Guest Column: Minaya’s Machinations (Part I)

Peter Quadrino is a college student from New York City who’s been serving with distinction as my research assistant for the past six months on projects both for this site and Baseball Prospectus. He’s a Mets fan, and as the two of us swapped emails back and forth about their recent spate of moves, I suggested he write a guest piece for this blog, which will run in two parts. So here it is, his FI debut. Pete can be reached here

For the second winter in a row, the New York Mets have made the most noise of any team in baseball thus far. GM Omar Minaya was dead set on improving a team that won 83 games last year in a competitive division. His stated goals were to acquire players at first base, second base, closer, and catcher. As the Winter Meetings opened, he’s filled those positions already, but the Mets farm system has taken a beating in the process. Here’s my take on his movements thus far, in chronological order.

Mets get: 1B/3B/OF Xavier Nady
Padres get: CF Mike Cameron

Minaya’s first big move of the winter was a complete shocker. At first, it was thought that this was just the opening move of an elaborate trading scheme in which he would flip Nady to Boston or elsewhere and end up with Manny Ramirez. My first impression was that the Mets wanted to clear a little salary by dumping Cameron’s contract, which pays him $6.5 million next season, and pick up a younger, cheaper player in the process. Cameron will be 33 next season and Nady will be 27. At the time, it seemed like it wasn’t such a bad move, with the Mets potentially starting the season with a first base platoon of Mike Jacobs against righties and Nady against lefties. But, in a minute you’ll see that this wasn’t what Omar was thinking. Or at least it doesn’t seem like it was what Omar was thinking. Who knows what Omar is thinking?

When the Mets signed star free-agent Carlos Beltran last winter and shifted Cameron to right, the immediate speculation was that the latter would soon be traded. Despite numerous rumors, no deal happened and Cameron was in a Mets uniform for all of 2005, when he wasn’t injured. He missed the beginning of the season recovering from surgery on a wrist that had hampered him for most of 2004, when he hit .231/.319/.479. He came back in May and went on a tear, batting .372/.476/.686 for the month and making a few SportsCenter-Top-10 plays in right field. The fun would be over for him soon; he and Beltran collided head-on while chasing a short fly ball in San Diego on August 11.

In almost every ESPN chat that he did during the summer, Rob Neyer had to explain to argumentative Mets fans the concept of the defensive spectrum and why they shouldn’t have a Gold Glove centerfielder in right when they could use the resources to get a cheaper option who hit more and fielded less. Well, then I have two problems with this trade, then. First, unless the injuries he suffered in the collision have made him a lesser player, the Mets should have gotten a lot more in return for Cameron. Nady is an ex-Padres prospect who never completely blossomed. His usefulness is in his ability to play multiple positions (though not necessarily well), but he’s not much of a hitter and Shea Stadium isn’t going to help that. He has a career line of .263/.320/.414, which is pretty much exactly what he did last year, except with a little more power. He doesn’t walk much and he can’t hit righties at all (.232/.282/.395 career), making him a platoon candidate. I saw it tossed around on the Internet in a couple of places that the Mets couldn’t keep Cameron in right because he wasn’t a good enough hitter for a corner outfield position. Well, put it this way: in 2004, Cameron played 140 games for the Mets in centerfield and he hit 30 homers, 19 of them on the road. In the NL this year, no right fielder hit more than 26 (Jason Lane). I think it’s a good idea to let Victor Diaz finally get consistent starting time as the right fielder next year. This was a bad trade in that Minaya a) could’ve gotten a lot more for what he was giving up and b) showed no foresight as his next move was…

Mets get: 1B Carlos Delgado, cash
Marlins get: 1B Mike Jacobs, prospects P Yusmeiro Petit, INF Grant Psomas

True Met-Heads should be very excited about this deal. Delgado is coming off a season in which he hit .301/.399/.582 with 33 homers and a .332 EqA. He’ll provide much-needed offense at a position that they sorely lacked any kind of consistency in last year. Mike Jacobs had some exciting moments late in the season, playing in 30 games and slugging .710, inflated mostly by his historic first 4 games in which he homered 4 times. He’s ten years younger than Delgado, so it’s probably a good bet that he’ll accomplish more over the next ten years than Delgado will, but I’d take the 2006 version of Delgado over the 2006 version of Jacobs in a heartbeat. Delgado turns 34 before next season’s All-Star break but hasn’t shown signs of slowing down.

I’ve heard that this deal could very well end up being a disaster of Mo Vaughn/Roberto Alomar-ish proportions for the Mets, and that could happen. Anything can happen. Both of those players came to the Mets entering their age-34 seasons. Alomar was coming off a pretty damn good year with the Indians, posting a .329 EqA in 157 games. But, a lot of people forget when using big Mo Vaughn’s name as a punchline that he was coming off a season in which he didn’t even play baseball! Vaughn sat out the entire 2001 season with a ruptured biceps. It’s tough to come back and play professional baseball after a year of lying on the couch eating potato chips when you’re 34 and weigh in excess of 300 pounds. The expectations weren’t very high when he came to the Mets to begin with. Also, unlike Vaughn and Alomar, who had both been playing in the AL for over a decade, Delgado is coming off a monster year in which he played in the same division, and in a park that might be an even worse park for hitters than Shea Stadium. It’s debatable how big the effect is when a hitter switches leagues, but Delgado (a meticulous hitter who keeps a notebook of all his ABs) won’t need any time to adjust to new pitchers or their styles. He’ll be facing largely the same pitchers, except for his teammates, of course. I don’t think he has any complaints about not having to face Pedro Martinez next season.

The Marlins sent about $7 million to the Mets in the deal and an agreement is still being worked on for how that money will be spread out over the life of the contract. Delgado is owed $13.5 million in 2006, $14.5 million in 2007 and $16 million in 2008. His contract contains a club option for 2009 at $12 million with a $4 million buyout, but it could become guaranteed at $16 million depending on how he finishes in MVP voting and whether he wins postseason MVP awards. The Mets also have to fulfill a provision from Delgado’s contract that provides for state tax equalization. This could mean about $400,000 extra from the Mets. Keep in mind that he only pays New York taxes for half his games, as the other half are played in other states.

Yusmeiro Petit reached legal US drinking age only a couple of weeks ago and, with impeccable command of his fastball and slider (in 21 starts last season for Double-A Binghamton he recorded nearly a 10/1 K/BB ratio), was considered one of the best prospects in baseball, let alone the Mets organization. Baseball Prospectus 2005 listed him as the fourth-best pitching prospect in the majors (former Met prospect Scott Kazmir was third), citing how rare his 200+ strikeouts in less than 150 innings in 2004 was (Josh Beckett’s 2001 was the only other year they could find that occurring), noting that “those hitters unfortunate enough to face him last year point out that his delivery was tough to read and his fastball had excellent late movement.”

Bryan Smith of The Baseball Analysts site wrote of Petit back in May: “Yusmeiro has it all: good control, deception, and a knowledge of changing speeds. There are questions about his stuff and about his ceiling, but Yusmeiro should be fine. Think Livan Hernandez (c. 2005, not 1997).” He’s going to be a good one, there’s no doubt about that. A Mets prospect with a deceptive delivery? Sounds familiar. Former Met prospect Aaron Heilman reverted back to the three-quarter delivery he used at Notre Dame at the urging of pitching coach Rick Peterson and pitched well last season, baffling hitters and finally living up to his high expectations. In 108 innings, he had a 3.17 ERA, struck out 106 and only walked 37. He allowed the lowest slugging percentage, .249, of any reliever in the NL with at least 50 relief innings (second lowest? Billy Wagner at .265). He’ll be 27 next season so this might be the best he’s got, but if this is his best, I’ll take it.

Minaya has shown that he’s not afraid to reach into his farm system and send away a potentially great player to get something he wants in return. Before the Paul Lo Duca trade (which I’ll get to in my next entry), he was doing an okay job. He has refused to give up Heilman and he still has a very improved 29-year-old Jae Seo on the staff. So far, he’s also held on to the two solid college pitchers (Philip Humber out of Rice U. and Mike Pelfrey from Wichita State) that they’ve drafted the last couple of Junes, but their once well-stocked farm system is starting to dry up. Consider that in the three of the last four drafts, the Mets have given up their third and fourth-round picks after signing free agents.

In this case, to get an excellent player you’ve got to give up something in return. Delgado is an excellent player and at the time, the Mets could afford to lose Petit if it meant getting one of the most consistent sluggers in the game. That’s not to say that Petit won’t be kicking the Mets asses while wearing a Marlins uniform by 2007 at the very latest, but the Mets need a first basemen. A cleanup hitter would be nice, too. Delgado plays first, and he slugged .573 last season out of the cleanup spot. Whichever order Willie Randolph chooses to combine Delgado, Cliff Floyd, and David “The Metssiah” Wright in the 3-4-5 spots next season (assuming he comes to his senses and bats Beltran either first or second), this will be a Mets lineup that not too many teams will want to mess with. The Mets need a lineup like that right now, while the dude with the curly afro is still pitching like Pedro Martinez.

To be continued

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