By Jason Keidel
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The last few nights notwithstanding, the New York Metropolitans have made the cognoscenti gobble some humble cobbler. And I volunteer to take the first bite in front the Big Apple’s biggest surprise.
Like most of you, I reflexively put the Mets down for 70 wins. Why not? Jon Heyman said the Mets would finish north of the Vegas money line (72), but I thought he was merely appeasing the fan base, putting a bright face on a baleful franchise.
If I told you that the Mets would lose Jose Reyes, his replacements would hit .185 and .217, respectively, Ike Davis would dwell well below the Mendoza line, Jason Bay would still bat a brutal .240 (when not on the DL), Mike Pelfrey would miss the season, and the team’s closer was about as stable as Octomom, who wouldn’t have penciled them for 65 wins?
The Mets were faced with scandal off the field and squalor on the diamond. Making things more laughable, their answer was to hire two lifers who hadn’t done their jobs in a decade. Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins last performed their current gigs during the Clinton administration, not since “Thong Song” was all the rage.
Each man was charged with running a roster stuffed with players a third their age. And Alderson’s first task was the ever-popular payroll purge, shipping Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez. For an encore, he didn’t even make a formal contract offer to the team’s most beloved and talented player (Reyes), who just happened to win the NL batting title on his way out.
As part of Alderson’s new paradigm, the Mets (20-17) were proud to put nine players on the field spawned by their farm system. Normally, that’s a small-market euphemism for frugality, the baseball equivalent of a Piscataway produce sign stating: “Nothing Beats a Jersey Tomato!”
But after watching Reyes walk without so much as a slap on the rump juxtaposed with the Mets’ recent desire to talk contract extension with David Wright, I wondered if Alderson knew something we didn’t. Are the Mets in fact better without Jose Reyes?
It sounds like a stupid question – and perhaps it is – but someone needs to tell me why Wright is a priority and Reyes wasn’t. And don’t tell me you knew that Wright would morph into Stan Musial to start the season. The fact that Wright is hitting over .400 and Reyes is closer to .250 is an accident.
Some propagandist – perhaps Reyes’s agent – led us to believe that it would take at least $160 million to sign the splendid shortstop, who just put a bow on his best season at the best time. Then the Marlins sailed in and signed Reyes for $50 million less.
Or maybe the Alderson – who’s myriad job functions included selling you a low-rent product in a high-rent district – used that imaginary number as a pretext to duck the negotiating table. Maybe Alderson really wanted Reyes but was handcuffed by your beloved Wilpons. Or Maybe Alderson just didn’t want Reyes.
No matter the answer, it seems to be working. And I can’t explain it.
The central irony of the Mets’ surprising success is that they’re winning with Omar Minaya’s players. Minaya, who was accused of letting his farm system rot, allowing his farm czar (Tony Bernazard) to challenge an entire club to a cage match, overpaying players, and signing only Hispanics. But based on the startlingly good production from the new, no-name Mets, Minaya turned out to be a bit smarter than most of us thought. (Unfortunately, he also gave Ollie Perez $36 million, which would have doomed Branch Rickey, much less Omar Minaya.)
But Alderson and Collins showed courage by walking in lockstep along the company line. No one would take Bay’s contract and, when healthy, Johan Santana is actually worth his most of his salary. So Alderson got rid of the rest while resisting the impulse to replace their pricey waste.
The Mets’ payroll (around $93 million) is right in the middle among MLB teams. And they are just one game behind my Yankees, who spend $100 million more. Sure, the Yanks are far more likely to make the playoffs, but just for the purposes of this piece, the Mets have performed something of a miracle.
Mets fans won’t give the Wilpons credit for the surprising start. Nor should they, as ownership dug the very hole that Alderson is trying to fill. Perhaps they were just accidentally brilliant in picking Alderson and Collins (unless you believe Bud Selig mandated the former Marine’s hiring).
Either way, nothing speaks louder than success, particularly when everyone picks you to finish last. Frankly, I regarded Alderson and Collins as regurgitated, geriatric company men whose time had long passed – Alderson with the Bash Brothers and Collins…well, he never really won anything, anywhere, so he’d surely bomb New York City. They were two mummies exhumed for the purpose of putting a more competent (if not corporate) face on a crumbling ball club.
I was wrong. Mike Francesa said the crowd at his recent breakfast gave Collins a standing ovation. If it’s not too late, I’ll join them.
No one expects the Mets to win 90 games, but it’s now reasonable to think they will finish closer to 90 than 70. And the two unlikeliest shamans of a formerly shameful team deserve all the credit for the revival.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.firstname.lastname@example.org