|ESPN.com | Baseball Index | Peter Gammons Bio|
No easy solutions for Mets
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
The Mets have become "Jaws 2003," with the sharks circling the blood trailing Steve Phillips, Mo Vaughn, Roger Cedeno, Armando Benitez and all those deemed responsible for the unseemly $120-million mess on the other side of the tracks from Yankee Stadium.
Every New York paper has begun a Phillips watch, and while owner Fred Wilpon tried to break up the wake on Friday by going on the "Mike and The Mad Dog" radio program to deny any imminent firing, the messages from Wilpon's son, Jeff, have made it clear who will be made responsible if there is not a miraculous turnaround.
And Phillips knows it. He resolutely stayed on the road trip to St. Louis and Milwaukee, standing up to the questions, trying to work the phones to make a couple of deals that would shuffle the deck. He has told other general managers that the writing has been on the wall for months. Last winter, when the Wilpons wanted a projected salary list, they approached assistant general manager Jim Duquette to prepare such a study, and when Duquette went out on his normal duties to watch Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Binghamton, each time Jeff Wilpon went in and joined him, which puts a loyal Phillips hiring in an uncomfortable position.
But changing the mix won't be easy. The only teams that thus far have expressed interest in Benitez have been the Red Sox and Cardinals. And not only does St. Louis not have the money, but Jason Isringhausen could be ready to return soon. That Benitez needs a change seems obvious; his unhappiness and need for appreciation boiled over in St. Louis when his insistence on an open locker next to his forced Tom Glavine -- a potential Hall of Famer -- to have to change his locker to accommodate the reliever. The booing is nonstop, and it's gotten so old that on BlownSaves.com the "Trade Benitez" T-shirts are marked down from $18 to $12. The problem is that Phillips would like a closer in return, something Boston doesn't exactly have to trade, and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein seems reluctant to move Shea Hillenbrand or Freddy Sanchez for a Tier II closer who can be a free agent at the end of the season.
In time, the Mets will see if there is trading deadline interest in Roberto Alomar and perhaps Jeromy Burnitz, but on the immediate horizon they must see what there is to be done about catcher and first base, where Mike Piazza and Vaughn have combined for 11 errors. Mo's 8-5-3 assist-to-error-to-homer ratio isn't exactly Snow-esque, and now he has taken his cranky knees to the disabled list. This weekend, the word was put out that if an American League team -- Baltimore, Tampa Bay, forget Mo's four teams to whom he can be traded (which doesn't include the Orioles or Rays) -- was interested in him as a DH, the Mets would be willing to pay his remaining $30 million. That would allow them to look at Piazza at first base and allow Vance Wilson and Jason Phillips to catch.
Phillips' greatest failure may have been to hire a Bill Lajoie, Gene Michael or Jerry Walker, a strong baseball voice to lean on, especially after Dave Wallace and Omar Minaya departed. There have been some poor judgments (Cedeno in center field?). He's been under a great deal of spin-doctor pressure, with the Yankees staring down at Shea Stadium, and he may not have had the internal support to ignore the talk show and back-page pressures and ignore the pressure to go get "names" like Vaughn, Burnitz and Alomar.
But while Phillips is hardly the only one deserving of all the blame, he is the easiest to put in the public stocks or offer as a human sacrifice. Shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Aaron Heilman and Pat Strange will play for the 2004 Mets, but even with cash freed, there are a lot of holes that need to be plugged. They may be able to move Benitez, Burnitz and Alomar, but the market is different than it was two years ago, and in almost every veteran-for-prospect deal last season the team getting a prospect had to pick up considerable chunks of the veteran's salary to fray the cost of minimum salary players.
Whatever the Wilpons decide, they cannot be tied to records for home runs by a catcher or save records or incentives. Every move they make -- be it changing positions or looking at younger players -- should be made with 2004 in mind, whether the veteran players like it or not. Those veterans got a manager with whom they are happy, and they still can't win. So it's time for tough baseball and personnel decisions done for the right reasons, not for PR, because every move driven by public relations is a move inherently doomed to fail the organization.
Royals feed off Pena's energy
And Pena says, "I think we're going to be in this thing all season. I really believe it. We can hit, and our pitching's going to hold us in."
Jeremy Affeldt, armed with the Stan's Rodeo Cream that Josh Beckett used to beat his blisters, is back. Runelvys Hernandez and Miguel Asencio (stolen with a Rule V pick from the Phillies) and Chris George have pitched very well.
But it is Pena and his enthusiasm that is the driving wheel, with the help of an experienced, working coaching staff. Have a simulated game to help Darrell May, who was struggling? Pena catches. "Tony got out there and caught him to help his confidence," Mike Sweeney said. "He was doing his full thing -- down on one knee, the works." Warm up a pitcher between innings? Out comes Pena. Blow a five-run lead in the ninth in Toronto? "We were all down," said Sweeney, "and he came into the clubhouse and turned up the music. He's unbelievable."
"No," said Pena, "I am me. Period. This is who I am."
Pena can give pep talks and have T-shirts made up because he is real, and the players know it. "The important thing is that the veterans bought into Tony from the beginning because he is so sincere," Baird said. "I think the fact that he was an All-Star caliber player, then accepted being a backup at the end of his career really helps him. He understands both perspectives."
Red Sox not desperate to deal
Theo Epstein wouldn't budge, as Bill Lajoie, Craig Shipley and his advisors believe that to trade Hillenbrand for anyone less than an elite closer -- and the only elite closers right now are John Smoltz, Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner and perhaps Eric Gagne -- would be a panic move. For one thing, Hillenbrand has made significant improvement in situational hitting in each of his three major-league seasons. For another, the fact that the Giants, Cubs, Mariners and Yankees each arrived at May Day with virtual bullpen committees (because of injuries) points out what Epstein already knew --that closing hasn't been the problem; getting to the ninth has, and other than the opening night meltdown against Tampa Bay, the Red Sox haven't lost a game they led heading into the ninth.
The problem has been that they counted on Ramiro Mendoza and Alan Embree, and they have been dreadful. Mendoza hasn't had any consistency keeping the ball down, and Embree is down 5 mph in velocity which leaves him at a hittable 91-92 straight over the top with nothing to get out lefties.
Robert Person, who reached as high as 93 mph on Friday for Triple-A Pawtucket, will be thrown into the mix, but other than a couple of raw arms at Double-A Portland (left-hander Jorge de la Rosa and right-hander Anastacio Martinez), the Red Sox don't have any swing-and-miss arms in the high minors; Hector Almonte hits 97 at Pawtucket, but he doesn't get swings and misses.
There are a lot of myths about what Montreal wanted from Boston for Bartolo Colon, but this is what Expos GM Omar Minaya asked for: Hillenbrand, Freddy Sanchez, Casey Fossum, while the Red Sox kept insisting on Javier Vazquez. When Epstein offered to get Aaron Harang (5-1 at Triple-A Sacramento) from Oakland to include him with Hillenbrand and Sanchez, he was turned down. Sanchez is hitting close to .400 at Pawtucket and has so progressed and performed in his rapid rise through the organization that one Red Sox official said, "he has convinced all of us that he is an important part of this club's future. Minaya may have been right when he compared Sanchez to Edgardo Alfonzo. Right now, the only way we'd trade him is if it were a Vazquez deal."
Eventually, Boston will have to deal to bolster its pitching before the trading deadline, and eventually the Sox will have to make the hard decision on whether or not to trade Hillenbrand, Sanchez or Portland catcher Kelly Shoppach, their most marketable parts. They have precious little on the upper three teams in their system, and Hillenbrand is a key contributor to the current race, Sanchez is an important piece considering the impending free agency of Nomar Garciaparra and Shoppach is a piece for the same 2004 free agency of Jason Varitek.
Marlins' Gonzalez realizing potential
And where we used to talk about how the American League had the great shortstops, take a look at the top 10 players at that position in terms of OPS through Sunday:
1. Alex Rodriguez 1.093
Then look at the errors leaders: Three AL shortstops -- Miguel Tejada, Angel Berroa, Omar Infante -- lead with eight, Jose Valentin and Erick Almonte have seven and you have to get to six to find a National Leaguer -- Furcal and Felipe Lopez tied with Garciaparra.
Yankees looking to future with pitching
"We have to be prepared, because Roger Clemens, David Wells and Andy Pettitte all can be free agents at the end of the season," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "We can't afford to have rebuilding periods. That was the thinking behind the (Jeff) Weaver deal last year, and the (Jose) Contreras signing. That's why we signed Jon Lieber, who is a bona fide major-league starter and should be completely healthy at this time next year. You win with pitching."
The Yanks took on long-term cash in the Rondell White-Bubba Trammell deal to get Mark Phillips, a former No. 1 left-handed starter with big-time ceiling. Hence, winning the bidding for Roberto Ramirez when he was posted in Japan, and the signing of Edwin Reynosa for $750,000 two years ago. With Brandon Claussen throwing 91-92 mph at Tampa (20 strikeouts, 17 IP) less than a year off Tommy John surgery as well as Triple-A pitchers Danny Borrell (2-0, 2.00), Alex Graman (3-1, 3.29) and Jorge DePaula, the Yankees also have a stockpile of tradeable arms to use before Aug. 1 for whatever they need.
Granted, the Yankees can afford to outbid other teams for Alfonso Soriano, Contreras, Hideki Matsui, Lieber, et al, but that sure is money better invested than in the likes of Vaughn, Cedeno and Burnitz.
The Yankees can pay, but so can the Mets, Mariners, Red Sox and the other big-revenue teams. The Yankees will, also pay to move the unproductive, yet what seems strange is that no one has taken Sterling Hitchcock when the Yankees are willing to pay his salary. Whether it's Anaheim, Florida, Texas, Houston or Cincinnati, someone can use Hitchcock and put him on George Steinbrenner's tab.