Team Now Faces Plenty of Offseason Questions

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The New York Sun

For the second year in a row, the Mets have suffered elimination on the final day of the regular season. These consecutively aborted grasps at destiny recall lines from the Bob Dylan canon: “Tonight you got the power to take it, tomorrow you won’t have the power to keep it. … I see the turning of the page, curtain rising on a new age, see the groom still waiting at the altar.”

The groom, that is, the pennant, has indeed been left waiting — incomplete and unconsummated. The Mets now go into another offseason hoping that the jilted suitor will again wait. With important players heading into their free agent years and important weaknesses on the team going unaddressed — particularly at the trading deadline, and some in fact created last offseason by self-inflicted, counterproductive moves — the Mets will need a canny, astute general manager supervising the club’s offseason transactions. It’s not clear that they have that man in place, even as they reportedly prepare to give Omar Minaya a four-year contract extension.

The Mets do not require a major rebuild, not so long as they retain their great offensive core of shortstop Jose Reyes, third baseman David Wright, and center fielder Carlos Beltran. Yet these players are clearly not enough, even with Johan Santana, and Minaya has struggled to fill out the team around them, uncritically relying on aged veterans. Two positions were emblematic, left field and second base. In left, Minaya was rescued from the predictable breakdown of Moises Alou by the completion of double Hail Mary passes, first the hot start by 33-year-old scrap-heaper Fernando Tatis, then by the platoon of Double-A call-ups Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans. Yet the position was not an overall positive for the Mets, as roughly a quarter of the left field at bats were given to Endy Chavez, Marlon Anderson, and others before the July emergence of Tatis and the August debut of Murphy.

The decision to sign second baseman Luis Castillo to a four-year contract last November embodies Minaya’s lack of discernment, underscoring why this offseason could be so dangerous for the Mets with him in charge. If Minaya did not have the good judgment to see that sticking his team with the age-32-through-35 seasons of an injury-prone singles hitter was a bad idea, then it calls into question his ability to evaluate far more vexing questions, including, but not limited to:

o How do the Mets rebuild their troublesome bullpen, which will lack closer Billy Wagner, without falling into the trap of spending money on “names,” despite ample evidence that only a very few relievers provide consistent value from season to season?

o Should Carlos Delgado’s option be picked up based on a dominant half-season which followed a year and a half of slugging hitting and worse fielding? If not, who will replace him? And what if he reverts to his 2006/first-half-2007 levels at age 37?

o Ryan Church was quite productive before post-concussive syndrome shelved him for almost two months. When he returned in August, he became part of the problem, hitting .227 AVG/.315 OBA/.318 SLG with two home runs and playing through additional injuries. Should he be counted on as a regular last season? If not, can Tatis come back from a separated shoulder and do it again at age 34?

o How aggressively should the Mets try to bring back erratic free-agent-to-be Oliver Perez? If he does not return, how do the Mets best replace the 53 starts given to Perez and the departing Pedro Martinez? Can John Maine come back healthy and perform over a full season? Are they ready to trust Jon Niese? Will they be players for CC Sabathia, potentially picking up their second big-ticket lefty in a year?

o Do the Mets continue the Murphy-Evans platoon next season? Murphy’s minor league statistics suggest he is not the .300 hitter he appeared to be in the majors. If he regresses, what is the fallback position?

None of these questions are easily answered. Bullpen construction is a particularly difficult nut to crack for even the most adroit general manager, with a high degree of luck and the cooperation of a perceptive manager required to construct a good unit. Delgado represents a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem, one complicated by the possibility that 22-year-old first baseman Mike Carp (.299/.403/.471 at Double-A) may be ready to contribute at some point next year, though as a Double-A repeater, his numbers are somewhat suspect — adding yet another facet to a difficult decision.

One decision has apparently already been made, that being the status of manager Jerry Manuel, who is expected to return. Yet the identity of the manager pales in significance next to the roster decisions that must be made. What is clear is that Minaya’s policy of adding depth through the old was a failure, and his decision to sign some of these players (Chavez, Anderson, and Castillo) to multiyear contracts was misguided, as at best they will have to be paid off and at worst will hang around another year, soaking up at bats. In 2008, the Mets were lucky to contend until the final day, given their many problems. With a good winter, the Mets will have a strong chance of putting two years of disappointment behind them, but that may be expecting too much of their GM.

Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for and is the author of “Forging Genius,” a biography of Casey Stengel.

The New York Sun

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