If, while walking across Shea Bridge, you asked the average fan why the Mets are in their current predicament, there’s a good chance the response would include an expletive and the words “Wilpon” and “Madoff.”
More than anything else, the club’s financial constraints, caused by ownership's involvement in the ill-fated Ponzi scheme, are seen as the reasons why the Mets are in midst of what seems like an endless rebuilding cycle.
Problem is, that theory doesn’t hold water. In fact, there is a very simple explanation for why the Mets, for lack of a better word, stink: the amateur draft -- this year's version of which begins Thursday night.
For some reason, fans seem to think that you can build a winning team via free agency. Once upon a time, that may have been true, and the 2009 Yankees, who won the World Series after signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, are the last good example.
However, MLB clubs -- both big- and small-market -- are much smarter about locking up their top talent before it hits the market, which means having lots of moolah to spend in the offseason doesn’t really mean that much anymore. Exhibit A is the 2012 Marlins, Exhibit B is the 2012 and 2013 Angels. Both of those teams “won” the offseason with major free-agent signings and have nothing to show for it. In fact, both organizations are in much worse shape today than they were on the final day of the 2011 season.
Since most guys are already past their prime by the time they reach free agency, the only way to acquire elite players is by drafting them, signing them as international free agents or trading for them. (But you need players from the first two groups to do much trading.)
As David Schoenfield noted recently, the last time the Mets drafted a player who appeared in an All-Star Game was Scott Kazmir, back in 2002. Of course, he didn’t appear in the ASG until after being traded to Tampa Bay for basically nothing. The last player the Mets drafted who appeared in the Midsummer Classic in orange and blue is David Wright, a supplemental first-rounder in 2001.
Wright’s success is a perfect demonstration of the misunderstanding of the Mets’ woes. See, spending money has never been the Mets’ problem. For years and years the pre-Madoff Mets threw money at free agents, just the wrong ones. In fact, some of the best moves the Mets made in recent years were free agent signings they didn’t make.
The club dodged a bullet when the Giants outbid them for Barry Zito, and an even larger one when Mike Hampton chose Colorado’s dollars over theirs. As a bonus, the Mets received a supplemental draft pick when Hampton signed with the Rockies, which they used to draft Wright, only the most accomplished position player in franchise history.
After Wright, it wasn’t until getting Matt Harvey in the 2010 that Mets drafted another player who looks like a real cornerstone, while whiffing on first-round picks time and again. (Remember Nathan Vineyard, the Mets’ supplemental first-rounder in 2007? Problaby not, as he only pitched in two games above rookie ball.)
Meanwhile, they wasted dollars on all sorts of free agents who failed to live up to their contracts -- K-Rod, Wagner, Castillo, Alou, Bay, Perez etc -- while their competitors built from within.
Look at the best teams in the National League -- their foundation came via the draft. The Reds with Votto, Bruce, Bailey and Frazier. The Cardinals with Molina, Miller, Craig and Jay. The Braves with Freeman, McCann, Heyward, Simmons, Medlen, Kimbrel and Minor.
Yes, these teams have spent money on free agents (or traded prospects for veterans to supplement their rosters), but only did that once they had a foundation built from within. Players' salaries are controlled for the first six years of their career, so if you can develop your own players you have the flexibility to spend when you need to fill a hole or two. And you also have the leverage to sign the best players to below-market long-term deals well in advance of free agency, which the Reds did with Votto and Cards did with Molina.
Look at how the Mets operated for most of the past decade -- they spent a lot more on free agents than any other NL team and have nothing to show for it but one division title and a lot of disappointment. Want to know why they are unwatchable right now? It’s because they went seven years without drafting anyone who resembles an All-Star.
(In Part 2 on Thursday, I’ll explain why the Mets' drafting has been so bad.)