Guest Column: Minaya’s Machinations (Part II)

Part II of FI research assistant Peter Quadrino‘s take on the Mets’ offseason moves…

Mets get: P Billy Wagner
Billy Wagner gets: $43 million over 4 years
Wagner’s agent, Bean Stringfellow, gets: recognition for having one of the funniest names in sports.

Just a few hours after introducing Delgado to the NY media, the Mets reached an agreement with free agent closer Billy Wagner. This was a big pickup, as their need for a good first basemen was matched only by their need for a good closer. And Wagner is a good closer. As a matter of fact, Wagner is one of the best free agent relief pitchers in a long time. Think about it, when was the last time there was a reliever this good who was available for the taking? Bruce Sutter in ’85 maybe?

If that sounds ridiculous (what about Hoffman and Tom Gordon this year, or Keith Foulke and Eddie Guardado a few years ago?), consider that even though Wagner is going to be 34 (hey, that number again), he still throws 100 MPH and is coming off probably the second-best season for a Phillies reliever in the modern era (where relief pitchers are given specialized roles), behind Tug McGraw’s 1980. Over at the Baseball Analysts, Rich Lederer put Wagner’s greatness into perspective:

Which active pitcher in the big leagues has the best collection of career rate stats? Pedro Martinez? Randy Johnson? Roger Clemens? Greg Maddux? Nope. Ahh, it must be a relief pitcher, ehh? Mariano Rivera? Trevor Hoffman? Eric Gagne? Wrong again.

The answer, my friends, is Billy Wagner. Yes, Billy Wagner. He is number one in hits (5.87), baserunners (9.28), and strikeouts (11.97) per nine innings, and is in a virtual tie for third with Hoffman behind Martinez and Curt Schilling in strikeouts/walks (3.84) while ranking second behind Rivera in ERA (2.44).

Lederer goes on to declare, “At a minimum, Wagner is the best left-handed relief pitcher in history.” He notes that with Wagner (with 277 saves at that writing, now 284) is third all-time in saves among lefties behind John Franco (424) and Randy Myers (347), but with better peripheral stats. Updated through the end of the season:

            ERA   WHIP   BAA    K/9   BB/9   K/BB
Franco 2.89 1.33 .249 7.0 3.6 1.97
Myers 3.19 1.30 .233 9.0 4.0 2.23
Wagner 2.34 0.99 .184 11.9 2.7 3.96

Lederer’s article was written while Wagner was in the midst of a 16-game scoreless streak in which he gave up only 5 hits and a walk and went 11-for-11 in saves. He ended the season with this line: 77.2 IP, 45 hits, 87 K/20 BB, 1.51 ERA, 38 saves in 41 chances and a 30.5 VORP. Braden Looper, closing for the Mets last season, had a 5.3 VORP, blew 8 saves and struck out only 27 in 59.1 innings. That’s a lot of balls put into play for a closer. Speaking of balls in play, it’s important to note (as Lederer did) that this 100-mph flame-throwing lefty has spent his entire career pitching in home ballparks that have been very unkind to pitchers, Enron/Minute Maid in Houston and Citizens Bank Park in Philly, and will now be pitching in one of the pitcher-friendliest, Shea Stadium. In road games for his career: 1.05 WHIP, 2.27 ERA.

There will always be the question of whether Wagner can stay healthy; he’s only 5’11” and puts a lot of stress on that left elbow, but that’s what they pay Rick Peterson for. He’s renowned for his work with keeping pitchers healthy. Just ask all the folks who speculated that Pedro Martinez’s (217 IP, 2.82 ERA) shoulder would explode or arm would fall off before the ’05 season got under way. If Peterson does his job, Wagner will gain the recognition he deserves as one of the greatest lefty relievers in the history of the game, as the New York media can exalt a player to greatness just as fast as they can tear him to shreds.

Mets get: C Paul Lo Duca
Marlins get: P Gaby Hernandez, player to be named later

Minaya really went too far with this one. He was probably on such a high from the great feeling of the big moves he had just made and couldn’t resist making one more. The Winter Meetings hadn’t even started yet and he felt he just had to fill in that last position with a pretty name. So he plucked three-time All Star catcher (and 34-year-old!) Paul Lo Duca from the Marlins, giving up Gaby Hernandez who, after all the other moves Minaya had made, was their #2 overall prospect. By Baseball America‘s reckoning, the Mets had sent their #2, #3, #4, and #5 prospects to the Marlins.

Two things about this deal upset me. First: like I said before, Minaya has shown no foresight. He has shown that he doesn’t look two or three moves ahead (he would be a shitty chess player). I was okay with him giving up their top pitching prospect for Carlos Delgado. No matter how great Petit becomes, that move can always be defended. The problem is, if he knew he was willing to get rid of his next-best pitching prospect in Gaby Hernandez, he should’ve done it earlier and sent him to the Marlins for second basemen Luis Castillo. The Twins sent the Marlins a couple of prospects who aren’t as highly regarded as Hernandez and they got Castillo instead of the Mets. That infuriates me. Luis Castillo and his career .379 OBP (.391 in 2005) replacing Kaz Matsui at second would’ve made A LOT more sense than Paul Lo Duca replacing Ramon Castro does. Castro is nothing spectacular but he would’ve provided just about as much offensively and maybe a little more defensively as Lo Duca will. The word at the Winter Meetings is that Minaya will sign two-bagger Mark Grudzielanek on Thursday, when they won’t lose any draft picks for signing him. Grudzielanek ain’t bad. But he’s 36 and he’s worse than Luis Castillo.

Gaby Hernandez was a third round pick out of Belen Jesuit High School in the 2004 draft. He hasn’t turned 20 yet and he tore up Single-A last season, striking out 141 in 135 innings and allowing only 5 homers between the Florida State and South Atlantic Leagues. Quoting Bryan Smith again: “Most organizations would kill to have Hernandez as their number three prospect in the system, as Gaby has been a steal since being drafted. His control could stand a bit of improvement, but that’s nitpicking in some pretty flawless peripherals in his first full-season league.”

As a Mets fan, I’m hoping that he becomes another example of TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect). The Mets better hope so too, or the 2008 Marlins will be giving them regular ass-kickings. Even if Hernandez flames out before reaching the majors, the Mets will be paying $12.5 million over the next two years for a 34-35 year old catcher who hasn’t put up an OBP out of the .330s since 2001. Lo Duca has little power left in him and is known to collapse down the stretch the last few years (.615 OPS in August/September since 2003). The New York papers ought to have fun with him if he does the same thing for the Mets if they’re in a pennant race this summer. Mark Simon, who writes a Mets blog called “Mets Walkoffs and Other Minutiae,” was able to think of some positives for Lo Duca, but he can’t make me like him!

It’s not the end of the world; Lo Duca shouldn’t be relied on by the Mets for too much offense. They have enough already. But Minaya could’ve done a much better job of allocating his resources. It was a terrible move, but I’ll forgive him if he stops there. The more mid-30s guys you have in your lineup, the likelier someone will get injured. He has insisted on holding onto Seo, Heilman, and their top overall prospect, outfielder Lastings Milledge, and Wright, Reyes and Beltran are all still young, but I’d like to see him show a little more restraint for the rest of the winter, stay away from Manny Ramirez, and maybe pick up another guy for the pen.

After throwing all this money around and giving away prospects to other teams (it was actually just one team in this case), the Mets were being referred to as the “New Yankees”. They do have some notable similarities (an interlocking N-Y on their caps, high payrolls) and Minaya’s strategy is certainly very similar to the one the Yankees have employed in the last six years or so, but he’s walking a dangerously thin line between becoming the “New Yankees” and the “Old Mets” of the Steve Phillips era. Say what you want about the Yankees, but they haven’t missed the playoffs in ten years. The Mets haven’t been in the playoffs in five years thanks to stupid front office moves.

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