Monday, August 30, 2004

Part I: The Mets Won't Fail the "Asst. Manager of
a 7-11" Test. OTOH, Buster Olney Does Fail.  

Usually, the sports media is naïve about management, both on the baseball field and in other organizations.

Occasionally, however, a pundit produces a howler of such monumental, breathtaking absurdity that it shatters the environment as profoundly as rhinoceros flatulence on a peaceful Sunday trip to the local zoo. I can only hope Buster Olney was being sardonic in his column Friday, because he has produced 2004's most stunning counter-example of good management advice.

His piece was looking back at the trade "deadline" deals four weeks later. That's a pretty silly piece to be writing (it's premature, for most of the teams who were in the race are still in the race; the small difference you can make with a deadline deal will only tell in the standings at the end of the season). But in talking about the Mets' deadline deals, Olney makes an assertion that's jaw-droppingly destructive. Here's the set-up:

THE METS: There might only be a handful of deals in the history of major league baseball that would surpass the rapid unraveling of the Mets' trades. There was Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas before the 1966 season, when Robinson went to Baltimore and immediately won the Triple Crown. And the Red Sox ascertained pretty quickly that selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees probably wasn't too smart.

With other one-sided trades, like Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell, it took some time for the deal to shake out. But in less than a month, we've already got strong indications that the Mets made serious mistakes.

They traded three of their top five-rated prospects for veteran pitchers Victor Zambrano and Kris Benson, deals that were supposed to improve the Mets in '04 and beyond. The Mets, barely within striking distance anyway, promptly lost three straight games to Atlanta and fell out of the playoff chase, meaning the trades provided not one extra hour of contention.

And what has occurred subsequently has made the Mets look like rookie fantasy league owners. Zambrano walked off the mound with a bad elbow that had been bothering him before the trade. The prospect for whom he was traded, Scott Kazmir, quickly impressed the Devil Rays, bounced from Double-A to the majors and pitched five scoreless innings in his first start. (Meanwhile, Jose Reyes got hurt and shortstop Kazuo Matsui was told to prepare for a switch to second base -- confirmation that the Mets blew a full season of position development with both players.)

And then here's his naive conclusion:

Then Benson mused this week to the New York Post about the possibility of testing free agency. Earth to Mets: Pay the man. Overpay him. Give him what he wants. If Benson departs and signs elsewhere -- like Atlanta -- the public relations fallout will cost the team much more than it would to keep him.

He cites three of the most one-sided deals in history in F. Robinson, Ruth and Bagwell. I don't know how these deals will pan out for either team, and neither does Olney -- it's all speculative and I suspect he hasn't seen a lot of Zambrano or the prospects the Mets gave up.

But the conclusion, that it doesn't matter if Benson is a keeper or not, while at the same time that it's critical they sign him to a deal greater than one year for a healthy per annum to save face is simply the worst management advice you can give.


If you are getting paid to work for someone, or if you are volunteering because you care about the cause or if you are volunteering build a reputation, never, ever value public relations fallout more than your employer's organizational/financial well-being. Never.

If it's merely your own money, if you're working for yourself, feel free to, but why would you want to reinforce a decision you considered wrong?

The Mets acquired Benson for two reasons: 1) they thought they had an opportunity to edge into the playoffs if he worked out, and 2) they thought he could be a good long-term addition. As an about-to-be-free-agent, they traded for him to get a pilot project -- a chance to see him in action in their setting, in their society, in their organization, their challenging fans and media environment, to see if he'd be a good fit. Benson's a slightly better than average pitcher this year. In his short career, he's paired a couple of good (not great) seasons with a couple of bad (not terrible) ones. It was a casual experiment, an effort to improve that appears not to have helped them this season. In his six Mets starts, he has one statistically fine performance, two medium ones and three ugly ones. If you were going to evaluate him on his performance so far as a Met, you'd probably say he wasn't worth going all-out to retain. They didn't take a giant risk in getting him, and it wouldn't be like letting Randy Johnson go without an offer if they decide not to keep him.

If they think he can contribute in the future, then it makes sense to offer him a market-rate (perhaps somewhat less because he hasn't had a hot hand for them in August; or perhaps somewhat better because he's a more known quantity and quality, reducing their risk a little) deal.

I don't think the Mets front-office is amateur enough to try to keep Benson if they think he's not worth the money. On the other hand, they have a leading pitching coach in Rick Peterson, and if Peterson believes he can make Benson effective, they may opt for a market-rate deal.

If it doesn't make sense, they should ignore Mr. Olney's management advice. Completely. Never compound a decision that didn't work out with an effort to spin it to look good. Never lash your employer to a mistake because a casual experiment didn't work out.

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