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Mets running on fumes
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
DIAMOND NOTES: June 3
"It may be just the opposite," replied his comrade. "This may be the last hurrah of the Mets."
After all, wasn't the idea last year to go for it all, period? Wasn't that Fred Wilpon's edict, to try to win back the city and try to get a respectable ballpark? Didn't ownership put Steve Phillips and Bobby Valentine on the last year of their contracts and OK the leasing of Mike Hampton?
It's easy now to say that Phillips' offseason inertia is a prime reason that the Mets are double-figure games behind the Phillies. But he is the one who flushed the farm system to get to a position to win the World Series and obtain Mike Piazza, Al Leiter, Hampton, Armando Benitez, Todd Zeile and Robin Ventura. He had no chance to re-sign Hampton because his families were not going to move to suburban New York even if they were given Don Imus' house. Juan Gonzalez was not going to move to New York. Bobby Jones had to have Andy Ashby money to play for the Mets, and didn't get his $660,000 contract from the Padres until February. Mets fans can scream "do something!" until they turn blue, but the fact remains that with the tragic death of Brian Cole and the injury to Jay Payton, the Mets farm system is picked clean with the exception of Alex Escobar.
Injuries to Leiter, Payton, Benny Agbayani and Edgardo Alfonzo have been damaging because of the lack of depth and the lack of production from the other veterans. Piazza slumped, although that is relative. While Ventura had been up around .300 and has eight homers, injuries have slowed him, and Zeile has as many homers as David Berg. "I don't know if it's fair to talk about our getting old," says Phillips. "I also don't like to use injuries as an excuse, but between injuries and guys not having good seasons, the combination has not been pretty."
A third of the way through the season, the Mets were second-to-last in the National League in runs and home runs, third-to-last in OPS. "I still argue that the offense has been the biggest problem," says Phillips. "If you compare last year and this season, we actually have more quality starts through the comparable number of games as we had last season. I'm optimistic that the pitching is going to work its way out."
Leiter has been nothing short of brilliant since his return, and the Mets hope Glendon Rusch gets straightened out and that Kevin Appier regains his historic consistency. "They found that Steve Trachsel was tipping his pitches, so hopefully we'll get him back doing what we anticipated," says Phillips, and there is still the belief that the bullpen -- especially Benitez -- will get better. Phillips can blame the offense, but the fact remains the staff has a 4.89 ERA, which means they went into their June 3 game in Florida outscored by 62 runs.
Phillips is presently in a difficult position. He doesn't know if Alfonzo is healthy and whether this team is going to start to play much better, thus making a run at the Braves and Phillies. "I'm not going to go out and start trading for now until I know where we are," says the infatigable GM. "But if anyone thinks I'm ready to start trading off players, they're mistaken."
But let's say the Mets are still 10 games under .500 at the All-Star break and it is evident that, indeed, last year was the last hurrah and they've aged too much. Whom can Phillips trade to start to rebuild, knowing the farm system isn't going to contribute for a few years?
"The player with the highest value is Benitez," says an AL GM. "After that? They're not going to trade Leiter or Rick Reed, so probably Robin Ventura has the next highest value. He fits Seattle very well. He's Pat Gillick's kind of player."
If the Mets head into August in quicksand, then Phillips will have to go back to work. But he did what he was required to do: put the Mets in position to win the World Series, at any cost, in 2000. They beat the Braves, they could not beat the Yankees. Now we will find out if there's enough left to keep going.
What Dombrowski learned is "to go outside of the organization at this point in the season is very difficult. You don't know if every club will give you permission to talk to one of their employees in the middle of a pennant race. A lot of qualified candidates aren't available."
Dombrowski also knows that he would have go through a hiring process in cooperation with the Commissioner's Office, something the Montreal Expos did not do when Jeffrey Loria replaced Felipe Alou with his friend Jeff Torborg.
"When we decided to make the change and called Tony (Perez, who was in Portland, Maine), he originally said that he had too many obligations involving the Hall of Fame that he couldn't get out of," says Dombrowski. "We hoped that once he started managing, he'd enjoy it so much that he'd want to stay, and that's exactly what happened."
Dombrowski makes no pretense that he knows the Marlins should be right in the race, somewhere between Philadelphia and Atlanta. "We may be ready to contend," he says. "We are very young, and we have to find out some more answers."
For now, Tony Muser is safe in Kansas City, Larry Dieker in Houston. The Royals are marketing Jermaine Dye and are willing to trade some veterans, and the Astros are looking to deal some of their power for starting pitching and/or a center fielder. Royals GM Allard Baird says, "If we have to go young again, as we apparently will, then in the big picture Tony is the right man to manage this team." Many in Houston believe Dierker would be gone if owner Drayton McLane didn't so hate paying someone not to work.
Seattle seems a logical match for Dye, but the injuries to Ryan Anderson and Gil Meche make a trade very difficult. Oakland has played erratically the last 10 days -- re-starting the Art Howe Watch -- but with Baird on the prowl for middle infield talent, Jose Ortiz would be a good starting point.
Meanwhile, the Orlando Hernandez injury has rekindled the David Wells-to-the-Yanks talk. With Boston interested, White Sox GM Ken Williams has the stakes raised, but the problem is that he wants a center fielder. The Yankees' top minor-league clubs are thin and the Red Sox have no middle field prospects, period. "The White Sox think they can get a ready major-league center fielder and a prospect," says one GM. "Ask the Mets. They wanted Escobar and a prospect for a guy who's 38 years old, has two ruptured vertebrae in his back and will cost $7.5 million the rest of the year if you don't pick up the option."
The Yankees continue to look for bullpen help, although they reportedly have cooled on Ugueth Urbina and haven't gotten anywhere with Pittsburgh on Mike Williams or Scott Sauerbeck (who may be a huge July target for all those teams looking for a left-handed reliever).
The Cardinals have been monitoring Wells, but GM Walt Jocketty says "we'll wait awhile to see what we do." They are not pleased with Andy Benes in the four-hole and would prefer using Mike Matthews in the bullpen. "We may look for a trade," says Jocketty, "or we may wait and see when Bud Smith is ready. He is close, but we don't think he's quite there yet."
Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar says he isn't close to moving any of his markdown veterans. "I think it will take getting closer to the trading deadline. I really wish they'd move the deadline back to the end of August," LaMar says. "Then clubs know whether they're in it, or whether they're not."
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