting, but more to the point, overpaying for bonus babies. Ownership would become enamored with Commissioner Selig’s recommended slotting system for drafted players. So naturally, talent levels declined. With ownership’s rearranged priorities and the construction of Citi Field looming ahead, the farm effectively turned into a dust bowl for six or so years until several of Omar Minaya’s draft picks finally made the big club.
April 11, 2011; Flushing, NY, USA; New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson before the game against the Colorado Rockies at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: John Munson/The Star-Ledger via USA TODAY Sports
Omar gets credit for at least getting the system operational again. What should not go under-spoken however, is Omar’s destructive staffing snafu involving Tony Bernazard, and what took place at AA-Binghamton. Otherwise, the organizational approach between Jose Reyes’ and David Wright’s rookie seasons and Omar’s graduated class, can be described as neglectful. Additionally, Ken Oberkfell, hired by Phillips, had his fingerprints all over the system for a decade. In my view he was a constant variable in an increasingly floundering operation. So when Sandy Alderson came on board and gave him a taste of big league coaching, it struck me as no surprise Alderson ultimately purged him from the organization with haste.
Today, a recently broken front office is now arguably headed by an embarrassment of riches. Please, don’t let me wax too poetically over these guys or engage in hyperbole. But when you compare overall front offices around both leagues, it is my opinion Sandy Alderson, J.P. Ricciardi, and Paul DePodesta, all working in one (front) office gives the Mets a very deep and diverse baseball administration. I still have my doubts as to whether Sandy Alderson will stay with the organization beyond his current contract. His deal runs through 2014, with a club option for the 2015 season. That is another discussion.
Sandy Alderson’s manipulation of the Flushing product has been a mixed bag of results, filled with half truths, poignant jokes, and sometimes cloaked in ulterior motives. By ulterior motives, I mean Sandy Alderson has engaged in Wilpon protectionism at times that flew in the face of better baseball sense. But it shouldn’t get lost on us that he is tasked with striking a precarious balance between team building and helping the Wilpons negotiate out of troubled waters. And so you won’t hear me complain much about the 2013 season, or about the big club in general, yet. For I do believe the Mets are indeed a rebuilding club, no matter how much a dirty word the organization considers that to be. I will continue to treat them in that regard until the 2014 season. Most of all, I want to see this get done correctly, as do all Mets fans.
That’s why in order to fully appreciate Sandy Alderson’s contribution to the Mets, fans should be mindful, and take into account the transformation taking place in the minor leagues. Behind the scenes, GM Sandy Alderson and his lieutenant Paul DePodesta are in the process of reviving a once thriving minor league system as I alluded to earlier. In more popularly known moves, Alderson smartly infused the system with several highly touted prospects through a pair of savvy trades. And after two seasons on the job, Alderson also assembled a pitching pool at the A-levels of the system, rich in both quantity and potential quality. But in lesser discussed issues, Alderson has also enjoyed a measure of success in easing the Wilpons off their position regarding slotting. Secondly, when Omar was narrowing in on the dream season, the acquisition of Billy Wagner left the Mets without a 2006 #1 draft pick, and the acquisition of Moises Alou cost the Mets a 2007 #1 draft pick. His lone #1 draft pick in 2005 was used to select Mike Pelfrey. Point is, I also support Sandy Alderson’s hands off policy regarding the organization’s 2013 June amateur draft pick, which will be the 11th selection overall. These kinds of moves are not designed to translate at the Citi Field level just yet. But these are precisely the types of minor adjustments necessary to expedite improvement.
As part of the organizational overhaul, the system is also in the process of establishing a new stability under GM Sandy Alderson. The first item of note is in fact, his hiring of Paul DePodesta. He arguably should be a general manager for some other team. So may I ask if that makes DePodesta an over qualified overseer of the Mets minor league operation? His presence is a good situation. Paul DePodesta and Sandy Alderson understand stability will ultimately come through continuity. That is what they sought to achieve heading into the 2013 baseball season.
In Savannah, the Sand Gnats will be managed by Luis Rojas. He, pitching coach Frank Viola, and coach Joel Fuentes, will return for a second consecutive season together. Rojas has been working in the Mets low A-levels since 2004, and Fuentes is in his seventh season. Frank Viola started working for the Mets in 2011 with the Brooklyn Cyclones.
In Florida, the St. Lucie Mets will similarly be piloted by Ryan Ellis, who will return with his staff intact for the 2013 season. This will be Ryan’s third season piloting a Mets ball club and second in St. Lucie. Rejoining Ellis will be pitching coach Phil Regan who has four years in St. Lucie, and hitting coach Benny Distefano, who has been in the system three years.
The Brooklyn Cyclones and Kingsport Mets are lower Class-A and rookie levels respectively. And as is the case for players, these teams also serve to give aspiring coaches and managers their start, and an opportunity to gain experience. Starting out at this level is called paying your dues. And so the manager and coach turnover rate is normally a yearly occurrence.
In Binghamton, Pedro Lopez will return to manage the B-Mets for a second season. Continuing the trend set in the lower levels, Pedro’s staff will likewise remain in tact, and return for another campaign. The condition in AA-Binghamton has long been a dilemma. It is widely agreed, if a player can succeed at this level, the major leagues are not far off. That said, the Bee’s have not won an Eastern League championship since the 1994 season. Since they last went to the playoffs in 2004 under Ken Oberkfell, they have been through six managers until Pedro Lopez took over. During that time, they stumbled to three fifth place finishes, and three sixth place finishes. This suggests the Mets have not been able to stock the B-Mets with abundant quality. Historically, this is where Mets lower level prospects generally start to look for real jobs. Therefore, here at AA lies Sandy Alderson’s and Paul DePodesta’s greatest test of their developmental acumen. They need to identify more players who can break through the wall.
Under Tim Teufel who managed Binghamton in 2010, and Wally Backman in 2011, the process seemingly has been started. Both also managed in Brooklyn. Several of the players they piloted at both levels are current Mets today. And so both men have been retained and promoted within the system. While Teufel serves as third base coach on the big club, Wally Backman is yet another of the organization’s field bosses returning for a second season, in Wally’s case managing their AAA Las Vegas affiliate. Although Wally Backman’s opportunities to work elsewhere might have been limited, he was welcomed back by the Mets several years ago, and not incidentally developed quite a cult following since. If Terry Collins is not extended, it is widely speculated by fans Wally Backman will be the next manager of the New York Mets. Mets fans also widely speculate J.P. Ricciardi will be the next club GM as well. Both scenarios remain to be seen.
I do know this, there used to exist a disconnect between the Mets lower levels and their AAA affiliate. Who could forget how Buffalo bickered with Omar Minaya in 2009 and 2010 over the lack of talent they were being dealt? That was because the land bridge at Binghamton was out. With all four managers of the Mets top four affiliates returning with their staffs in tact, I think through this grass roots effort, the Mets are well on their way towards re-establishing stability, and continuity. The singular organizational philosophy can now resonate throughout the system, and perhaps reconnect this operation from top to bottom again.