Saturday, January 07, 2006

Mets' Minaya Masters the Meat --
May Be Mutilating the Potatoes  

Discussion at MLB Center

Most decisions a manager faces are Meat & Potatoes, the big core issues and the smaller supporting ones. Today, we'll delve into the starchy world of Potatoes. You can't handle all supporting decisions the same way simply because they are relatively small, because some smaller-resource questions are easy to adjust once made and others are hard to redirect.

Most managers deal with both the same way, to their detriment and their organization's, too.

The clever and always-interesting baseball columnist Tim Marchman this week described the off-season personnel decisions of New York Mets G.M. Omar Minaya. It looks like a case study in the consequences of not distinguishing between the two kinds of Potatoes decisions.

The most important thing for the general manager of a baseball team as rich as the Mets to do is to get the big calls right. In baseball, as in life, the most important benefit of money is that it allows a margin of error. A plutocrat who loses $1,000 playing the horses quickly withdraws another $1,000 from the bank and gambles again; an everyman who does the same might not eat for a while. Much the same is true of rich and poor baseball teams. Carlos Delgado is a great player, but the Mets can afford to bet that he's not about to do a Mo Vaughn impression in a way the Cleveland Indians can't.

This being so, our plutocrat cannot afford to make a habit of wadding up cash and throwing it in the gutter for laughs. Soon enough, he'll regret the lack of cash, even if it only means that he can only afford gold hubcaps instead of platinum ones. And baseball teams cannot give away good players for no reason; they'll come to regret it.

The Mets, like all teams with serious resources, face a small handful of issues that need addressing and can be addressed. This off-season, they have an excess of starting outfielders and are looking for some serious bullpen help. The outfielder who makes the best trade-bait was Mike Cameron, a stunningly capable defender in centerfield who has sporadically put up serious offensive numbers but is recovering from vision problems that limited his plate effectiveness. The pitcher who would provide the most attractive trade-bait is Jae Seo who, in 14 starts last season, finally put up fine numbers (10 baserunners per 9 innings, 3.7-to-1 K-to-BB ratio, 8 of his 14 starts were really good and only 3 really bad). This came after a couple of years of lukewarm performance. It's not a given he'll continue to pitch he way he did in 2005, ergo his trade value is not guaranteed to ever be as high again. Both players are the kind who can light up an optimistic buyer who imagines they are getting the services of the best production each has had in their career.

Moreover, Marchman believes, "this winter, the most valuable properties on the market are outfielders and, especially, starting pitchers."

You'd think each of these talents would be good lures to swap and Minaya worked out deals for both. Marchman thinks the Mets fared poorly in the swaps.

Seo emigrated to the Dodgers for the somewhat more evolved but somewhat less promising Dodger reliever Duaner Sánchez (12 baserunners per 9 innings, 2-to-1 K-to-BB ratio, in 79 appearances). The heavy workload of 79 games is probably an asset not a fear factor, since the Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson is known as the best analyst of body stress for pitchers...the regime Sánchez is moving to is protective of his health.

The Mets yielded Cameron to San Diego for their excess outfielder/first baseman, Xavier Nady. Unlike Cameron, Nady hasn't accomplished a lot yet, but he's going to have his age-27 season in 2006 (Bill James's and others' studies indicate batters tend to peak at age 27 or 28, so the Mets potentially own both those years and while Nady has been a poor outfielder with sharp platoon splits, his stats against right-handed pitchers have improved. But the Mets had no urgent need for either an outfielder or first baseman so Marchman believes this was an unecessary distraction to their core needs.

¿So why did Minaya end up with these deals that disappointed Mets fans who'd hoped to see desireable assets traded for better fits?

Marchman thinks Minaya is one of those decisionmakers that, faced with the Potatoes, resolves them as quickly as possible. Always. Even if they're decisions that come with sticky long-term consequences. As I stated earlier, most managers resolve all Potatoes decisions the same way whether they have long-term stickiness or not. They either agonizie over every minor detail as though the Fate of Western Civilization Hangs in the Balance, or take the tack Marchman thinks Minaya is holding to (quick resolution, move on to next). As Marchman wrote:

You would think that a GM with a Gold Glove center fielder with 30-home run power and a cheap young starter coming off a season in which he rang up a 2.59 ERA would sit back, let the market come to him and fill some holes. That's not Minaya. It's clear that once he gets an idea in his head, whether it be, "I must trade Mike Cameron," or, "I must trade Jae Seo to improve the bullpen," he reaches a point at which he just wants to move on to the next order of business rather than wait until some minimal standard of acceptability is met.

This is the downside to the decisiveness everyone finds so appealing when it nets a player like Pedro Martinez, and it leads to thoughts like, "I must have Carlos Delgado, and I'm not waiting out the Marlins over some Triple-A pitcher, because another team might swoop in and grab him." Which is fine in the isolated instance - but when it leads to the team losing significant talent in every trade it makes, it becomes a problem.

A resource-rich organization like the Mets, which had already addressed its Meat issue (acquiring Carlos Delgado as their first baseman, simultaneously replacing their weakest offensive shortcoming and adding a top performer) had only these side issues to mess with. Personnel decisions like these have longer-term effects, and one can't afford to toss them off as though they are a decision to pick a manufacturer for one batch of Bat Night giveaways. Even well-endowed organizations don't have surpluses that are in demand all the time.

I'm not sure these deals will end up being losers for the Mets -- they won't be losers even if Seo pitches well or Cameron makes a comeback because, as John Schuerholtz believes, part of a deal's success is the antagonist's success -- a win-win guarantees goodwill in future dealings. And I think the Mets may find utility in a relief pitcher who can appear in half the team's games and a once-highly touted talent entering his age-27 and -28 seasons. But Marchman's observation of Minaya's giddyup is true either way and a lesson worth noting.

Do you dither over small decisions? Do you not have the interest in a little wait-and-see on the Potatoes issues that have longer-term consequences?

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