Look back at: Divisional Playoffs | League Championship
Wednesday, October 25
Mets, Yanks: A tale of two different paths to the top
By Keith Law
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) normally writes for ESPN.com Insider. This is a special free version of their work. You can check out their web site at baseballprospectus.com.

Who are they? And why are they here?

The claims of large-market hegemony have already started: Two New York teams in the World Series? Surely that means parity is dead. If so, long live parity, because these two teams arrived at this point in very different fashions.

The Champion
In 1990, the Yankees lost 95 games, their highest loss total of the 162-game era and arguably their worst record since 1913. A decade of farm-system rot and bloated free-agent contracts had left the team a mere parody of its glory days. Only three hitters racked up more than 500 plate appearances, and guys like Steve Sax, Bob Geren, Oscar Azocar, Alvaro Espinoza, Steve Balboni, and Mel Hall were lineup regulars. No pitcher who made more than five starts had an ERA under 4.00, and the rotation usually comprised such leading lights as Tim Leary, Dave Lapoint, Andy Hawkins, Chuck Cary, and Mike Witt.

But at the same time, the seeds of a revival were already in the ground, courtesy of then-GM Gene Michael -- and the suspension that kept Meddlin' George Steinbrenner from continuing the scorched-earth tactics that decimated the farm system in the '80s. In 1991, a 22-year-old outfielder named Bernie Williams hit just .238 with a .336 on-base percentage and a .350 slugging percentage in 368 plate appearances, but was allowed to play and develop in the majors for several years before he finally broke through in 1994. Mariano Rivera showed up in the Yanks' rotation in 1995, posting a 5.51 ERA in 10 starts and nine relief appearances, but broke through in 1996. Andy Pettitte debuted in 1995, and Derek Jeter was a well-deserved Rookie of the Year in 1996. That quartet formed the backbone of the Yankees' playoff teams from 1996-99, and this year, Jorge Posada joined the group, giving the Yankees a homegrown core to rival that of any other team in the majors.

Along the way, Michael, Bob Watson, and boy genius Brian Cashman have supplemented that core with top-tier talent acquired with the surplus fruits of the farm system. Paul O'Neill came in exchange for Yankee lifer Roberto Kelly. Chuck Knoblauch wasn't cheap, costing the team Eric Milton, one of the top young left-handed starters in baseball. And this year's best addition, David Justice, cost the team its top outfield prospect, Ricky Ledee.

While the Yankees are often lumped with other "large-market" teams when the state of baseball is the topic of discussion, it's not necessarily a fair comparison. Only one of the Yankees' most important players came to the Yankees because of financial reasons, and Roger Clemens' move to New York was predicated as much on his trade demand (and the way he left Toronto with minimal leverage) as it was on finances. When the Yankees have spent money, it has rarely helped the team in the long run. Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Denny Neagle, and the since-departed Hideki Irabu all performed below their peers for most of their Yankee tenures, and it's hard to see how the Yankees would have been worse off with cheaper replacements. The best free agent the team has acquired, Orlando Hernandez, was simply a huge bargain; most scouts projected him as just a No. 4 or 5 starter -- on his team, not in the entire league. Oops.

The Yankees may be the Evil Empire to many fans, particularly in the Boston area, but any team could emulate the development-driven strategy that brought them World Series titles in 1996, 1998, and 1999.

The Contender
The Mets were so bad in 1991 that Shea Stadium was declared a federal disaster area. Indeed, Al Gore claimed that he visited the site with FEMA director James Lee Witt, although he later admitted that he had only experienced a layover at LaGuardia and never left the airport. One year after winning 91 games in a season in which they fired the only manager (at the time) who had taken them to the playoffs twice, Davey Johnson, the Mets finished in fifth place with a dismal 77-84 record. Rather than try to rebuild the decaying farm system, the Mets tried to regain their contender status via the open market, bringing in outright disasters like Vince Coleman ('91) and Bobby Bonilla ('92), over-the-hill talents like Eddie Murray ('92) and Willie Randolph ('93), and Frank Tanana ('92). They traded Gregg Jefferies for a great starting pitcher they didn't need in Bret Saberhagen, and wasted two then-unheralded youngsters even casual baseball fans now know: Jeff Kent and Jeromy Burnitz.

Things took a turn for the better in the mid-'90s, as the Mets' struggles allowed them to give playing time to talented youngsters who struggled initially and as the management team now in place started to come on the scene. Todd Hundley was allowed to start despite failing to hit .240 in any of his first three full seasons, but the Mets' patience paid off when he blossomed into a bona fide .500-slugging power hitter; while he's no longer with the team, the Mets managed to turn him into Armando Benitez and part of the package that fetched Mike Hampton. Edgardo Alfonzo posted just a .649 OPS in his second season, but hit .315 in 1997 and hasn't looked back.

The management team started to turn over in the mid-'90s as well. Ridding the organization of Dallas "The Arm-Shredder" Green would have been a positive move even if the Mets had replaced him with a potted plant, but his more sentient replacement, Bobby Valentine, has turned out to be one of the better postseason managers in baseball today. Valentine and pitching coach Dave Wallace have kept their bullpen strong and healthy despite heavy use the past few years, and they managed to take seemingly lost talents like Glendon Rusch and Turk Wendell and make them valuable contributors.

But perhaps no man has had more to do with the Mets' revival than Steve Phillips, who has proven himself a shrewd trader and a smart spender. Given an enormous budget with which to work, Phillips has generally avoided the big-budget follies that have felled the Orioles, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers. He acquired the best-hitting catcher in baseball for one good prospect and two modest ones, and acquired two premium left-handers for relatively little in prospects. His right-hand man, Omar Minaya, found in Timo Perez a replacement for Derek Bell who probably could have Wally Pipped him, given the chance. There have been mistakes -- such as the inane deal handed to Todd Zeile to play first when he can't hit enough to play third -- but by and large, Phillips has handled the large-money mandate ("win now or we'll leave you at the Jamaica station at 3 a.m.") better than his peers.

If there's one thing to dislike about the Mets, it's just that: Without the money, where would this team be? Only three everyday players (Alfonzo, Benny Agbayani and Jay Payton) came out of the farm system and only one member of the rotation (the good Bobby Jones) is homegrown. This is largely a team built on money and some pretty lopsided trades. Phillips deserves plaudits for doing so well where many of his counterparts have suffocated under the weight of bad contracts, but it's hard to see how the Mets would have made the playoffs if they had had the budgetary constraints of the A's or the White Sox.

It's all good
If there's a silver lining in a single-city Series for baseball, it's the tremendous concentration of stars these two teams bring to the table. While Jeter, Williams, Pettitte, Rivera, El Duque, Clemens, Piazza, and Justice are already big names, names like Alfonzo, Hampton, Benitez, and Posada will get to join them. If baseball wants to have its stars on display for the world to see, this matchup is one of the best we'll get. Here's to hoping for seven tight games.

Keith Law can be reached at klaw@baseballprospectus.com.

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