The Tenth Inning – Week 19

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The Tenth Inning – Week 19 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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The time has finally arrived. I have been dreading this day since early May, and after the events of the last week and a half, it is extremely clear that what many have considered a foregone conclusion is now virtually official. And so, after abstaining from writing on this subject for nearly five full months, I come to acknowledge what any other baseball fan – casual or obsessed – already knows.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2009 New York Mets will not make the playoffs.

I continued to hold out hope that somehow, this team would find a way to do to the Phillies what they have done to the Mets the last two years. Every time the Mets looked done, they would win a couple games, revive some hope, and close the gap just a little bit, especially as the Phillies always seemed to falter at the exact same time. Three different things happened between Thursday, August 6 and Sunday, August 16 that quickly squashed any falsely held belief in a comeback.

First, the Mets set out on a seven game road trip to the two worst teams in the National League not named the Washington Nationals. They promptly watched their All-Star closer, whom they signed as a free agent specifically because of the number of blown saved in ’08, blow two games as they dropped three of four to San Diego. Sure, those losses are not entirely the fault of Francisco Rodriguez, but when your team is trying to feverishly stay in the race and is basically playing every game on life support with an offense more anemic than the Olsen twins, those are games that have to be closed out. Instead, the Mets headed off to Arizona needing a sweep to even maintain any hope, and promptly lost the first two there as well before finally managing to salvage a win in the finale. The end result of the trip: 2-5 and a loss of three games in the standings to the Phillies. Speaking of them…

After nearly three months of seemingly waiting for the Mets to make a charge just to squash their playoffs hopes for the third straight season, the Phillies finally decided to end the charade and start playing real baseball. On a huge six-game swing through Chicago and Atlanta, the Phillies promptly went 5-1, sweeping the Cubs in Wrigley and finishing the trip one blow save from Brad Lidge on Saturday shy of also putting the broom to the Braves at Turner Field. While that final comment doesn’t serve the Phils well in the least heading into the playoffs (some would even question whether they’ll get there, though I don’t see Florida or Atlanta having enough juice to catch them), that is a different topic for a different time. The biggest thing over the past ten days is watching the Phillies pick up four games on the Mets during a decidedly more difficult stretch of the schedule. Memo to New York: If you want to stay in the race, you have to actually win games.

Even with those two aspects firmly implanted in my mind, and knowing full well that the Mets would be my “Dead List” team this week, it took one Matt Cain fastball to finally convince me to start caring about Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan more than K-Rod and Omar Minaya (more on him later). Saturday afternoon officially ended the season for the Mets when David Wright, the lone remaining impact position player left on the field, went down for possibly the remainder of the season after getting hit in the head with Cain’s pitch. If I am Wright or the Mets, then there’s no way that he plays again this season. The year is over, allow Daniel Murphy or someone else from Buffalo or Binghamton to get some reps at the major league level and be ready to go for 2010. After watching the issues former Met Ryan Church went through last year trying to come back from a concussion, the best bet is to stay off the field as long as possible, especially with the season out of reach.

The year can be chalked up to injuries, sure, but that’s not the only problem. As a caveat, I am clearly not a major league ballplayer, but I did spend nearly two decades playing ice hockey at an extremely high level. I know injuries, both severe and minor, and I know the delicate balance of recovering from one during a season when it’s important to the team to be back on the field. That said, I find it extremely disturbing that out of the four major players who are currently on the DL (Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran), it’s the first two, who suffered more serious injuries requiring surgery, that are the closest to come back. I’m going to stop short of saying anything truly negative about the latter two, but the question should at least be broached as to the durability and resilience of both Reyes and Beltran, and their desire and determination to win, given the circumstances of the team during their absences.

More importantly, this season clearly exemplifies why this needs to be the final season for Omar Minaya as General Manager. Again, injuries derailed the season, and when a team suffers as many as the Mets did, especially the long-term ones, there’s really no way to perform at the same level. Also, there really haven’t been many issues with the trades or free agent signings that Minaya has made, with the unloading of Health Bell as the one real blotch on the record. Dealing Lastings Milledge for Brian Schneider and Ryan Church looks like a genius move in hindsight, and the recent swap of Church for Francoeur seems good as well. Acquiring Santana was a must last season, and none of the four players given up in exchange have become impact players for the Twins. I have no qualms with dealing for J.J. Putz, Paul LoDuca, or Delgado, signing K-Rod, Wagner, Beltran, or even Perez, and even the under-the-radar signings and deals, like trading for John Maine or signing Alex Cora, Angel Pagan, Livan Hernandez, or Fernando Tatis, have been fairly beneficial.

My problem lies in the development of the farm system. Wright and Reyes were already ingrained as starters when Minaya took over, but the following is a list of players that the Mets have brought to the big leagues for the first time while Omar was acting GM: Mike Pelfrey, Carlos Gomez (Min), Bobby Parnell, Aaron Heilman (ChiC), Jonathan Niese, Daniel Murphy, Lastings Milledge (Pit), Philip Humber (Min), Nick Evans, Heath Bell (SD), Matt Lindstrom (Fla), and Fernando Martinez, just to name some that have become more well-known. With the lone exception of the final player, Martinez, every one of the other players was drafted by someone other than Minaya. He simply has not done enough to restock the farm system to go along with his mostly solid free agent signings and trades. Had he done so, there would have been 22- and 23-year-old options playing in Binghamton and Buffalo that could have been options to replace some of the injured players. In today’s game, nearly every successful team not named the Yankees or Red Sox have done so by developing their own stars from within, just as all three NL division leaders – Phillies, Cardinals, and Dodgers – have done, and then supplementing that homegrown talent with select free agents and smart trades. Even the two payroll hogs have had more success when they have relied on their own farm system as opposed to signing big-name talent, so that’s clearly the path that teams need to take in order to win.

With that as the backdrop, I think it’s time for the Wilpons to begin looking for a replacement for Omar Minaya as the team’s General Manager. The Mets window of opportunity is not nearly closed, and with both Wagner and Delgado free to leave after the season, this team will have a good amount of financial flexibility. The temptation will be to seek out some more free agents as solutions, possibly Matt Holliday, Cliff Lee, or someone with a similar pedigree. Losing Delgado will certainly create a void in the lineup that the GM – whoever it is – will have to fill. My hope, though, is that the Mets begin to follow the blueprint set forth by successful franchises like Minnesota, Florida, Philadelphia, the Dodgers, and the like, where they begin to develop more homegrown talent that can supplement the core of Wright, Reyes, and Beltran in the lineup and join a rotation headed by Santana to create a team that more closely resembles 2000 or 2006, as opposed to 2007, 2008, and especially, 2009.

Trivia Question
The Mets not only will not make the postseason, but they also will not finish above .500 for the first time since 2004, snapping a four year streak of finishing at least .500. They are currently, however, one of only five teams that have finished at least .500 in each of the last four seasons. Who are the other four teams?

Last week’s answer: Those trying to find two active players on both Marlins championship teams were given an impossible task. Only one active player was on both teams – Luis Castillo. Two retired players were on both teams however, as Jeff Conine and Rick Helling both received rings as members of the 1997 and 2003 Marlins.

2009 Playoff “Dead List”
May 25 – Washington Nationals
June 1 – Colorado Rockies
June 8 – Baltimore Orioles
June 15 – Arizona Diamondbacks
June 22 – Kansas City Royals
June 29 – Cleveland Indians
July 6 – Oakland Athletics
July 15 – San Diego Padres
July 27 – Pittsburgh Pirates
August 3 – Cincinnati Reds
August 10 – Toronto Blue Jays
August 17 – New York Mets
I waited as long as I could, but the miraculous turnaround isn’t happening. The only downside to me finally putting the Mets on this list is it now starts the clock on Minnesota, Houston, Milwaukee, and Seattle. You’ve all been warned.

This week, watch for…
1) Dodgers host Central duo (vs STL, 8/17-19; vs CHC, 8/20-23)
2) AL East round four (NYY @ BOS, 8/21-23)
3) Wild Card weekend showdowns (SF @ COL; TEX @ TB)

Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper

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