Can’t make up your mind about whether acquiring Johan Santana for a quintet of youngsters is a good move for the Mets? Neither can the MetsGeek staff. Writers Steve Hubbell and John Peterson recently had a little back-and-forth on the issue. Maybe their efforts to sway each other’s mind will help settle yours.
Steve Hubbell: “Baseball is the background music of my life,” George F. Will, the conservative columnist, famously mused. These may be the only honest words he ever uttered, but the sentiment behind them is profound. Whenever my own thoughts drift from urgent matters—work, family, politics, Snorg models, etc.—they invariably head toward loftier heights, notably the starting lineup and pitching rotation of the New York Mets.
I’m bracing myself, John, for the fusillade of sophisticated analytical factoids you’re about to launch in my direction, proving that Johan Santana is simply not worth the four or five Met prospects he may fetch. I know you’ll make a convincing case. But consider for a moment some subjective factors that, for me at least, tip the balance in favor of a deal for The Best Pitcher in Baseball (TBPiB).
Start with the sheer beauty of a well-configured starting rotation: intimidating at the top, solid and hearty in the middle, and laden with promise at the bottom, a masterpiece of balance and proportion, age and youth, wisdom and potential. Johan gives us that, and much more to boot. He’s a stopper who keeps everyone else in his place. Without him, what we’ve got is a train wreck preparing to happen. If Pedro goes down on Memorial Day, our “ace” becomes John Maine. Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse slides into the number four spot. A jet-lagged Phil Humber, fresh from engaging the mighty Round Rock Express, makes his 2008 debut and gives up six runs in two innings of work against the Fish. Eck.
Santana forestalls all of that ugliness. And think, John, of the exciting match-ups TBPiB makes possible: Cole Hamels vs. Johan Santana at the Mets home opener on April 8. Carlos Zambrano vs. Santana at Wrigley later that month. Santana/Peavy in June. Santana/Oswalt in August. Smoltz/Santana at Turner the final week of the year. Not all of those pairings will actually happen, of course, but the Wilpons can sell a ridiculous number of advance tickets—and advertising time—on the faint possibility that they might. I can’t tell you how many games I attended as a callow lad in 1969, yearning for a glimpse of Seaver or Koosman and enduring rough outings from Jim McAndrew and Don Cardwell (RIP) instead.
And here’s an argument you weren’t expecting: signing Johan could save the team some serious cash. Not overall, mind you, but in moderate amounts here and there, offsetting some of the cost of that contract. With an ace at the top, there’s no need to hand a multiyear, prospect-clogging deal to a journeyman like Lohse. When Pedro or Duque start feeling their advanced years, a cheap(er) flier on Freddy Garcia or Livan Hernandez will do nicely, thank you. That alone could save $24 million over three years (minus the newcomer’s paycheck, obviously— call it $18 million). And having Pelfrey slot in at #5 in the warmer months would be perfect for his development. That’s right—Johan could inaugurate a youth movement, just as you’d want it to happen: a low-pressure, midyear call-up to a club enjoying a healthy lead in the standings.
And that’s not all. The Mets are going to have to test the free agent pitching market next year anyway. If they try to secure Johan then, his price will have risen significantly. A passel of new bidders will see to that. Twenty percent is a reasonable inflationary projection (it’s been about that for elite pitchers over the past several years). In other words, $100 million today becomes $120 million next year, and so on. So we’ve “saved” something like 38 million bucks by signing him now.
But let’s not argue over money, shall we? Graver matters are at stake.
Such as the fate of Omar Minaya. The unspoken dynamic behind the Johan-a-thon is a dance of death between two rival GMs. Both Minaya and Bill Smith of the Twins fear that if they bungle this deal, they may be out of a job by Thanksgiving. And that should concern us deeply, John. A second-place, non-wildcard finish for the Mets in the National League East almost certainly spells the end of the Minaya era. I have nightmares about the kind of hack the Wilpons would settle on as a replacement. Maybe Jeff himself would like to give it a go.
It would be glorious to watch all of our young talent mature within the organization. But we may not have that luxury. For me, the only move more dangerous than dealing for Johan Santana is letting the opportunity slip by.
John Peterson: Steve, I won’t waste your time and energy with boring statistics, economic valuations and performance projections. I’m also too lazy and stupid to be able to do those things gracefully.
But subjective factors? Those I understand. Consider for yourself that Pedro Martinez, while old, is also one of best pitchers in baseball—ever—and he’s not exactly done. Is that not enough for you? I don’t want Santana coming in and being the big man. I want Pedro, El Duque, and the young ‘uns. You want to upset that delicate symmetry by trading everyone desirable for “The Best Pitcher in Baseball.” That’s just greedy.
Also consider that the Mets are competing for the right to be the team that gives out the largest contract ever bestowed upon a pitcher—ever. You write that if we secure him now, his price will be lower. I don’t think so. His price will be monstrous, as much as $25 million per year. For the right to be the team that pays this incredible sum, you want the Mets to hand out several of their absolute best prospects.
Three of those proposed prospects are pitchers: Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber. Yet you make the claim that “signing Johan could save the team some serious cash.” You’re right: I wasn’t expecting that argument, because it’s the complete opposite of the truth.
“With an ace at the top, there’s no need to hand out a multiyear, prospect-clogging deal to a journeyman like Lohse.” Prospect-clogging? What prospects? Furthermore, whom do you expect to take the places of Pedro and El Duque in future years? What if the Mets can’t resign Oliver Perez? By trading Guerra, Mulvey, and Humber, the organization will basically strip itself of every cheap, young starter with enough talent to grace the Mets’ rotation. Which means free agent starters at free agent prices.
No, Johan will not “inaugurate a youth movement.” He will make the Mets’ system weaker, which will exacerbate the organization’s contempt for young, cheap players, which will make the system weaker still, and so on. Watching “young talent mature within the organization” is not a “luxury;” it is a stark necessity.
The most glaring omission from all of these Santana discussions is an understanding of the incredible value of youth. Currently, baseball teams pay, on average, more than $4 million per marginal win (above replacement) for free agents. Think about how much more value-per-win the average player making the major league minimum (or slightly more) provides, and not just for one year, but for three years. After that, the young player enters arbitration-eligibility and provides three more years, still at considerably less-than-market value.
The Mets should not lightly cast off 24 below-market years for one single below-market year of Santana.
Yes, Johan Santana is very, very good, and he would make the Mets a better team. It’s also possible that at the extreme high-end of the market it is possible to sign a pitcher to a below-market contract. After all, no pitcher currently makes as much as $20 million per year. But we cannot just ignore the huge economic hit the Mets would take to get Santana on the roster for 2008.
Look at the other two teams bidding for his services. Both have massive payrolls, but still they understand the incredible benefit of having good young players under team control. It has been my suspicion for some time that neither team wants TBPiB; they just want the other team to bid too much. The Mets making the deal is a solution that is good for everyone—except the Mets.
Steve Hubbell: You know, John, I’ve always been a firm believer in the karma of baseball. If a team does certain things right, the Gods will reward it with riches beyond measure (usually expressed as Wins above Pythagenpat). Retaining and nurturing the best homegrown talent is one of those karma-friendly practices. And I defer to no man in the enjoyment I derive from watching the products of the Mets scouting and farm system thrive in the big leagues.
But the Diamond Gods don’t necessarily smile upon slavish homerism toward one’s own prospects. They place Opportunity in the path of the discerning GM and expect him to seize it when the time is right. And the time, by all that is Good and Holy, couldn’t be righter. Failure to pull the trigger on Santana-for-prospects, I fear, may doom the Mets to a non-playoff season in 2008 and possibly in 2009, as well.
Now, before you hurl your mousepad, John, let me grant that if the Mets luck out on the injury front, if they tap into hitherto undetected reserves of character and motivation, they may well make it to the playoffs without Johan. But with a fanbase that will treat every loss as a micro-armageddon, they’re in for a hair-raising ride, and so are we. After last season, I just don’t know if I can take it.
Here’s where we part company. Prospects offer two different kinds of value to a team: as future players and as a trading currency in the here and now. But those considerations are inseparable from one another. A player’s trade value rises and falls with his performance on minor- league fields and the likelihood of injury, factors that also determine his worth to his own team.
You argue that our package would offer “24 below-market years” for the Twins. That projection is literally insane, but I’ll let it pass for now. The promise of cheap production was no “glaring omission” from my calculations, it was implicit in them; it’s precisely why the Twins are considering our offer in the first place.
So what is the approximate value of the players currently on offer? Future performance is even harder to gauge than voter preferences in Nashua, Keene and Manchester. One thing we do know: surefire prospects have an annoying habit of misfiring. Ian Bladergroen, anyone? His departure in January of 2005 for Doug Mientkiewicz occasioned widespread lamentation and rending of garments. As did the exodus of Justin Huber, Matt Peterson, Gaby Hernandez and Yusmeiro Petit, and all those transactions turned out just fine for the Mets.
It’s quite possible that Kevin Mulvey and/or Deolis Guerra will never make a Major League start. Carlos Gomez may never advance beyond Endy Chavez. Phil Humber could settle in as an adequate number four. It’s also possible than one or another is destined for stardom. We just can’t say. But Johan is Johan.
What you’re forgetting, John, is that above all else, baseball is a spectacle. PT Barnum didn’t make a fortune by offering customers the ninth-largest elephant in the world, or several of central Connecticut’s more daring trapeze artists, or a troupe of promising young bearded ladies. No, he went for the biggest, the best, the baddest. He had impeccable judgment—and timing. A chance like Johan comes around once a generation. By all means, let’s hold onto our homegrown guys once the deal is done. But trust me, John: this is one trade the Baseball Gods will make sure we never regret.
John Peterson: Ah, that old canard: most prospects never amount to anything. But the big leagues keep on rolling somehow, nevertheless. Derogating any and all prospects by pointing to ones who didn’t work out is just pointless. Not that you did that, exactly, since Gaby Hernandez and Yusmeiro Petit are still legitimate prospects, and Justin Huber and Matt Peterson are still young and could still contribute significantly in the major leagues. I guess in New York, if they’re not a superstar right now, they’re nobody. A “fanbase that will treat every loss as a micro-armageddon”—there’s the rub. We have no patience. The city, the media, the fans, we all cry out, “Go get the best pitcher in baseball, no matter what the cost!”
What happens when the Mets don’t make the playoffs? That one, single, solitary below-market year of Santana will evaporate like so many drops of desert water. And the Twins will work on those 24 possible below-market years slowly and patiently. Philip Humber may only be a number four starter, right? Carlos Silva just signed a four-year, $48 million contract. That’s how much fourth starters cost on the open market. If Humber is even that good, the Twins will profit greatly. But he’s the least impressive prospect in the bunch.
Kevin Mulvey is likely to be a number three starter, and could be even better. Six more years there. The Mets are going to need some starters soon to fill the holes left by Pedro and El Duque, but with Mulvey gone the best option will be free agency. That’s more money. Deolis Guerra? He’s the best pitching prospect the Mets have. He could flame out, but he could be an ace as well. But hell, lets give up six more pre-free agency years for the privilege of adding The Best Pitcher in Baseball to The Baseball Circus, the New York Mess. The Show Must Go On, right?
Finally, as if three good young pitchers weren’t enough, let’s include our absolute top prospect, Fernando Martinez, a guy who held his own in AA as an 18-year old. But let’s not be slavish homers to our own prospects, right? Let’s allow other teams the huge economic benefit of having young players at far below the free market cost. Let’s allow them to develop the players, and we’ll just pay whatever price is necessary to sign them if they become stars.
This cavalier approach doesn’t bother me when it comes from the fans, who generally think about roster management like plug-and-play Lego pieces with no regard for contract status. But this has seemingly been the strategy of the New York Mets’ front office for years. I am not cool with that.