Monday, November 15, 2004

A Recipe for Met Success: Sammy Sosa, and More Than a Few Grains of Salt

On the table: the Mets acquiring Sammy Sosa from the Cubs for Cliff Floyd and/or Mike Piazza, plus a bag of cash. All of Mets Township is up in arms about Omar Minaya's interest in getting Sosa, as well as Mike Lupica's suggestion that the Mets might not be so crazy to try. It'd be easy to bash Sosa and the potential trade in this space and fall in line with the legions of sane fans doing just that. I'll try to take the road less traveled by and see if it makes any difference.

Lupica's suggestion of "What could it hurt?" has been rejected, mocked, and scorned by knowledgeable people who point out Sammy Sosa's deterioration in hitting (an OPS free-fall, as Kaley points out), fielding (a flashback of the 2003 Mets Lupus-like OF), health (a huge concern for the Mets these days for obvious reasons), standing in MLB (the cork-popping to celebrate his acquisition would be rife with irony), and general appeal to the community. Most have balked at his huge price tag, his slipping offensive numbers, and the fact that he seems to have gone from beloved hero to beleaguered zero five short seasons. I'll contest each of these points in brief, even if I have to grit my teeth to do it.

What the respective GM's are talking about now would be a waiving of the extended, overpaid, automatically-kicked-in option years that make reading Sosa's contract like watching Faces of Death. As currently written, any trade would exercise 2006 and 2007 years of 18 and 19 million dollars, respectively. A cool 9 mill would buy them out, of course. Skiddit. Sosa and his agent are asking the union to let him waive this part of the contract, meaning the Mets would only get him/be stuck with him for one year, albeit at an inflated price. In addition, the Cubs supposedly want him out so much that they might send some cash -- or take on a bad Met contract -- in exchange. And this all makes it a far less bitter pill to swallow than most folks originally thought. The agony of Mo Vaughn (typing that name always results in tremble-caused typos) was so much worse because there were essentially two lost seasons at $17.1M apiece. No matter how bad Sammy's production tanks, it's but one season -- or less, if they deal him at the deadline (absorbing some/all of his salary for a key prospect, of course). So the price wouldn't be as bad as feared, and the damage wouldn't be long-term in a worst-case scenario. And in a better-than-worst-case scenario, he's slugging balls out of Shea with a frequency we haven't seen much lately, except off the bat of Pat Burrell and other visitors.

Then, of course, there's the notion that he's a prima donna crybaby who threatens the harmony of any clubhouse. Flash back (scroll down a ways) to the clubhouse that was the 2004 Mets: a manager who lost the team through emotionless bumbling, a corps of veterans whose apparent big contribution was forcing management to trade away the best prospect they had for a dinged-up wild thing, and a general malaise which settled over the team. Flash back further to the 1999-2000 Mets, a club that not only contended, but went to the World Series. These guys included the likes of Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonilla, Armando Benitez, Dennis Cook, Derek Bell, and Rey Ordonez, guys who at one time or another were better known for their whining, griping, and self-absorption than their play. At the same time, these clubs were stabilized by Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, Orel Hershiser, Robin Ventura (who'd lived off his infamy of charging and getting whipped by Nolan Ryan a decade prior), and yes, Al Leiter and John Franco.

Flash further back to 1986, when the team employed S.O.B.'s like pompous Ray Knight, drug trialed Keith Hernandez, surly George Foster, moody Darryl Strawberry, and other seemingly cancerous personalities. The franchise seems to function better when the roster isn't filled with humanitarian award candidates. Meanwhile, over the last couple of years there have been plenty of likeable personalities but few likeable results. Going after bad seeds isn't a recipe for success, but (a) nor is hiring only choirboys, and (b) maybe it'll shake things up. After the Orioles were destroyed by the Albert Belle Disaster (O's fans scoff at Mo Vaughn tales of woe), Peter Angelos and his revolving door of execs played scared for several years, shying away from big contracts, players with injury histories, and abrasive personalities. That approach has provided them a series of 60- and 70-win seasons with a slew of low-to-mid-grade talents like Pat Hentgen, Marty Cordova and David Segui that, ironically, have spent most of their time on the DL. When they finally started taking chances again last winter, they saw improvement. Look for more of the same from them this winter.

Getting over Mo Vaughn, like recovering from any bad relationship, takes time. But I sense from Omar Minaya that the hesitation about big contracts and long-term deals is fading away with the bad memories of Big Mo. The Mets have the money -- this new cable deal, while it doesn't put them in Steinbrenner territory, is more evidence that the Mets are one of the elite, and they can start competing with the big boys whenever they want. All it takes is some shrewd decision-makers (it's not yet been proven any wear the royal blue and orange) and any of the anatomical entities that represent courage (spine, guts, sack, what have you). Sammy Sosa in a Mets' uni has an upside -- a big one. Sure, the Dominicans in the 5 boroughs (the same ones who were overlooked whilst pseudo-courting Vlad Guerrero, which is Exhibit A of the trigger-shy past) will come out in droves, but so will the rest of the fans. Read the tomes of blogwork out there. Fans are just begging to come out to the park with a reason to believe. And Sosa, despite the baggage he's created for himself in recent years, is one good reason.

Reason #2 -- the signing of Al Leiter. Sure, a 39-year-old pitcher who threw 5 2/3 innings per appearance last year and tired down the stretch like a miler in a marathon is not worth $7 million guaranteed. No way, no how. Unless he's a heart and soul of the team kind of guy who, despite some rumor mill miscues, provides veteran leadership and good PR to an organization lacking it entirely. You know how the Red Sox are so thick in positive image they can afford the hit of letting clubhouse guys go? Then there are the Mets. They have to sever ties with Johnny Franco, and whether or not he lugs that shell of his former self onto the mound elsewhere this season, you still have to hope he'll come back and coach the 'pen someday. Meanwhile, Al Leiter can remain as the icon, the local guy who finishes his career out with the Mets, and then slides right into the booth with Fran Healy and Keith Hernandez. We all heard him blow away Tim McCarver and Joe Buck in the ALCS; if he's not running for NJ state Senate, he should be behind the mic at the new station. You hate to make moves merely because of the crosstown rivals, for sure, but the alternative of having Leiter defect to the Yankees, give them a morale boost and a lefty arm, then roll into a job with the crappy YES team would be horrible. And since it's only a difference of a few million bucks, and you're the New York Friggin' Mets, you sign him.

Bringing back Leiter will mean more when another veteran presence, Mike Piazza, is absent. Piazza should be on his way to the AL straightaway; the impact of losing one of baseball's good guys, and a player who's done nothing but give his all to this franchise since he's been here, is lessened by the fact that he's been MIA for so much of the past two years. Plus, when he's been there, it's been painful to watch his defensive discomfort no matter where he plays. For his sake, trade him somewhere that he can DH and thrive, and wish him well.

And finally, since I'm offering all of the solutions here, go after two more big names. Wait out the Boras BS, and be there when serious deals get inked. Don't be the A-Rod Rangers, but be the Vlad Angels or the Tejada O's. Pay a little more than market value without embarrassing yourself. Pursue Delgado and Pavano, or Beltran and Clement, or, if you have to (please no), Pedro and Magglio. Don't pursue Cabrera; consider your assets assets and not trade bait. Keep young, cheap talents in house. Trade at the deadline if you're in contention, but right now be a free agent grabber. Mostly, learn from the mistakes of the past, and that past includes the gun-shy, timid approach of the last two seasons, not just the overspending, underscouting mistakes of the years prior. Keep in mind that an awful lot of bad luck has accompanied the idiocy of the Mets of 2002-2004, so roll some dice and be a player. Boy, am I tired of the fact that every criticism of the economics of baseball needs to be asterisked with the acknowledgement that the New York Mets are the exception to the rule that money buys championship teams. The Mets are among the privileged; let's take some benefits along with the stigma.

Okay, that's enough. I can't go on for much longer pretending I don't abhor Sammy Sosa and the faux-cuddly image that belies an increasingly obvious total bastard. [Wow, that manifested itself pretty nastily once I let it out.] I don't believe in Omar Minaya making a blockbuster deal just "to make a big splash," but I believe in making wholesale changes to a 71-91 team, dumping the chaff in one fell swoop, and taking calculated risks that might irritate now and gratify later, rather than something that's a slow seep from mildly appeasing to mildly displeasing. I'm still not sure if I can truly get behind this Sosa deal, but doesn't it sound like I can talk myself into yet another Met decision once it happens? I'm such a sad sucker.

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