When Good Moves Go Bad
Author’s note: The original title was going to be “Holy @*%!, how does everything not only backfire, but implode so inexplicably?”.
The Mets (as of me starting this) are a somewhat bad 17-27 and into a rather difficult stretch, with their next seven games coming against the Braves and Yankees. They’ve underachieved (Ike Davis, Dillon Gee, and Ruben Tejada, I’m looking at you), and they’ve suffered some unfortunate injuries (Johan Santana and Matt Den Dekker, primarily). They’re semi-regularly running out Astros’ castoff Rick Ankiel. The rotation and bullpen have both underwhelmed, though both have shown reason for optimism of late.
Because of their struggles, a lot of flak (somewhat deservedly) has been thrown at General Manager (and golden retriever enthusiast) Sandy Alderson. He didn’t do enough to build depth in the rotation, and failed to address the outfield (Justin Upton and Michael Bourn rumors notwithstanding).
Claims are being made in social media and by bloggers/writers that Sandy Alderson has failed in the short term; he inherited a team that won 79 games and has posted win totals of 77 and 74 in the two years since. Without some luck, 2013 is on the path to continue the downward trend. Meanwhile, the Yankees are in first place thanks to the unlikely production of players like Vernon Wells, Brennan Boesch, Ichiro, and Travis Hafner. Is Brian Cashman just that much better at finding scrap heap talent?
Probably not. But that’s a discussion for another day, this article intends not to compare Sandy Alderson to anyone, but to take a look at some the moves he has made, and see whether or not they were actually bad decisions.
I hate these things, but it gets the point across rather well.
2012: Alderson signs Frank Francisco, trades for Ramon Ramirez
The 2012 bullpen was, in a word, terrible. Francisco and Ram-Ram were certainly a large part of that, contributing a combined 4.75 ERA in 106 innings that year. Ramirez was nontendered (and has since returned to San Francisco), Francisco is rehabbing what seems to be an endless string of elbow injuries.Neither of these players was a reclamation project, or a ‘buy low’ move. Both relievers had established track records of major league success, and were seen as multi-year acquisitions. Frank Frank was signed to a two-year deal for $12M, and Ramirez made $2.65M with another year of arbitration to follow. Francisco had a 3.54 ERA and averaged 52 appearances in the previous four years. Ramirez was even better, averaging 69 appearances and a 2.77 ERA. Francisco was injured much of 2012 and ineffective when he was on the mound – his ERA jumped a full 2 runs to 5.53 – and Ramirez, while healthy, was just plain bad. His ERA was 4.26, he posted career highs in WHIP and BB/9 alongside a career worst 7.4 K/9 – Alderson chose to nontender him after the season.
2012: Alderson trades Angel Pagan for Andres Torres and Ramirez (see above), doesn’t sign other outfielders
The 2012 outfield turned out to be pretty, pretty bad. Scott Hairston was the unit’s best contributor, posting 2.0 fWAR alongside a career high 20 dingers. But, looking back at the results, was it due to poor planning? After the Mets traded away fan-apparently-un-favorite Carlos Beltran in 2011, the unit lacked established contributors. Jason Bay was struggling, Angel Pagan was struggling, Lucas Duda was a slow-footed rookie first baseman playing out of position (Trivia: the New York Mets featured five  different current/one-time first basemen during Johan Santana’s no-hitter. Can you name them? Answer at the bottom.) It would make sense for the Mets to have signed someone, right? But not so fast.
One popular idea was to re-sign Beltran (wouldn’t that have annoyed San Francisco!), but would it have been worth it? Let’s look at the post-trade statistics:
Lucas Duda: .300/.383/.500, 8 HR in 207 PA
Carlos Beltran: .323/.369/.551, 7 HR in 179 PA
Jason Bay: .283/.362/.476, 6 HR in 188 PA
Bringing Beltran back would’ve been great (he hit 32 home runs with an .842 OPS in 2012), but at the time it was a move that made little sense. The Mets were currently employing two (at the time) productive corner outfielders in Duda and Bay, and couldn’t reasonably play Beltran in center. Moving Duda to first base, at the time (and still, arguably) wasn’t doable with Ike Davis slated to return. Signing a better center fielder could’ve been in play, but the market was thin (Endy Chavez was floated as a legitimate [if not legitimate] option that offseason). For what it’s worth, Jason Bay carried a respectable (if unspectacular) .776 OPS until breaking a rib in late April; Lucas Duda’s edged above .800 until June 22nd, after which a poor 20-game stretch led to his demotion to Buffalo.
2013: Alderson attempts to fix the outfield
Similarly, the outfield came up again this past offseason. Though a healthy debate surrounds the circumstances of the Michael Bourn non-signing and Justin Upton non-signing, it’s fair to say that both decisions were the better for the long term. Signing Bourn would’ve cost roughly 40% of the Mets’ draft pool (as well as their #1 pick), and the Diamondbacks seemed fixated on getting Zack Wheeler in exchange for Upton.
Much flak was also handed out for allowing Scott Hairston to walk, and for not attempting to sign Cody Ross. Reclamation project Marlon Byrd has been better than both, however, being good for 4 home runs and 0.9 fWAR over 114 plate appearances compared to Ross and Hairston’s combined 4 (1 and 3, respectively) home runs and -0.2 fWAR (0.5 and -0.7, respectively) in 173 plate appearances.
The “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach hasn’t been pretty, but it makes for meaningful research. Lucas Duda Collin Cowgill, Andrew Brown, Mike Baxter, Jordany Valdespin, Juan Lagares, Matt Den Dekker, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis are all under team control, and either pre-arbitration or will be arbitration-eligible for the first time. The responsible move is finding out which, if any, of these players can make a meaningful contribution at the major league level. (And, for what it’s worth, the outfield is improving. Their OPS in May through Monday’s game is 88 points higher than it was in April).
2013: Sandy Alderson fails to acquire quality pitching depth
August 29, 2012; Philadelphia, PA USA; New York Mets relief pitcher Frank Francisco (48) reacts after getting the final out in the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Mets defeated the Phillies, 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
The Mets bullpen has performed poorly, but much of the blame falls on homegrown lefties Josh Edgin and Robert Carson. Alderson’s five primary acquisitions: Greg Burke, Scott Atchison, Scott Rice, LaTroy Hawkins, and Brandon Lyon (the only guaranteed contract) have thrown 88.1 innings thus far with a 3.57 ERA (3.52 FIP).
The rotation has struggled, but it’s largely been the result of Johan Santana’s unfortunate re-injury. While fair to criticize Sandy for failing to acquire quality replacement depth, his options at that point were somewhat limited. He opted not to re-sign Chris Young (who currently sports a 7.26 ERA and 1.906 WHIP in AAA Syracuse), nor to trade for odd-man-out-at-the-time Chris Capuano whose 4.84 ERA is overshadowed by early health issues. Capuano’s contract ($6M with a $1M buyout) was also unwieldy given Zack Wheeler’s impending promotion. Aaron Laffey, making a pair of starts in place of the injured Shaun Marcum, provided laffable results (though the Mets did go 1-1 in those games). While Laffey is certainly no Sandy Koufax, his career numbers (4.45 career ERA, 1.520 WHIP) suggest a level of basic competence that, once again, failed to materialize on the Citi Field mound.It’s the cornflakes that really capture what I’m going for, but the video is much too fun to skip ahead. *if the video fails to show up, refreshing the page should fix it.
It’s easy to criticize Alderson’s regime for failing to make the proper moves or taking the proper risks, but to suggest that he hasn’t tried is short-sighted and unfair. Somewhat unorthodox methods in some cases, but it’s far from a stretch to say that had any of Alderson’s moves gone right, our discussions might be entirely different. On the same hand, let’s take a moment to note the decisions that have panned out: moving Daniel Murphy to second base, signing a 20-year-old Rafael Montero, getting potential aces in Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard (as well as blue chip catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud). Finding a 20-home-run season in Scott Hairston.
It’s fair to be upset at how the Reyes situation was handled, though letting him walk was far from an unreasonable baseball decision. Had “More Cowgill” not been too much, had the bullpen signings of 2012 not tried so hard to channel their inner Steve Blass, had Jason Bay not broken his ribs last April, had Johan Santana’s shoulder held up, Had Davis, Niese, Gee, and Tejada not regressed mightily, had Andres Torres not floundered at the plate, Citi Field would be a much different place. But don’t collect your pitchforks and torches because every single “low-risk” decision floundered and took a bit of us alon with it. Good decisions go wrong (see: Jason Bay signing), but for so many to do so in such a concentrated timeframe is extraordinary. Hold Sandy accountable – they’re his decisions – but recognize that what has happened hasn’t been the result of poor oversight, or a lack of activity, but by virtually every shrewd, collected baseball decision not only backfiring, but imploding so inexplicably.
Answer: Ike Davis (first base), Daniel Murphy (second base), Lucas Duda (right field), Josh Thole (catcher), and Mike Baxter (left field)
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