Killing The Messenger
By Tom Edwards, Editor-In-Chief,

    Sometimes mixed up in the fact that it's really a boy's game being played by grown men, people tend to forget that professional baseball is a business, and it is run like one.  Not necessarily a good one, but one nonetheless.  There are labor unions, profits and losses, employees and bosses, all of there attempting to make a buck or two in the process.  But, like business, certain things are done that don't necessarily make sense, but are done just because it's the way it's been done before, and makes for a good appearance.  "Saving face," if you will.  That's where the New York Mets found themselves Tuesday, as the club fired its manager, Bobby Valentine, after a little over six seasons with the team.  The Mets had just completed a 75-86 season, good for last place in their division.

    This type of kneejerk reaction is typical of professional baseball, as it often is with business.  When a business does badly, action has to be taken in order to make shareholders and consumers not lose faith in the company.  This is done, generally, by making a cosmetic change with a promise of a better product in the future.  Well, with the Mets, you have to wonder if that's going to be the case.

    When Bobby Valentine was fired on Tuesday, he left the team with the second most wins of any manager in Mets history.  The Mets have been around for forty years.  Valentine spent six years with the Mets, and only once had a losing record; this season.  When he took over the team with 31 games remaining from Dallas Green in late 1996, the Mets finished 71-91.  The following season under Valentine, they finished 88-74, a 17 game improvement.  In 2000, under Valentine, the Mets reached their first World Series since the miracle 1986 season.  Valentine was in baseball then.  In his first full season with the Texas Rangers, he took George W. Bush's team to an 87-75 record, 25 games better than their previous season.

    Sensing a pattern here?

    So, you're the owner of a car.  A limo.  For six years, your car has run great.  You get to every appointment on time.  In fact, you're getting there safer and faster than you have in recent memory.  Every year, you have that car tuned up and serviced, so it's running smoothly once it gets back on the road.  Then, one year, the car starts having problems.  You start becoming late for appointments because the car keeps breaking down.  You find that used and nonworking parts are in the car, and that's the reason the car keeps breaking down, making you late.  So, what do you do?  Exactly.  You fire the limo driver.

    Well, ok, maybe you don't do that, but that's how things work in Fred Wilpon's world.  Instead of firing the man who put together this motley crew of underachievement in the offseason, he went and fired the guy who sat in the dugout and tried to determine when the best time is for Roger Cedeno to steal second (that's a trick question, by the way, because Roger Cedeno is never on first base.)

    I've said it before and I'll say it again.  A baseball manager's job is to run the game on the field.  He goes through strategy, determines a lineup, a pitching rotation, and plays those who play well and sits those who do not.  A general manager's job is to give the manager the best possible players in which to do his job with.

    So, here's where the question lies.  Steve Phillips, New York Mets GM, goes out during the 2002 offseason and picks up players.  He gets Roberto Alomar, a multiple-time All-Star from Cleveland.  He gets Jeromy Burnitz for the outfield, a power hitter for an outfield that showed no power in 2001.  He picks up Roger Cedeno, believing that Cedeno can be the leadoff man and stolen base threat that the team doesn't have.  David Weathers, Mark Guthrie, Jeff D'Amico,  and Shawn Estes are added to the pitching staff, allowing the Mets to send off Kevin Appier to Anaheim for Mo Vaughn.  Meanwhile, who gets lost during this process?  Appier, past their prime third basemen Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile, Matt Lawton, and Glendon Rusch.  Effectively, Phillips, on paper, got something for practically nothing.  He gave Bobby Valentine what appeared to be a better team than the previous season, and Valentine and the Mets turned it into a last place season.  So maybe Valentine is to blame.

    But look closer.  Burnitz was coming off two seasons where he batted .252 and .231, respectively.  He struck out at least 120 each of the last four seasons, and managed an on base percentage that hovered around .350 for those four years, which is fine for a #7 batter in the lineup, but the Mets were looking at Burnitz to be that #5 guy in their lineup.  Perhaps Phillips thought a change of scenery would do Burnitz good, but when a player is 33 years old, they don't often turn their careers around.  Burnitz wasn't about to suddenly become a .300 hitter.

    Then there's Mo Vaughn.  Traded straight up for Kevin Appier in a "cost saving" move by Anaheim (who is in the playoffs, by the way), Vaughn came into town as the next big savior for the Mets.  Phillips, looking for another power bat, brings in Vaughn with visions of 40 HR and a .310 batting average from Big Mo.  Unfortunately for Mets fans, Steve Phillips didn't seem to look at Mo's birth certificate (34) or his 2001 stats (.000, 0, 0).  Vaughn missed all of 2001 due to injury, and didn't exactly the most welcome individual in the Anaheim clubhouse when he returned.  In fact, Vaughn could have been had by anyone who would have been willing to pay his salary during the last offseason, but the Mets (and Phillips) didn't want to take on too much salary, so they offered one of their steadiest pitchers in Kevin Appier so that they wouldn't have to take on the salary.  Appier responded with his second straight season with an ERA under 4, while Mo proceeded to have a less productive season than his stats show.  His home run total was the lowest it had been since 1994, and his batting average was lower than it had been since '92.  But even Phillips should have seen a Vaughn whose abilities were going down even before he was injured in 2001.

    Shawn Estes?  Estes had one dominant season, back in 1997, where he looked like the next great pitcher.  But even during that season (19-5, 3.18), Estes had control problems, and wasn't a complete pitcher.  Ever since that season, though, Estes never looked dominant, looking like a mediocre pitcher at best, keeping his ERA in the low 4s only in recent seasons.  Estes was looking to get dumped by San Francisco during the offseason, and the Mets (and Phillips) were happy takers.  Note also that San Francisco are also in the playoffs.

    Weathers?  Guthrie?  D'Amico?  Three pitchers that were never factors for their own teams, but yet were expected to come over to New York and become something they weren't.  D'Amico had the most potential of the three.  Still young (26), D'Amico was a highly touted prospect in the Milwaukee system who struggled with injuries, but when healthy, showed himself to have a good amount of talent.  In 2000, after coming off of two seasons in which he pitched one game, D'Amico looked impressive enough to post a 2.66 ERA in 23 starts.  But 2001 saw injuries again, and D'Amico was considered a throw-in in the Jeromy Burnitz deal.  However, when D'Amico started pitching well, the Mets proudly showed off the youngster they had "stolen" from Milwaukee.  By August, he was pitching so badly even the Mets couldn't justify keeping him in the rotation.

    In fact, the only "sure thing" that Phillips acquired was Roberto Alomar, who managed to have a bad season himself.  Even though Alomar wasn't horrible, it was his worst season since his rookie season back in 1988.  1988?  Well, that's make him... yes, he's 34.  Granted, no one questioned Phillips picking up Alomar when he did it, and there's still no backlash for the players he gave up (Matt Lawton's season was spoiled by injuries, and top prospect Alex Escobar's season was ruined by a knee injury that saw him miss the entire season), but as we've learned before, when you set your hopes on a 34 year old's shoulders (especially when it means moving an already established player into a new position), you're going to be in trouble.

    Yet, when all was said and done, it was manager Bobby Valentine who was shown the door, and not Phillips.

    It's funny, because Phillips reminds me of a certain guy who you always see if you play fantasy baseball.  He's the guy who shows up to the draft, he doesn't seem overly with it, but he's one of the first ones there.  Armed with a diet soda and one fantasy baseball magazine, he sits down at the table and starts throwing out names of people who had the weirdly good season last year, and guys who you hear a lot about on ESPN, but doesn't always produce the best numbers.  Hard to find this guy?  Well, next fantasy baseball draft you're at, listen for one sentence.

    "We'll take Joe Randa."

    That's your guy.  Trade with him all season, and you're on your way to victory.  And if there's any doubt to Steve Phillips being that guy, remember that four of the eight playoff teams this season traded with the Mets this offseason.  And the two that sit leading the ALCS and NLCS as I type this?

    The San Francisco Giants (Shawn Estes) and the Anaheim Angels (Mo Vaughn).

    Steve Phillips makes winners; it's a shame for Met fans he doesn't make them for his own team.